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A good day begins with the NYTimes, NPR, Arts & Letters Daily, Sacred Space & good coffee; it ends with a Grand Marnier. A brilliant day would be spent in London, New York or San Francisco -- although Sydney would be right up there. Unwinding in Carmel or Antibbes. Daytime spent in library (the Morgan, LOC or Widener) or museum (the Frick, the Louvre, British) with a healthy walk (around Lake Annecey); evening -- theatre (West End), or music (Carnegie Hall). A nice last meal: Perhaps the French Laundry or Fredy Giardet or Quennelles de Brochet from Taillevent, Cassoulet from Cafe des Artistes, Peking Duck from le Tsé-Fung, Lobster Savannah from Locke-Ober, Sacher Torte from Demel and Café Brulot from Antoine. Sazerac as an apéritif, Le Môntrachet in the beginning, Stag's Leap Cabernet in the middle, Veuve Cliqûot to conclude. Desert Island: Imac, Ipod, (I know, generator and dish necessary) Johnnie Walker Blue Label, wife & Adler's Great Books.

19.9.14

Map: What Europe Would Look Like If All the Separatist Movements Got Their Way

Map: What Europe Would Look Like If All the Separatist Movements Got Their Way

Keats

It was on this day in 1819 that 24-year-old John Keats (books by this authorwrote the ode "To Autumn." It is one of the most anthologized poems in the English language. He wrote to his friend: "Somehow a stubble plain looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm — this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it."
Keats was despairing about that year of his poetic life. In November, he wrote to his brother, "Nothing could have in all its circumstances fallen out worse for me than the last year has done, or could be more damping to my poetical talent."
But these days, Keats scholars call 1819 the "Living Year," the "Great Year," or the "Fertile Year." Keats had written almost all his great poetry during that year, including a series of odes during that spring and summer, among them "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode to a Grecian Urn," and "Ode to Psyche." "To Autumn" was the last of these odes. Keats died from tuberculosis less than two years later, at age 25.
"To Autumn," which the critic Harold Bloom called "as close to perfect as any shorter poem in the English Language," begins:


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core

Forgery

When, in 2011, the Times first told the story of Mark Landis — the prolific art forger who, over the course of 30 years, duped nearly 60 American museums into accepting his facsimiles of art works — the article raised as many questions as it answered. Where was Landis now? Why was he doing this? And did his donations — which he delivered in the name of “philanthropy,” sometimes while costumed in the robes of a Jesuit priest — actually constitute breaking the law?
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Mark Landis at Tribeca Film Festival.Credit Larry Busacca/Getty Images
A pair of young filmmakers, Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman, decided to find out. Their documentary, “Art and Craft,” which opens tomorrow in New York, finds a surprisingly candid Landis in his native Mississippi, where he continues to make his forgeries — he calls them his “arts and crafts” — often while watching television. Diagnosed as schizophrenic and living more or less hermetically since his mother died in 2010, the soft-spoken Landis is engaging if remorseless about his deception, and more than happy to demonstrate for the directors the crude yet ingenious ways he sets about copying works of art. (At one point, he became so brazen that he began to simply print out copies of his works, going over them with colored pencils and staining them with coffee to make them appear more authentic.)
A scene from the documentary film, “Art and Craft.”
He also seems unaware of his own artistic gifts. Speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., where he was in town promoting the film, Landis downplayed the skill needed to pull off such fakes, often diminishing the originals (of the modernist painter John Marin he says, “You could get a 3-year-old to do better sailboats”) while conceding that he may have “a modicum of talent.” Still, he is appreciative of the opportunities “Art and Craft” has brought his way — even if he long ago stopped being able to fool the country’s top museums. “I’ve gotten to make an awful lot of friends, and talk to an awful lot of glamorous, sophisticated people,” he said while sitting with Cullman, the film’s co-director. “It gave me something to live for.”
Here, exclusively for T, Landis talks about some of his most successful forgeries. On the below images, click and drag the slider to compare Landis’s versions (at left) to the original masterpieces (which can be uncovered at right).

Stuart Davis, “Houses Along A Canal” (c. 1914-18)
Offered to: Mississippi Museum of Art
“The picture looks like it was done by a 6-year-old, so it took no particular effort. I used watercolors and black crayon because that’s what they said he used in the catalog. When you’re doing one of those old academic drawings from the 16th or 17th century, obviously you’re not going to spend days crushing up chalk or whatever they had to do back then. You use colored pencils. They look the same, you know?”


Charles Courtney Curran, “Three Women” (1894)
Offered to: Paul and Lulu Hilliar University Art Museum, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
“My grandfather was a manufacturing VP for Auburn Automotives — he believed in the assembly line. That’s why I did so many of these, because you can do them like an assembly line. You get these boards at Home Depot, and you do the sky first because that’s the furthest thing back, and then you go forward. You can churn out three by the time a movie’s over on TCM.”


José Clemente Orozco, “Estudio De Tres Mujeres Desnudas”
Offered to: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, Art Museum of the Americas
“This is an easy one. It looks like something an untalented eighth or ninth grader would do. When I was 8 or 9, I noticed that I could put a piece of paper over one of the museum catalogs, even if I couldn’t see through it. I flipped back and forth and would remember it just long enough to get it down. It never occurred to me that other people couldn’t do that.”


Stanislas Lepine, “Terrassiers, au Trocadero” (c. 1890)
Offered to: Oklahoma City Museum of Art, St. Louis University Museum of Art, University of Kentucky Museum of Art, Mississippi Museum of Art, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
“The Lepine I liked because it’s nice and small. You buy the same boards at Home Depot as the Curran, which are the exact right width, and you just measure out the length. Just think: you can get three beautiful paintings for five-something. Well, after tax it’s around six dollars.”


Jean Antoine Watteau, “A Woman Lying On A Chaise Longue” (c. 1719) 
Offered to: Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, LSU Museum of Art
“What I do with things like this is, I do one that I can think of as a master. Then I run them off on my computer and go over them with some chalk and colored pencils and stuff. Before you run them through the computer, you stain the paper first, otherwise the ink will bleed. And then it looks fine. It looks like a million dollars. Or half a million, I suppose.”

Money

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Newly minted euro coins. Not to have an understanding of economics is a democratic deficit, John Lanchester argues. Photograph: Jan Bauer/AP
I graduated in 1987, the year the deregulation of the financial services industry and the City took hold, the year after Nigel Lawson’s “Big Bang”. Looking back, I’d argue that was also the year in which parts of Britain, particularly in the south-east, particularly in the City of London and in the new towers of Canary Wharf, began routinely to describe the world with a new language, what John Lanchester calls the language of Money. The lexicon of economics had, from Adam Smith on, always had a significant place in British political and cultural life, of course, but suddenly its inflections seemed to permeate everything. Back then, friends, seduced by improbable starting salaries, or simply the prospect, post-recession, of regular employment, disappeared to the world of bond markets, and leveraged buyouts, making good, perhaps – or, in that antique phrase, selling out – and developing the language to justify it.
In the 20 years between that moment and the financial crash, the rewards within those industries, as we know, and the products and services they offered, multiplied exponentially. The practice and language of the economy became first Americanised, and then globalised, and the money-tongue became an increasingly convoluted and specialised argot, in part designed to lend the sharper habits of the City a veneer of science. Jargon can ornament all manner of sins, and as fast as it was creating ever more elaborate get-bonus-quick schemes, the world of finance was generating euphemisms to describe them.
At the time of the crash John Lanchester developed the sense that we had come to live in two cultures, and that the new divide was not CP Snow’s old schism between science and the arts (we’d mostly given up on reconciling that one) but between those who spoke the language of money and those who didn’t. For a long time, as the economy (or the debt bubble) grew, this had not seemed to most of the population a gap worth closing. We put our collective faith in the idea that those phrases that peppered the margins of the news, “consumer surplus”, say, or “derivative markets”, or “supply sides” and “bond yields” were fully grasped and in the control of somebody, if not necessarily, quite, by us.
Economists and bankers had something of a mystique in the media, in that they understood, or appeared to understand, complex maths; the language by which they maintained that mystique meant, by 2008, that they never had to confront the fact, perhaps even to themselves, that the numbers didn’t add up. It became, anyhow, Lanchester’s apprehension, and then obsession, that “just as CP Snow said everyone should know the second law of thermodynamics, everyone should also know about interest rates, and why they matter, and also what monetarism is, and what GDP is, and what an inverted yield curve is, and why it’s scary”. Not to have that understanding was a democratic deficit: if you did not know what the words that described the system meant, how could you argue that it was broken?
With the financial crash it seemed likely that the former blind faith in the prophetic and analytical capacities of economists and bankers would necessarily crumble. One of the most shocking aspects of the post-crash political consensus was that everything apparently had to be done to restore that faith as soon as possible, and one aspect of that was to make the language of money much more involved in how we described the world. Since 2008, no Today programme story has seemed complete – be it about sport, or education, or theatre – without a filter of austerity politics and a price tag. The need “to speak money” even if to understand the point at which speaking money is beside the point, has never seemed more urgent.
Ever since the crash, Lanchester has made it his mission to try to translate between the two cultures, first in a series of celebrated articles for the London Review of Books, and latterly in his books. He had an inherent imperative to follow this vocation. Though he had pursued a career in literary journalism, and fiction (and sports reporting and restaurant reviewing), Lanchester had grown up the son of a banker in Hong Kong. Not, he insists, the pejorative kind of banker with whom we are now familiar, but the old paternalistic kind: supporting small businesses, overseeing steady and prudent investment, watching the pennies, all that. He had, anyway, a sense of discordancy in how the language of money used to sound and how it now sounded. At the time of the crash he decided to educate himself in the ways of the globalised City, and how they impacted on the lives of the 99% of citizens. The lessons of that education he communicated beautifully (and with great jokes) in his book Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, which can be placed alongside the books of Michael Lewis as one of the defining efforts to explain the financial meltdown to a wider audience.
Lanchester has a gift for making the abstract world of large numbers concrete. By the beginning of the current decade we had become used to seeing zeros everywhere we looked, one extra hardly seemed to matter. Whoops!, among many other things, put you right on that: a million seconds is just under 12 days, Lanchester reminded you. And a billion? That’s about 32 years.
In his subsequent novel, Capital, Lanchester made a spirited attempt to show how the vast inequalities rooted in those noughts played out in the lives of the residents of a representative London street.
His new book acts as a kind of glossary for those previous volumes. Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary feels like one antecedent of How to Speak Money (I always loved Bierce’s definition of “economy”: “Purchasing the barrel of whisky that you do not need for the price of the cow that you cannot afford”.) Lanchester’s lexicon approaches his subject in something like that mischievous spirit, but is also on a more duly diligent mission to explain.
Sandwiched between enjoyably baggy state-of-the-global-economy essays that take in everything from the (successful and underreported) pursuit of Millennium Development Goals to the digital contraction of the newspaper and publishing industries, he offers a compulsive gloss on an A-Z of financial terms, with a paragraph or three in explanation of each. Everything from “mortgage” (“Literally ‘dead pledge’, and if it were called that maybe more people would think twice about getting one…”) to more arcane terms like the “Laffer Curve” and the “Vix Index”, is subjected to his Johnsonian attention and wit. Mostly Lanchester retains his sense of the informed sceptic in this labour (just occasionally, enthralled by the sheer geekiness of the subject, he sounds of the devil’s party without, apparently, knowing it). In conclusion he suggests that “one of my ambitions for this book is that it’ll make readers want to go and read more about money and economics”. It may; but if you only want a short course in financial linguistics and the way they shape our world, this volume will do the job just fine on its own.

Clive James


Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.So slow a fading out brings no real pain.Breath growing shortIs just uncomfortable. You feel the drainOf energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever seeSo much sweet beauty as when fine rain fallsOn that small treeAnd saturates your brick back garden walls,So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descendsThis glistening illuminates the air.It never ends.Whenever the rain comes it will be there,Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.What I must doIs live to see that. That will end the gameFor me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,A final flood of colors will live onAs my mind dies,Burned by my vision of a world that shoneSo brightly at the last, and then was gone.

Assyria to Iberia

What are we losing? News reports tell us that the terrorist group referred to as the Islamic State is not only destroying architectural monuments in Syria and Iraq, but is also doing brisk business selling looted antiquities abroad. The specifics of these sales — what has gone where — are so far unclear. But you can get a sense of what might be heading for destinations unknown with a visit to “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age” at the Metropolitan Museum, a big, complicated, magnificently esoteric show of a kind the Met persists in doing better than anyone, even as audiences increasingly shy away from the unfamiliar.
In reality, you know more about this material than you may imagine. The bulk of the exhibition is set in a part of the world that’s in the headlines every day: the Middle East, or as the Met prefers to call it, the Near East, embracing Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and part of Turkey. And it’s territory that to some degree we all live in: multiethnic, multilingual and polyreligious. As in most of the world, nationalism is rife; rule is top-down; violence recurs. So do peace, neighborliness and cultural exchange, with material, ideas and people crossing borders and stretching boundaries.
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Globalism, fueled by commerce and curiosity, is the show’s overarching theme, though the globe that it’s dealing with is a relatively contracted one, defined by a specific time frame: the first millennium B.C., when the Age of Bronze became the Age of Iron.
The introductory gallery presents a world on the cusp of change. The old Homeric civilizations — the Mycenaeans on the Greek mainland, the Minoans on Crete — are on the wane, but internationalist traffic is fully underway. You can feel its crosscurrents flowing in the appearance of exotic objects, dating back to the 14th century B.C., on Greek islands: on Rhodes, in a ceramic painted with a Near Eastern theme called the “Master of Animals”; on Euboia, in a faience cat figurine with a distinctly Egyptian look and gold jewelry that has Babylon written all over it.
Then, in the ninth century, comes drama and trauma, as the Assyrian empire, native to northern Iraq and a type-A culture if ever there was one, assumed military dominance. A tight-lipped, staring stone portrait of one of its major kings, Ashurnasirpal II, stands at the entrance to the Assyrian section, like a rocket rooted in the earth. An inscription on his chest both spells out his cosmic sovereignty as “king of the universe,” and details the geographic coordinates of his realm: from the banks of the Tigris to the Mediterranean’s shores.
A lot of art, and most imperial art, is propaganda, and the Assyrians were committed self-advertisers. The high relief images of larger-than-life supernatural beings that lined their palaces — a muscle-bound, hawk-headed guardian spirit in the show is one — were, whatever their religious or political meaning, a species of shock-and-awe art, designed to spook you, bring you to your knees. Carved illustrations of episodes from Assyrian history, some scaled to billboard size, preached a uniform principle: Might makes right.
If proof were needed that beauty must be accepted as an ethically neutral concept, here it is. A panoramic seventh-century wall relief depicting an Assyrian clash with the Elamite kingdom of Iran is so lightly and deftly cut as to look, from a distance, like a fine-weave tapestry. Only when you get closer does its image come into focus: battle as an airless, soundless scene of mutual mass murder — war as we never see on the evening news — with men slashing, skewering and bludgeoning one another as corpses pile up.
In a smaller, separate related panel nearby, the chaos has passed. A post-skirmish banquet is in progress, with the Assyrian king and his queen decorously toasting each other in a garden. The equanimity produced by just rule appears to prevail. But if you look carefully up to the left, you’ll see a severed head — of the vanquished Elamite king — hanging in a tree.
You’ll also notice something odd about the faces of the royal couple: In an otherwise pristine carving, their eyes have been gouged and their noses and mouths chiseled away. They may have been vandalized by soldiers in the Babylonian armies that brought Assyria down in the early seventh century. No power lasts forever. And as much as the Met show is a display of imperial might, it is also a roll call of states and kingdoms gone — Elamite, Philistine, Hittite — leaving their DNA embedded in art that itself has only barely survived.
In one case, the disaster was modern. In the early 20th century, the German archaeologist Baron Max von Oppenheim (1860-1946) shipped a cache of monumental stone Syro-Hittite sculptures from northeastern Syria to Berlin, where he kept them stored in a former iron foundry. During an Allied air attack in 1943, the foundry was bombed and went up in flames. When hoses were trained on the smoldering ruins, many of the still-hot basalt sculptures exploded.
Nearly 30,000 fragments were preserved, and, in 2001, painstaking restoration began. One example of it, a six-foot-long statue of a creature with a human head, a bird’s body and a scorpion’s tail, is in the show. In its original palace setting, it served as a fearsome gatekeeper. In its present blown-apart, patched-together state, it looks unsightly and almost illegible, an irreversibly maimed casualty of war.
For obvious reasons, less conspicuous, packable objects have always had a better a chance of staying out of harm’s way, and the show, organized by Joan Aruz, curator in charge of the museum’s Near Eastern art department, is rich in them. Assyria certainly produced its share: A smartphone-size ivory relief of a lioness attacking — or is it embracing? — a young man is one of the outstanding things and, on loan from the British Museum, one of the great sculptures in New York at present. (A matching version, even better preserved, was looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003.)
But when it came to moving precious portables around, the Phoenicians — merchants by trade, explorers by nature, whose city-state lined the Levantine coast — commanded the field. In a sense, they are, with Assyrians, the show’s other great Iron Age power, though in a recessive, businesslike way. Assyria’s might was strictly land based; Phoenicians plied the sea, coming and going from ports in Lebanon and Syria to Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Spain, dropping off and picking up as they went.
Through objects they created, or copied or transported, their presence is everywhere: It’s there in a gleaming gilded silver bowl with Assyrian and Egyptian divinities in a clinch at its center; in cosmetic boxes made from giant seashells, a luxury item in vogue from Greece to Mesopotamia; and in statuettes of gods and demons so widely and commonly traveled that they were unlikely to be considered entirely foreign anywhere. Thanks in part to Phoenician mobility, Etruscans in central Italy, citizens of Cyprus, and Babylonians in southern Iraq were, at least in their art, on a cosmopolitan par.
At the end of the seventh century, more change. Babylonia became the new Assyria, as ruthless as its predecessor in erasing resistance, and as ingenious in visually asserting its own imperial brand, most noticeably in glazed brick mosaic images of lions and dragons that covered its palaces. Ahead lay the fluorescence of Classical Greece and the rise of Persia, marching in from the west, sweeping all before it like dust.
Looked at one way, the Met show is basically a story of multiple destructions, a fatalistic narrative sugarcoated with fabulous art. Seen from another angle — and neither view is true without the other — it’s primarily a tale of absolutely stunning human invention, invention inspired by reasons good and bad, but stunning either way. And for certain it’s a story — a reminder — of what museums are for. By telling us what, almost despite ourselves, we’ve managed to keep from the past, it suggests the scope of what we’ve lost and are still in danger of losing, and compels us to make every possible effort to lose no more.

Camus

A Life Worth Living by Robert Camus. Albert Camus (1913 to 1960), best known for literary works such as The Stranger and The Plague, was a philosopher of the absurd who was often closely linked to Jean-Paul Sartre and his philosophy of existentialism. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. It is small wonder that Camus came to view life as absurd. He was born in Algiers, then under the oppressive colonial rule of France. While still a child, his father died in battle in World War I, and as a teenager, he contracted tuberculosis. He suffered the global economic depression of the 1930s and then witnessed the unprecedented carnage and casualties of World War II: 

"For Camus ... [our] astonishment [at life] results from our confrontation with a world that refuses to surrender meaning. It occurs when our need for meaning shatters against the indifference, immovable and absolute, of the world. As a result, absurdity is not an autonomous state; it does not exist in the world, but is instead exhaled from the abyss that divides us from a mute world. 'This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.' ...

"As a literary and philosophical quarry, the absurd first appears in Camus' journal in May 1936, the same month he defended his dissertation on the subject of neo-Platonism at the University of Algiers. 'Philosophical work: Absurdity,' he assigned himself as part of his study and writing plan. Two years later, in June 1938, the absurd again appears on his to-do list, then a third time at the end of the same year. Though he is mostly at the stage of research and reflection, Camus had already decided to approach the subject more or less simultaneously through three different genres: as a novelist, playwright, and essayist. He had begun work on his play Caligula in 1938, though it was first performed only in 1945. As for The Stranger; Camus completed a draft just days before the Germans smashed through the Ardennes in May 1940. And it was at that same moment, when France still appeared, if not eternal, at least solid and secure, that Camus yoked himself to what he described to his former teacher Jean Grenier as his 'essay on the Absurd'. ...

"Though young, Camus was a veteran of the absurd. When still an infant, he lost his father in the purposeless mayhem of the Battle of the Marne; as an athletic teenager, he coughed blood one day and discovered he had tuberculosis; as a reporter of Alger républicain) he discovered, behind the universal values of liberty and equality of the French Republic, the grim reality for the Arabs and Berbers living under the colonial administration; as the paper's editor, he inveighed against the absurdity of a world war that, as a committed pacifist, he unrealistically insisted could have been avoided; and as a pacifist exempted from the draft because of his tuberculosis, Camus nevertheless tried to enlist: 'This war has not stopped being absurd, but one cannot retire from the game because the game may cost your life.' He was, in a word, already fastened on the lessons to be drawn from an absurd world. ...

"In November [1940], Camus confided to his journal: 'Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims.' "

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning
Author: Robert Zaretsky
Publisher: Belknap Press
Copyright 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

18.9.14

Color

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National Gallery, London
Jan Van Eyck: The Arnolfini Wedding, circa 1435
About twenty years ago I found myself in Washington’s National Gallery and looking for a way to slow down. It was hours before I had to be anywhere else, and yet I’d grown so accustomed to moving fast that I now needed a way to stretch my time out, to make myself linger over and look more closely at the canvases I liked. At this distance it’s impossible to recover just where I was when I felt the need to pause, just what I was standing before. Giorgione? The Master of Flemalle?
I do, however, remember what caught my eye. It was a patch of deep and lustrous green, a green that seemed lit from within. In shade it lay halfway between grass and holly, though it had been used here to paint cloth and not plants, a bit of drapery on this saint or that. I liked that green, and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to hunt it down, moving back and forth between the Italian and early Netherlandish galleries. It seemed like a new color—I couldn’t remember that precise tone in earlier work, in Giotto, say, or in the few illuminated manuscripts I’d seen. Where had it come from? Who had had it first? I looked at green and I looked at dates, knowing that the sample was too small; I’d have found the problem easier if only I’d remembered my undergraduate art history. That depth of color required oils, and had therefore begun in the north.
It was an amateur’s exercise, a one-person parlor game. Nevertheless, it worked. I did slow down, and it taught me this lesson: color has a history and a technology. And that is the argument that for many years the French cultural historian Michel Pastoureau has been developing, first in specialized accounts of such things as heraldry or liturgical vestments, and now in a series of more wide-ranging—and widely translated—books.
The sumptuously illustrated Green is his third such volume, following those devoted to blue and to black, but he insists in the face of his own title that no color can truly stand on its own.1 Its social and symbolic meanings always hang on its use, on the particular way it is “combined with or opposed to” others, and to talk about green requires that one speak as well about “blue, yellow, red.” Each figures as an element in a system of signification whose terms change over time; and the corollary is that no color has either an absolute meaning or one determined by its presence in the natural world alone.
Trained as a medievalist, Pastoureau argues that the history of color is an “altogether more vast” subject than the history of painting, and this book’s concerns range from Latin etymologies to the green neon crosses that hang outside modern French pharmacies. Still, many of his examples do come from the world of art, and I’ll use one of them to pry open the complex of questions, issues, and associations on which his work depends.
Art historians have always argued about whether or not to see the woman in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding as pregnant. Pastoureau has little doubt that we should, and points for evidence to her green dress—the same shade that had so drawn me in Washington. Green had been the color of hope from late antiquity on, when “newborns were sometimes swaddled” in it for luck, and in the Middle Ages it was often worn by marriageable young women. Hope can take many forms, however, and some miniatures put the color on pregnant women as well, conveying a sense of growth and expectancy that in this case at least doubtless does derive from the physical world.
So it seems logical, as Pastoureau writes many pages further on, that trash cans are often green, a bit of sympathetic magic against decay, for “green cleans, green refreshes, green purifies.” It means health, and it did so long before it became the name of a political party, “no longer so much a color as an ideology.” Yet growth implies change, change betokens instability, and green is in fact “an uncertain color,” ambiguous and at times even forked in its significance.
Those pharmacy signs suggest illness as much as health, and green has often functioned as the color of poison and disease; think of the pustular figures on the Isenheim Altarpiece, and even of that work’s dead Christ. We speak of certain greens as sickly in a way that has no parallel in talking of blue or red or black, and for that there might be a reason in the very chemistry of the color itself.
For this queasily lush and labile tint was once hard to make, as difficult to manufacture as it is omnipresent in the world around us. The early colorants were derived from earth or vegetable matter, but they did not dye fast or true, and with time they grew faded and mottled. Painters liked malachite, though it was expensive and tended to blacken; Veronese relied on green and yet also complained about it, wishing its pigments were “as good in quality as the reds.” And some greens, as Pastoureau writes, were literally poisonous. Many seventeenth-century dyeworks relied on a vivid copper derivate calledverdet whose fumes, even on finished garments, could prove deadly; while a nineteenth-century tint called “Schweinfurt green” that was used in wallpaper and upholstery came laden with arsenic.
Of course we can also make green by mixing blue and yellow. Painters knew that long before Newton’s discovery in 1666 of the spectrum, and so did many dyers, though the structure of their industry militated against it; few of them had a license to dip in both colors. In the nineteenth century such mixtures did finally produce the greens that Veronese had dreamed of, and yet to Pastoureau that process also underlines an epistemological problem.
Before the seventeenth century, “green was always on the same plane with red, yellow, and blue.” Our own distinction between primary and secondary colors hadn’t yet been made, and green was “basic,” no matter how it was produced. After Newton it was in effect demoted; another mark of its uncertainty. For Pastoureau, however, any given use of a color is as historically contingent as that of language itself, and at this point we can return to the Arnolfini portrait.
The woman stands in her greenery next to a bed draped all in red. That may suggest passion, but put those connotations aside for a second, and remember instead that the spectrum now makes us think of red and green as contrasting colors, and so sharply distinguished that we use them as traffic signals. Yet the color sensibility of Van Eyck’s day and long after put them next to each other. They were complementary, not contrasting, and in defining this picture’s domestic space they do appear to work in harmony, heightening and brightening and strengthening each other. They chime. Or perhaps one might say that they marry.
I’ve slipped from one thing to another here as a way to convey the heterogeneity of Green’s concerns. Pastoureau has little interest in optics as such, or in the kinds of color theory associated with Goethe on the one hand and Josef Albers on the other. But he seems to take in everything else: the world of superstition and legend, the history of art and of costume, the chemical and advertising industries, the semiology of both sports and the street. One of the most surprising pages inBlue is devoted to the azure packaging of Gauloises cigarettes, while Black traces our ideas about the truth value of black-and-white all the way back to Gutenberg. In this volume Pastoureau notes that the first revolutionary cockade was a linden leaf that Camille Desmoulins stuck in his hat two days before the storming of the Bastille. If green had not also been the color of the reactionary Comte d’Artois the tricolor might never have been invented.
Neither Green nor its fellow books on colors have a strict through-line of argument. What they have instead is a guiding assumption: the history of color is indeed a history and not a kind of allegory in which each hue carries a fixed and single burden. In that sense all colors are uncertain, and not just green. Further installments are planned on yellow and red, and while Pastoureau’s emphasis does shift a bit from volume to volume, each of them has a similar structure. They draw their materials largely from Western Europe—from those societies about which he feels himself “competent to speak”—and move briskly from classical antiquity to the present.
Blue starts with an account of the color’s unimportance in ancient Greece, where it didn’t even figure in Aristotle’s account of the rainbow. Green notes that some terms for the color in both Greek and Latin are derived from the word for leeks. Such early claims function almost as a tale of origin, and Pastoureau then works in a series of loosely grouped short sections, episodes that trace each color’s shifting cultural valence. Few of these sections are more than five pages long, and they are all accompanied by utterly apposite and beautifully reproduced images: a drawing on green paper by Dürer; a mint-colored sign for the Paris metro and an image from a fifteenth-century manual for hunters; or an impossibly young Jane Fonda, dressed in tartan and lying on an emerald couch that turns her gold hair green. That photograph appears on the cover of the American edition as well as inside; the subtler if less arresting French jacket simply frames the word vert with different shades of the color itself.
These are books to look at. But they are also books to read, and though Pastoureau is rarely exhaustive he does prove continually suggestive. Some of the finest moments here distinguish between the different green knights of Arthurian romance. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries such a figure is, well, green. He is a young man whose color is limited to his costume and “whose audacious and insolent behavior will disrupt the established order.” Still, such postulants want above all to be accepted, and aren’t finally condemned. The later green knight of the Gawain poet is a far more threatening figure, a man whose very skin bears that ambiguous shade, at once “terrifying and benevolent, violent and friendly,” and just a whim away from doing real damage. Pastoureau links him to der grüne Jäger (the Green Hunter) of Germanic folklore, to the “wild hunt” in which supernatural figures chase “side by side with the living”; a late echo of the tradition, he notes, can be found in Goethe’s “Erlkönig.”
Another chain of observations does even more to suggest the full range of Green’s inquiry. In the Renaissance the color’s chemical instability made it seem “false” and even treacherous, a “deceptive color, simultaneously appealing and disappointing.” As such, it became associated with games of chance or hazard; think of the green baize with which tables for cards or craps or pool are covered even now. The color here carries a symbolic charge that is inseparable from its use—gambling means green. It connotes luck, the ups and downs of a player’s fortunes, and it also suggests avarice. A sixteenth-century painting by Quentin Massys shows a money changer spreading his wares on a table covered by a verdant cloth, and in fact the Seven Deadly Sins had each their color. In early modern Europe pride was seen as red and black betokened anger, while in pictures the greedy Judas was often clad in green. In northern Italy, as Pastoureau writes, “dishonest debtors” might be clapped into the stocks wearing a cornuto verde, and bankrupts were later said to have taken “the green bonnet.”
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Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin
Albrecht Dürer: Apostle, drawing on green paper, 1508
Other scholars have touched on aspects of Pastoureau’s project, most notably John Gage in his 1993 Color and Culture.2 But none of them approaches his range or indeed his prodigality, a range that makes Green and its companions seem stuffed with rarities and wonders, an attic of all the centuries, right up to Babar’s cheerful lime suit. Pastoureau began his career with a thesis on heraldic bestiaries, a subject that in the mid-1960s seemed so inconsequentially archaic that he had trouble getting it approved. He has since written about the place of pigs and bears in the European imaginary, on seals and medals and the history of stripes, and by now he can best be described not as a medievalist so much as a historian of symbolic systems, of the different ways in which we give form to our experience.3
In his book on stripes he refers to Roland Barthes’s 1967 The Fashion System, and we might think of his work in those terms, seeing these volumes as an attempt to lay bare the changing social mythology of this color or that. In doing so, however, Pastoureau has also stayed true to his scholarly origins. Heraldry recognizes just six colors: white, yellow, red, black, blue, and green. Black now includes white as its binary opposite, and with that qualification, those are the colors on which he’s chosen to work. Newton’s spectrum admits only four of them, but that’s a point at which our common experience may yet outpace physics itself.
We live in colors. They fill our waking moments, they form a part of our every apprehension of the visible world, and they govern many of the choices we make about the ways we define or express ourselves. It’s rare, though, to see ourselves as constituted by the reds and greens in our lives, and we often pretend that such things involve nothing more than the paint on our walls or the inconsequential choice of a tie. At times we may think of color as an aspect of the history of costume, of denim or gray flannel. That’s what the literary scholar John Harvey did in his 1995 Men in Black, long before there was a movie of that title. It’s harder to conceive of costume as an element in the history of color. And perhaps there’s a reason for that, though one that lies far deeper than we might at first suspect.
The epigraph to Green comes from the first chapter of Genesis, where green itself figures, in some translations, as the only color to be mentioned by name. The epigraph to Black is drawn, in contrast, from Wittgenstein, who wrote:
To answer the question, “What do the words red, blue, black, and white mean?” we can, of course, immediately point to things that are those colors. But our ability to explain the meaning of these words goes no further.
Scientific definitions won’t help us here. Knowing the wave-length of yellow tells us precisely nothing about what it looks like, and we almost invariably treat color as but an attribute of something else, as in the visual arts the Florentines always subordinated it to disegno. For colors remain impossible to conceive of apart from their embodiment, abstract nouns that really only function as adjectives, blue flower or green light.
Pastoureau’s work stands as a long wrestling match with the implications of Wittgenstein’s remark, and perhaps in the end he gets no further than anyone else in saying what a given color might be in itself. Yet he also suggests that that’s the wrong question. Individual colors find their being only in relation to each other, and their cultural force depends on the particular instance of their use. They have no separate life or essential meaning. They have been made to mean, and in these volumes that human endeavor has found its historian.