The V&A Book of Color in Design
Thames & Hudson/304 pages/$39.95
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Mark Twain was correct. "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."
What Twain did not mention is that our blushes only register with other human beings. The ruddy red color which spreads across our faces in moments of embarrassment or mortification cannot be detected by dogs, cats, rabbits and most other animals. The range of color which can be perceived by our four-legged friends is far more limited. Dogs and cats can see some shades of blue and green, but not red.
Even the bulls of Spain, charging towards the matador's cape, are oblivious to its red hue. These fearsome beasts are goaded into action by the motion of the muleta, not by its vivid color.
Color is a very human matter, fascinating, compelling and confusing. A brilliant new study, The V&A Book of Color in Design, goes a long way to help us grasp the way that people understand and make use of color.
The science behind humanity's appreciation of color has engaged some of the greatest minds in history. The conflicting theories of Sir Isaac Newton and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe set the tone of the Age of Enlightenment dialogue on color.
The V&A Book of Color in Design is a collaborative endeavor of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Here Design Studio of London and Thames & Hudson Publishers.
Edited by Tim Travis, a curator of the V&A's Word & Image Department, the book can be used as a reference source for artists and designers. Organized in chapters devoted to specific colors, 375 works of art and craft from the V&A collection show how color has been used - and sometimes abused - from antiquity to the present day.
Yet, the importance of The V&A Book of Color in Design transcends its role as a historical survey. This is an insight-rich book which will engage thoughtful readers in focusing their eyes on the world around them.
Human beings have been putting color to use for a long time. The introductory chapter discusses the discovery by archaeologist Lawrence Barham of a layer of sediment used by prehistoric humans to create colors, most likely for cave painting and body decoration. Minerals, many excavated at other sites, were painstakingly ground-down with stone tools to extract a wide range of pigments: brown, red, yellow, purple, blue and pink.
The site of this color "processing" center was the Twin Rivers Cave in Zambia. The complex activity dates to between 200,000 to 400,000 years ago.
Even if we accept the most recent of these long-ago dates, the implications are astonishing. Colors were already being "man-made" before the first definitive evidence of Homo sapiens, in the shape of skull fragments found in Ethiopia, dating to 195,000 years ago. Scientists conjecture that human language was not prevalent until 150,000 years ago. Thus, color served as a form of self-expression even before our ancestors could verbally articulate their thoughts and feelings.
The fact that many of the minerals had to be transported a considerable distance to be processed into pigments at the Twin Rivers Cave deserves further consideration. Here we see the sequence of the material/spiritual culture of color. Extracted from the earth, processed by human hands, colors were then projected into "higher" value systems.
The transformation of raw minerals into gleaming treasures fit for the gods - or godlike humans - is best observed in the chapter dealing with the color Blue. "The difficulty and expense of extracting or creating blue materials," the caption text notes, "elevated the color's status among those keen to demonstrated their wealth and taste."
Rare, costly lapis lazuli, unearthed in mines in remote Afghanistan since the dawn of civilization, was used to create works of art of special significance for the religious and royal authorities of many ancient realms. Merchant "princes" later asserted their claim to elite status with prized possessions embellished with lapis lazuli. A particularly notable example is this chess/backgammon set from sixteenth century Venice which incorporated three shades of the rare blue mineral on the rosewood and gold games board.
The great lengths required in antiquity to procure lapis lazuli explains the efforts of the ancient Egyptians to find a substitute. Turquoise, a semi-precious gemstone, was available closer to home, but not without effort, for the mines were located in the inhospitable Sinai peninsula. In what is almost certainly the first "R&D" initiative in history, the Egyptians developed faience, a glaze for ceramics composed of ground quartz, plant ash, lime water and copper oxide. This was applied to all manner of objects, secular and sacred, giving them a touch of the color of the heavens above.
The example of Egyptian faience in the The V&A Book of Color in Design is a monumental representation of the scepter of Pharaoh Amenhotep II, ca. 1401 BC.
Monumental Ritual Sceptre (Uas) of Amenhotep II, New Kingdom Egypt, c.1427 BC-c.1401 BC.
For once, the superlative photos in the book do not give a real "feel" for the size of this incredible example of ancient Egyptian regalia. To gain that insight, it is necessary to see how it is displayed in the V&A gallery.
Even after the discovery of chemical dyes in the 1850's, the symbolical value of colors remained a central tenant of artists and philosophers. Vasily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and the other Blue Rider artists expounded the "spiritual" nature of color and art, until the drab, uniform brutality of World War I overwhelmed their bold experiments.
Utilizing color has often presented problems. The color Green in oil paintings can quickly fade, an obvious challenge for landscapes painters, like J.M.W. Turner who disliked using it.
The French glass artist, Emile Charles Gallé, however, mastered this tricky color. He created his Oak Leaf Vase in direct communion with nature. Gallé's personal motto was "my roots are in the depth of the woods." Gazing at this green-hued masterwork for a short time, we find ourselves there as well.
René-Henri Digeon, engraver (French, 1844-?) Des couleurs et de leurs applications aux arts industriels à l'aide des cercles chromatiques (Colors and Their Application to Industrial Arts Using Chromatic Circles), 1864; Book written by Michel Eugène Chevreul (French, 1786–1889) Aquatint with yellow, blue, red, and black ink on paper. Cooper Hewitt-Smithsonian National Museum of Design # ND1280 .C523 1864
Monumental Ritual Sceptre (Uas) of Amenhotep II, New Kingdom Egypt, c.1427 BC-c.1401 BC. Found in 1894 at Naqada by William Flinders-Petrie, in the temple of the God Seth. Faience (blue-green turquoise-glazed composition, with painted decoration): Weight: 143 lbs (65.0 kg), Height: 7 feet, 1 inch (215.9 cm), Width: (25.0 cm) Victoria & Albert Museum,# 437-1895.
Gallery view of the Victoria and Albert Museum, showing the Monumental Ritual Sceptre (Uas) of Amenhotep II. Victoria and Albert Museum.
Emile Charles Gallé (French,1846-1904) Oakleaf Vase, ca. 1895. Cased, wheel-cut, acid-etched and fire-polished glass: Height: 25.3 cm, Width: 15.2 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum. Given by Dr John MacGregor. # C.599-1920
Unknown Artist/Maker. British Hunting Coat, 1810-1820. Woollen superfine cloth and metal buttons: part-lined with woven sateen and cotton, hand-sewn. Victoria and Albert Museum. Purchased with Art Fund support and assistance from the Friends of the V&A, and a number of private donors. # T.100-2003
Isaac Oliver (English, 1565-1617) Portrait Miniature of an Unknown Woman, ca. 1605. Watercolour on vellum: Framed height: 7.5 cm. Framed width: 6 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum. Salting Bequest # P.130-1910
Ed Voves (Photo, 2021) Color spectrum.