Toward a History of Modern Colour

Hanno Balz / Allegra Fryxell, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge
Cambridge, MA und digital
United States
Vom - Bis
09.06.2021 - 11.06.2021
Kathleen Simpson, University of Cambridge

From Aristotle to 19th-century optical theory, colour has alternately fascinated and perplexed viewers. As Martin Kemp observes, colour “presents a bewildering variety of kaleidoscopic variations – fleeting, fluctuating, and almost infinitely slippery whenever we try to entrap them in a regular net of scientific categories.”[1] Yet colours matter: we select clothes, paint houses, buy cars, and are attracted to the polychromatic density of our televisions, phone screens, and computer monitors. Colours, in short, are a central feature of our world and a key component of lived experience. Historically, the red scare and black shirts evoke key moments in European history, while the colours fuchsia and‘mauve evoke hues specific to Western culture. It is surprising, then, that few academic histories have attended to the functions and meanings of colour in different periods – particularly the use of colours as a distinct social practice.

This conference responded to a need for a chronologically focused analysis of colour semiotics and colour practices in modernity by expanding upon recent approaches to colour in film studies, literature, art history, and anthropology. The conference focused on reconstructing the perceptions, connotations, and constructions of colour since 1800 and how these practices have had a lasting impact on Western society (through questions of political identity, race, material culture, symbolism, economics, etc.). Although the papers presented drew mostly from European and North American sources (discussions of Germany, Britain, and the US dominated) from industrialisation to the present digital age, understandings of non-Western colour cultures and histories remained a critical lens for assessing western chromaticism. HANNO BALZ (Cambridge) welcomed participants and set out some of the key themes and debates of the conference by asking what “doing colour” means in modernity, providing an overview of ontological conceptions of colour in history from Aristotle to Plato, Ibn Bajja to Hegel and Wittgenstein. Balz elaborated on the interconnectedness of symbolic and material quality of colours in history, urging scholars to attend to when colour matters and how.

The first panel took up these questions and more by probing the relationship between skin colour and racism. STEFANIE AFFELDT (Heidelberg) analysed whiteness in 19th- and 20th-century Australia. She established how recurrent narratives of the triumph or crisis of racial “whiteness” in modern Australian history were built upon well-established colonial ideologies of a civilising mission, European hegemony and scientific racial hierarchies. These themes proliferated across class and gender lines of turn-of-the-century Australia as a bonding socio-cultural narrative in diverse contexts, including commercial advertising, economic nation building, map-making and immigration policy.

NICHOLAS GASKILL (Oxford) then traced the entanglement of race and colour in the 19th century through the chromatic rhetoric of scientific and literary sources. He proceeded to tease out the implications of the persistent colour-race connection by examining three key historical moments in American literature: the colour line as a principle of racial differentiation, the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s, and the idea of colour blindness central to the vision of a post-racial society.

In contrast to the first two speakers, NINA JABLONSKI (Penn State) provided an anthropological and physiological perspective on the evolution of skin colours as the result of highly plural evolutionary processes ultimately determined by UVR distribution (UV radiation) around the world. She contrasted this with the Enlightenment view of skin colour as a set of finite, bounded, and frequently hierarchical categories informed primarily by socio-cultural considerations, and provided an invaluable social scientific background for the ensuing discussion.

The discussion then turned from racism and skin colour to the relationship between colour, gender, and sexuality. DOMINIQUE GRISARD (Basel) took as a starting point the ubiquitous connection between the colour pink and notions of femininity, girlhood, and “princess culture” in (western) modernity. She proceeded to trace the genealogy of these relationships through the ideal of the English Rose as a shorthand for pink as a gendered, classed, and racialised concept across modern literature and visual culture.

DOMINIC JANES (Keele) similarly explored the chromatic landscape of modern Britain, exploring how cultural ideas of natural versus unnatural colour and pure whiteness versus colourful variegation informed queer visual culture, particularly fashion, in the interwar period. Like Grisard, he demonstrated how flowers (as sartorial decoration) provided a useful ordering mechanism for the relationship between colour and sexuality whilst also highlighting exceptions to the hegemonic notion of indecorous masculine clothing through the garishness of military uniforms and other social contexts where British men wore colourful attire.

Continuing this discussion of chromaticism and English culture, KIRSTY DOOTSON (Cambridge/St Andrews) explored the work of commercial British photographer Madame Yevonde in the 1930s. At a time when professional photography was dominated by male photographers and black-and-white images, Dootson positioned Yevonde as a challenge to the hegemony of both monochromatic images and masculine photography. She argued that Yevonde’s work established the connection between colour, mass culture, and female consumption whilst also relying on wider processes and technologies (such as colour photography) that linked Yevonde’s labour to wider concerns about automation and the feminisation of labour after the Great War.

DIANA LANGE and BENJAMIN VAN DER LINDE (Hamburg) explored the neglected field of the meaning and materials of coloured maps in both Europe and Asia, beginning with practices of hand colouring in European and Asian maps from the 17th century before focusing on the invention of chromolithography in the mid-19th century. They advanced the argument that the colour system of cartography still in use today originated in the development of coloured map legends in 18th-century Germany and provided useful examples of maps drawn from global history.

The second day began with a discussion of the material culture and economy of culture. SABINE DORAN (Penn State) discussed colour revolutions and racial politics, employing the concept of the bloodless “colour revolution” as a framework to investigate the late 19th-century biochemical revolution of using coal tar to manufacture synthetic dyes. By juxtaposing artistic responses to this “colour revolution” (see Charlotte Ribeyrol’s talk below) across the modern era, reading the colour yellow in Thomas Pynchon alongside Hugo von Hofmannsthal, for example, Doran wove together a fascinating narrative of industrial economies, racial politics, and revolutionary colour that linked the 19th and 20th centuries in a single colour culture.

Doran’s conclusions were reinforced by CHARLOTTE RIBEYROL (Paris) in her presentation of the ERC Project CHROMOTOPE (Sorbonne/Oxford 2019-2024), which aims to map the 1850s European “chromatic turn” for the very first time. This exciting project has galvanised a return to exploring the “colour revolution” in the Victorian period, particularly following the 1862 International Exhibition. Ribeyrol argued that accurately assessing the mid-Victorian “chromatic turn” challenges preconceptions of a “dark” or “colourless” industrial age prior to the 20th century. She focused on the Victorian interest in ”polychrome antiquity” despite common views of a white Hellenic heritage, demonstrating a further material analysis of pigments used in contemporary artistic projects to provide invaluable insight into the materiality of colour and colour meanings during this crucial period of transformation in the colour industry.

Turning from bright colours to greys, MAROS KRIVY (Tallinn) took us into the post-war period by exploring the role of colour in architecture and politics. Krivy focused on the case study of the evolution and reception of “socialist grey” in the post-war mass housing of eastern Europe. He demonstrated how an ideological binary between the “colourful” and the “colourless” emerged, framing his analysis of urban architectural interventions from 1970s campaigns to make cities more colourful to more recent architectural and ideological attempts in the 21st century to reclaim “greyness” as a colour imaginary of the future.
The next series of papers turned from material culture and economy to political and scientific representations of colour. MICHAEL ROSSI (Chicago) opened with a discussion of why colour perception was surveyed as part of a wider attempt to collect anthropometric statistical data during the Civil War (1861-1865) by the US Sanitary Commission (USSC). He argued that colour perception, and particularly colour blindness, was increasingly used by American social scientists in the Civil War era to establish boundaries between social groups, particularly the “fit” and the “unfit”. Rossi further illustrated how the measurement of colour perception reveals an intersection of wider 19th-century obsessions with race, demography, statecraft, and measurement that was deeply interwoven with emerging ideas about human physiology and the technocratic management of populations.

GREGORY BRIDGMAN (Cambridge) continued this focus on colour blindness and colour vision, reconstructing high-profile debates around the evolution of colour vision in Edwardian Britain. Bridgman robed how these debates generated scientific attempts to gather data on colour perception in the emerging, highly plural field of British anthropology. He noted that these endeavours frequently relied on colorimetric instruments and technologies originally developed by physicists for industrial purposes, such as the Lovibond Tintometer. Bridgman argued that debates over the nature and history of colour vision were not confined to narrow scientific disputes but crucially tied to wider political concerns about the history of human civilisation, a connection that continues to have an impact on society today.

In the final paper of the panel, UDO GRASSHOFF (Leipzig) interrogated the triumphant national narrative of the rise of the German chemical industry to world domination in the second half of the 19th century. He presented a multifaceted examination of the harsh labour and environmental conditions of industrial dye production as well as the role of patent law (rather than technological innovation) that led to Germany’s global status as a leader in the chemical industry by the end of the 19th century. Grashoff thus questioned the “revolutionary” nature of the German synthetic dye production in this period and drew attention to the highly international, cosmopolitan, and liberal character of most c. 1900 German chemists.

The second day concluded with a keynote lecture by RICHARD DYER (St Andrews), who considered the content and colour of white privilege while complicating the generic “whiteness” of “white people” by drawing attention to their more accurately labelled “pinkness”, and the “pink” representation of “white” people across time. This conundrum was used as a starting premise to investigate wider issues about the limitations of colour language in general, as well as the use of colour concepts as unstable boundaries to designate social groups, drawing on many of the themes and discussions that emerged over the first two days of the conference, particularly Dominique Grisard’s talk on pink and discussions about whiteness, racism, and colour-blind culture.

The last day of the conference focused on cultural representations of colour. JESSICA DURGAN (Bemidji) examined how Victorian authors used colour and colour language to explore questions of identity and alterity, responding to and intervening in wider artistic and scientific “colour wars” of the day. Through a variety of 19th-century literary sources, Durgan demonstrated how colour (particularly vivid or unusual skin colours like purple or blue) was used to invoke cultural otherness—including registers of the pathological, marginalised, or fantastical.

GAIA GIULIANI (Coimbra) then examined the historical constructions of skin colour and racial hierarchy in constituting and maintaining narratives of “whiteness” and “otherness” in Italy, particularly in the context of “white anxiety” in the wake of 9/11 and the so-called migrant and refugee crises. Giuliana drew upon these examples to explore the genealogy of broader institutional forms of vulnerability (such as labour exploitation) and how such genealogies are frequently organised along “colour lines” that can both contest and nurture colonial imaginaries of race, reflecting Dyer’s keynote talk on the permeability and elusive nature of chromatic categories.

Turning from skin colour to art, M.S. SIMPSON (Pennsylvania) discussed the colour palettes of classical Persian manuscript illuminations and album leaves from the late 14th through the 17th centuries, contrasting this with later work by early 20th-century Persian painter Torabia Beg Khorasani – whose artwork “passed” as “authentically” historical, i.e., pre-1900. While demonstrating how Western marketing and collecting interests influenced the choice of polychrome or monochrome techniques in Persian art, past and present, Simpson also gestured to wider questions about the potential for colour to “collapse” centuries between moments or to conceal the “colour” of the present.

The panel concluded with a paper by NATASHA EATON (UCL) on colour’s “magneticism” in the context of Indian art. Eaton explored the ways in which Indian artists in the past 200 years have experimented with ideas of colour as the sacred through competing notions of mysticism, magnetism, and heat. She attended to the unstable materiality of colour in this context by assessing colour practices such as the mixing of native pigments with synthetic dyes, as well as examining the legacies of nationalistic concerns with and representations of colour.

The final panel of the conference continued a discussion of these themes, exploring colour in the context of visual culture. LAURA KALBA (Minneapolis, MN) explored how members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Aesthetic movement depicted, materially incorporated, or otherwise evoked gold in their artworks, focusing on works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James Whistler. Adding metals/metallic colours to the discussion of chromatic colours, she argued that both artists responded to gold’s “commercial symbolism” albeit through divergent approaches. While Rossetti harnessed gold’s explicitly material and pecuniary status, Whistler sought to recast the metal as a mere colour among others, attempting to erect his own regime of value, which rejected the “gold standard” connotations of Belle Époque culture.

RALPH RICHARD WHYTE (Columbia) brought music into this discussion of colour aesthetics. He examined Rimington’s “colour organ” and concept of colour music within artistic discourses on the colour-music analogy, physiological and physical principles, and harmonic relationships around the turn of the century. Through a close reading of Rimington’s works, both textual and musical, Whyte questioned whether Rimington’s ideas on colour music truly merit their later labelling of synaesthesia (i.e., a total merging of the senses and dependence of colour on a musical paradigm). Instead, Whyte argued for a new approach that interprets Rimington’s multimodal ideas of colour as distinct from synaesthesia, thereby creating space for an idea of artistic colour beyond relational colour-music (colour-harmony) terms that is in conversation with the chromatic concerns of early 20th-century culture.

SARAH STREET (Bristol) added cinema to the discussion of light and sound. She examined how artificial lighting was used as a contemporary signifier of technological modernity and stylistic device in post-1960s British cinema to exploit the expressive potential and formal properties of “modern” colour. Street located the emergence of a tension between attempts to “stabilise” or “destabilise” notions of traditional chromatic representation as filmmakers and visual artists experimented with old and new processes – including multi-screen projection, polarisation, hyper-saturation, time-lapse photography, and coloured light shows.

The last paper was given by CAROLYN L. KANE (Ryerson) who explored the creative genres of glitch art and datamoshing as aesthetic attempts to subvert the digital age’s privileging of technological efficiency, crisp visual imagery, and “immersive” interactive experience in the 21st century. She used the twin concepts of the analogue and the digital to demonstrate how attempts to isolate and control colour as a stable object of inquiry even in digital culture inevitably fail, and how datamoshing’s use of digital glitches offers an insight into the fears and fantasies that undergird contemporary media culture and its chromaticism.

The conference ended with concluding remarks by ALLEGRA FRYXELL (Cambridge/Zürich), who sought to tie together some of the reoccurring themes of the papers and discussions. She noted how many of the conversations revolved around colour practices and colour imaginaries, the duality of colour as an abstract concept as well as a material or matter. Fryxell highlighted how the discussion had repeatedly returned to the history of colour as a subject of attempts to establish stable ordering mechanisms, boundaries and hierarchies, whilst simultaneously eluding boundaries and borders across multiple spaces and times – permeating other spaces and ideas, and often emerging as a liberating or emancipatory force in the process. She reiterated the need to attend to the history of colour alongside a history of emotions and the senses, as well as an awareness of both the limitations to and uses of a shared colour semiotics that was largely accepted across the interdisciplinary fields represented at the conference and across different cultures/periodisations.

Conference overview:

Hanno Balz (University of Cambridge): Welcome and Introduction

Stefanie Affeldt (Heidelberg University): The Eclipse of Whiteness: A Political Colour in Australia

Nicholas Gaskill (University of Oxford): Fugitive Colours

Nina Jablonski (Pennsylvania State University, Penn State): The Evolution of Skin Colour: An Anthropological Approach

Dominique Grisard (University of Basel): The English Rose: “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Pink”

Dominic Janes (Keele University): The Colourful Appearance of Male Homosexuality in Interwar Britain

Kirsty Dootson (University of Cambridge / University of St Andrews): “Could a Woman Have Done That?”: Madame Yevonde’s Colour Photography and the Gender of Labour in Interwar Britain

Diana Lange (University of Hamburg) and Benjamin van der Linde (Hanseatic Business Archive Foundation, Hamburg): How Colours Became Functional: The Meaning of Colours in Asian Maps, 18th to 20th Centuries

Sabine Doran (Pennsylvania State University, Penn State): “A Coal Tar Kabbalah”: Racial Politics and the Colour Revolutions

Charlotte Ribeyrol (Sorbonne University, Paris): Chromotope: Thinking the Victorian Chromatic Turn

Maros Krivy (Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn): Grey Today, Colourful Tomorrow? Colours and Socialism

Michael Rossi (University of Chicago): Colour Blindness, Statecraft, and Anthropometry in the American Civil War

Gregory Bridgman (University of Cambridge): The Invention of Colour Vision in Late Nineteenth Century British Anthropology

Udo Grashoff (Leipzig University): Synthetic Dyes in the Nineteenth Century: A National Triumph of Germany?

Richard Dyer (Kings College London / University of St Andrews): Why Call Pink People White?

Jessica Durgan (Bemidji State University): Colour Transformations: The Visual Arts and Race in the Victorian Novel

Gaia Giuliani (University of Coimbra): Constructions of Colour in Postcolonial Italy

M. S. Simpson (University of Pennsylvania): Polychrome and Monochrome in Persian Painting of the Early 20th Century

Natasha Eaton (University College London): The Magneticism of Colour: Heat, Atmosphere and Camouflage in India

Laura Kalba (University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN): Gold is the New [ ]: Materiality, Value and Colour in Victorian Avant-Garde Art

Ralph Richard Whyte (Columbia University): Separating and Hybridising Colour and Music c. 1900: Alexander Wallace Rimington’s Colour Music

Sarah Street (University of Bristol): Artificial Light, Colours and Film in Post-war Britain

Carolyn L. Kane (Ryerson University): Electric Colour and Digital Aesthetics

Allegra Fryxell (University of Cambridge / ETH Zürich): Concluding Remarks

[1] Martin Kemp, The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (Yale, 1990), p. 261.