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3 march 2018

Michel Pastoureau's Black unapologetically repeats many themes and quite a bit of material from the author's Blue. But Black is a welcome addition to Pastoureau's palette, and brings a new topic or two to the discussion of color in European history.

But wait, you cry: is black really a color, or just the absence of color? Pastoureau would answer that your question has only become askable since the early modern period, and especially since Isaac Newton's analysis of the prismatic spectrum. Greeks and Romans certainly saw black as a color – sometimes the color of death, sometimes the color of fertility (as it had been for ancient Egyptians). Both Latin and Germanic had two terms for black: one for a dull color, the other for shiny. The Romans called matte black ater and shiny black niger, the latter eventually winning out as the common term in the modern romance languages, where the shininess of a color is less important than its hue. The Germanic tribes called matte black something like "swar" and shiny black something like "blak" – the latter term resembling their term for shiny white, "blank," which was borrowed to become the common Romance word for white. Among the modern Germanic languages, continental and Scandinavian speakers stuck with the "swar" forms, and English adopted "black," though parallel forms like "swarthy" in English show the old duality still at work. Such etymological histories, as Pastoureau says, "highlight the cultural relativism of all questions concerning color. They cannot be studied outside of time and place, outside of a specific cultural context" (16).

Black continued into the Middle Ages as a color for the Devil and Hell. Less often, in Christendom, black stood for monastic plainness. Part of the problem, Pastoureau recounts, is that true black cloth was unachievable by medieval dyers. For most of human history, black dyes and paints have been colored by soot – sometimes lampblack, sometimes more intensively processed pigments like ivory or bone charcoals. Basically, soot blacks get your clothes dirty, and dirt eventually washes out. The most austere monastic clothes looked faded and dull, like the clothes of poor people; lustrous black (particularly sable fur) was the privilege of the richest.

Early-modern sumptuary laws, says Pastoureau, forbid all but the highest-born people to wear bright colors: red and white (also expensive to make pure and keep unfaded) were the privilege of the noble. Black was usually not proscribed; there was no point, anyway, since black clothes tended toward grey even when fairly new. But the rising bourgeoisie, eager to display wealth without running afoul of convention, drove demand for better black dyes, including "oak apple" blacks and newer chemical colorants. By the time of the rise of Protestantism, a middle-class (and sometimes even royal) taste for black merged with the chromophobia of the Reformation to usher in an era of basic black: to some extent, the era we still live in.

The key new insight in Black is that from the invention of printing in the mid-1400s until the rise of color photographs, movies, and TV in the mid-1900s, the Western world was dominated by a code of black-and-white. I am just old enough to remember when the standard snapshot, the basic TV set, the daily newspaper, and quite a few feature films were all still in B&W. Until the 1970s, people thought of the world as essentially black and white in key ways; color was a suspect additive. Pastoureau traces this dispensation to Gutenberg, and particularly to the invention of colorfast, indelible, highly contrastive printers' inks.

For the next five centuries, Pastoureau argues, black and white just seemed realer than color.

The idea persisted until almost the present day that black-and-white photography was precise, accurate, and faithful to the reality of beings and things, whereas color photography was unreliable, frivolous, and distorting. In many countries, for example, until very recently official documents and identity papers had to be accompanied by black-and-white photographs and not color ones. (178)
Far from mere aestheticist snobbery, the dominion of B&W reaches back philosophically to Renaissance debates over whether color or line takes preeminence in art, and medieval disputes about whether color is material or spiritual in nature. It is inevitable now to look back on the first half of the 20th century and imagine, preposterously, that lives were lived in greyscale. But in important ways, they were indeed lived in greyscale. If a culture's primary means of self-representation is black and white, then its colors become ephemeral and accidental.

Human physical perception is not really part of Pastoureau's exploration (though cultural perceptions certainly are). Nevertheless, it occurs to me that black-and-white is a natural enough way of seeing the world. It is the color scheme of dusk and dawn, and of the nighttime between. Even if you even merely squint, a lot of the color drains from the world. Is it fair to say that things are "really" in color, as opposed to black and white? This is perhaps another too-philosophical detour from the cultural aspects of color – but it may show that people who believe in the primacy of shades of grey are not wholly mistaken.

Pastoureau, Michel. Black: The history of a color. [Noir, histoire d'une couleur, 2008.] Translated by Jody Gladding. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. BF 789 .C7P3813