Never mind the physics and the biology and the chemistry. Forget all about the rods and cones and the mysterious workings of the cerebral cortex. Colour, says James Fox, is primarily a cultural construct, ‘a pigment of our imaginations that we paint all over the world’. The Tiv people of West Africa get by perfectly happily with just three basic colour terms: black, white and red. Mursi cattle farmers in Ethiopia have eleven colour terms for cows, but they have none for anything else. At the other end of the spectrum, the Optical Society of America lists 2,755 primary colours, while paint manufacturers now offer more than 40,000 dyes and pigments, so many, says Fox, that they have run out of sensible names for them. ‘Dead Salmon’ and ‘Churlish Green’ are two of the more outlandish mentioned in his entertaining new book.
As its subtitle suggests, The World According to Colour is all about context and the meanings that colours have acquired in different eras and different civilisations (though in his introduction Fox also provides a straightforward – and admirably brief – account of the physics). Taking seven colours – black, red, yellow, blue, white, purple and green – he devotes a chapter to each, offering a wide-ranging and often intriguing series of meditations on their changing significance.
For example, he traces the route taken by the colour purple from status symbol in ancient Rome to royal exclusivity in Byzantium, where making, buying, wearing or even owning Tyrian purple was a crime punishable by death, to young William Henry Perkin’s discovery in 1856 of aniline purple. Perkin graduated from playing with chemistry sets to producing the first synthetic purple dye by dissolving a sludgy black sediment from an earlier experiment in methylated spirits, in the process revolutionising the colour industry, bringing purple within the reach of everyone and causing an epidemic of ‘mauve mania’. The chapter on red, the colour of blood, begins with the discovery in 1994 of 30,000-year-old red handprints in the depths of the Chauvet Cave in southeast France and ends with a disturbing account of the work of the 20th-century Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, who made copious use of the blood of chickens and cows in her installations. In between, Fox manages to bring in haemoglobin, the ritualistic use of red ochre, the genitals of female baboons, human sacrifice in Mesoamerica, the production of cochineal, Chinese lacquerware, communism, Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Red Shoes’ and the theories of Natalie Kalmus, head of Technicolor’s Color Advisory Service, whose work can be seen in The Wizard of Oz and whose uncompromising approach to colour earned her the nickname ‘Wicked Witch of the West’. The territory covered by The World According to Colour is nothing if not extensive.
Fox is particularly good on the ways in which moral qualities have been attributed to colours: a scarlet woman, a yellow-bellied coward, the green-eyed monster. Goethe in his 1810 Zur Farbenlehre (‘Theory of Colours’) discussed some of these moral associations, maintaining that red possessed ‘gravity and dignity’ and lilac was ‘lively without gladness’. Yellow was precariously balanced between the divine and the disagreeable: ‘By a slight and scarcely perceptible change, the beautiful impression of fire and gold is transformed into one not undeserving the epithet foul; and the colour of honour and joy reversed to that of ignominy and aversion.’ Such moral attributions are starkest when it comes to black and white. Fox lists many examples of the pejorative use of the word ‘black’, from ‘black arts’ and ‘blackball’ to ‘blackmail’ and ‘black market’. White, on the other hand, has come to be associated with purity, cleanliness and goodness. The author doesn’t shy away from exploring the difficult topic of colour and race. After discussing a notorious 19th-century Pears advert that depicted a black child washed white by the use of toilet soap, he notes that ‘Western society continues to elide white skin and cleanliness, either consciously or unconsciously’. In 2017 Nivea ran an advertisement for a new non-staining deodorant, with the strapline ‘White is purity’; it was enthusiastically endorsed by alt-right groups.
But if one really wants to see an example of how a colour can come to denote an entire system of values and beliefs, look no further than green. Adopted by flower children and pioneering eco-warriors in the 1960s, taken up by environmental activists in the 1970s, used as a name for political parties all over Europe by the 1980s, ‘green’ has come to be a keyword for our times, connected, as Fox notes, to a package of attitudes and activities that include ethical eating, organic produce, recycling, renewable energy, wildlife protection and sustainable development. ‘None of these things is literally green, but their metaphorical greenness is understood all over the world,’ he remarks.
Unsurprisingly, artists and paintings play a prominent part in the story, from the makers of those unsettling red handprints in Chauvet Cave to Howard Hodgkin, whose masterly Leaf (2007–9) consists of a single brushstroke of emerald green that took a few seconds to execute and two years of mental preparation. ‘Colour is colour,’ Hodgkin once said. ‘You can’t control it’ – although Leaf showed the artist making a pretty good stab at this.
Attempts to control colour can express themselves in other, more dogmatic ways. Sir Joshua Reynolds demanded that ‘the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish-white’. Cold colours should be kept in a strictly supporting role. It was this kind of understated colour-massing that the Pre-Raphaelites rebelled against, placing bright greens and crimsons side by side and using synthetic purples and velvet indigos in ways that would have appalled Reynolds and that certainly shocked the public, something they relished. When asked for his favourite colour, Ford Madox Brown didn’t hesitate. ‘Magenta,’ he said.
Everyone had their favourite colour. The 18th-century critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann saw an aesthetic purity in the white marble of antique sculptures like the Apollo Belvedere, refusing point blank to engage with the idea that they were once highly coloured – a denial that was repeated in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. (Shown 19th-century polychromatic reconstructions of classical sculptures, Auguste Rodin is said to have gestured to his heart and declared, ‘I feel here that they were never coloured.’) Theo van Doesburg, founder of the Dutch art movement De Stijl, declared white to be ‘the spiritual colour of our times’ in 1929, while Le Corbusier dreamed of a world in which citizens were legally obliged to paint everything in their homes white. Outer purity of tone would inevitably lead to inner purity, he thought.
Turner’s favourite colour was chrome yellow, leading one observer to joke that the artist had ‘sworn fidelity to the Yellow Dwarf’, while the Impressionists’ enthusiasm for artificial pigments such as violet and indigo outraged critics. ‘Make it clear to M Pissarro’, wrote a reviewer of the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876, ‘that the trees are not violet, that the sky is not a fresh butter tone, that in no country can we see the things he paints.’ J-K Huysmans dubbed the condition ‘indigomania’, while the German Max Nordau linked it to the decline of civilisation, arguing that the use of purple has a depressing effect and that ‘the violet pictures of Manet and his school’ were evidence of hysteria, neurasthenia, lassitude and exhaustion.
When it comes to colour-mania, it would be hard to beat Yves Klein. Having decided that blue ‘is beyond dimensions’, Klein went from producing monochrome canvases covered in his patented International Klein Blue (IKB) to lobbying the UN for permission to dye an entire lake with IKB and rename it ‘The Blue Sea’. He even wrote to the International Atomic Energy Agency suggesting that in the future atomic weapons should be made to produce IKB-tinted mushroom clouds. He shared his idea with the Dalai Lama, Pope Pius XII and Bertrand Russell. I’d give a lot to see the looks on their faces when they read Klein’s letter.