The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Scarves from Hiroshi Sugimoto's Hermès Editeur collection, Couleurs de l’Ombre. Source:
Hermes Editeur Daniel Buran
From Photos-Souvenirs au Carré by Daniel Buren.

Robert Dumas, grandfather of Hermès' artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas, first introduced Hermès' printed silk scarf in 1937. The first models, named carrés, came in 28- and 35-inch silk squares with hand-rolled edges, and soon became statement pieces that reflected a sober French chic style during the 1930s. Over the course of the century, the house brought many artists into the fold to design prints for the scarves, from Chinese painter, Ding Yi, to the unlikely Texas postal worker - and only American designer - Kermit Oliver.

When Pierre-Alexis launched the Hermès Editeur project in 2008, he intended to pay tribute to his grandfather's intuition of refining the art of scarf design through the work of contemporary artists. The project's first two editions involved the works of German painter and colour theorist Josef Albers and French conceptual artist Daniel Buren, respectively.

Behind Hermès' latest line of scarves lies a scientific and philosophical theory. The scarves of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, the third artist to participate in Hermès Editeur, are inspired by Sugimoto's Couleurs de l’Ombre (Colours of Shadows), a decade long experiment based on the refraction of light. Sugimoto revisited Sir Isaac Newton's optical theory and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's study on colours to obtain 20 variations of colour gradients with a Polaroid camera.

 Colours, Goethe argued, appeal directly to our senses; red and blue have effects upon the human psyche that will not submit to mechanistic quantification.

In his book Opticks published in 1704, Newton investigated the refraction of light, using a prism to split a stream of white light into a spectrum of colours (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-purple), each with a different refractive index. A century later, playwright Goethe challenged Newton's mathematical approach to light theory on artistic grounds. In Goethe's Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colours, 1801), he wrote: "I was astonished, as I looked at a white wall through the prism, that it stayed white! That only where it came upon some darkened area, it showed some colour, then at last, around the window sill all the colours shone... It didn't take long before I knew here was something significant about colour to be brought forth, and I spoke as through an instinct out loud, that the Newtonian teachings were false." 

Although Newton's spectrum of colours was perceived by the human eye via the central cortex, Sugimoto asked, "what did that prove? Colours, Goethe argued, appeal directly to our senses; red and blue have effects upon the human psyche that will not submit to mechanistic quantification."

Through his collection, Sugimoto found a Middle Way between the theories of Newton and Goethe. He considered Newton's method by allowing sunlight to pass through a crystal prism in the centre of a large room in his studio, whereupon it refracted into an infinite continuum of colour. By shining the stream of light onto a mirror with a special micro-adusting tilting mechanism, Sugimoto was able to split the colours further so that the spectrum could be made into, for example, an infinity of reds. 

But the project often caused Sugimoto to reflect on Goethe's observations (his "warm poetic reflexivity" versus "Newton's cool, impassionate arithmetic gaze on nature). "One morning I noticed something curious: staring at a band of blue hues with a quiet sense of elation, I shifted my gaze to the white wall and saw yellow. Goethe also studied this phenomena and found that after gazing prolongedly at a single colour, the human eye will an afterimage of the opposite colour for a few seconds when looking away. This strange ability to perceive non-existent colours contributes greatly to our aesthetic sense of complementary colour harmonies, though look too long at the world and we see an inverted world." 

With his old Polaroid, Sugimoto captured 20 subtle colour gradations, the so-called Colour of Shadows, printing the images onto 140 limited-edition silk twill scarves using a newly developed inkjet technique. The effect is the illusion of lighter and darker colours penetrating or overlapping one another, although they are just different shadows of the same hue.

Hermes Editeur Josef Albers
From Hommage de Carré by Josef Albers.

For the inaugural edition of Hermès Editeur, Albers' (1888-1976) series of paintings, Homages to the Square, were reproduced in the 1,200-piece limited edition Hommage de Carre collection. Albers' series of geometric coloured squares touch each other along their mutual borders without overlapping so that the chromatic variations of the colours are sharply distinguished. Yellows match with greys and whites, oranges with browns and reds, creating an amazing optical effect in perspective.

In 2010, for the second edition of Hermès Editeur, French conceptual artist Daniel Buren personalised the scarves with 365 "photos-souvenirs" he collected during a lifetime of trips around the world. In the collection, Photos-Souvenirs au Carre, he pictured a Brasilian sunset in Salvador de Bahia, the Baroque dome of the Church of Santo Domingo in Mexico, Piazza dei Martiri in the Italian island of Procida, all of which are framed with a peculiar striped passé-partout which Buren has used as a personal signature of his work since 1965. 

With and average price of 5,000 euro, each Hermès printed silk scarf is conceived as a masterpiece, whether framed, worn around the neck or hung on the wall. By following Pierre-Alexis' motto, "we are in a permanent creative construction zone," the contribution of all the artists in the three Hermès Editeur editions has helped the brand to reinvent and modernise the tradition of handmade craft, otherwise disappearing, through the inspiration of art. 



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