Books

'Green: The History of a Color' Is a Monochrome of Multiplicities

Green: A History is a broad-spanning visualization of this multifaceted color, one that reveals the value of seeing different shades of meaning in the color of historical artworks.


Green: The History of a Color

Publisher: Princeton University Press
Format: Hardcover
Price: $35.00
Author: Michel Pastoureau
Length: 240 pages
Translated by: Jody Gladding
Publication date: 2014-08
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Green is the color of nature, living growing things, my beloved mint chocolate chip ice cream; however, as it turns out, green barely registered on the color spectrum if you go back a few centuries.

What’s your first thought about the color green? Enamoured? Not a fan? Think of a walk in the woods? Perhaps a rotting corpse? The author of this eponymous history of the color opens with a simple question: "Do you like green?" Don't worry, no matter where your preference falls on the spectrum, the author does a fabulous job of telling (and showing) us why we should respect and appreciate the special significance of the color green.

The third in a series on colors that has shaped and interacted with civilization since the dawn of society, Michel Pastoureau’s Green follows behind its fellows Blue (2001) and Black (2009). It's a hefty yet compact coffee table book, brimming with full colour works ranging from the start of the common era to today. Pastoureau’s breadth of knowledge comes largely from art history and culturally important texts. The author does note near the start that his focus is largely European, a smart move as it’s good to get that out of the way rather than leaving the reader wondering why other parts of the world go overlooked. Recent times are glossed over in favour of detailed descriptions of the changing meaning and value of various shades of green in the past. With thick, heavy pages full of colourful reproductions of famous and lesser-known works of art, Pastoureau’s words are well-accompanied by examples of precisely the shades of which he writes.

My copy arrived on a day when I was wearing an emerald green cardigan to work; I think it was a trending color last year and you could find it everywhere in women’s fashion. I love green, but I tend to see a lot more black in professional wardrobes around me. It’s interesting how colors come and go and yet can still instantly signify to the viewer of a film, for example, what decade it might have taken place in.

These days, the fashion world flits from shade to shade, deciding what the colors of the season will be in some cases years in advance. The times that Pastoureau is largely concerned with in terms of color move sedately from century to century; tones and pigmentation shifted and were repurposed with larger changes in culture, religion, and art. Pastoureau’s early expertise as a medievalist serves him well, as he focuses on the intense and glowing color combinations possible in stained glass, compared to dying fabric, which didn’t convey the same tones or quality.

Language plays a huge role in Green, as Pastoureau points out that Christian and Islamic texts often didn’t mention colours by names we would recognize today as part of the color wheel. These religious text would instead use metaphor and descriptions of the quality of materials, such as fabric, glass, precious stones. Indeed, the ancient Greeks may have described color in terms of emotion rather than anything along the lines of our modern concept of contrary shades or RGB codes. The medieval palette was largely black, white, red, and yellow, with green being a “middle” color in a system with little variation at a time when few chemical colors existed.

Green could be chemically unstable and poisonous; the latter's threat is quite literal, given the compounds used for dyeing methods as they developed. Green is also the colour of death and, alternately, of health. Remarkably, before it was considered the color of nature and youth, green objects were used as far back as antiquity for resting the eyes, recognized as so relaxing to gaze upon. Pastoureau cites numerous religious, philosophical, and political figures who kept emeralds or other green objects close at hand so they could take a break from their reading and writing by focusing on the soothing color. Time and again Pastoureau demonstrates his attention to detail by returning to themes that repeat through different eras and different parts of society, even as green becomes ever-more complex a hue.

The translation from French is a bit clunky, but it conveys the academic tone of the author well. There are some repetitive sections where it's likely that in its original language, the text might have flowed a bit more smoothly. To read Green from cover to cover would be a bit of a chore; better to flip the pages with an eye on the illustrations and pause to read the captions or bits of the text next to images that appeal. In a few spots, the analysis turns to simple vote-counting, itemizing the number of times the Bible refers to purple, for example. Academic in a data-gathering sense, but not gripping story-telling by any means.

That said, there is absolutely value in trying to put aside modern associations of color, to see different shades of meaning in historical artworks. Red and green used to complement each other, a noticeable difference given the contrast they are often presented in the present day. For a long time, water was traditionally painted as green rather than blue. As materials and methods emerged to better represent green alongside other previously less central hues, the colour of grass and springtime began to come into its own and develop more complex relationships with emotion, spirituality, and societal values. Matching historical detail to artistic and cultural works of art, Pastoureau demonstrates that green richly deserves its place in both the bygone and the contemporary palette.

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