White not only in winter
von Thomas Wagner | Jan 5, 2011

White? White! So what is not white. Fresh powder snow, heaps of fluffy down, a small pool of milk and stacks of fine writing paper. Or: A picture by Robert Ryman, the "white cube" of an art gallery, Richard Meier's buildings, crunchy baking powder, plaster dust, a face chalky-white with fear face, a summer suit, a mountain of flour, fresh apple blossom, etc. etc. etc.. Much of what accompanies us through life and surrounds us, is white, especially since this non-color (alongside silver and all manner of natural tones) has emerged in the frontline of trend colors. Autos and sofas, sideboards, luminaires, wash basins and bathroom fittings are increasingly available in white. So what is behind the "white" phenomenon? What makes white so attractive?

White, and so much seems to be certain, runs through your fingers like so many grains of sand when you try to put a conceptual finger on it. It escapes us, is neutral and mysterious. The things that take the stage dressed in white find this out: If they are lit by harsh light from the side, then the differences and finer details of their bodies or shapes become visible, indeed accentuated. White things thus appear the way the yare, no frills. However, a white body seems homogeneous. If we consider it in diffuse light, the edges, lines, indentations and raised sections seem to dissolve into the mist. Leaving little for the eye to latch onto. As when you are skiing and there's fog and you no longer know whether the ground slopes up or down, whether you are going up or downhill. Like complete darkness, extreme brightness is a challenge to our perception.

Seen metaphorically, white is initially and usually associated with purity and innocence, with something untouched, if we think of Knut the baby polar bear. Indeed, white animals are considered unusual and unique, and not only the harmless ones among them, such as the unicorn, but also because of their dangerousness, for example white elephants, tigers, sharks or the great white whale.

Herman Melville, author of "Moby Dick", offers an account of the many facets of white, a veritable, culturally informed phenomenology of the color, before he gets round to talking about the dangerous white whale. "Though," he begins, whiteness "refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognized a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title ‘Lord of the White Elephants' above their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoervian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caeserian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; and though..." And though, and so Melville continues for quite a while citing any manner and number of clever historical and cultural characterizations of the color white.

Though whiteness marks a joyful day, though the majesty of justice is typified by the white ermine of the judge, though it serves to multiply the glory of kings, whose chariots are drawn by milk-white steeds, though in the mysteries of the religions it has become the "symbol of divine spotlessness and power" and though the "in the Vision of St, John white clothes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great-white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood."

It is this elusive quality, Melville suggests, "which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds." By way of proof, he cites the polar bear, and the white shark, before going on to write: "Bethink thee of the albatross, whence come those clouds of spiritual wonderment and pale dread, in which that white phantom sails in all imaginations?" And needless to say at the end everything pivots on "Moby Dick" that unique white monster.

The color white, or so it would seem, is anything but "neutral". But does that mean that in any white car we see we encounter terror to the furthest bounds? Does astonishment doze alongside us on the sofa if the latter is only white and simple wait to attack us? Probably, crazed with contemporaneity we have along since lost all those friendly and terrible associations with whiteness and white is nothing but a fashionable way of dressing things up. But we still do not feel truly safe in its presence.

Graphic: Dimitrios Tsatsas, Stylepark