Thursday, August 5, 2010

Michel Pastoureau's Black: The History of a Color

BOM for August: Black: The History of a Color. Michel Pastoureau. Princeton University Press: 2009.

Medieval historian Michel Pastoureau continues his work on the history of colors and patterns with his latest book Black: The History of a Color (he has previously written on the color blue and stripes). Pastoureau tackles this admittedly complex subject in the context of European art, beginning with prehistoric and ancient cultures and concluding with how the modern perception of black is shaped by social, political, cultural and artistic currents. Throughout visual history the color black has come to represent a gamut of concepts including austerity, evil, death, secrecy, elegance, power, luxury modernity and danger and has been exploited by artists and propagandists alike to communicate these sentiments.

Pastoureau’s most interesting narrative comes early in the book when he discusses black’s place in the color spectrum and lexicon. Black's status as a color in its own right has fluctuated for centuries, depending on scientific and technical advancements such as Sir Isaac Newton's discovery of the color spectrum and the invention of the printing press--black ink on white paper. Pastoureau asserts that contemporary thinking once again considers black a color but cautions us to not consider black in isolation, both from other colors and from historical and cultural context.

Pastoureau supports his ideas with historical documents, artifacts like coats of arms, and beautifully reproduced, full color paintings, etchings and photographs. The book is divided into short, digestible chapters, organized chronologically. Although the prose is sometimes abstract and overly conceptual, Black: The History of Color is an enjoyable and fascinating read for anyone interested in aesthetics, art and design.

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