BIRTH OF THE BLUES

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

saac New­ton, the fa­ther of mod­ern op­tics, knew very well that the phe­nom­e­non of colour cor­re­sponds ob­jec­tively only to dif­fer­ences in what we would now call the wave­lengths of light re­flected from things in the world. Our per­cep­tual sys­tem codes th­ese wave­lengths into what we ex­pe­ri­ence as colour to help us make more sub­tle vis­ual dis­crim­i­na­tions, but what ac­tu­ally reaches our eyes is sim­ply dif­fer­ent quan­ti­ties of en­ergy.

Colour is per­haps the most eas­ily in­tel­li­gi­ble ex­am­ple of the gap be­tween the way that our senses per­ceive the world and the in­trin­sic na­ture of re­al­ity. And yet there are few sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ences, apart from smell, that have a more im­me­di­ate ef­fect on our moods and feel­ings, even be­fore we con­sider the pow­er­ful cul­tural as­so­ci­a­tions of colours.

But there are still more sur­pris­ing as­pects to our ex­pe­ri­ence of colour. For the past cen­tury and a half, schol­ars have been pon­der­ing the re­la­tion be­tween lan­guage — the range of words avail­able to name colours — and the hues that we ac­tu­ally see, or per­haps we should more ac­cu­rately say, con­sciously dis­tin­guish.

In 1858 Wil­liam Gladstone, later Lib­eral prime min­is­ter of Bri­tain, pub­lished an ex­ten­sive study of Homer and the Homeric world, point­ing out among other things that Homer’s vo­cab­u­lary of colours seemed strangely lim­ited. Black and white ap­pear fre­quently, red is rel­a­tively com­mon, but there seemed to be no word for yel­low nor, most strik­ingly, for the colour blue.

Whether this is ab­so­lutely cor­rect de­pends on how one is to understand the words kua­neos, from which we de­rive the word cyan, and which later meant dark blue, though it prob­a­bly sig­ni­fied black or sim­ply very dark to Homer, and glaukos, usu­ally thought of as blue­grey, like the eyes of the god­dess Athena, though per­haps orig­i­nally only bright. But the fact re­mains that Homer does not de­scribe ei­ther the sea or, even more sur­pris­ingly, the sky as blue even in the course of a story as ex­posed to both as the Odyssey.

Gladstone sus­pected — with bril­liant insight as it turned out — that Homer’s colour ter­mi­nol­ogy was es­sen­tially tonal. He in­spired an equally bril­liant con­tem­po­rary in Lazarus Geiger, who stud­ied other an­cient texts, in­clud­ing the Vedic hymns, the He­brew Bible and an­cient Chi­nese, and sim­i­larly found no trace of blue. But Geiger went fur­ther and in­ferred the or­der in which colour names ap­pear in the history of lan­guages.

In the age of Dar­win, Geiger was tempted to pos­tu­late that our ca­pac­ity for colour vi­sion had evolved phys­i­cally since an­cient times. Hugo Magnus de­vel­oped this sug­ges­tion into a the­ory of the evo­lu­tion of the eye that held sway un­til the early 20th cen­tury, when it grad­u­ally be­came clear that the phys­i­ol­ogy of per­cep­tion had not changed within recorded history and that the ex­pla­na­tion for the ap­par­ently slow de­vel­op­ment of colour ter­mi­nol­ogy and per­haps colour per­cep­tion was more likely to be found in cul­ture.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary in­tel­lec­tual ad­ven­ture and of­ten im­pas­sioned de­bates that be­gan with Gladstone’s ob­ser­va­tion were re­lated a few years ago in a fas­ci­nat­ing book by Guy Deutscher, Through the Lan­guage Glass (2010), which sets the ques­tion of lan­guage and colour per­cep­tion at the heart of broader de­bates about lan­guage and cul­ture, and ul­ti­mately about the ex­tent to which the struc­tures of lan­guage are de­ter­mined by na­ture or by cul­ture.

Geiger’s the­ory about the or­der in which colour names ap­pear in lan­guages was es­sen­tially con­firmed by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay in Ba­sic Colour Terms (1969), al­though they were prob­a­bly un­aware of his work. All lan­guages have words for black and white — prov­ing the pri­macy of tonal value — and the first proper colour to be named is al­ways red; the sec­ond is ei­ther yel­low or green and the third is the other of yel­low and green. This se­quence may in fact shed light on the Homeric word chloros, which seems to mean yel­low in some con­texts and green in oth­ers. Only af­ter all th­ese colours have been iden­ti­fied is blue fi­nally given a name. The late adop­tion of blue, and its per­haps resid­u­ally mar­ginal sta­tus, may be re­flected in the nat­u­ral history writ­ings of Pliny. Speak­ing of the great an- cient pain­ters of Greece 500 years be­fore his own time, he ob­serves that they re­stricted them­selves to four colours, which turn out to be the uni­ver­sally ear­li­est ones: black, white, red and yel­low.

This pas­sage in an au­thor who was widely read in the Re­nais­sance nat­u­rally caught the eye of con­tem­po­rary artists and the­o­rists, and al­though schol­ars dif­fer in their es­ti­ma­tion of its im­pact, it is hard not to be struck by the rel­a­tive and some­times com­plete ab­sence of blue in the late work of Ti­tian, para­dox­i­cally re­puted to be the great­est colourist of all.

Deutscher sug­gests, fol­low­ing Gladstone, that we name a colour only when we are ca­pa­ble of making a pig­ment to pro­duce that hue, and that once we have given it a name we are much more likely to per­ceive that hue in the world. The the­ory has an ap­peal­ing logic, rem­i­nis­cent of Benedetto Croce’s prin­ci­ple that we know what we make.

One ex­pla­na­tion for the univer­sal pri­macy of red from this point of view is that red pig­ments are the most uni­ver­sally ac­ces­si­ble in the form of nat­u­ral ochres and as such are used by tribal peo­ples all over the world. But the mo­ti­va­tion for want­ing to make red in the first place is un­doubt­edly its as­so­ci­a­tion with blood and life.

Blue, un­like red, is nei­ther easy to pro­duce as a pig­ment, nor com­mon as a colour in na­ture, nor as­so­ci­ated with any­thing vi­tal and vis­ceral like blood. There are, for ex­am­ple, many flow­ers and fruits that are red and very few that are blue.

The most no­table ex­cep­tion — though seem­ingly a very big one — is the blue sky, which should have been even more in­escapable to early peo­ple liv­ing al­most en­tirely out­doors. But Deutscher cites an ex­per­i­ment he did with his in­fant daugh­ter. He taught her the names of all the colours, in­clud­ing blue, and showed her ex­am­ples of them; all ex­cept the sky. When at length he asked her what colour the sky was, she was stumped at first, and fi­nally replied that it was white. Only af­ter a couple of months of

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