Why is it that dark ages so well?; A new history of the colour black spares no detail
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 January 2009)

The most fashionable people of this era, from architects to clothes designers, dress more or less exclusively in black. Anyone interested in the role of colour in society must wonder why. Isn't black by tradition the colour of witches, Puritans, undertakers and other factions unlikely to share the taste of graphic artists and museum curators?

In 15th-century Florence, for example, Girolamo Savonarola created a republic of self-denial by preaching against holidays, cosmetics, mirrors and garments in any colour except black, or maybe grey at a pinch. In 16th-century Geneva, John Calvin established a black-and-white theocracy emphasizing plain black clothes and even plainer church design. In 17th-century England, Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads banned everything delightful, including Christmas, and likewise designated black the only righteous colour.

Michael Pastoureau, in Black: The History of a Color (Princeton University Press), sees the rise of puritanism and Protestantism as the war of the colours -- a war against vivid colour that black usually won. He sees "artistic chromo-phobia," an excessive aversion to colour, as a characteristic of Puritans. Nevertheless, being a partisan of black, he writes at one point that the puritanical 17th century "was a great century for black."

Pastoureau sometimes resembles a press agent for black. He's delighted that its prestige increased in the Middle Ages when the skin of the sable martin from Eastern Europe became the most desirable fur among royalty and nobility, adding to the value of the colour to which it lent its name.

A French specialist in medieval history, Pastoureau was born in Paris in 1947 and became a palaeographic archivist, a specialist in ancient manuscripts. Since 1983, at the Sorbonne, he's specialized in the history of symbolism. His books include an account of King Arthur's knights of the Round Table, a study of the meaning of heraldry and a much-admired work, Blue: The History of a Color. Despite his publisher's enthusiasm for an extended series, Pastoureau promises that he won't work his way through red, yellow, etc.

Pastoureau doesn't know how to carry his learning lightly and sometimes his prose bends beneath it. He's a punctilious scholar who can't set down a generalization without immediately thinking of an exception, which he feels conscience-bound to mention, often burying his point. But he has a terrific story to tell, and a multitude of gorgeous images to help tell it. He mainly ignores the large issue of black skin colour in order, apparently, to concentrate on black's power as cultural symbolism.

The earliest known art was made in black at Lascaux, France, some 15,000 years ago, when a cave artist drew the now celebrated Great Bull in thick, emphatic strokes of manganese oxide. Pastoureau reminds us that prehistoric artists lived in a world darker than we can imagine; the artist of the Great Bull, working by torches, never saw his work as well as we routinely see it in photos taken under electric light.

While black has been the colour of danger for most of human history, it acquired positive symbolism in ancient Egypt when it indicated fertility, a reference to the black silt deposited by the Nile. In primitive Christianity, black represented hell and the Devil --but also monastic virtue.

In the Middle Ages, the Black Knight showed up in heraldic literature. Disguised by a black helmet and anonymously black clothing and shield, he usually turned out to be a significant character (Tristan, Lancelot, Gawain) of good intentions, with a reason for hiding his identity. That tradition lasted some six centuries, right up to the publication of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe in 1819, a bestselling chivalry tale in which the mysterious Black Knight turns out to be no less than King Richard the Lionhearted, preparing to recover the crown of England that is rightfully his.

The spread of printing in the 16th century changed the way Europe and its colonies imagined the world. It was now conceived through black ink on white paper. Books and black and white art prints inaugurated the era of black-dominated mass communications. In the 19th century, photography created a new image of humanity, in blacks and greys. The movies taught two generations to see the world in black and white; television enlarged that perception during its first decades. (A manufacturer of TV sets in the 1950s promised viewers "Blacker blacks and whiter whites.") Once, when I identified a black and white movie on TV as something I had seen many years earlier, a child of mine asked, "Dad, when you were little was the whole world black and white?" In truth, it looked that way.

Black so clearly symbolized efficiency that it dominated product design long after chemists learned to devise any colour a manufacturer might want to offer. New mass-produced devices came into the world black and many, like cameras, pens and telephones, stayed black for generations. Henry Ford's Model T was for most of its life produced only in black, though his competitors offered other colour choices. Today the phone on my desk, the computer casing, the mouse and the radio are all still black. When 21st-century readers absorb text, it's usually as black on white paper or black on white screen.

Pastoureau notes that black has increasingly become the emblematic colour of modernity for designers and for much of the general public -- but he can't quite say why. He's least effective when writing of contemporary life. He mentions the renowned "little black dress" designed by Coco Chanel and at the end of his book we see runway models wearing 2007 designs by Sonia ("Black is an indecent colour when one wears it well") Rykiel. But he lacks the sort of explanations that come easily when he deals with the Middle Ages.

While promoting his book, Pastoureau told Le Nouvel Observateur about serving as historical advisor in 1986 to Jean-Jacques Annaud's film, The Name of the Rose, based on Umberto Eco's novel about a monk (Sean Connery) trying to solve a homicide in a 14th-century Benedictine abbey. Annaud planned to stock the abbey barnyard with pigs from a French farm, but Pastoureau informed him that was completely impossible. For centuries most European pigs were black; they turned pink only after being crossed with Asian pigs brought back by explorers. The moviemakers duly acquired dark-skinned pigs, another victory for a dedicated student of historical colour.

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