Black in and out of favour

Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

WHEN Vin­cent van Gogh was still looking for a way to paint that would match the way he felt, he re­flected on how, in Dutch paint­ing, ‘‘ one of the most beau­ti­ful things has been the paint­ing of black, which nev­er­the­less has light in it’’.

Had any­one been lis­ten­ing to poor Vin­cent at the time, it’s un­likely his in­sight would have prompted more than a po­lite nod. In fact, it might quite eas­ily have been taken as an em­bar­rass­ingly back­ward thing to re­mark on. Af­ter all, it came a full 20 years af­ter Camille Pis­sarro had de­clared that black and bi­tu­men should be out­lawed by ev­ery painter wor­thy of the name.

But van Gogh knew what he knew and, as usual, he was on to some­thing. Black has light in it. Light and white have black in them, too.

The French writer Jac­ques Audib­erti spoke about the ‘‘ se­cret black­ness’’ of milk. The Greek philoso­pher Anaxago­ras de­clared that ‘‘ snow com­posed of wa­ter is black, de­spite our eyes’’. ‘‘ In­deed,’’ added the great philoso­pher Gas­ton Bachelard, ‘‘ what credit would snow de­serve for be­ing white if its mat­ter were not black, if it did not come from the depths of its be­ing to crys­tallise into white­ness?’’

Un­sci­en­tific non­sense? Why cer­tainly. But such counter-in­tu­itive state­ments sug­gest at the very least that black, like ev­ery other colour, is a pro­foundly un­sta­ble phe­nom­e­non. The way we per­ceive it is af­fected not just phys­i­cally by the colours around it, the light in which it is seen and the sub­stances of which it par­takes, but by our imagination and by all the chang­ing con­ven­tions that de­ter­mine the way we see. Is black a colour at all? Yes, if we are to ac­cept at face value the ti­tle of Michel Pas­toureau’s book, Black: The His­tory of a Color .

Beau­ti­fully bound and un­usu­ally hand­some, the book suc­ceeds Blue: The His­tory of a Color , which was pub­lished in 2000, and is de­lib­er­ately ten­den­tious in this sense.

Pas­toureau wastes no time ex­plain­ing that for most of recorded his­tory black has been re­garded by Euro­pean so­ci­eties as a colour. There were only three cen­turies — the 17th, 18th and 19th — when it was cast out of the fam­ily of colours, an oc­cur­rence Pas­toureau at­tributes to the com­bined ef­fects of the Re­for­ma­tion, the in­ven­tion of print­ing and Isaac New­ton’s dis­cov­ery of the spec­trum ( which omit­ted black) in 1665-66.

But since about the beginning of the 20th cen­tury, black has re­claimed the sta­tus it en­joyed for so many mil­len­nia. To­day, the au­thor as­serts, ‘‘ it would be hard to find any­one’’ who does not grant black the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing a colour.

Pas­toureau com­bines a charm­ing, con­ver­sa­tional tone with a haugh­ti­ness I found en­tirely en­dear­ing. A di­rec­tor of stud­ies at the Ecole Pra­tique des Hautes Etudes at the Sor­bonne in Paris, he writes from a po­si­tion of pro­fes­so­rial con­fi­dence. He has con­ducted ex­ten­sive re­search into the his­tory of colour for a quar­ter cen­tury and his aim is to cor­rect mis­ap­pre­hen­sions and ban­ish ig­no­rance. His style is not to in­quire, ex­plore or in­ter­ro­gate, in the fash­ion of aca­demic stud­ies to­day. It is to im­part knowl­edge.

The is­sues of colour, he be­lieves, are ‘‘ cul­tural, strictly cul­tural’’. He points out, in a tone that bor­ders on ex­as­per­a­tion, that ideas about colour we take for granted to­day — the dis­tinc­tion be­tween pri­maries and com­ple­men­taries, for in­stance — sim­ply did not ex­ist for most of hu­man his­tory. In many cases they are pure con­ven­tion. In the Mid­dle Ages and dur­ing the Re­nais­sance, for in­stance, blue was con­sid­ered a warm colour, not a cool one. And the po­lar op­po­si­tion be­tween black and white we all ac­cept to­day was for many cen­turies a kind of trin­ity: black, white and red.

And yet Pas­toureau is hon­est enough to ad­mit that ‘‘ a few chro­matic ref­er­ences are en­coun­tered in al­most ev­ery so­ci­ety. They are not

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