Black in and out of favour
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