‘Colour alchemy between ebony, snow and blood’

Remo Albert Alig (artist) in conversation with Peter Stohler

Interview towards the end of: Rotes Käppchen. Blauer Bart – Farben im Märchen. Red Hood. Blue Beard – Colour in Fairy Tales

© 2019 arnoldsche Art Publishers, Stuttgart, editors/authors, translator. ISBN: 978-3-89790-573-3

Peter Stohler: When you agreed to do this interview, you expressed the desire to talk about the colours in Little Snow-White. May I ask why? Is this connected to your work?

Remo Albert Alig: Yes. As an artist I’m interested in hermetic philosophy and alchemy, an interest that influences my own work very strongly. Now, when I look at Little Snow-White with the eyes of an artist, naturally I’m immediately struck by the colour symbolism, which is also found in this form in Hermeticism, the esoteric doctrine from Ancient Egypt, which is composed of three large planes and seven principles, and in the magnum opus of alchemy. With the magnum opus we have the transformation of a non-precious material into ‘gold’ along with a projection of becoming human. This proceeds in three stages, namely from nigredo, blackening, via albedo, whitening, to rubedo, reddening. Often, this process is also transferred onto human developmental psychology; the various stages of life from childhood via youth to adulthood – rites de passage. And this progression through three stages is very clearly legible in Little Snow-White. In analogy to the magnus opus there is, here, the black of the ebony, the white of the snow and the red of the blood.

PS: Can you demonstrate that a little more precisely on the basis of Little Snow-White?

RA: Well, it starts straight away with her name. Little Snow-White – that’s the pristine white of innocence, purity. But let’s look at the scene featuring Snow-White’s mother at the window. She sits there and sews. Then she is distracted by the beauty of the falling snow and pricks her finger, upon which three drops of blood fall into the snow. The black window-frame of ebony – an exotic timber – represents the first level of the alchemistic act, nigredo. Niger: that is the black, the alien, the dark, the night. At the same time, the window-frame is a threshold between interior space and outside world. It is snowing outside, an indication of the albedo phase. The snow begins to enshroud the world. The queen seems to be leaning through the window out of the interior world into this other world. Lost in thought, she begins to muse over the beauty of the three drops of blood in the snow. Here there is a lovely analogy to medieval grail legends, such as those by Chrétien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach: three drops of blood in the snow cause the hero to fall into a trance and thus obtain a vision of his beloved. This colour combination is adopted in the Grimms’ fairy tale.

PS: Was that done consciously?

RA: The Brothers Grimm definitely read such texts, were familiar with this thought and employed it in their fairy tales. But let’s come back to the story. Little Snow-White is bestowed with these three colours, black hair, white skin, red cheeks, as insignia of the thousand times more fair.

PS: This triad occurs repeatedly.

RA: Exactly, it repeats itself. The magical number seven, which is of great significance in psychology and alchemy, also comes into play. Little Snow-White is seven years old when she is noticed as a beauty for the first time, when her stepmother walks up to the mirror and has to hear that she is not the fairest. Her face turns expressively yellow and green with envy. Now is the start of Little Snow-White’s ordeal, the nigredo phase – or what C.G. Jung called ‘a night sea journey’. She is sent into the forest to join the wild animals; the huntsman receives orders to kill her and bring her lungs and liver to her stepmother. Little Snow-White is lucky, though, and stays alive. Alone in the otherworld of the forest, she must walk the difficult path across the seven mountains, until she comes to the seven dwarves. To me, these gnomes are a species of mountain spirit, magicians. Every morning they climb up into the mountains, into the light, but then plunge back into Mother Earth’s lap, into the darkness, and seek knowledge in the rock in the form of gold and ore.

PS: And they come back to Little Snow-White every evening.

RA: That’s right. Little Snow-White is allowed to stay with the dwarves, but she has to keep house for them. Clean, purify – that’s part of the albedo phase. At the same time, the dwarves warn Little Snow-White that her stepmother will come and that she must take care. What happens now is very interesting from the point of view of Hermeticism. Disguised as a pedlar-woman, the stepmother comes to the dwarves’ house. To this end – something that’s often missed by readers – she colours her face.

(… …) (… …)
(… …) (… …)

PS: That is a very interesting interpretation of Little Snow-White and the colours black, white and red. Now, when you think of fairy tales in general, is there a colour that appears to be the most important? What colour do you most closely associate with fairy tales?

RA: I think, for me, that’s gold. This process from dirt to gold is often described very beautifully in fairy tales – for example, in the fairy tale The Wishing-Table and the Gold-Ass. The gold donkey, that’s a wonderful image, by the way. Or spinning straw into gold in the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. Rumpelstiltskin is an alchemist! The way he dances around the fire and, in the end, tears himself in two and plunges into the earth! Gold, silver, the metallic colours are typical of fairy tales to me, also the colours of precious stones. It’s interesting that many colours occur only materially and are not even named. Pitch, chalk, straw, for example. It’s not explicitly said that it’s black, white or golden, but of course that’s obvious to the listener. It’s often archetypal colour sensations that are prompted. When colours occur in the fairy tale, then with maximum certainty they have a deeper, emblematic, symbolic meaning, otherwise they’ll go unmentioned. As an artist I feel that fairy-tale illustrations are questionable. The prescribed images, combined with their colourfulness, patronise narrator and listener alike and stop one using one’s own imagination.

PS: Yes, the question whether fairy tales should have colour illustrations is highly controversial.

RA: The spoken word takes clear priority for me. Fairy tales should be narrated freely. The art of visual narration is performed through the enlivenment of language, and listeners – be they adults or children – are allowed as much latitude as possible so that images and colours arise through the imagination. With the dwarves in Little Snow-White, for example, nowhere is it mentioned that they wear red pointy hats … I think our collective subconscious automatically produces archetypal colour attributions.

PS: Perhaps we are also influenced by Walt Disney films, though.

RA: That could of course also be true …

The interview was conducted on 3 July 2019 in Chur, canton of the Grisons (CH).

After this break with the book’s sequence, the poppy below leads to the first colour chapter: Black.