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auguste herbin

︎Artist, Painting, Abstract    
︎ Ventral Is Golden


"Colours are light’s suffering and joy."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Best known for his abstract paintings of colourful geometric figures, Herbin also explored an expressive language system, where each letter was assigned a colour and a shape. Linking to psychological colour theory, his visual language became a compositional puzzle to unlock.



Born into a working class family of weavers, Auguste Herbin (1882-1960) began his artistic career as a painter of realistic landscapes. In his early twenties, Herbin settled in Paris, where he first joined the Impressionists and later the Fauvist art movements. He would become heavily influenced by the serendipity of having his studio next to those of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, enabling him to pursue a detailed study of the early developments of Cubism. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, he was exempt from military service because of his short stature and was committed to work in an aeroplane factory near Paris, after which, (perhaps partly influenced by the mechanistic habitudes of assembly line work), he shifted his perspective to an abstract, geometric style.

Generally speaking, it could be said that this change in style was the result of a shift in social paradigms at the time. A new kind of mechanisation and industrial process was the character of the zeitgeist, and Cubism, as many cultural transitions do, looked back into the past for a more 'naive', tribal and universal form of expression. For Herbin, this was embodied in his new kind of language system; a melange of spiritual, philosophical and mechanistic impulses that pertained to all of the senses; The Alphabet Plastique.





By 1946, Herbin had began to elaborate a compositional system based on the structure of letters, which he called The Alphabet Plastique. In a similar vein to Alexander Scriabin's theosophically inspired 'Mysterium' and 'clavier à lumières', each letter of Herbin's system became a simplified shape with multifaceted connotations relating to colour, form and resonance. He would later publish this compositional system, as well as other colour theories (partly derived from Goethe's "Farbenlehre"), in his "L'art non-figuratif non-objectif" in 1949.

The Farbenlehre (Colour Theory) of Goethe, from which Herbin's Alphabet Plastique took its inspiration, was in fact not a theory, but a catalogue of observations regarding how the eye perceives colour. In part a critique of Newton's mathematical approach to understanding light, the critique maintained that Newton had mistaken mathematical imagining as pure evidence of the senses, whilst Goethe tried to define the scientific function of imagination: to interrelate phenomena once they have been meticulously produced, described, and organised... (Dennis L. Sepper, 2009).




The aim of Goethe's colour theory was not to give credence to a mathematical framework at the expense of the individual (as per Newton), but to incorporate the 'poet's intuition', and to include the psychological affects that colour had on the individual. This is evident in Goethe's colour wheel, where allegorical, symbolic and mystic uses of colour were applied to categories such as Beauty (red), Nobility (orange), Good (yellow), Useful (green), Common (blue) and the Unnecessary (violet). These six qualities were then categorised into a further four categories of human cognition, where combinations of colour, such as red (beauty) and violet (unnecessary) would result in the category relating to 'Phantasie' (imagination).


Herbin's Alphabet Plastique, and his later works, share similar leitmotifs with other art and cultural movements who strove to find the humanitas within every state of change brought about by technological advance. From the Theosophists, who tried to establish a holistic approach to colonialist Christian expansion at the expense of Hinduism, the Neo-Tantrists, who offered the Western mind an escape from utilitarian rationality that rendered Tantra so attractive, to the Futurists and Cubists, who reinvented space and perspective in the age of automation. Herbin's Alphabet Plastique was an attempt to reunite nature with the symbolic references of it.

“Symbolic and mystic uses of colour were applied to categories such as Beauty (red), Nobility (orange), Good (yellow), Useful (green), Common (blue) and the Unnecessary (violet).”







The visual language system itself is an echo of earlier language systems, that originally spoke in multiplicities, bringing into existence the thing that was being symbolically represented; in essence, eliminating the distinction between symbol and reality altogether. The Egyptian Medu-Neteru (Neters, Numbers, Deities, Hieroglyphs) was just one language system that adopted this kind of holistic view of abstract symbolism being affected by physical occurrences. A kind of 'living language'.

As renowned Theosophist and student of Goethe, Rudolf Steiner once alluded in his 1908 Frankfurt lecture series, that the Egyptian mind would know precisely how the individual organs of the human body corresponded with the substances of the external world. From the use of colour, language, architecture, medicine, and so on, the ancient Egyptian would still interpret these as aspects of the same subject.





Colour was regarded as an integral element of ancient cosmology. Wadj-wer, the Goddess of fertility, was often depicted in green (wadj) and sometimes referred to as 'The Great Green'. Egypt itself was referred to as Kemet by the indigenous, after the colour black (kem), and the natural yearly occurrence of the Nile flooding, that left copious amounts of black fertile silt on it's river banks.
This kind of confluence between abstract symbology and the arising of observable phenomena within nature, gave us the first science, Al Kīmiyā, or Alchemy - a combination of Egyptian and Greek natural philosophy (emanating from Tus, Iran, via the arabic mystic Gerber). This combination was concerned with transmutating spirit into matter, and later became what is known nowadays as Chemistry.









Colours are an essential part of how we perceive the world, from biological perspectives (such as chromatophores, the colour sensitive cells used in communication and camouflage), through to cultural perspectives (such as the relative effects of colours on Placebo and drug effectiveness). Colour is not only in the interest of market research companies who endeavour to boost commercial drug sales, brand the softest toilet rolls in pink and blue, or to promote eco-friendly aesthetics with green packaging, but instead, colour plays an entirely deeper psychological and spiritual role in our lives. In collaboration with shape and form, it can either coerce and direct certain psychological responses, or articulate emotions through space.


“Colour was regarded as an integral element of ancient cosmology.
A confluence between abstract symbology and the arising of observable phenomena within nature.”





Further Reading ︎
The Power of Drug colour, The Atlantic, article
Egyptian Myths, article
Artist Biography, Art Market
Theory of Colours, Goethe, review
Goethe, Newton, and the Imagination of Modern Science, Dennis L. Sepper
Theory of colours, Newton & Goethe chart of differences, wiki


Mark