From its association with death and sorrow to its eventual rebirth as a color of elegance and glamour with Coco Chanel’s iconic little dress, the color black has led quite the distinctive life and is one of the most contradictory hues in terms of social and cultural issues. The word “melancholia”, for example (which literally means “black bile” in Greek), conveys a sense of complete sadness, while people into Goth and hard metal music look to the color as a celebratory hue.
Fascinated by these contrasts, former Cambridge professor John Harvey set out to deliver the ultimate history of the color in The Story of Black. “Black is at once a colour and not a colour” he explains in his charming introduction detailing how color historians like Michel Pastoureau have encountered almost philosophical dilemmas trying to define what black is really about.
In the first chapter Harvey cleverly calls black “the oldest colour”, attributing its particular hue to the utter darkness described in Genesis “deep before God proclaims light, or any colour can be.” He proceeds to point out how darkness before light is a concept familiar to almost all world mythologies, ranging from the Nordic tradition (in which a fire giant whose name literally means “Black” reigned over a kingdom of fire) to the empty darkness conveyed by the Greeks.
From the get go, Harvey tends to look past the merely academic to dive into stream-of-consciousness like passages in which he seems to be both writing and thinking out loud. We are told, for example, how there are no documents proving what color the Egyptian pyramids were when they were originally built, but how many paintings depict Egyptians wearing black wigs and makeup, as if the lack of proof for one reinforced the importance of the other.
He subsequently dispels our notion of imagining ancient Greek and Rome as places of white marble and light, by reminding us of the many black artifacts that have been found among the shiny ruins. “Most pottery in daily use was black-glazed and the Spartans drank black broth” he explains. “To a Roman the colour black need not be harsh: it could be sweet and luxurious, and erotic” he continues as he prepares us to ponder on the fact that Catholicism turned black into a color worthy of worshipping and celebrating, as opposed to saving it just for mourning. The more he dives into the story of the non-color, the more Harvey makes us observe our world in a new way.
He forces us to wonder, for example, why the color became associated with cruelty and servitude as seen during the age of slavery in which Africans were kidnapped from their homes and forced to serve “white”-skinned people. Harvey goes as far as to remind us that in the Talmud, “the curse of Ham” was blackness, suggesting that slavery just perpetuated a myth originated during time immemorial.
He continues by pointing out how the Western world used specific colors to separate whiteness from inferior, less pure colors (people with “yellow”, “brown” and “red” skin were also victims of discrimination) and by the time he gets to discussing Robert Mapplethorpe’s pictures, Batman and the Wicked Witch of the West, we’ve almost seen the color transform before our eyes from something inconspicuous, to the very representation of the larger universe we’re only a small part of.
This sense of historical importance and transcendence isn’t conveyed as effectively by Carol Mavor in her Blue Mythologies, which forgoes a historical interpretation of the color blue in favor of something so personal that a quote in the book’s cover suggests that “she bleeds [the color]”. In 22 chapters, Mavor chooses specific works or art forms to wonder what is it that has made blue such an important hue. “Blue is the purity of the Virgin Mary” she explains “yet blue also names a movie as obscene” she adds. “Blue is paradoxical, it is self-contradictory, yet true.”
As she contrasts a painting by Piero della Francesca to the “blue marble”-like hue of Earth as seen by astronauts in 1972, Mavor paints her book with strokes so broad that sometimes we are left wondering if there are any actual connections between the beautiful images she chose to accompany each chapter. Is she trying to make us confront what we read with what we see? Or is she merely satisfied with providing us with aesthetic pleasures?
In this manner she discussed how Derek Jarman, who went blind as he was dying from AIDS, chose the title Blue for a movie in which he describes how he “could not see to see”. This passage becomes even more powerful when we realize that on the page next to this entry there is a picture of a Giotto angel tearing away blue portions of Heaven in “The Last Judgment”, allowing the contrast between text and image to become an interesting exercise in free association.
Perhaps the mistake is to read both The Story of Black and Blue Mythologies expecting the continuation of a unique way of approaching color. Seen as one larger work, the books couldn’t be more distant from each other—one is quite possibly too focused, the other quite possibly too airy—but observed as ambiguous figures as impossible to pin down as the effect of the colors they discuss, the works of Harvey and Mavor are impossible to resist.