Endre Manyoki: Cradle for colours

There are no colours in nature. Instead, there are materials, structures, interactions, ironclad consequences, processes and who knows what else. No colours, though. There is no time as such, just a chain of events, links on a temporal binding. Nothing is beautiful or useful in an objective sense. There is no nature in nature. Colours, time, beautiful, useful, nature and the rest, all these are mere concepts: all of them are abstractions. We are the ones who need them, not the Universe. We, the people require them. Why is this?

A fundamental pillar of European culture and civilisation is the brief parable of The Cave from Plato's work, The Republic. Let us recall it in the recesses of our minds. Chained people are sitting in front of moving shadows cast on upon the wall and accept the play of shadows as reality. What else could they do? They cannot even move their heads. Someone frees someone else from this state and at great cost helps them make their way to the world outside The Cave: The real world without illusions. This is not the time to ponder the dilemmas of liberation, of a higher form of reality, of a reality of truth, reborn every moment; instead, let us concentrate on a single issue: The one who was called away is coming back. He is returning to the Cave, to rejoin those who - evidently - are not truly in chains; they are making deals, they are negotiating: They are living. They are living the life of the Cave. What can the returnee do in possession of his knowledge, acquired at such heavy price? He attempts the impossible: He tries to make the inhabitants of the Cave understand that reality is more, it is of a higher order than the world of their humdrum lives.

Consequently a language is needed to give understanding a fighting chance. A system of symbols is crucial, a system that derives from the world of the Cave, to make it possible for the inhabitants to share the experience – even if we do not immediately believe in the grammatically comprehensible statement: “Up there is the true reality!"

We need something that also exists in the Cave – even if there it only exists in a hidden, scattered form. Something that we can compile from its component particles into a system in such a way that even if it unable to show the reality of the higher order, it at least can generate a sense of its existence.

The human spirit comprises this intent. It was this: The human spirit, born of this intent. Art itself. Art means all human creations that are aimed high towards the light and governs us: Science, poetry, music, sculpture, painting...

“There are no colours in nature,” – this was at the root of our introspection. If this is true, where are they? Inside our culture, naturally. Why are there colours in our culture? They are necessary, that's why. Because materials, structures and ironclad consequences do not in and of themselves amount to a system that is capable of invoking never before seen and never visible content: Order, interconnected relationships, harmonies. Even systems that are more complicated than the essence of harmony itself – contradictions, for instance. This is the battle in the cradle, birth-pains, as it were, of Colour.

Colours do not derive from themselves. The birth of a colour is hardly natural or free of worry. At its roots, colour doesn’t even want to be colour, it wants to be shape, form – something else that has colour, colour being an ancillary manifestation. The shape, the form, they struggle against the transformation into colour. Does a leaf have colour (and how many at that)? Does the countryside, the interior of a space, a face... How much and what did the objects have to reluctantly surrender of themselves before they could finally become colours?

Colour derives from a visual experience. The visual experience is hit or miss, even if the spectator is looking for and purposefully chooses a given colour from the palette of possible visual experiences. Not every visual experience (eyeball inspection) can give birth to colour. Most visual experiences give birth to simply others of their kind, even if they are abstract derivations of the original. These are copies. However important copies are in art, they do not point in the direction of new, higher truths: They are shadows of the Cave's reality.

But that is a trap if we believe that colour is born by way of and at the price of attention siphoned away from the visual experience. If we believe and accept that focused attention and concentration is sufficient to gain our objective, then colour is born of the shapes of the visual experience. But no – that is not enough. The birth of colour is truly a drama where first the scene divorces itself from colour, and then the colours immediately splatter. Colour always uncovers internal contradictions that remained concealed until now: Light and shadows, up and down, hard and soft, systemic and random...

Colour is not IS, it is preparing TO BE. It wants to exist on the border of something. It cannot be anywhere else, nearly: On the border. On the border of the explicable and inexplicable, the visible and the invisible, reality and illusion. Colour is abstraction that has been created, a nearly final sublimation of the cave dweller's ancestor-seeking, truth seeking, identity seeking desires. Colour is a distillation of the nearly desperate human need of the artist to have contemporaries treat her not as the prophet of a false rebellion but rather as an intermediary between the regions of the known and the unknowable, experienced and the mysterious, the real and the true. The trial is gruelling. There is no guarantee at all that it would not be the false prophet idea gaining strength within the consciousness of the audience, that they would follow the gaze of the artist instead of murdering her.

Every artist is engaged in the search for the ancestor, for the root of it all. Each artist is a Returnee that is uncertain of ever having been outside the Cave. She does not know, because she cannot know, what is truly above her, past the throat of the Cave. She only knows that a part of her has traversed the path of liberation. She has surrendered to the command of her calling. A part of her spirit and consciousness has experienced the other, higher, true reality. And she has brought something with her that she must become a conduit for in the language of the home. She must do so, not to foment a rebellion, even if the audience believes that to be the case, but rather to encourage, to shepherd others onto internal pathways, pathways of liberation. She must give a vision, a time, perhaps words instead of false, projected visions, unliveable times and falsehoods.

Ágnes Kontra is a painter. She is an artist. She began her journey towards colour. She is someone who is searching for the birth, the cradle of colours. She is observing the drama, the outcome of the drama – and at its logical end the process of its dissolution. Yes, this is the key of her painting: Introspection. Not only introspection, although the basis of this mental perspective is introspection. But introspection is still but a passive mental state, while in observation there is a sense of recognition, a sense of understanding, of insight. To reach the first state of grace, one must find the novel experience in visual stimuli and the essence of tension in the experience itself. One must discover the drama of the tension - this is the starter, the catalyst, the yeast in the dough. But where to? What is the destination?

She turned to colours; to be precise, she turned in the direction of colour. She attempted to find common ground between the high ground and the low. The first consequence of this effort was the exclusion of dynamism from her system of relationships: she left out the diagonal; there was no need for aimless movement within the structure – it would disrupt the constructive development of the worlds, their transition into one another.

But she retained the boundaries. On the paintings – small and large alike – the boundary is clearly recognizable. The range (occasionally broad, sometimes razorblade thin) separates yet connects. The gaze both departs and makes its approach here. The drama is expressed on this boundary: there is up and there is down, but both are striving to reach the other. It is as if the same thing was trying to express itself on opposite sides of the boundary - it is just that they are not yet able to reach each other.

The thing that wishes to express itself (important: Express! We are inside the Cave, we need language), is none other than colour. But what exactly is colour? In its essence, is there such a thing as colour? Is there an ultimate, single colour? And if there is such thing, if we assume its existence, which colour is it? And if it was born, will there be sufficient justification for us to accept it as the ancestor, as the true original? Can we say that red is the colour? Or the white, the silver, the blue?

White, red, blue, silver: Cave concepts. Not colours, merely words. Somewhere else they may even be originals – for the painter they are strange, superfluous and useless. Ágnes Kontra, the painter, creates the impossible. She struggles and ponders; she drags the brush on the canvas until the boundary between up and down dissolves. The masterpiece to date is born, the essential and perhaps existentialist creation: The fifty-fifth view of space. Colour itself – inside three dimensional space.

Truly, it is three dimensional space within colour. It is the suffering of Tantalos that the creator was preparing for something other than what she has created. She wishes to create space and instead colour is born. She paints the elemental, sensual desire for the incarnation of space on more than fifty canvasses, and all these give birth to colour.

Why does Ágnes Kontra insist on space when she names her creations? Painter that she is, could she be blind? Hardly - she can see, more and better, than what we could believe on the basis of the above! A typical belief of European art – we could even say it is an obsession – that three dimensional space is born in perspective, from a perspective on a flat surface, from the geometric analysis and recreation of the visual experience. The brain analyses, processes - and the hand obeys the commands of the eyes. The brain chooses a perspective, points of view, the eye draws up abbreviations and distances, and the hand draws the invisible lines onto which the brush will deposit the paint. This is beautiful, because the recognition that this is the nature of the world is beautiful. It is the recognition itself that is beautiful; in our world it is this view of beauty that is dominant, probably not accidentally and undeservedly.

Our culture functions along the lines of the Plato parable: We must construct the language that we can comprehend and what can reference the higher, majestic truth, and this language must come from the universe of the Cave. We create a reality to replace our reality. We reference the unseen with a visual experience. We position the unknown into space, as our life appears before us in space and in processes (in time as well; see: Sátántangó (Satan Tango)). In space versus a flat surface (Suttogások és sikolyok (Whispers and Screams)) and space created by words (Tarkovsky, poetry, philosophy).

Ágnes Kontra truly wishes to paint space. To accomplish this elemental desire, however, she had to re-evaluate the concept of space. Even if she was not consciously aware of the challenge. If the artistic, painter’s concern was a struggling idea within the depths of her consciousness, the concern of ‘why will something that wishes to become space inevitably turn into colour?’ Why is she struggling with colour if what she is interested in is three dimensional space?

The answer gains definition in the concept of the boundary. That is where it gains form. Up and down have merged. Even if the pulsating (bending, moving about) diagonals from the flat surface of the past remain to give the sensation of the drama that takes place on the surface, this fact cannot cover up the substantive recognition: The boundary shifted to a different location.

Colour became colour within its depths, its core! The boundary does not assume shape in the up or the down - the challenge is not embodied within this dichotomy. The Returnee’s, the Artist’s fate is not limited to the path of dedication, of passage above, passage into another reality, communication with that place, convincing, suffering and exile.

In that case, what options are available? None other than the manifestation of present existence? The creation of three dimensional space as created by colour. The repositioning of the boundary from the system of relationships of the up and down into the front-behind correlation. For us to know, see, sense and live that this is how all our colours are created; our entire being, the space of our universe, is constructed like this in our Cave: Always on the boundary and always in the depths. Layered inward, but possessing an awareness that it is between the down and the up. Along hidden, yet still real, bent and twisted diagonals.

As in everything else, Plato was proven right. There is a short, nearly never quoted portion of the parable at the end, asking Glaucon about whether we can make our way up to the higher, true reality? No. Only the path is important, right? Then is it whether we struggle upward, towards the light, or downward, in the direction of the darkness?

‘Yes, yes,' nods Glaucon, the cave dweller. And we are justified to nod in response.

This is the basis of our existence. But Bergmann, Tarr, Tarkovsky; Pilinszky, Weöres, Nemes Nagy, Csontváry, Béla Veszelszky and many others from the multitude of Cave dwellers – including the artist Ágnes Kontra  suggest that there is another path from the up and the down: The inward path. This is also passion. This is also drama. This is catharsis, cleansing, faith.

Faith that there is something that fills the void, that we can hardly reach the light from the Cave over the course of our paltry lives. That the above and the light are within us, inside of us, and it is shining bright - if we let it shine.

Endre Mányoki - writer and literary critic