In this epoch of instant "sense-perience", I often turn to solitude and inner darkness. It is BLACK. Black is restful emptiness into which anything may emerge and disappear only to reappear again. It is being in a state of inherent potential and immense possibility.
Black flourishes in opposites. "Favorite color of priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists–has always stood for powerfully opposed ideas: authority and humility, sin and holiness, rebellion and conformity, wealth and poverty, good and bad." In his richly illustrated book, Black: The History of a Color, the acclaimed author Michel Pastoureau tells the fascinating social history of the color black in Europe. It is this book that inspired me to write this blog.
In the beginning was black, Michel Pastoureau tells us. The archetypal color of darkness and death, black was associated in the early Christian period with hell and the devil but also with monastic virtue.
In the medieval era, black became the habit of courtiers and a hallmark of royal luxury. Black took on new meanings for early modern Europeans as they began to print words and images in black and white. During the romantic period, black was melancholy's friend, while in the twentieth century black (and white) came to dominate art, print, photography, and film, and was finally restored to the status of a true color.
A color never occurs alone; it only fully “functions” from the social, artistic, and symbolic perspectives, insofar as it is associated with or opposed to one or many other colors. Hence the example of the trade show booth design below, is a palette of opposites the all absorbing black and the reflective white.
For Pastoureau, the history of any color must be a social history first because it is societies that give colors everything from their changing names to their changing meanings–and black is exemplary in this regard. Black has always been a forceful and ambivalent–shaper of social, symbolic, and ideological meaning in our societies.
Michel Pastoureau is a historian and director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études de la Sorbonne in Paris. On the shoulders of giants like you we rest, we dream, we aspire and we thrive. Thank you.