Sunday, February 01, 2009

Michel Pastoureau - Black: the history of a color

“Black” is a big book, with shiny high-quality paper and filled with beautiful reproductions of works of art. It screams coffee table book but it’s actually a work of erudition that spans the cultural meanings of this mesmerizing color from antiquity to modern times. It’s not a book you’ll want to read in bed or even in the couch (this puppy is heavy), but it will more than compensate you for the time you have to spend sitting at a table or desk (preferably propped up against something – the book, not you).

From holy men to Satanists black spans the width and breath of human history as a color most often associated with extremes: a princely color in the XVII century, synonymous with morality and integrity, it became the color of everyman in the end of the XIX, (after being rejected in the colorful haze of the XVIII, in French court fashion) and then the color of transgression and rebellion in the beginning of the XX century.

Black proved a tricky color for dyers – before the XVI century it was almost impossible to obtain a durable, deep black in fabric – but meaning already abounded around the color long before you could build your wardrobe around it. In antiquity it had been the color of darkness both in its life-forming, fertility and metamorphosis aspect as well as the frightening equivalent of death or evil. It was a complex shade filled with different, sometimes antagonistic meanings, which only became slowly equated with sin, Satan and suffering in the centuries after the Bible made the rounds in Europe.

Slowly it became the color of God’s nemesis and pulled into its evil realm just about anything that shared the color including cats, crows or the realm of the night such as wolfs and owls. The exceptions were monks who wore – not so much actual black but mostly dark habits - equated with humility.

As Pastoureau explains color is only color in opposition or combination with other colors and meaning is also (or always) tied in with these combinations. For instance, in medieval times the most often worn combination of colors was red and green, not a high contrast pair then. For a long time “black and white” was not the striking opposition we have seared into our minds today (white and red, was the most contrasting pair), a cultural modification that came about with the advent of the printing press and subsequent reproduction everywhere of black ink on white paper.

Is black even a color? I remember being excited learning in a “visual education” class (that’s what they called drawing/painting/geometry classes when I was ten) that black and white were not colors – rather the first was absence of color and the second the combination of all color. In fact, in mankind’s history this is a very recent theory imported from the Newtonian discovery of the light spectrum (the demotion of green from a primary to a secondary color also came about very late) and when you think about it quite silly.

Because colors, primary, secondary or whatever are cultural constructions first and foremost. Science must follow suit as Pastoureau demonstrates when he explains how black became a coveted color by kings and princes in the XVI century before dyers had found the best method of imprinting the color onto fabric – here, as in others instances, demand spurred on technology.

Today, black is the closest thing to a neutral shade – according to Pastoureau it is neither the most popular (blue) nor the least popular (yellow) hovering somewhere in the middle – it’s a safe color to wear, considered elegant and yet conservative, that retains only a whiff of its rebellious past . A teenage crush rather than an actual torrid love affair – isn’t black almost a naïve color in our days?

I think cultural perceptions of color are a fascinating subject but “Black” is a book that might please even those with only a marginal interest in color (who are those people?!). And you’ll keep going back just to look at the illustrations.


jenclair said...

The importance of color can never be underestimated. How interesting to make color almost a character in a narrative.

As a quilter, I've experimented with bleaching black (using a bleach pen or discharging paste) for effect. The results on different dye batches are so varied. I have one on my design board where the discharged areas are orange and almost glow in contrast to the areas left black. Quilters all have favorite "black" fabrics.

I'll look for this book at the library. Thanks for a great review.

bookworm said...

Thanks Jenclair

As an artist I think you might really like "Colour" by Victoria Finlay. I read some years ago - she travels to all the different places where the original pigments came from and explains the history too.