Books & arts
Colour in art
Paint it black
The latest attempt to plumb these depths comes from Anish Kapoor, a British- Indian artist whose work questions notions of perception. He has co-opted a revolutionary black material which, he hopes, will break completely new ground. “I’m really invested in the process of what is real and what is not real,” Mr Kapoor says. “What is an appearance? What’s a trick? What’s an illusion?”
The discovery in ancient Egypt, China and Rome that writing (and, later, printing) worked best when black was used on a white background gives black a special place in the pantheon of colours. But before the concoction in Europe of black ink from gall nuts (tumours that grow on trees where insects have laid eggs), real black was hard to conjure up. The early artists in France’s Lascaux caves drew crude animals and human figures with charcoal, which sometimes washed away. Most confected blacks, especially fabric dyes, produced a muddy purply-grey or brown at best.
It was only when black pigments—made from coal, lampblack or even burned ivory— were successfully mixed with gum arabic or linseed oil that it became possible to create the black gloss that many European artists came to love. Caravaggio revolutionised Baroque painting with his studies of darkness; yet it was the Spaniards of a generation later, when black was the colour of high fashion, who made black painting all their own, starting with the power portraits of Diego Velázquez and the brooding figures that haunt the tall works of Francisco de Zurbaran. “Black became the colour of distinction,” Philip Ball, the author of “Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Colour”, has said. It wasn’t only a hue in its own right, artists realised, but an enlivener of other colours.
The myth of Orpheus, who descends into the blackness of the underworld to bring his dead wife, Eurydice, back to the land of the living, has inspired musicians, poets and painters. None more so, perhaps, than Samuel Palmer. Retreating from the problems associated with the Industrial Revolution, in the 1820s Palmer went with a band of like-minded spirits to live in the Kent countryside where he witnessed nights that were blacker than anything he had ever seen. The series of works inspired by his nocturnal ramblings represented something of an epiphany for Palmer. He called them “my blacks” or “little moonshines”, for the intensity they project is due almost entirely to the blackness of his night sky, as can be seen, for example, in a tiny picture called “Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star”.
Unlike Palmer and other Romantics, Monet and some of his fellow Impressionists banished black entirely. Edouard Manet, however, took it on. When he painted his disciple and future sister-in-law, Berthe Morisot, in 1872, he dressed her all in black with a matching hat. With one side of her face lit up gloriously and the other darkly shaded, it is her eyes that capture the viewer’s attention; in life they were green, but Manet made them profound by painting them black. “Manet was the strongest of us all,” his friend, Camille Pissarro, once said. “He turned black into light.”
In the 20th century, Pablo Picasso used black to ask how God could possibly exist amid so much suffering. “Guernica”, his visual poem in black-and-white about the Spanish civil war, recalls the use of black in Francisco Goya’s prints, “The Disasters of War”. Perhaps the shade’s most ambitious devotee was Kazimir Malevich, a Russian artist who enlisted black to invent a whole new painterly language that elevated feelings over representation. He called this movement “suprematism”.
“Trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world,” he later wrote, “I took refuge in the form of the square.” Malevich painted many squares of different colours, but “Black Square” is the one people remember. Unveiled against the backdrop of the first world war and turmoil in Russia, Malevich’s “Black Square” marked a turningpoint in modern art.
Malevich was a huge influence on his successors, especially the American abstract expressionists, but time has not been kind to “Black Square”, at least not physically. These days it is shrunken, cracked and slightly miscoloured. All the same, the challenge that it represented to artists is as powerful as ever.
It was exactly a century after “Black Square”, in 2015, that Mr Kapoor secured the rights to make art using Vantablack, the blackest black ever created. It is not a paint so much as a dense coating of tiny “nanotubes”—“ Vanta” stands for “vertically aligned nanotube array”—which, instead of reflecting light, traps it almost completely. (It was developed as a material that might be useful in hiding satellites.) In a recent display in his studio, Mr Kapoor’s artworks seemed to have no shape or contours. A circle of Vantablack on the floor could be a rug-like coating or a bottomless hole; a bowl shape could be convex or concave. There was no way of telling.
During the Renaissance, artists saw that paint could be used to portray objects in three dimensions. Vantablack seems to remove the object altogether. Speaking to Artforum, a magazine, Mr Kapoor once said: “Imagine walking into a room where you literally have no sense of the walls—where the walls are or that there are any walls at all. It’s not an empty dark room, but a space full of darkness.” For the viewer, as for the artist, these works are another step in the quest for the meaning of black.