Walter, Walker, Water and Beige

“Deserts possess a particular magic, since they have exhausted their own futures, and are thus free of time. Anything erected there, a city, a pyramid, a motel, stands outside time. It’s no coincidence that religious leaders emerge from the desert. Modern shopping malls have much the same function. A future Rimbaud, Van Gogh or Adolf Hitler will emerge from their timeless wastes.”
—J.G. Ballard

Walter could have never imagined that he would end up in the desert. The hostile, arid land and environment that wraps his life now was not part of the home plans. Unbearable. This close-to-nowhere spot, the Mojave Mountains as the unique inescapable view would have literally repulsed him in an earlier part of his life. There he was now, painting his green trailer in camouflage colour, beige and brown, fixing his windmill, the only production of energy that he could handle in the very basic conditions he had chosen to live in. Away from all, the desert, outlaw land par excellence.

What other place on earth would welcome such a man? Only the pure sunsets of the Mojave skies were capable of dealing with the anger and secret zones of his life. Painting, this was a very calm occupation for Walter, applying his camouflage beige patiently on the corrugated metal sheets of his consumed trailer. The nights brought peace as well, pitch-black sky, where the dynamic sight of high density of stars over his head constituted his contemplative drug. Every now and then, the possibility of spotting a travelling UFO.

Beige is an odd colour. Not really considered as a colour, somewhere close to white but with a clear lack of personality. Beige is something like Grey, both colours sharing a distant parenthood. One could say that grey and beige are the two sides of the same coin. Still, beige is a bastard colour.

The only way for beige to exist properly is being outrageously big.

This is one of the rare things in life that achieves strength, character, even a sort of an attitude through quantity. Dry earth, in a vast extension has the power of the beige. It becomes overwhelming, monumental, non-dimensional. It takes over everything. In this extended form, you can’t win against beige. This is the revenge of the bastard son, empowered uniquely by an enormous grow that can take over everything.

The desert is, of course, the most striking experience of the beige.

Walter was born in the small town of Bedford Iowa, in a Christian community where religion occupied an important place in everyday life. His mother, Diane, a humble local woman married early to Walker, who found death in Germany during World War II. Walter never met his father. His name was given to him as a tribute to his father’s name, being quite similar but not exactly the same as his father wanted to break with the naming tradition of the family. Hence it was done, maintaining the likeness of the names, in order to still be recognised as his father’s only son. Walker and Walter, just one letter apart. Before the war Walker had been a photographer, a photojournalist considered as well as an artist in his own. A master of the image. He travelled extensively through the lands of inner United States, documenting thoroughly the people, architecture and landscapes of American country life.

At the age of 24, during one of his many trips to the Californian desert, he felt the need to radically transform his life. This did not come out of the blue. It was provoked by an encounter that could be seen as very simple one, and it was indeed. But Walker lived it as a transitional moment, as a revelation that placed his life in a crucial turning point. The event, if one can designate it as such, occurred one night in a bar of the small town of 29 Palms, The Virginian. The Marines of the nearby military base (an important one hosting over 15’000 soldiers) come to such bars in order to drown in alcohol their past and future missions. Walker was invited, by two young marines to engage in a pool game, which he did. Being quite lonely in his photographic journeys, he easily accepted company. His two new companions were obviously at an advanced level of inebriety, which allowed him to win the game without much effort. The youngsters, who actually had roughly the same age of Walker, ended up being quite friendly, inviting to pursue the drinking with some tequila shots. Nothing else was to be recorded of this simple moment, just a very typical night in a small town.

Walter was told, though, that this moment of shared friendship, imbued with the charm of the townsmen and a certain feel of sadness in the marine’s faces, was the pulley for a 180 degrees transformation in Walker’s life. It opened the unexpected door to military life. From being a progressive thinker and a peculiar artist of the image he evolved from one second to the next into a patriotic an engaged military of the United States troops. A few years later after this gracious moment, Walker was found dead in Weimar, Germany, it was the 1st of April 1943, less than two months away of the birth of Walter.

Although Walter was told the story at many of the family gatherings with a great level of detail (as it usually happens, the details tend to grow with time, and the part of family fiction tends to merge with the actual facts), he felt strange about the whole legend. He developed with time a sense of detachment, his heart telling him that there was some sort of element lacking in the connexion between his father and himself. And he was right.

The real truth of this life was indeed quite different, truly sorrowful. He was as a matter of fact the rejected son of no other than Johannes Itten. A Swiss well-known artist educated to art between Geneva and Bern, Itten lived a second life that started at the Bauhaus period and ended with the birth of Walter, on the 30th of May 1943. Aside from his mastership at the Bauhaus, he was also the leader of what became an esoteric group that grew rapidly after the closure of the Weimar Bauhaus in 1933.

The immutable faith of the Bauhaus master in the impact of colours in all scopes of our life brought him to believe passionately that the pigmented environment in which one evolves shape humans in a definite way. He studied and developed a scientific believe by which one’s identity was determined by the coloured background of one’s life. He described himself and his work as a colour behaviourist, studying human behaviour and the social relation among people uniquely through the perspective of colour.

He founded then his community in 1932, The Community of the Ghost Drop, named thus after what he thought best represents the reflexion of light and the whole range of colours through the rainbow rays: a drop of water, the ephemeral appearance of colour filtered by the pure and transparent liquid.

Within the community he started a series of life experimentations, submitting himself and his pupils to long exposures of colour environments that he specifically designed (clothing, colour rooms, objects, view devices of all kind, contemplation paintings, etc.). The purpose of these investigations was to analyse the evolution of the identity of the “patients” submitted to a rigorous life in colours.

Johannes’s frustration with the results of these intense and continuous tests would lead him to an ultimate experiment. The outcomes before this last experience were never conclusive, or at least not at the height of his convictions and expectations. During the large range and time of the experimentations the Identities of the members of the community truly evolved and altered indeed. But the insularity of the group was probably as much an important cause as the colour sessions and colour regime to which all the members participated regularly. Itten was convinced that the only way to go further with his global theory was to practise the colour on a new-born and to condition the birth and the genitors by a precise colour training preceding the delivery.

The only way to maximize the chances of success of such an ambitions endeavour was for the master to be the protagonist, the subject of the whole operation. He accepted thus to become a father of a new colour creature, and believed that he or she would be the first member of a new kind of man. Procreation came after a whole year of preparation. He designed a complete colour environment, covering all aspects and moments of his life (by then his life had become quite sober and rigid with a restricted number of activities per day) and immersed himself into a colour world completely and rigorously thought. It was a living experiment, the result of all the years of research and engagement. It meant everything for him.

The last two months before the moment of conception he pushed the experience as far as he thought he could go and locked himself in an integral cyan environment: floor, walls, ceiling painted by himself with pigment that he had developed explicitly for the occasion.

By this time (march 1943) the students of the Ghost Drop fellowship had grown into a strong community and their own insularity pushed them naturally to migrate from Germany to Switzerland (they lived on the site of Monte Verità, one the few sites of the world who could accept them) and finally to the south of Spain, where they actually moved at the beginning of 1943 to prepare the birth of Johannes’ child. The community settled then in a vast property that they had been able to purchase, in the outskirts of a small provincial town named Cadiz. Cadiz was close to perfection as a conditioning environment: soft climate throughout the year, perfect blue skies and the proximity of the ocean were important ingredients to the exterior life of the community.

Cadiz had e quite strange atmosphere and population since it mixed the typical southern Spanish population to an important amount of American marines that lived in a base near the town, by the ocean. This strangeness pleased Johannes. It made the place genuine yet with a strong sense of non-existence: the ocean, the white simple architecture, the omnipresence of blue, and the improbable blend of Andalousians with Americans.

It is in such place where Johannes Itten located the room where he spent the last two months before conception and where the woman who would infant Walter would spend the 9 months of pregnancy. A Spanish native named Maria, she had joined the community in Monte Verità, a few years before and returned to Spain with the group for the event of the birth, event that had turned out to be, within the community, an almost mystical moment.

The room presented very few features. The design of it was influenced by traditional Japanese architecture (Itten had visited the Katsura House when he was a master at the Bauhaus an was impressed by the sobriety of the architecture and the rituality necessary to living in such spaces), the slipping mattress being carved into the ground so there was no difference of the floor level and the bed. The mattress and all bed cloths were evidently all dyed in the very same tint that the rest of the room. The only view outside could be reached through a square window, located at the southwest wall of the room. The window was neither small nor big, a square of 124 cm. It overlooked the blue ocean but was thought out primarily to be in connection with the sky, thus placed at a height of 136 cm. Johannes located a bench at the opposite side of the window, quite low (around 16 cm. over the floor) so he could have the right angle to reach the blue of the sky and be bathed by it. The bench was of a singular shape. He made it himself of concrete and actually left it in its original material colour, cement grey. It is still a bit of a mystery why he did this, why he did not tint the concrete bench. It is generally said that this was an old reflex of his Bauhaus years, maintaining the idea that a material is best used when it stays true to its nature. The shape of the bench was that of a salt crystal, this being more comprehensible as the crystals, through reflection could be mediators of colours.

Walter was conceived and born in that all-over environment, wrapped in meditation, colour, and the community. He was named after his old master, Walter Gropius. Despite the fact that Itten had not approved the evolution of the Bauhaus and therefore resigned, he still respected profoundly the ideas and philosophy of Gropius. The expectations of the master were logically at the highest level. But Johannes’ hopes for the wonder child collapsed quite rapidly.

Walter’s environment had been carefully prepared, designed, and for the two first years of his life he lived in specific fully coloured rooms. These were developed following Itten’s researches on colour but also his deep knowledge of Froebel methods on child development (Friedrich Froebel had been an important figure in the life of Itten). The first year he passed from red to blue and yellow spaces, experimenting the primary colours. The second year all the range of the rainbow formed his world, with some combinations to which he was exposed every now and then. The third year was the year of failure. During the 12 months of this year Walter was able to make choices, to occupy whichever room he wanted, having the whole palette at his disposal. Itten had by then invested all his fortune, everything he materially owned on this experiment and transformed the southern Spanish house into an accumulation of coloured rooms with a complex light system accompanying the colour compositions. To the 12 rooms corresponding 12 colours of his palette he added the fatal 13th, Beige.

The idea of Itten was actually to prove that beige was a harmful colour, one that contradicted his whole theory as a non-colour, never to be practised on any human being. Beige was evil; any human would intuitively be repulsed by it. Consequently a beige environment would deviate the behaviour of a growing child towards a sombre or dark side of his personality.

He placed the beige room in the middle of the other rooms, to confront his son to this destructive environment and corroborate (at least he thought so) his theories on colour development.

From the moment that the beige room appeared Walter never left it. It actually became the only place where he would stay day and night; he played, eat, and slept in the sinful room. To the despair of his father, Walter seemed a perfectly happy kid, socially adapted as he interacted quite vividly with many members of the community, bright and quick in the general development of his intelligence. Overall, he passed the first year of his life as a joyful little boy, who continued, for almost the entire year, to grow in beige.

Johannes was in despair. The entire of his devotion to colour theory, to human development through colour assimilation and condition stumbled down within a short year, and his son, Walter was the carrier of this enormous burden. For quite some months Johannes tried everything he could to bring his child to what he thought would be the right path to his development, but Walter continued to stay in beige, to live the entireness of his existence in that hated space, happily smiling to whoever would visit and spend some time with him.

Johannes despair transformed very rapidly into anger and he changed his creative and generally peaceful and contemplative attitude to become a dark man, filled with anger and aggressive behaviour towards anyone around him.

He refused to take care of this experimental child and left Maria do everything. But Maria had never been a real mother to his infant. She had “lent” her body to the experience by devotion to his master but this had absolutely nothing to do with love, neither for his master nor for Walter. She was nevertheless lucid enough to know that Walter had to go away before his father could go too far, either with his experimentations (getting by then a bit out of hand) or with moments of anger which were quickly deteriorating into violence.

She took care of everything and contacted the American base of Cadiz, California. She found out, asking to the Spanish military base members, that there was another small transitional base in California, in the Mojave Desert and that coincidentally the unincorporated town’s name was Cadiz as well. It was a space through which confidential troops would transit before reaching the 29 Palms Base. She thought that this was a good sign for the child’s future, going from Cadiz to Cadiz. In no time, the problem could be solved. Walter could be sent to the United States of America and be adopted by a new family. The military would take care of the transportation and he would be sent to 29 Palms, the biggest and most sophisticated military American base from which the adoption could be worked out. And that is how Walter engaged, at the age of 3, in a journey that would dictate most definitely the fate of his life, a life in beige.

Menpebah Aoioldn
Brother of the Ghost Drop Community from 1935 to 1950