Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction 
by John Gage.
Thames and Hudson, 335 pp., £38, October 1993, 0 500 23654 2
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There is a painting by Guercino of St Luke displaying, with a gesture of triumphant accomplishment, a painting he has just executed of the Madonna and Child. An angel is shown marvelling at the image, sufficiently persuaded by its likeness that he (or she) spontaneously reaches out to touch the Madonna’s garment. Guercino was enough of an art historian to know that nothing St Luke could have painted would bear serious comparison with what a 17th-century master could achieve in terms of realism, so he invented a sort of archaic style with which to represent the painting of which St Luke was so affectingly proud. One almost feels that there is a bit of boasting on Guercino’s part: if only the angel could step outside the painting and look at what Guercino had achieved, then he (or she) might see how far the art of painting had progressed since the time of St Luke. But filled though Guercino’s painting is with a certain sense of history, his imagination failed him when it came to St Luke’s studio. He is shown with palette and brushes, painting in oils on a panel perched on an easel, very much in the way in which Guercino himself must have painted the picture that we see. It was as if only artistic representation has a developmental history, and not the materials of the artist, which are taken for granted as having been much the same in the era of Christ’s infancy as they were in the 17th century.

Still, Guercino had a more vivid feeling for historical change than did Tiepolo, who shows the legendary painter Apelles, painting Campaspe – the mistress of Alexander the Great. Tiepolo depicts the artist with an ample palette, dotted with the colours he, Tiepolo, must have used to paint this very picture. He shows us Apelles’ portrait of Campaspe (on an oval canvas), which bears no resemblance to what we must imagine Hellenistic portraiture to have been like. In Tiepolo’s painting, the two images of Campaspe – the one in Apelles’ picture, and Tiepolo’s image of the woman herself – are alike; as if it were unbearable for Tiepolo to imagine that Apelles, whose very name connoted painting at its greatest, could have been in any respect inferior to Tiepolo himself (who at the same time, of course, shows himself the equal of Apelles): Apelles was not a Sunday painter, unlike St Luke.

There is a fascinating chapter on artists’ palettes in this marvellous book, as well as a chapter devoted to the palette of Apelles himself, based on a piece of information handed down by Pliny, from which we learn that the master worked ‘with four colours only – white from Milos, Attic yellow, red from Sinope in the Black Sea, and the black called atramentum.’ Nothing by Apelles has survived, nor could Pliny (a near contemporary of St Luke) himself have known any of the painter’s works at first hand. The satirist Lucian wrote an ekphraseis – a literary exercise in which a descriptive equivalent of a picture is attempted – of Apelles’ celebrated Calumny; Botticelli used Lucian’s description as the basis of an attempt to recreate Apelles’ masterpiece. The two paintings thus satisfy the same description, while at the same time it is inconceivable that they could look like each other – Botticelli’s work being unmistakably quattrocento.

John Gage suggests, on the evidence of Pliny’s account, that ‘Apelles was clearly one of those rare Greek artists whose works could be vividly imagined.’ I am doubtful about this. Pliny seems to have inferred from the austerity of means the austerity of ends, and argued that ‘the simplicity of the Ancients was preferable to the modern proliferation of gaudy and expensive materials.’ Gage imagines Apelles’ works to have precociously embodied ‘a Roman ideal of austeritas’. I would infer the very opposite. My suspicion is that Apelles’ works were vehemently polychromatic and rich in colour: after all, the Greeks were not minimalists – nor even, paradoxical as it may sound, Classicists. My argument is this: Apelles was admired for his virtuosity. There is a story of a contest between him and the painter Protogenes, in which the latter drew a line inside a very fine line first drawn by Apelles, which he left as a kind of calling card, assuming Protogenes would know he had been there, since no one else was capable of drawing that fine a line. Protogenes meant to teach his rival a lesson, but Apelles drew an even finer line within the already astonishingly fine line of Protogenes – and this was regarded as a kind of wonder. I would suggest that it must have been astonishing that paintings which appear to use ‘all the colours of the rainbow’ (to cite a phenomenon discussed in another no less fascinating chapter of Gage’s book) could have been achieved with so sparse a palette as that ascribed to Apelles by Pliny. Thus, it was not that he restricted his palette to do dour, near-monochrome paintings, like Ad Reinhardt: he restricted his palette in order to do something amazing. This seems to me to fit the myth of Greek painting perfectly: excellence was judged by the artist’s ability to fool the eye. The standard stories involve trumping real birds with painted grapes. It would fit exactly within this aesthetic framework to produce an illusion of chromatic opulence with just four unpromising pigments.

Gage is repeatedly anxious to point out the untheoretical, experimental approach of painters in choosing pigments to achieve certain effects, and the way in which colours look different in different chromatic contexts and against different backgrounds: he cites, for example, a splendid discussion of ‘balancing’ colours by Alberti, and another about the effect of colour juxtaposition by the 19th-century Italian mathematician Pietro Petrini: ‘The mutual reaction of colours placed close to each other, so that their appearance changes more or less noticeably, has long been known to painters.’ Pietrini observes that ‘an orange card on a red ground will seem almost yellow, on a yellow ground it will seem almost red.’ Only on ‘an indigo or purple ground will it take on its own proper hue, that is, the hue it has when on a white ground, but certainly more intense than in the latter case’. But why would a skilled and cagy Hellenistic painter not have innumerable tricks of the trade to achieve vast chromatic effects with paltry pigmental means? This view would ‘have much to recommend it,’ Gage writes, ‘if it could be shown that mixing was a usual procedure among classical painters.’ He rather strangely objects to this hypothesis on the ground that there is a body of ancient opinion which condemned it – though it is difficult to see how the ancients could condemn a practice unless it existed. But Gage seems to have dug his heels in on the possibility of mixture. ‘Perhaps the most telling indictment that mixtures were not common in ancient times is the absence of a tool for making them, namely the palette,’ he writes. I am surprised that Gage should deduce the absence of an object from the absence of a name for it. All it requires for the mixture of pigments is a relatively smooth surface to do it on. After all, the Greeks did not have a general term for the fine arts, but they still discussed painting, poetry and music as if they recognised major affinities among them.

Much of the first chapter of the book takes appropriate issue with a surprising thesis by a no less surprising author, W.E. Gladstone, who argued that the Greeks must, on the evidence of a paucity of colour terms in Homer, have lived in a chromatically impoverished world. But the human genome, specified for colour perception, has not changed in far more thousands of years than the few separating us from the age of Agamemnon, and the human eye, with its incredible sensitivity to colour nuance – so sensitive that there could never be terms to correspond to the millions of discernible differences – cannot have changed in the interval. ‘We know now,’ Gage writes, ‘that language cannot be interpreted as a direct index of perception, and that the phenomenon of colour is multivalent.’ He specifically cites blue and yellow as ‘those colours most frequently used in early Greek painting’, whatever may be the case with Greek colour-terminology. The 1969 study of Berlin and Kay (which Gage describes) examined 98 spoken languages and concluded that ‘11 basic colour categories are pan-human perceptual universal.’ Several languages proved to have fewer than the 11, and some as few as two – black and white. Berlin and Kay developed a schema with seven stages, at the ‘highest’ of which all 11 colours are linguistically provided for – and Homeric Greek, for whatever reason, was fixed at some low intermediate stage. Interestingly, Berlin and Kay’s subjects, however impoverished their colour vocabularies were, had no difficulty in discriminating among the 359 colour chips the investigators assembled from the Munsell Colour Company.

As for the educated classes not knowing much about painters’ tricks, that is what might be expected. Conversely, painters are not likely to know much about the colour theories of the educated, in antiquity or in modern times. The educated classes in Apelles’ time might be keen to correlate basic colours with the four elements, four being the favoured number for basic sets, but it is difficult to believe that the magic of four entered into Apelles’ choice of basic colours, which was determined by practicality and, in my view, chromatic athleticism. Aristotle was evidently convinced that certain rainbow colours could not be imitated or reached by mixture, and while this could have set a limit to what Apelles could do in one sense, it leaves the way open to use a number of stratagems to get viewers to believe they were seeing these colours, and to set up tensions between mind and eye to yield artistic experiences of a very rich perceptual order.

The matter of the Greek palette is but one topic in a book of extraordinary discussions on a wide range of issues – Greek colour theory, mosaics, stained glass, heraldry, the rainbow, drawing versus colorito in Venetian painting, colour vocabulary, Newtonian optics, Goethe’s colour theories the chemistry of pigments, efforts to correlate colours with sounds, the role of colour in abstract painting, and much, much more. Gage has an absolutely astonishing erudition. He seems to have read everything: not just everything written on colour specifically, but everything that bears on colour in medieval Latin and Byzantine theology, for example, or in Dante, or in anyone else. We read, for instance, that: ‘What strikes the casual [sic] reader most about this passage is Dante’s self-conscious choice of the French term, alluminar (his version of enluminer), rather than the standard Italian word miniare (from minio, red oxide of lead).’ I learned something new on virtually every page. At the same time Gage’s interpretations of the material laid before us by his extraordinary scholarly imagination seem to me, again on almost every page, to be debatable. I would, for example, suggest that the mythology of the artist is as much a part of the culture of colour as that culture’s explicit colour theories.

The book essentially is an art history of colour, in which two roughly stated theses seem to emerge. The first is that the distance between scientific knowledge of colours and the artistic practice of mixing colours is vast; artists’ actual behaviour depends not on theory but on ‘eye-balling’, to use the American expression. ‘Newton’s theory – which denied that there was any specifically primary set of hues, by arguing that all the rays of refracted light were primary ... seemed to fly in the face of any technological experience.’ Newton was talking about light, rather than the material colours painters use and mix. Thus J.C. Le Blon, who invented a method of colour printing from three plates, wrote that ‘Painting can represent all visible Objects with three colours, Yellow, Red, and Blue; for all other Colours can be compos’d of these Three, which I call Primitive.’ (I have often wondered to what degree colour printing could have suggested the Young-Helmholtz trichromate theory of colour perception.) Gage comments: ‘So far from marking the beginning of a scientific aesthetic, the optical concerns of the Neo-Impressionists signalled its demise, and helped to usher in that disdain for the methods and discoveries of the natural sciences which has had important consequences for the painterly study of colour in the 20th century.’ It had important consequences as well, though Gage does not explore the matter, for the painterly use of pigments. The Abstract Expressionist movement was far too romantic, and too hostile to science, to worry much about what science had to say about paint; this led to disasters. Rothko’s paintings for Harvard University used cheap paint from the Woolworth’s downstairs, and chemical instability conspired with institutional neglect to ruin the works beyond repair. A young friend of mine in conservation told me that the New York painters would use anything to hand to attain a certain effect – mayonnaise, for example – making preservation of their work a nightmare.

Gage’s second thesis concerns the difficulty of ascertaining which hues were in fact denoted by vernacular colour terms in the past. In actual practice this perhaps mattered rather little. Apprentices would be taught the meanings of colour terms by ostension, so the master could be reasonably casual about what term was used to designate a specific pigment. And since in any case studio practices involved secrets of the trade, and each studio ground its own pigments, there was no need for a precise vocabulary: one could refer to colour through referring to the pigment which was used to produce it. Artists could hardly have had the needs and interests of art historians – or auction houses – in mind when they developed their vocabularies. My sense is that only when there is an extra-artistic purpose, as in medical diagnostics, does it become at all urgent to fix the reference of colour terms: Gage reproduces a medieval colour-circle showing colour differences in urine, where matching-to-sample strategies had a diagnostic function. So far as I know, colour-blindness was not identified before Dalton’s discovery of the striking fact that he was dichromate – that he perceived only two of the three primary colours. That by itself must be some evidence for there having been no great social need for occupations in which precise colour-matching was required. Gage wanders rather rarely outside the art-history of painting into other cultural domains where colour concerns become important.

Still, this may very well be a great book. Along with C.L. Hardin’s Color for Philosophers: Unweaving the Rainbow (1988), it shows how little justification we have in regarding colour as something simple and obvious. (Witness the epistemologist’s paradigm of unshakable certainty: ‘Red patch now!’) ‘The struggle to understand the nature of colour, whether physical or psychological, has been the subject of this book,’ concludes Gage: ‘it is a struggle that is still going on.’ I have rarely learned as much from a book, and the fact that I have felt I wanted to argue with nearly everything said is itself a mark of the struggle to which the author refers. My belief is that the book is already having an impact: I have heard it being discussed with great excitement by artists in New York. No one interested in painting can afford not to study it. So it may in the end enter the history it so interestingly addresses from without.

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