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Book Review
‘Black: The History of a Color’
If you had ever thought that the history of a single color could be rather drab and dull, here is an account soaked in the shades of ‘black’ that will prove you wrong. ‘Black: The History of a Color’, by Michel Pastoureau, (Princeton University Press) proceeds in a chronological fashion - from early cave painting to modern art.

Black has always been a favorite color of artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists, priests and penitents; it has stood for powerfully contrasting ideas: rebellion and conformity, authority and humility, good and bad, sin and holiness, wealth and poverty. In this richly illustrated and beautiful book, the acclaimed author of ‘Blue: The History of a Color’ narrates the fascinating social history of the color.

Any history of color is, more than anything else, a social history. In the beginning, the author tells us that black was the archetypal color of darkness and death. It was associated with hell and the devil, albeit with monastic virtue, in the early Christian period. Black became the habit of courtiers as well as a hallmark of royal luxury in the medieval era.

The color took on new connotations for early modern Europeans as they started printing text and images in black & white, and to absorb Newton's announcement that it was no color after all. Black was melancholy's friend during the romantic period, whereas black & white came to dominate print, art, film and photography in the twentieth century.

Michel Pastoureau is a historian and director of studies at the Paris based École Pratique des Hautes Études de la Sorbonne. He narrates how black was restored to the status of a true color. An editorial note to this enchanting journey of a color’s discovery states: “For the author, the history of any color must be a social history first since it is societies that give them everything from their changing meanings to their changing names, and black is exemplary in this regard. In painting and other art works, it has always been a forceful and ambivalent shaper of social, ideological and symbolic meaning.”

The book puts the spotlight on mythology, religion, science, heraldry and painting, to narrate developments in the aesthetic, sociological and material dimensions of the color black. Art critic and reviewer Ken Johnson describes ‘Black: The History of a Color’ as a penetrating, erudite and thoughtfully illustrated cultural history of a color, adding: “What is interesting in sociological histories like Michel Pastoureau's is their revelations about how cultural attitudes happen to change.”

With its compelling text and striking design, the book is a must read for those interested in the history of fashion, art, or design. ‘Black: The History of a Color’ takes a cue from the author’s earlier book ‘Blue: The History of a Color’. In it Pastoureau traces the ever changing meanings of the color from its very rare appearances in prehistoric art to its international ubiquity.

He investigates ever-changing role of blue in society and popular culture as stated in an introductory essay: “Beginning with the almost total absence of blue from ancient Western art and language, the story moves to medieval Europe. As people began to associate blue with the Virgin Mary, the color entered the Church despite the efforts of chromophobic prelates. As blue triumphed in the modern era, new shades were created, and it became the color of romance. Finally, he follows blue into contemporary times to illustrate its meaning and role.