Black is the new black

The colours positively zing in this Wassily Kandinsky print Several Circles.

From prehistoric wall art to Wassily Kandinsky, a Black Friday look at the history of the colour black.

There has always been something most alluring about the colour black, hasn’t there? Or should I say shade? Perhaps it’s the very absence of colour that captures our imaginations. It’s black that’s put Berlin on the world map, isn’t it? What with its top notes of Renaissance evil and base notes of moody adolescence. So, to mark Black Friday, let’s take a look at what makes black the coolest colour.

Made first from charcoal, then burnt bones and then pyrolusite, as Neolithic man searched for ever deeper blacks, black (alongside red and yellow ochres and umber) was one of the first colours to be used in western wall art. And Indian ink, which dates back to about 3000 BC in China, made of soot and animal glue, were of course black. Coloured inks came later, but it was black that Gutenberg chose for his printing press, the contrast of black ink on white Piedmontese paper upping the legibility ante.

Ammonites chart a stunning contrast in this black and white print by Ernst Haeckel.

Ammonites chart a stunning contrast in this black and white print by Ernst Haeckel.

Alongside white, it was one of the first colours in most languages to find its name. In English, or rather Urgerman, “black” meant “burnt” to begin with and only later became defined as the catch-all shade we know today. While the Romans had countless words for black, differentiating shining black (niger) from dull black (ater), a word, which like its derivative “atrocity”, lent black its connotation of evil, the Great Plague rewritten as the Black Death. Despite being worn by cistercian and in Japan by buddhist monks, black had its first fashion breakthrough in 14th century Italy, when bankers, no longer permitted to wear the finest red, blue or purple dyes, embraced a new dye on the market which switched walnuts for darkly superior gall-nuts. In the modern age, it was Coco Chanel, who with her “little black dress” and monochrome palette saw in the absence of colour an absolute beauty we Berliners still cherish today.

Its beauty is absolute, Koson’s wonderful monochrome Japanese print of an Egret in the Snow.

Its beauty is absolute, Koson’s wonderful monochrome print of Heron Dark Snow.

The search for the deepest black reached new depths in 2014 when Vantablack, a shade of black that absorbs 99.97% of visible light, was “grown”. Harnessed by artist Anish Kapoor, Vantablack was used on a variety of artworks to create the sensation of looking into the void. A function which earlier shades “lamp black” and “ivory black” had been fulfilling for centuries, from Sánchez Cotán’s Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber to Malevich’s 1915 Black Square, while in Japan Zen monks were paring reality back to its barest and blackest with sumi-e ink-washed paintings, using just ink to allow ethereal forms to emerge from white washi paper.

Night (and gold) creeping in to this monochrome Japanese print Yoshiwara by Night by Kunisada

Other colours did eventually get in on the act – with aniline red going down a storm in Japan after Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugenie, showed off her madder-dyed boots. But it was gold that really drove a wedge between the monochrome coupling, making the leap from the more decorative arts of pre-Colombian jewellery, Irish illuminated manuscripts and Byzantine icons to Klimt’s Secessionist wall art and Yves Klein’s Monogolds. And it really flew in Japan when Sotatsu added gold to his black and white ink wash and calligraphy scroll Anthology with Cranes. Only the richest gold, it seems – another shade, another non-colour – was worthy to stand alongside the brightest whites and deepest blacks, lending every work the Midas touch.

These botanicals are given the Midas touch in this striking peacock poster set.

Throughout the ages, from Greek black and red-figure pottery to Elizabethan portraiture and oriental lacquerware, black has provided the perfect backdrop for all sorts of brightly shining colours. And while artists of all eras have experimented with it – from Picasso’s grey still lifes to Andy Warhol’s photographic negative Reversals, the lure of colour has often proved too great. Wassily Kandinsky's Several Circles proves a rare foray for the Russian artist into bright colours on a black background, his constructivist forms positively zinging with a luminescence that’s stood the test of time.

While the origins of Black Friday, the traditional start to the Christmas shopping season, might be unclear – could it be the black letter day that US citizens took off between Thanksgiving and the weekend, or the high-turnover day which finally pushed retailers into the black? Which ever it might be, this often overlooked colour undoubtedly has a history that’s been in the shadows too long.

Whatever colour print you’re looking for, has a vintage poster for you.


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