Flying North Again

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

The photo above shows a preserved Tatra T87 automobile, which, in my opinion, must surely be the ultimate “Art Deco Car”. Designed in Czechoslovakia in 1936, this particular example was built in 1948. The swooping lines and graceful curves of the design are highlighted in this case by the gleaming silver paintwork.

I’d have expected to find a car such as this on display in a prestigious European motor museum, so I was quite astonished this week when I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art, in the Midwest of the USA, and found it there.

The reason for my visit to Minneapolis was simply because that’s my wife’s hometown. We went there to visit her family, most of who still live in or around that city. We had a great visit with everyone, but I must confess that, as I get older, I increasingly prefer the comforts of my home, so I was glad to get back!

Far Away is Close at Hand in Models of Elsewhere

Many years ago, during the 1970s, there was a famous item of graffiti that appeared near the approach to Paddington railway station in London, which ran:

FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE

The first inkling that I ever had that there existed a place called the “Midwest” was when I was about 7 years old. In 1967, the Trans-World Model Railway opened at the Corner Café in Scarborough. This was a gigantic OO/HO scale model railway, which included inter-connected sections depicting Britain, France, Germany, and, via an “Atlantic Bridge”, the USA and Canada.

One of the US sections was captioned “The Midwest”, but of course I had no real idea where it was, nor did I ever expect to visit such a place, and I certainly never imagined that I might one day marry someone from there!

Having been married to Mary for some 27 years now, I’ve traveled with her to Minnesota on many occasions. We try to visit different places during each visit.

The Inland Beaches

As you might guess, the Midwest is far from either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, so there’s no ocean frontage to be found there. Nonetheless, given that Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, there are still beaches within the state. The photo below shows one: Thomas Beach, on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, with the skyscrapers of downtown visible in the distance.

Thomas Beach & Downtown Minneapolis

Thomas Beach & Downtown Minneapolis

As a girl, my wife lived in an apartment that’s behind the trees on the far side of the lake, and she used to swim at this beach.

A Cultural Center

I realize that the Midwest may not generally be thought of as a center of culture, but in fact (probably thanks to its industrial wealth) Minneapolis has more than its “fair share” of cultural attractions.

In the past, I’ve visited the Walker Art Center, and various local museums, but I’d never before been to the vast Minneapolis Institute of Art. Hanging above the lobby of the Institute is a large glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, as shown below.

Dale Chihuly Exhibit, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Dale Chihuly Exhibit, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Inside the Institute, many substantial collections are on display, covering all time periods from the Stone Age to the present, and spanning all continents.

Amid the collection of Twentieth Century artwork, there’s one painting by Piet Mondrian, whose art and beliefs I discussed in an earlier post. The photo below shows a closeup of his initials at the bottom left of the painting, to prove that it’s really his, rather than some simulation that I cobbled together on my computer!

Mondrian's Initials

Mondrian’s Initials

There’s also a large collection of Impressionist works, three of which are shown below. The painting on the left, Notre Dame de Paris by Maximilien Luce, sold in 2011 for $4.2 million, a record amount for an Impressionist work.

Some Impressionist Works

Some Impressionist Works

It’s impossible to do justice to the scale of the Institute’s collections in this short article, and I would encourage you to visit this amazing museum yourself if you’re ever in the vicinity.

The Scandinavian Diaspora

Many of the early European settlers in what’s now Minnesota came from the Scandinavian countries; Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Apparently, circa 1900, about 25% of the population of Minneapolis consisted of Swedish emigrés. Thus, it’s perhaps not surprising that Minneapolis is home to the American Swedish Institute. We visited this Institute too, and took the tour of the Turnblad Mansion, which was built in 1908 by the proprietor of a Swedish-language newspaper. The mansion is shown in the photo below, seen from inside the modern extension built next to it.

The American Swedish Institute

The American Swedish Institute

The ASI also has an excellent restaurant, FIKA, but it’s an understandably popular lunch venue, so you may have to wait for a table!

Flying Home

We returned to San Francisco airport directly from Minneapolis. I took the emotive photo below from my seat, as our Boeing 737-800 was descending to land in San Francisco. Our flight left Minneapolis at about 6.30pm, so we were “chasing the sunset” back to California as shown in the photo.

Boeing 737-800 Landing at Sunset

Boeing 737-800 Landing at Sunset

The circumstances of my flight reminded me of the lyrics of Thomas Dolby’s song Flying North, which was popular in the early 1980s when I was first traveling to the US. Part of the lyrics are:

Metal bird dip wing of fire

Whose airlanes comb dark Earth

The poles are tethers we were born in

Now I’m back in the London night

On a bench in a launderette

I’m staring right into my face

And I’m drawn out like a plot

And I’m flying North again

Tonight

These days, I’m no longer flying home to London, of course. Instead, we just had a wonderful dose of Midwest culture, and now it’s great to be back home in California!

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Mondrian’s Mistake: the Illusion of Primary Colors

You Can Call Me Piet

You Can Call Me Piet

The image above is my own work, but was inspired by “Composition C” created in 1935 by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. I’ve been learning more about Mondrian’s life recently (mostly from the book Piet Mondrian: Life and Work), in connection with some design work I’m doing.

You’ll notice that the only colors in my artwork, as in Mondrian’s Composition C, are the so-called “primaries”: red, blue and yellow. Mondrian seems to have become quite obsessed with these particular colors, and he asserted that they somehow exist as special entities in the universe.

Mondrian was part of a group of artists who called themselves neoplasticists, and they published a magazine called De Stijl. As mentioned on page 194 of the book cited above, in 1917, Mondrian claimed in an article in De Stijl that:

All colors are available to our perceptions, but only true colors are susceptible to objective definition. The primary colors, which form the basis for all natural visible colors, fulfill this requirement.

The problem is that the claim is false, because the illusion of primary colors stems entirely from the quirks of the human visual system. Thus, there are no “true colors” in nature that could form the basis of other colors. Colors of light fall into a continuous electromagnetic spectrum, in which no color is more “true” or “primary” than any other.

There are no “primary colors” in nature.

Primary Colors don’t Exist

Those of us who received some type of artistic training at school probably remember being told by our teachers that there are 3 “primary colors”—red, yellow, and blue—from which all other colors may be mixed.

In fact, the illusion that there 3 primary colors stems from the fact that there are 3 types of color receptor cell in our eyes. If instead, due to the vagaries of evolution, our eyes had 2 or 4 such types of cell, our teachers would be telling us that there are 2 or 4 “primary colors” respectively!

An entire book (claimed to be the best-selling art book ever produced) has been written on the misunderstanding of the “artist’s primaries”: Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green by Michael Wilcox. Oddly, though, that very detailed book never makes any attempt to describe the human visual system and its light receptors. Instead, the author explains color mixing effects in paints as the results of impurities in the pigments (which is also true—the pigments are impure).

The Physiology of Human Vision

In a post on my professional blog, I explain in more detail how humans see color, and how additive and subtractive color systems work. These physiological limitations are a key to the basis of many color reproduction technologies, such as television and halftone printing.

Although research continues today on the subject of vision, the fact that human eyes have several different types of light detector has been known since about the 1850s.

For the details, see my professional post, but to summarize here, the human eye has 3 types of receptors for colors (“cones”), plus one further type for monochrome vision (“rods”). Of the 3 types of cones, there is one type that is most sensitive to red light, another that is most sensitive to green light, and a third that is most sensitive to blue light. Each color of light corresponds to a wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum.

In my diagram below, the sensitivity of the blue receptors is shown by the S (for “short”) curve, that of the green receptors by the M (for “Medium”) curve, and that of the red receptors by the L (for “Long”) curve. The R curve shows the sensitivity of the rod cells.

The Sensitivities of the Human Visual System

The Sensitivities of the Human Visual System

Light entering the eye may have any wavelength (i.e., any color) in the visible spectrum. Our brains determine the actual color by combining the intensities received by the three types of cone cell. For example, if yellow light enters our eyes, then the red and green cones see high intensities, while the blue cones see little intensity. The brain converts this information into the perception of yellow.

This means that our eyes can be fooled into seeing colors that are not actually present, by presenting combinations of other colors that trigger the receptors in the same way as the missing color. In fact, many display systems, such as color television, rely on this fact to create the illusion of continuous color from only 3 separate frequencies.

Artists’ so-called primaries are in fact the “subtractive primaries”, which are the complements of the “additive primaries” discerned by our eyes. The subtractive primary colors are more accurately named as magenta, yellow and cyan, respectively.

Primary Colors are in the Eyes of the Beholder

If you think a little about this situation, you can understand how the concept of “primary colors” arises. The fact that we see any color as being the combination of responses from 3 receptors gives the false impression that every color of light is somehow made up of proportions of 3 colors.

It may be disappointing to realize that, in the case of color vision, once again, we find that we don’t experience reality directly, but only a filtered version of it, due to the limitations of our senses.

Is it Art?

I should probably make it clear that I am not criticizing Mondrian’s artwork in this article, nor am I suggesting that he lacked artistic skills. The fact that he was misguided in his claims about primary colors does not detract from the quality of his artwork.

Personally, I was first introduced to Mondrian’s work as a teenager, during my Advanced-level Art studies. Our teacher showed us examples of his abstract work. While I don’t recall her ever explicitly saying so, I got the impression that we were supposed to conclude that it was not “real art”, but I do not agree with that conclusion.

Certainly, debates about the quality of Mondrian’s art did not prevent it from gaining popularity, even long after his death. During the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent designed an entire fashion line using designs inspired by Mondrian’s abstract paintings.

Colors we Can’t See

One implication of the continuity of the electromagnetic spectrum is that there are many “colors” that the human eye cannot see, because they fall outside the range of the receptors in our eyes. One example of this, which caused me some consternation when taking photographs, was the rendition of some flower colors.

In Spring in Britain, woodland areas are often carpeted with beautiful displays of flowers called bluebells. As the name suggests, the appearance of the flowers is bright blue. However, whenever I took photos of such displays (and particularly with a film camera), the color in the photo always came out purplish; not at all the color that my eyes saw in the original scene. The (poor quality) film photo below, from 2001, shows the results.

Bluebells, as captured on Film

Bluebells, as captured on Film

The reason for this apparent change of color is that the bluebells actually reflect ultraviolet light, which our eyes cannot see, but to which photographic film is sensitive.

Apparently, most humans cannot see the ultraviolet in this case; it isn’t just some color-blindness on my part. (I know I’m not color-blind, because I’ve been tested for it several times, such as when I applied for my apprenticeship at Ferranti.) If most people could see the ultraviolet wavelengths, then presumably the flowers would be called “purplebells”!

Modern digital cameras tend to give a more faithful rendition of the color, although it still seems too purple, as shown below in my photo dating from 2007.

Bluebells as captured by a Digital Camera

Bluebells as captured by a Digital Camera

Projecting Our Limitations onto the Universe

Mondrian’s false beliefs in this case are characteristic of much metaphysical theorizing, of a type that also occurs very frequently in religious thinking.

The error is to take some limitation or evolutionary quirk that applies only to the human condition, and then extrapolate that by claiming that it is a “universal truth”.

As the saying goes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing!