Black: The History of a Colorby Michel Pastoureau
Blackfavorite color of priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascistshas always stood for powerfully opposed ideas: authority and humility, sin and holiness, rebellion and conformity, wealth and poverty, good and bad. In this beautiful and richly illustrated book, the acclaimed author of Blue now tells the/i>… See more details below
Blackfavorite color of priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascistshas always stood for powerfully opposed ideas: authority and humility, sin and holiness, rebellion and conformity, wealth and poverty, good and bad. In this beautiful and richly illustrated book, the acclaimed author of Blue now tells the fascinating social history of the color black in Europe.
In the beginning was black, Michel Pastoureau tells us. The archetypal color of darkness and death, black was associated in the early Christian period with hell and the devil but also with monastic virtue. In the medieval era, black became the habit of courtiers and a hallmark of royal luxury. Black took on new meanings for early modern Europeans as they began to print words and images in black and white, and to absorb Isaac Newton's announcement that black was no color after all. During the romantic period, black was melancholy's friend, while in the twentieth century black (and white) came to dominate art, print, photography, and film, and was finally restored to the status of a true color.
For Pastoureau, the history of any color must be a social history first because it is societies that give colors everything from their changing names to their changing meaningsand black is exemplary in this regard. In dyes, fabrics, and clothing, and in painting and other art works, black has always been a forcefuland ambivalentshaper of social, symbolic, and ideological meaning in European societies.
With its striking design and compelling text, Black will delight anyone who is interested in the history of fashion, art, media, or design.
R. M. Davis
Nicholas A. Basbanes
Praise for Michel Pastoureau's Blue: "Pastoureau's text moves us through one fascinating area of activity after another. . . . The jacket, cover and end-papers of this luscious book are appropriately blue; its double-columned text breathes easily in the space of its pages; it is so well sewn it opens flat at any place; and fascinating, aptly chosen color plates, not confined to the title color, will please even those eyes denied the good luck of being blue.
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2009
"Who would have thought the history of a single color could be so fascinating? Black: The History of a Color, by Michel Pastoureau, (Princeton University Press, $35) proceeds chronologically from cave painting to modern fashion and focuses on mythology, heraldry, religion, science and painting along the way. The author, a historian at the Sorbonne, narrates developments in the material, aesthetic and sociological dimensions of the color black with infectious, wide-ranging curiosity and easy-going erudition. After this you'll want to read his previous book, from the same publisher, Blue: The History of a Color."Ken Johnson, New York Times
Praise for Michel Pastoureau's Blue: "Pastoureau's text moves us through one fascinating area of activity after another. . . . The jacket, cover and end-papers of this luscious book are appropriately blue; its double-columned text breathes easily in the space of its pages; it is so well sewn it opens flat at any place; and fascinating, aptly chosen color plates, not confined to the title color, will please even those eyes denied the good luck of being blue."William H. Gass, author of Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review
"This handsome, strikingly designed, richly illustrated book traces the history of the color black in Europe. . . . Like his earlier Blue, this book is well researched, skillfully written, and a pleasure to read."R. M. Davis, Choice
"Michael Pastoureau, in Black: The History of a Color, sees the rise of puritanism and Protestantism as the war of the coloursa war against vivid colour that black usually won. . . . He has a terrific story to tell, and a multitude of gorgeous images to help tell it."Robert Fulford, The National Post
"Black is a penetrating, erudite, thoughtfully illustrated cultural history of a color, by Michel Pastoureau, an author whose earlier work has includedsurprise, surpriseBlue."Nicholas A. Basbanes, The Worcester Telegram & Gazette
"French popular art historian Pastoureau here tackles one of the most complex and interesting colours, the favourite of 'priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists.' This social history is lavishly illustrated with paintings, movie stills, photo portraits and fashion shoots."The Globe & Mail
"Until I came upon Michel Pastoureau's 2000 book Blue: The History of a Color it had never occurred to me colors had a history. Turns out they do, and tracking the significance first of blue, now black, provides a satisfyingly fresh angle of approach to the past."Frtiz Lanham, The Houston Chronicle
"What is interesting in sociological histories like Pastoureau's is their revelations about how cultural attitudes change. Black's connection with death began as early as ancient Egypt, when people left black stones on funeral pyres, not in a ghoulish way but as a symbol of rebirth (the Egyptian death divinity, Anubis, was painted black). . . . But this book will have you seeing black in more shades than you imagined."Victor Swoboda, The Montreal Gazette
"The author of more than a dozen art history books, Pastoureau's work is accessible, generous and witty. What's more, like all good illustrated books, this one is has more than 150 pictures in support of its superb text."Marc Horton, The Edmonton Journal
"Now Princeton University Press has published a social history of this most allusive of hues, Black: The History of a Color, by Michel Pastoureau, a French scholar and author of a similarly titled history of the color blue. Both are lavishly illustrated coffee table books that follow their colors down the time line of European history."John Zeaman, Design NJ Magazine
"This erudite and elegantly written exploration of the history of black charts its changing symbolism and shades of meaning as a colour of death and rebirth, of religious authority and evil, of luxury and poverty."Fiona Capp, The Age (Australia)
"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."Sebastian Smee, The Australian
"As the handsomely produced book demonstrates, black is the colour of the pigment used to draw the great bull of Lascaux, of evil, the devil, funerals, the fecundity of the Earth, bears, crows, hell, half the pieces on a chess board, Satan, heretics and priests alike, mysterious cats and, in the 12th century, the mantle of Mary, the mother of Jesus."Sydney Morning Herald
"[T]his book . . . reads quite naturally as English . . . and it has something worthwhile to say in a style that is informative rather than aimed mostly at enhancing the reputation of the writer among his academic peers. . . There is much valuable information about the history of dying in different periods and the fashionability of the color black among the nobility and upper classes (later the wealthy merchant class) of Europe."Colin Blogs
Praise for Michel Pastoureau's Blue: "A generous, gorgeous book full of nearly 100 historical and artistic plates, all illustrating the meaning and role of the color blue in Western history. . . . Pastoureau has created something rare: a coffee table book that is also a good read. And not just a good read, but a compelling read."Brian Bouldrey, Chicago Tribune
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Black: The History of a Color
By Michel Pastoureau
Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Introduction Many decades ago, at the beginning of the last century, or even in the 1950s, the title of the present book might have surprised some readers unaccustomed to considering black a true color. That is certainly not the case today; it would be hard to find anyone anymore who does not grant it that distinction. Black has reclaimed the status it possessed for centuries, indeed even for millennia-that of a color in its own right and even a major pole in all the color systems. Like its counterpart, white, to which it has nevertheless not always been linked, black gradually lost its status as a color between the end of the Middle Ages and the seventeenth century: The advent of printing and the engraved image-black ink on white paper-gave these two colors a peculiar position, which first the Protestant Reformation and then the progress of science finally established to be outside the world of colors. When Isaac Newton discovered the spectrum in the years 1665-66, he presented a new order of colors in which henceforth there would no longer be a place for white or black. This marked a true chromatic revolution.
Thus for almost three centuries black and white were considered and experienced as "noncolors," even seeming to form their own universe as opposed to the one of colors: "in black and white" on one side, "in color" on the other. In Europe, a dozen generations were familiar with that opposition, and even if it is not really accepted anymore it also does not really surprise us. Nevertheless, our sensibilities have changed. Beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century, artists were the first to gradually return to black and white the status of authentic colors that had been theirs until the late Middle Ages. Men of science followed, even if physicists long remained reluctant to attribute chromatic properties to black. The general public eventually joined in, so much so that today in our social codes and daily lives we have hardly any reason to oppose the world of color to the world of black and white. Here and there a few vestiges of the old distinction remain (photography, cinema, newspapers, publishing). Thus the title of this book is in no way a mistake or a provocation. Nor does it seek to echo the famous exhibition organized by the Maeght Gallery in Paris at the end of 1946, an exhibition that proclaimed with a kind of insolence that "black is a color." It was not only a matter of attracting public and media attention with a catchy slogan, but also an affirmation of a position different from the one taught in the fine arts schools and proclaimed in academic treatises on painting. Perhaps four and a half centuries after the fact, the featured painters wanted to respond to Leonardo da Vinci, the first artist to proclaim, as early as the late fifteenth century, that black was not truly a color.
"Black is a color": today such a claim has once again become an obvious fact, almost a platitude; the real provocation would be to affirm the opposite. But that is not the domain of the present work. Its title does not echo the 1946 exhibition or even the words of the illustrious Leonardo, but more modestly the title of a previous book, published in 2000 by the same publisher: Blue: The History of a Color. The good reception that it received, as much among the academic community as the general public, prompted me to devote a similar work to the color black. The furthest thing from my mind, however, is the idea of undertaking a complete series that would attempt, volume by volume, to trace the history of each of the six "basic" colors of Western culture (white, red, black, green, yellow, blue), and then the five "second rank" colors (gray, brown, purple, pink, orange). Such an enterprise, made up of parallel monographs, would have little significance. A color never occurs alone; it only takes on meaning, only fully "functions" from the social, artistic, and symbolic perspectives, insofar as it is associated with or opposed to one or many other colors. By the same token, it is impossible to consider a color in isolation. To speak of black, as you will read in the pages that follow, is also-necessarily-to speak of white, red, brown, purple, and even of blue. Hence the repetition with regard to the work I devoted to the history of that last color. I must be excused for what could not have been otherwise. For a long time, blue, an unobtrusive and unpopular color, remained a sort of "sub-black" in the West or a black of a particular kind. Thus the histories of these two colors can hardly be separated, no more than they can be separated from the history of other colors. If, as my publisher hopes, a third volume were to follow the first two (red? green?), undoubtedly it would be constructed around the same set of problems, and its inquiries would draw from the same documentary sources.
Such studies, which appear (but only appear) to be monographs, would ideally constitute the building blocks of an edifice that I have been busy constructing for nearly four decades: the history of colors in European societies from Roman antiquity to the eighteenth century. Even if I necessarily look beyond and before these two periods, that is the chronological segment-already very large-in which my core subject is located. Likewise, I will limit my remarks to European societies because for me the issues of color are, first of all, social issues. As a historian I am not competent to speak of the entire planet and have no taste for compiling, third- or fourthhand, studies conducted by other researchers on cultures outside Europe. So as not to write nonsense and not to plagiarize the works of others, I am restricting myself to what I know and have made the subject of my teaching at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales for a quarter century.
Attempting to construct a history of colors, even one limited to Europe, is not an easy exercise. In fact, it is a particularly difficult task, which historians, archaeologists, and art historians (including those whose field is painting!) have refused to undertake until recently. The difficulties are myriad. It is worth mentioning them here because they are fully part of the subject and help to explain the inequalities that exist between what we know and do not know. Here more than elsewhere there is no real boundary between history and historiography. For the moment, let us stay with the history itself of the color black and consider a few of these difficulties. Despite their diversity, they can be grouped into three categories.
The first group involves documentation; on monuments, works of art, objects, and images transmitted to us from centuries past, we see colors not in their original state but as time has made them. This work of time-whether due to the chemical evolution of the colorant materials or to the actions of humans, who over the course of the centuries paint and repaint, modify, clean, varnish, or remove this or that layer of color set down by preceding generations-is in itself a historical document. That is why I am always suspicious of laboratories, now with very elaborate technical means and sometimes very flashy advertising, that offer to "restore" colors, or worse to return them to their original state. Inherent here is a scientific positivism that seems to me at once vain, dangerous, and at odds with the task of the historian. The work of time is an integral part of our research. Why renounce it, erase it, destroy it? The historical reality is not only what it was in its original state, but also what time has made of it. Let us not forget that and let us not restore rashly.
Also we must not forget that today we see the works, images, and colors of the past in lighting conditions very different from those experienced by the societies of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the modern period. The torch, the oil lamp, the candle produce light different from what electricity provides. That is an obvious fact as well, and yet what historian takes it into account? Forgetting it sometimes leads to absurdities. Let us think, for example, of the recent restoration of the vaults of the Sistine Chapel and the considerable efforts on the part of the media as much as technicians to "rediscover the freshness and the original purity of the colors set down by Michelangelo." Such an exercise arouses curiosity, of course, even if it is a bit aggravating, but it becomes perfectly absurd and anachronistic if the layers of color thus redeemed are lit, viewed, or studied by electrical light. Can we really see Michelangelo's colors with our modern lighting? Is this not a greater treason than the one committed slowly by time and by humans since the sixteenth century? And it is a more disturbing one as well, when we think of the example of Lascaux or of other prehistoric sites destroyed or damaged by fateful encounters with past experiments and present curiosities.
To conclude our documentation difficulties we must recall as well that since the sixteenth century historians and archaeologists have been accustomed to working with black-and-white images, first engravings and then photographs. This will be discussed at length in the fourth and fifth chapters of the present book. But let us stress here that for nearly four centuries documentation "in black and white" was the only kind available for studying the figurative evidence from the past, including painting. By the same token, modes of thought and sensibility among historians seem themselves to have been converted into black and white. Having access largely to reproductions and books very much dominated by black and white, historians (and perhaps art historians more than others) have until recently thought about and studied the past either as a world composed of grays, blacks, and whites or as a universe from which color was totally absent.
Recent recourse to "color" photography has not really changed that situation, at least not yet. First, such habits of thought and sensibility were too firmly established to be transformed in a generation or two; and, second, access to photographic documents in color has long remained an unaffordable luxury. For a young researcher, for a student, making simple slides in a museum, a library, or exhibition was for a long time a difficult or even impossible task. Institutional obstacles arose from all sides to discourage or exact a heavy price for it. Furthermore, for financial reasons, publishers and editors of journals and scholarly publications were obliged to prohibit color plates. Within the social sciences an immense gap long remained between what state-of-the-art technology offered and the primitive work of historians still confronting numerous obstacles-financial, institutional, legal-in studying the figurative documents that the past had left to them. What is more, these obstacles have not completely disappeared, unfortunately, and now there are daunting legal hurdles in addition to the technical and financial difficulties that earlier generations experienced.
The second set of difficulties is methodological in nature. The historian almost always feels helpless when attempting to understand the status and function of color in an image, on an object, on a work of art; all the problems-material, technical, chemical, iconographical, artistic, symbolic-present themselves at the same time. How to conduct an inquiry? Which questions to ask and in what order? No researcher, no research team has yet, to this day, proposed one or several pertinent analytical grids that could be used by the entire scholarly community. That is why, facing the abundance of questions and the multitude of parameters, every researcher-and no doubt I am especially guilty of this-has the tendency to consider only what seems suitable in relationship to the particulars of what he is in the process of demonstrating and, conversely, disregarding all else. That is obviously not a good way of working, even if it is the most common one. Moreover, the documents produced by a society, whether written or figurative, are never neutral or univocal. Each document has its own specific nature and offers its own interpretation of reality. Like all historians, the historian of color must take into account and maintain the rules of operation and encoding for each category of documentation. Texts and images, especially, employ different discourses and must be examined and used according to different methods. That is often forgotten, notably when instead of seeking information in the images themselves we project on them what we have been able to learn elsewhere, especially from texts. I confess that I sometimes envy the prehistorians who study figurative documents (the cave paintings) but who have no texts at their disposal; they are thus obliged to find their hypotheses, lines of thinking, and meanings in the internal analysis of the paintings without plastering over these images what texts may have taught them. Historians would do well to imitate prehistorians, at least in the first stages of analysis.
In any case, historians must abandon the search for some "realistic" meaning for colors in images and works of art. The figurative document, whether it is ancient, medieval, or modern, never "photographs" reality. It is not meant to do that, with regard to either form or color. To believe, for example, that a black door appearing in a thirteenth-century miniature or a seventeenth-century painting represents an actual door that really was black is both naive and anachronistic. Such thinking represents an error in method. In any image, a black door is black first of all because it appears in opposition to another door, or a window, or even another object, which is white, red, or some other black. That door or window may be found within that same image, or another image echoing or opposing the first. No image, no work of art reproduces reality with scrupulous exactitude with regard to color. That is just as true for ancient documents as for the most contemporary photograph. Let us think here of the historian of color who in two or three centuries seeks to study our chromatic environment of the year 2008. Beginning with the evidence of photography, fashion magazines, or cinema, the historian will probably observe a riot of vivid colors unrelated to the reality of color as we experience it today, at least in western Europe. Moreover, the phenomena of luminosity, brilliance, and saturation will be accentuated, while the play of grays and monochromes that ordinarily organize our everyday space will be obscured if not absent. What is true of images is also true of texts. Any written document gives a specific and unfaithful testimony of reality. If a chronicler of the Middle Ages tells us that the mantle of this or that king was black, it is not because that mantle was actually black. This is not to say that the mantle was not black, but that is not where the problems lie. Any description, any notation of color is cultural and ideological, even when it is a matter of the most insignificant inventory or the most stereotypical notarized document. The very fact of mentioning or not mentioning the color of an object was quite a significant choice reflecting the economic, political, social, or symbolic stakes relevant to a specific context. Equally significant is the choice of the word that, rather than some other word, serves to express the nature, quality, and function of that color. Sometimes the disparity between the actual color and the named color can be considerable or even simply constitute a label; thus we constantly say and have said for a long time "white wine" to characterize a liquid that has absolutely nothing to do with the color white.
Excerpted from Black: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Michel Pastoureau is a historian and director of studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes de la Sorbonne in Paris. He is the author of many books, including "Blue: The History of a Color" (Princeton) and "The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes".
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