Much ado about black. The changing presence of a single color in human history.
After endless observation of the Ultra Black paintings of one of the greatest painters of the French art scene, Pierre Soulages, I have surrendered myself to the thought that the color black, apart from being a true color, might as well be one of the most dynamic ones.
Pierres Soulages: “Détail d’une toile”
Soulages works with a self-proclaimed concept, called outrenoir (ultra black), which emphasizes how light is reflected from the color black. Applying thick layers of paint, he creates varying textures that absorb and project light differently. The presumably monotonous color literally comes to live before your eyes in a luminous way, turning it into an instant sensorial experience.
To demonstrate that the presence of the color black reaches far beyond the domains of painting (claire-obscure), Michel Pastoureau wrote a concise history, “Black, the history of a Color”, in which he dissects this single color in a historical, socio-cultural, political and spiritual context.
Interesting to notice is that the color black has had a changing status throughout history, and that color issues are very much linked to social issues as well.
In ancient cultures for instance there was not one black, but many “blacks”. The struggle against darkness, the fear of night & the quest for light gradually led prehistoric and then ancient peoples to distinguish degrees & qualities of dark, constructing for themselves a wide range of blacks. This varies from matte, light, intense, glosse and dark blacks to delicate blacks tending toward gray, brown & blue.
A further look on a socio-cultural level shows that the color black has been associated, throughout history, with concepts such as death, old age, misfortune, the underworld, sleep (the darkness of the night), discord & distress.
But it has not been exclusively linked to depreciatory or negative aspects.
Egyptian divinities related to death (like Anubis) were nearly always painted black, because of the link to fertile aspects of the earth; for the dead, whose passage to the beyond it ensures, it is a beneficial black, the sign or promise of rebirth.
Pharaohs & their ancestors were depicted with black skin as well, representing a privileged status.
In the socio-political domain various “blacks” merged to unite the most extremist tendencies under the same color. From a rebellious and transgressive meaning (les blousons noirs, The Rockers, The Black Panthers) on the one side,
to a totalitarian black of police & militia on the other side, as seen in the Italian fascist party (camicie nere) or the SS (Schützstaffel).
To this day the Black Flag represents the anarchist movement.
Photo: www.bbc.co.uk:news:world-21228852 (Reuters)
And let’s not forget fashion.
In the second century B.C (Roman Empire) the first mourning clothes, dark colored toga, were worn by magistrates participating in funerals.
In the Middle Ages black fashion was exclusively reserved for wealthy merchants.
Nuns & monks dressed in black to show their humility and renouncement.
As well as the conservative black of religious communities (as in the Dutch Reformed Black Socks community).
And then … around 1920 Coco Chanel put the “little black dress” on the map” and opened the door to glamour, elegance and luxury.
At first Henry Ford resisted selling cars in any color but black.
After the First World War black was restored more and more as a symbol of modernity (Art Deco, De Stijl), as clearly shown in Tamara de Lempicka’s painting, “the Duchess of la Salle” (1925).
In 1946 the Maeght Gallery in Paris opens an exhibition “Black is a color”, by putting together works by Bonnard, Matisse, Braque, Rouault, Van Velde and other important artists of that time period. A manifesto for the acknowledgement of a color.
By André Marchand, 1946.
Although nowadays the color black has a neutral status, it remains transgressive in the domain of verbal expressions: black market, black sheep, black list.
So much to be said about a color of which Leonardo da Vinci once proclaimed that it was not a color.