How shall we repaint the kitchen?

Writing about colour in the LRB archive by Ian Hacking, Anne Enright, John Kinsella, Alison Light, Julian Bell, David Garrioch, Emily LaBarge and Stephen Mulhall.

Following the philosophers, Darwin had expected that colours would be cardinal among our concepts, and easy to learn by abstraction. They are not, at first. Nevertheless, life without our concept of colour seems unthinkable for us. That, the critics say, is an effect of our history, not of our genes.

Diary: Looking at the Wallpaper

Anne Enright, 2 January 1997

Sitting in France writing about death and wallpaper, it is no surprise to find my walls orange: ‘that most morbid and irritating of colours’, as Huysmans described it, ‘with its acid glow and unnatural splendour’.

Poem: ‘Yellow’

John Kinsella, 14 May 2009

I say: see, yellow is fast, / and yellow is the colour of the sun, / it is the body of the flames, orange / is the colour of the sun, it is the body / of flames.

The colour-coding on Charles Booth’s maps was far from innocent. At one extreme the glamour and heraldic grandeur of gold for, say, Grosvenor Square or Hyde Park; at the other, black for Whitechapel or Spitalfields, conjuring a ‘dark continent’ whose ignorant, savage tribes, like those elsewhere in the British Empire, needed the clarifying light of Christian missionaries or exposure to scientific reason.

Eye Candy: Colour

Julian Bell, 19 July 2007

When was colour? Should we think back to the passion of postwar Americans for acrylic and metallic surfaces, for keeping the ‘paint as good as it was in the can’, in Frank Stella’s phrase? Or to the trenchant insistence on primary red, blue and yellow in the interwar Modernisms of Mondrian and the Bauhaus?

In 18th-century France, colour was a mark of status. Purple was the royal colour, forbidden to others, but reds and greens were popular. The richer the person, too, the better the quality of the cloth (wool, linen, silk), the more elaborate the lace of collars and cuffs, the more fashionable the cut.

‘The laws of the colours are unutterably beautiful, just because they are not accidental,’ Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo. ‘One can speak poetry just by arranging colours well.’ Van Gogh’s wheat fields and Etel Adnan’s mountain both wager that if the possibilities of colour were to be fully appreciated, one would need nothing more from life than the view from one’s window.

Why should we assume that all attributions of colour have a theoretical purpose – that they always hypothesise the existence of a property in order to explain an observed effect, as we might postulate universal gravitation to explain the orbits of the planets?

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