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The Colorful Harry Wohlfarth


Harry Wohlfarth recalls the turn of chance that brought him to Edmonton: "It was a choice between Santiago in Chile and Edmonton. I was for Santiago because my Spanish was better, and I liked the warm climate better. My ex-wife liked the cold better. 'Okay; I said, 'there is only way to resolve this.' I took a matchbox and wrote 'Canada' on one side, 'Chile' on the other, flung it up into the air, and it came down 'Canada.' So I said, 'All right, Canada it is.

A German native, Wohlfarth had been pressed into service in that country's alpine corps during the Second World War, and was eager to distance himself from the squabbling and power-seeking that so regularly forced guns into the hands of European citizens. "After five generations of Wohlfarths either having their bones shot to pieces or being shot dead in those ridiculous wars, I said, 'My son is not going to ever wear a uniform if I can help it.'"

Now a University of Alberta professor who enjoys an international reputation as an artist and color scientist, Harry Wohlfarth was one of those Wohlfarths whose bones were "shot to pieces." He was injured in action four times-his left elbow still suffers from the damage inflicted by Russian machine gun fire — before the cessation of hostilities allowed him the peace to pursue his studies in art. After the War, he attended the art academy at Dresden and later went on to postgraduate studies under German expressionist Oskar Kokoschka in Salzburg. Then, prompted by political movements to remilitarize Germany, he decided to leave Europe. And he flung his matchbox into the air.

That was 33 years ago and Wohlfarth, who came to Edmonton to accept a position as a lecturer in the University's department of extension (now a faculty) is today enjoying his new status of professor emeritus of art, having retired from full-time duties in the extension faculty at the end of August. Looking back over more than three decades of teaching art in Alberta, he is able to point with pride to having never missed a single class and to having travelled the length and breadth of the Province, conducting art classes, judging art shows, and in other ways encouraging development of visual art and artists in Alberta. And being a confirmed non-car-owner, he did it all by bus: "one million miles on Greyhound, which saved the taxpayer at least $60,000 as compared to charging mileage-and kept me alive over one million miles of Alberta roads in winter," he says.

Wohlfarth and the Extension Faculty played a prominent role in establishing art classes and art schools throughout the Province on a scale which he describes as having "nothing equal anywhere in Canada, the States, or for that matter, anywhere else in the world." The structure so carefully set in place has proven durable. Says Professor Wohlfarth: "This network of classes based on clubs is still alive in the Alberta Community Art Classes Association, a society registered with the government and carrying on the tradition, working in close co-operation with the Faculty of Extension."

Wohlfarth's contributions to art education in Alberta are remarkable enough in themself; they are even more so when one considers that at the same time he was able to establish an international reputation as an artist, make important contributions to the understanding of early Renaissance painting, and conduct pioneering research to give an empirical basis to the study of color psychodynamics.


Blessed with a photographic memory, Wohlfarth is able to vividly recall his birth as an artist. Perhaps the hand of fate that would one day guide the matchbox flung into the air was already at work, for his first work pointed to this continent. "It was the profile portrait of a North American Indian. I had never seen an Indian in my life, but from what I remember, it was quite correct, except for the chin, which was a European chin rather than an Indian chin. I even had the feather going down not, as you might expect from a four-year-old, sticking up."

In the early 1960s, Professor Wohlfarth's art was catapulted into the international arena with his discovery of "high frequency color kinetics". The discovery had its genesis in a chance observation, recalls the professor "In the studio, suddenly I saw two colors almost physically move." He soon decided to take a half-year leave of absence to go to Mexico to fully explore the phenomenon, choosing Mexico because of an interest in that country's tradition of mural painting, and he studied there under Pinto, who had closely collaborated with Signeiros on some of the famous Mexican murals. Wohlfarth's investigations of the moving-color phenomenon resulted in a 90-page thesis entitled Principles and Functions of Kinetics and High Frequency Color Kinetics. He also produced a thesis exhibition based on the principles he had elucidated.

Wohlfarth has described the color kinetic effect as being "like an atomic chain reaction." It is derived from the afterimage created by bright colors — look at a bright red object for a few seconds, transfer your gaze to a blank white space and you will see a green after image of the red object (green being the complementary color of red). By careful choice and positioning of colors, Wohlfarth was able to exploit this phenomenon to the point where adjacent colors, reinforcing each other over and over again, would become so vivid that they would appear to actually move.

He explored this at-times-brutal effect in a series of paintings depicting the human female form using simple, hard-edge shapes without apparent dimension or depth. (Appropriately enough, the first canvasses featured go-go girls.) This work, so reflective of the times, captured wide attention. In the introduction to a one-man Wohlfarth exhibition in Rome in 1970, Professor E.W. Kemp of the University of Alberta expressed his view that high-frequency color kinetic expressionism was "an iconological form expressive of our way of life and its de-personalizing effects."

The 1970 Rome exhibition was sponsored by the Tiberian Academy of Rome (the former Royal Italian Academy) which that year presented its Great Gold Medal to Harry Wohlfarth "for outstanding achievements in the field of fine arts." He was only the fifth person to receive the gold medal in that field in the 150-year history of the Academia Tiberina. That recognition was only the first of many honors — and six gold medals — that he would receive in Rome.

Six years ago, Wohlfarth received an honor of another sort: he was the first modern North American artist to have his works shown in Moscow. Thirty of his paintings — 20 featuring old Moscow scenes and contemporary cityscapes of the Soviet capital and 10 Canadian prairie landscapes — were shown at the Moscow State Gallery in a July exhibition opened on Canada Day, 1980.

Cityscapes are a particular interest of Wohlfarth's but people have been the major inspiration for his art, he says, describing the human female figure as the "central pillar of my artistic work and my artistic interest." Even the attraction cities have for him relates to the human character they evoke. "Cities, like people, are very individual characters. Each one is different. No two are really alike," he says.

Wohlfarth has also turned his brush to landscapes, and while he is best known as a painter, he is also an accomplished sculptor. In fact, Edmontonians have probably encountered Wohlfarth most often through his sculptures: a pioneer of heroic proportions is installed at the Provincial Museum, a gift to the people of Alberta from the German-Canadian Association of Alberta; a boy astride a horse is placed in the Shoctor Lobby of the Citadel Theatre; and his bust of Chopin is a familiar sight in the lobby of the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium. Another of his commissioned works is a portrait of the Honourable O.L. (Tony) Macpherson, former Alberta speaker of the house, which hangs in the Legislative Building, Edmonton.


On April 14, 1985, Harry Wohlfarth, age 63, set foot on the geographic North Pole. The temperature with windchill was -94 degrees Celsius. To mark the achievement, the professor of extension planted his ice axe in the frost. To it were attached the flags of Canada, Alberta, West Germany, and the University of Alberta. He also sipped French champagne in a toast to success. "It feels great to stand on top of the world!" say his notes on the expedition. "Great" is underlined.

Wohlfarth was part of a nine-person expedition that was successful in making a "daredevil" landing at the Pole using a Twin Otter aircraft. His notes tell of the danger: "A Twin Otter needs 52 inches of ice thickness to make a safe landing... The pilots try to judge the ice by color. Brown ice means safe. Green or blue ice is judged too thin. However it really is not until you land, when you actually find out..."

Indeed, his group's first attempt at a polar landing had to be aborted. "We landed with a terrific thump. The ice had broken. The plane pulled up just in time.

It was not the first time that Wohlfarth had courted danger in search of artistic inspiration. In 1967 as a personal Centennial project he climbed a peak in the Rockies and was pleased to discover that his injured elbow did not seriously impede him. Since then he has climbed mountains in Africa and Asia as well as in North America and Europe. In 1982 he scaled two peaks in the vicinity of Everest, missing a third when he developed pneumonia at 5,583 metres.

For Wohlfarth the artist, the Himalayan and North Pole adventures revealed "the serenity and almost cruel grandeur and magnificence of some parts of our planet which not too many people are privileged to experience." However, he puts himself in the path of danger not only for artistic inspiration but also to test himself. (Although that may very well be but another window to the reality which he transfigures in his art.) Wohlfarth explains his penchant for danger as "a desire to find out, a desire to see how far your limits can be stretched to overcome your own fears and weaknesses... a way to be brutally honest with yourself as often as you can. On a mountain — or on an expedition — your real character comes out blatantly. There is no hiding, because under those exaggerated circumstances all pretense falls off and the raw you is there-not only for you to see, but also for everybody else who is around you. This is sometimes frightening, it is very often sobering, but I think it is in general very healthy."

Healthy it well may be, but it is, after all, dangerous, and Harry Wohlfarth will not be climbing any mountains in the near future. This past summer, extensive pulmonary investigations revealed that he froze part of his lungs on the North Pole expedition. His doctors are hopeful that some of the damaged tissue will be regenerated in a few years, but until then he will continue to have difficulty breathing-especially uphill. "As far as climbing is concerned, I'm completely grounded." he laments.


Red is the color Wohlfarth associates with himself these days. According to the theories of Swiss color psychologist Max Liischer, the "red" person is self-confident and lively. Not, however, as lively as the "yellow" person, the real go-go individual on the color spectrum.

Yellow used to be the color he favored, says Wohlfarth. With reference to the work of Lüscher, he speculates that the change likely coincides with the advent of his later years. "In my 30s and 40s I probably was relatively active and agressive. Those are usually the years in which you try to prove yourself — until finally you manage to do it, at which time you become quite sure of yourself. With the change in your character — which is not such a fundamental change —- a change in color preference might coincide."

Wohlfarth's entry into the realm of empirical science is intimately tied to the color theories of Lüscher, a professor at the University of Lucerne and the developer of the now-famous Lüscher Color Personality Test. In 1952, Wohlfarth came across Lüscher's work on the psychology of color and was impressed. "I said 'Marvellous. . . for the first time somebody really did a scholarly piece of work on color.' However, I still thought that you can't really go around and say that red, green, blue, yellow has this and that effect on people without having hard facts and figures to prove it."

Once settled in Alberta, Wohlfarth devoted himself to providing such facts and figures. And "devoted" is not too strong a word. In the course of his experiments he even went so far as to subject himself to 177 blisters to investigate the effect of color on healing. He found that concentrating on yellow seemed to speed healing the most. The results were suggestive but not conclusive because there weren't enough of them. But for Wohlfarth 177 blisters were plenty.

Less painful research involved nearly 200 volunteers who stared for five minutes at a colored card calibrated using a standard color scale. Before and twice after, various measurements of pulse, blood pressure and respiration were made. To counter external stimuli, the subjects used gloves and earplugs. Based on this and similar research, Wohlfarth was able to show that there is indeed an effect of color on the autonomic nerve system, and this was both measurable and predictable. Red, orange and yellow stimulated the autonomic nerve system in the order of red (minimum), orange (medium) and yellow (maximum). A depressive effect was found in the sequence of green (minimum), blue (medium), and black (maximum).

For the first time (1955), the effect of color on humans — much speculated about in psychology, literature and myth — was empirically demonstrated. ("I must say that wherever I have had a chance to look for experimental verification, Lüscher has been right so far," says Wohlfarth.)

The next step was to put the knowledge about the effects of color to practical use, and Wohlfarth has done so with interesting results. Over the years, he has put theory into practice many times. He has color designed a dental clinic, several juvenile correctional institution complexes, and a private school for dependent handicapped children. In each case the results have been well worth the effort.

Particularly spectacular were the results at the school for handicapped children, Elves Memorial Child Development Centre in Edmonton. When a room was repainted to fit a prescribed and carefully co-ordinated color scheme, the children's agressive behavior decreased and diastolic blood pressure went down. When the room was returned to the original colors, the effects disappeared.

Perhaps the most unexpected result at Elves was the fact that the blind children exhibited the same physiological reactions as the other students. Not so startling, says Professor Wohlfarth, citing the innovative work done by A.S. Novomeysky of the U.S.S.R. According to the Soviet scientist, every visible color seems to have an invisible double in a distant infra-red field, and these invisible radiations, perceived by dermo-optic receptors, cause a variety of sensations effecting not only biological processes but mental and motor activity as well. Professor Wohlfarth holds that the relationship between wave length and color explain the "blind student phenomenon."

Wohlfarth's work at Elves led to a major ($500,000) study sponsored by Alberta Education which involved four schools in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. One school had standard lighting and a traditional color scheme, another had lighting and paint color co-ordinated psychodynamically, a third had changes to lighting only (changed to full-spectrum flourescent), and the fourth had changes to color only.

For one year the 700 students attending the four schools underwent an extensive series of tests to monitor changes in a variety of realms: IQ, academic performance, blood pressure, noise, illness, mood, aggression, and even dental health.

The project results have recently been published. The most statistically significant findings point to the benefits of the improved lighting — including fewer absences and a reduction in dental caries. Wohlfarth also found trends which supported his belief in the influential power of color. He says that at the two "color" schools, students tended to be less disruptive, more academically productive and absent less often. He even found some indication of possible IQ improvement.

"There are far-reaching implications to the work that we are doing," he says. "We may well have found a very lowcost tool that can have a tremendously positive influence on children's learning.


He is the president of the International Academy of Color Sciences, based in Berlin, a consulting staff member of the Institute for Psychobiological Studies at California State University, and a frequent lecturer in a variety of countries, but Wohlfarth is content to remain in Edmonton, where chance brought him those 30-odd years ago.

"Whenever people ask me which cities I like best, I usually say Venice, Rome, London and Edmonton — which of course gets a laugh. But it's the climate: I love the sun. I couldn't stand even a decent climate somewhere where it was always overcast. I would rather get my ass nipped in sunshine. Here, even when it's -20 or -30 and you see a blue sky, it's not so bad."

Published Winter 1986.

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