top of page

Towards a Red Catechism





Can I say: ….. “Drink in the colour red, then you’II see that it can never be presented by anything else”? 

What is the significance 

of our inclination to say this?

Red seems to stand there, isolated. Why?

What is the value of this appearance (and of) this inclination of ours?




Wittgenstein’s questions about red are not rhetorical. Some have sought to answer them indirectly by setting out a Philosophy of language or of mind in general terms. But I do not know (perhaps because of professional deformation) of any philosopher who has given even implicitly answers to Wittgenstein’s quadruple query by focussing roundly and squarely on the chosen example – red. Yet, that is precisely what Norbert Francis Attard does in the ‘’installations’’ recorded in the present book.


Wittgenstein asked why does the human race in general have the apparently irresistible tendency ( or should one say temptation?) to substantivize Red, even to regard it as Aristotle’s original Substance (prote ousia), a quasi-divine entity, existing of and on its own?


The very title of Attard’s book instantly proclaims, although modestly, in merely autobiographical mode and confessional tone, one possible answer: it is because of Red’s perceived omnipresence. The book title, in fact, only picks up the name of one installation. Its contents suggest that the reason for Red’s possession of this exclusively Godlike attribute is its role in the titanic, cosmic struggle between Evolution and Entropy, perceived by Attard with as much ambivalence as by Pynchon in his novels. What Attard actually showed in the underground garage of an environmentally controversial tourist complex where the installation was first put up, is a battle of a Homeric, Iliad type, - that is, so equally balanced as to remain indefinitely unresolved – between two combatants. One is the obstinate but central Fixity of a dead tree trunk, with once upward soaring – now bare – antler-like branches. It is caught in the way of its opponent: red fabric, running and criss-crossing, in spirit-and-lifeforce animated streams, looking vaguely like an enlarged illustration of arteries out of a bio-medical textbook, sweeping round and past the mortified obstacle as it proceeds from an invisible beginning to an equally invisible end.


So Red is omnipresent like God in the world because of the omnipresence in all earthly things of the inexorable war waged by the second law of thermodynamics against the life-force. But why is it Red?  Wittgenstein says: ‘’ We have a colour system as we have a number system. Do the systems reside in our nature or in the nature of things? How are we to put it? Not in the nature of numbers or colours’’ (para. 357). Certainly there are, as Wittgenstein hints, both psychological reasons (such as mental associations) and physical reasons (such as considerations of strength in function of place in the spectrum) that support the identification of Red as the unique, possible filler of the role attributed to It by Attard in ‘’I See Red Everywhere’’, but need one follow Wittgenstein when he asserts that such a claim is not based on the nature of the colour red at all?  Would such a claim imply the reification or deification of Red? I do not think so. The singular place of red in the spectrum is surely part of its nature.


Attard explores other motives pointing in the direction of the universal presence of Red in other installations. In One Extreme to Another, a fabric links two living trees, instead of spiralling round a dead one, and it is, this time, white, Wittgenstein, in Remarks on Colour, which the publishers have placed between red covers (!), argues at length about ‘’ the peculiarity of white’’ in particular as against red, e.g. para.241). The white fabric is, however, smudged with words in red expressing all the vast range of even opposed associations of red, so that the effect of this collectively produced coniunctio oppositorium (beloved of Renaissance Neoplatonists) comes to look somewhat like a Beuysian bloodstained bandage of enormous proportions.  A computer keyboard and desk are not only made to float quasi angelically in the air but are also painted red, as if in expression of their being in the throes of some dematerializing process, defeating gravity (in both senses of the word) and symbolizing the gathering up of even technology into the collective life-stream.  Here the god-like attribute of omnipresence seems to be enjoyed by Red in virtue of its associability with anything that anyone believes is endowed with the same sort of peculiar strength which the colour red has in the spectrum.  Love is all there is is a variation on the same theme, using the technique of debanalisation by transscontextualisation;   in this case, rubrification.  


A similar technique is inbuilt into the much richer and more fragrant Bed of Roses.  This installation seems to be more lovingly focussed on Bed rather than Red.  A bare bedstead is associated with each of seven stages of life but then an eighth bed, somewhat like the eighth day which the Church Fathers spoke of to indicate the afterlife, is projected above the rest in mid-air. The roses function here as both a romantic and an ironic version of the red paint on the computer end desk in One Extreme to Another. St. Therese of Lisieux had spoken of a shower of roses as the  metaphor for the graces from Heaven she would scatter over the earth in her post-mortem exaltation.  Attard’s Bed of Roses is therefore a sort of parody of the Platonic idea of Bed.  Red here is the mark of the transcendent strength which uplifts the multiplicity of sensory objects into the unity of their ideal Form.  Once again the role of red in the spectrum is the paradigm.  The irony with which the phrase “Bed of Roses” reeks clearly indicates Attard’s awareness that what he is indulging in is a language game in which simple, literal meanings do not always prevail and dead metaphors can be induced to spring into new forms of unexpected life.


In another installation he turns to what looks like an attempt at exploring whether ‘’I can see red anywhere’’ can be a viable alternative to ‘’I See Red Everywhere’’.  In A Place Called Paradise, Attard again seems at first to be more concerned with an idea other than Red, viz.:  the relativisation of both terms of ‘’place/paradise”.  (Any place can be paradise),  Actually in Part One of the installation, the “place” is dominated by Red’s rival brother among the primary colours, a Yellow that does not seem altogether pure anywhere.  Nowhere is it totally free from a degree of fraternal contamination, but it cannot help evoking more eloquently than anything else Van Goghian scenery and Sartrian commentary on the association of yellow with anguish.  Red appears marginally, although its usual unequable strength magnetizing attention, in only two flashes.  First, there are in this bare, squalid room, with its broad hints of harlotry, a couple of red towels, bright patches sticking out of and against the sullen sea of sullied yellow.  Towels are cloths for wiping, part of cleaning and purification;  Red, even in small does, assimilates them to veils of Veronica.  Secondly, a red liquid circulates between the sink (with a gold tap) and pail beneath as though these hygienic implements were some extraordinary reliquary for the perpetual re-enactment of an unrecorded martyrdom, like that in which St. January’s blood liquefies in Naples annually.  But in this room one is not tempted to say, as Wittgenstein imagined people always would ‘’red seems to stand there, isolated’’ unless the word ‘isolated’ was being used as a chemist might to indicate that an element had been extracted from a compound and could now be examined on its own, but not implying any intrinsic autonomy.  In this room is it not rather because of its inhuman emptiness that the reds resound like liturgical invocations?  Is it not by contrast with the prevailing jaundice – yellow that the reds turn into prophetic signs of some future advent of passion and grace that will reanimate the room’s stagnant anima? 


The imperious although peripheral flashing out of Red, like the bolts of lightning of an abnormally subdued Zeus, out of the ochre ambiance with its mystifying quality, through its uniformizing the appearances of everything in the room, first brought to my mind some youthful verses of Mark Rothko:  “Paradise is like a lamp in the mist … I see you in a golden haze.:  


Then I thought of Goethe, whose anti-Newtonian account of colour remained the most popular among artists and humanists for more than a century, until Wittgenstein’s appeared.  Goethe’s theory was that, because red was a component of all colours (present everywhere at least in the chromatic world:  red is what “augmented”) it was not strictly speaking “primary,” but could emerge out of either of the irreducible primaries i.e. blue and yellow.


These crypto-scientific views of Goethe’s were partly derived from the traditional alchemic sources that he had studied in his youth.  They alleged that the fusion of all colours did not necessarily result in white, if in luminous form, or in black if in pigmented form, but always gloriously, in the “supreme and highest red”.


Goethe’s highly implausible displacement of red from its primary status thus only served to enhance its mysterious and god-like image in the eyes of both faithful disciples and sceptical readers.


Clearly, when Goethe said that red could and should emerge from yellow, he was not talking ordinary natural science, but rather carrying out a poetic operation of the same kind as Attard “installing” A Place called Paradise.  “Red  emerges out of yellow” is almost tantamount to saying that Glory is secreted out of Agony.  The affirmation can them be turned easily into such moral exhortations as per ardua ad astra, or per crucem ad lucem.   In Goethe’s theory, Red turns from a sort of mask of the Deity into a secularised cipher of the crucified God.


Likewise, in Attard’s installation, Red dowers what might have been merely a touching anecdote with a mythical dimension,  In Part Two of A Place called Paradise, the red towels have multipled into a hundred, they now hang, golden-pegged, on clotheslines in the open air and, strung out together in this fashion, they convey the impression of some sort of labyrinth.  Perhps that is the most appropriate mythical “place” for Red.


It might be relevant to recall that Attard’s early graphic work, specifically his Walled City Series,  seemed to be a search after topographical essence, an architect’s quest for the genius loci;  but he now rather seems to want to tell us that anywhere can be a site for the epiphany (if not the theophany) of Red.  Clearly, however, the discourse is  parabolic.  There does not even seem to be any physical fact that could serve as a natural basis for a transcendent meaning of Yellow as Red has in its special strength in the spectrum.


Because of this basis for Red, it is indeed enticing to plunge into even deeper metaphysical waters than Attard intended when he set up another two-part installation, called:  Tu es Petrus,  in a former Church dedicated to St. Peter.


In the Temple of Jerusalem, which St. Peter had frequented assiduously, red was the dominant tonality of the curtain which delimited the Holy of Holies, the space reserved for the Ark containing the tablets inscribed with the ten commandments.  Red itself had consequently come in time to signify the hidden presence, fascinans et tremendum, of the Holy par excellence.  The Talmud considers red to signify the vigour and rigour of God’s acts, as opposed to white (belonging to a different order of ‘colour-words’, as Wittgenstein insisted) which signified rather loving kindness.  The Kabbala recognises the two colours (however different their respective modes of functioning and meaning) as primordial factors in the genesis of the universe.  The sense of the Red as denoting the Holy is so deeply ingrained in the Jewish subconscious than even a non-practitioner like Mark Rothko (from whom I have already quoted a couple of significant lines) paints such canvasses, undoubtedly evocative of the Temple curtain, as Four Reds (1957).  Equally clearly, there is in such paintings also the influence of such secular masterpieces as Matisse’s L’Atelier Rouge, but even this Red may not be totally lacking in affinity with the tradition according to which the parokhet signified the interface between finite and infinite, the flutter and soft whisper of the transcendent, the joyful communication of the divine call to be obeyed.


In Tu es Petrus I, the reams of red fabric that we are already well-acquanited with hold together with their binding strength two huge megaliths, one old and rough looking, the other modern and polished.  The line of their imperfect conjunction, a shadow-darkened fissure of non-coincidence, the not quite fully satisfactory integration of old and new, reminds us that the Simon (=hearer) whom the Lord renamed Rock (upon which the Church was to be built) seems not to have thoroughly overcome his inner divisions anymore than the Church has done down to our day and not to have achieved the total wholeness of holiness until his martyrdom, as indeed, according to the Gospels, Christ himself had foretold.

The Red does not feature here surely as a mere colouring of a material binding agent (cloth) but as a supernatural force in itself, grace which is nothing but the perfection of nature.  A Wittgenstein more disposed to use the language of traditional theology might well have asked at this conjuncture a fifth question:  What is the significance of our inclination to regard red as a natural sacrament?


In Tu es Petre II, a temple-like structure within the Church in place of an altarpiece such as, for instance  Caravaggio painted of the subject for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome, around 1600-1 holds an almost doll-like, nude figure of the Prince of the Apostles, apparently crucified upside down (to be like but not quite like the Lord).  It is meshed in the swathes of red fabric that have already been seen wound around dead wood along many other (usually communicative) functions elsewhere.  Here, no doubt, they are binding Peter (painfully) to the destiny he sought to avoid when young – by imparting to him the divine force singularly embodied in the Red.  Far from being negative its significance is, paradoxically of liberation.  Here indeed the appearance of Red occurs with maximum metaphysical value.


On the contrary, the religious connotations of The Last Supper are as low-key as the rôle of red in this cemetery installation. A table cloth comes down to earth as carpet. The brownish-yellow dust and soil  of the grave-yard site of the installation is turned by the windblown red fabric into cosmic altar.    The whole point of the exercise, however, appears to be that, next to the glass or chalice of red wine, instead of the expected bread of life, the plate contains the stubs of innumerable cigarettes.  The Red is like a mere Guestmaster of Irony pulling the leg of the Post-Modern Artists who celebrate the Death of Art (after that of God and of Man) with the failed transubstantiation of the Fag-end.  For once the pungent smell of burnt nicotine seems to undo the flicker of Red.


The tabernacle-like structure wrapped in red in Tu es Petrus harks the mind of anyone familiar with the various stages of Attard’s artistic itinerary back to the long series of Mihrabs – the pulpit-like structure in Mosques sacred to Quranic actualisation.  But the  send-back is even stronger with Beyond Conflict.  The title itself rings like an appeal to a wider ecumenism than was hinted at in Tu Es Petrus.  There is a well-proportioned, fairly small scale building which architecturally evokes a modest, latter-day classical temple, an icon of the common heritage of all Mediterranean and European cultures, however much they have been twisted and turned in different directions by sectarian factions spinning off from the monotheistic religion of the Abrahamic Pact.  Against a white-cloud-flecked blue sky, the Red fabric hitches on harmoniously with the Green (fusion of the other two primary colours, blue and yellow).  The simplicity of the theme is matched by the extremely pleasing visual result obtained here with an almost child-like delight squirting out of the very aesthetic package.


The Greek paintings of antiquity are known to have used a restricted palette of four colours. As far back as the early fifth century B.C., these were said by Empedocles and Democritus, to correspond to the four elementary constituents of all matter.  But Red distinguished itself from the start by its refusal to be bound by definition or classification.  The ancients obtained various shades of red pigments and dyes not only from simple earth or clay (containing hydrated oxide of iron) but also from exotic Eastern biological sources, such as the roots of a rare plant which yielded the intensely brilliant “madder” reds used, for instance, in the Villas of the Mysteries at Pompey.  Thus, from the arché, red began to trespass across and subvert the scientifically or philosophically established categories.  


The use of esoteric variants of red – as in Attard’s Virgin Valley installation, recalling the soft-core Red-light districts – allows the generation of highly ambiguous play on the sex-spirituality nexus and the evocation of the mauve rather than  magenta sideways and byeways of “love”.  In this installation, the pronounced   androgyny of the hero in pink makes him/her  a distant relative of  Leonardo’s Christ transcending the sexes in the Milanese Last Supper.  Is there an intrinsic link between soft shades of red and heterodox mysticism?  So one might ask tongue-in-cheek, aping the most blatant mannerism of the later Wittgenstein. 


Here I think of J.M.W. Turner.  On one hand, he attacked in his lectures the painters who used colours in general and red and rose in particular in crudely emblematic or conventionally symbolic ways, such as his bête noire, Carlo Dolci, with no trace of compassion.  Turner, a Wittgensteinian ante litteram regarding red in this respect, denied even the association of colours with musical modes (asserted, e.g., by the admired Poussin) that had resulted in such beliefs as that a blind man might grasp what red was by hearing a trumpet blast. -  Can one understand  the nuances of red in Virgin Valley by listening to twenties jazz? – On the other hand, Turner was ready to associate red with just sunset, as he does the other two primary colours with other times of day, as though they were the modes of Indian ragas.  Is Virgin Valley the development of Sunset Boulevard in the electronic age and testimony of an intrinsic relationship between the nature of certain shades of red and certain distinct although indefinite meanings?


In such roundabout ways, Attard arrives at the fourth and deepest of Wittgenstein’s questions:  What is the value of that in the appearance of red which inclines us to treat it as a thing , or rather as a superthing?  Attard turns for help with the answer to the greatest artist in red of all times, generally acknowledged to be Caravaggio.  There are surely no other reds that can excel or equal in strength those of the canopy over the dead Virgin and of her dress in the painting now in the Louvre.  Norbert Attard must have by force of circumstance, however, given more attention to the glowing red of the Baptist’s mantle on which the executioner heavily steps, in the Beheading of St. John in the Cathedral in Valletta. (Samuel Beckett himself declared that it inspired him to write Not I ).  The brilliantly flaming mantle is obviously not a realistic element of the Baptist’s garb, as the sheepskin or camelskin beneath him, might on the contrary well have been.  The red mantle is a sort of heraldic emblem.  But Caravaggio does not attempt to create in his works any mystique of Red as Malevic, for instance, sought to do for White.  Attard manages in this Installation with uncanny intuition to capture exactly the two essential traits of what might well be termed Caravaggio’s rubro-theology.  On the one hand the sullied red stuff (which recalls Wittgenstein’s discussion as to whether it made sense to speak of “blackish red”. – “Here, in this installation, is a sample of it,” so one would have liked to interject into Wittgenstein’s imaginary conversation) becomes the covering of ritual pillows such as might have been carried ceremonially by the Grandmaster’s pages or some Roman Cardinal’s altarboys.  The pillows support daggers that the Baptist’s executioner, - with his bare right foot cruelly planted, over and across the prostrate Baptist’s body, on the red mantle, - hold behind his bent back at the very centre of the large painting, in readiness to administer the coup de grace, the colpo di grazia, the “sroke of grace”, still needed to totally sever the head from the trunk to which it was still attached by a thin thread of skin at the neck.  The heart of Caravaggio’s red-hot  theology is that Grace, the grace of God, comes as violently as the sin it annuls.  On the other hand, it shows itself with an emblematic elegance as  opposed to the crudity, brutishness and chaoticity of destructive violence, but its luminous beauty is nothing but the transfiguration of the same  force that emerges in corrupt form when exercised destructively instead of creatively.  The somewhat deflationary treatment of the red stuff in this splendid installation has enabled Attard to achieve an almost diagrammatic synthesis of Caravaggism with hardly any sacrifice of complexity or subtlety.


Red may be visible everywhere and anywhere but precisely because it can be seen,  it is not God.  There is a figurative point to be made by sometimes personifying it or even superpersonifying it as if it were some kind of demiurge out of Plato’s Timaeus.  Is red therefore a mere “accident” by nature, although it may haunt the cosmos all over?  Caravaggio in fact removes the temptation to substantivize Red by displaying its analogicity.  There is a common denominator in all its appearances:  extraordinary force; but there is also diversity of value in each of them from highly positive to abysmally negative.  A series of Caravaggio’s works would have to be looked at to perceive that what binds all the manifestations of red together is a family likeness.  This perception can be obtained much more easily from Norbert Attard’s series of installations recorded in this book.

bottom of page