A History of Art in Three Colours - how the way we see the world was changed by gold, blue and white

Ancient Egyptians believed the skin of gods was gold, the Greeks didn't have a word for blue and white is the darkest colour of all...

Comments
A History of Art in Three Colours - how the way we see the world was changed by gold, blue and white
Written By
Tutankhamun

Gold: the colour of divinity

Why do we cherish gold so much? Its value is essentially its colour, this glorious yellowness that never stops shining. It’s connected to the colour of the sun and in prehistoric cultures all around the world the sun was the most powerful divinity: the bringer of light and warmth to the world.

Ancient peoples didn’t just think gold looked like the sun; they believed it was materially the same thing. For the ancient Egyptians, gold, with its eternal shine, represented the afterlife, and the skin of the gods was supposed to be made of gold. That’s why it was used for Tutankhamun’s funerary mask (above). By covering yourself in this immortal substance, you would yourself become immortal.

In the Christian era, instead of immortality, gold represented divine light. Early Church artists used gold not because it was expensive, but simply because it looked miraculous. In the great Byzantine churches of the sixth century, before they could build really large windows, they could flood a building with light by using the reflective properties of gold mosaic. It’s also why all those Orthodox icons have gold backgrounds; in candlelight, they flicker as if filled with the light of God.

From around 1500, heaven lost its monopoly on gold. In the secular art of the Renaissance and the Baroque gold became a substance of display and a statement of earthly power.

In the 19th century, the old dream of alchemy, of turning base metal into gold, was realised by the technique of electroplating mass-produced objects. Gold had, in effect, been democratised. Gustav Klimt’s shimmering The Kiss (1907-8) was an attempt to infuse love and sex with a sense of the sacred - but ultimately Klimt’s stand against commercialism failed. The Kiss is reproduced on mousemats and gold is now something we keep in bank vaults. If gold reflects the thing that every society holds most sacred, it seems the most important thing, for us, is money.

Blue: the last colour to be named

Blue is my favourite colour. Yet it was the last major colour to get a name in any language – Homer didn’t have a word for it; he described the sea as wine-dark . Experts reckon the reason for this is that there are very few naturally occurring blue objects in the world. It is in itself a very evasive colour. And therefore in our minds it becomes the colour of escape.

In the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli, an intensely blue stone quarried from one mine in Afghanistan, was brought to the West by Arab traders. After many, many attempts, the Italians devised a recipe to turn this stone into the finest blue pigment Europe had ever seen and called it “ultramarine”, which was soon more expensive than gold. Colour laws were passed in the 13th century to stop people wearing blue because it was considered too special for worldly use.

Artists, of course, were alive to its transcendent qualities. Giotto’s Arena chapel in Padua (1305) has a ceiling covered in blue, with little gold stars, to represent heaven. And blue became this great, Christian colour: through much of European tradition, the Virgin Mary wore a blue robe.

By the time of Titian, blue was released from religious control. His Bacchus and Ariadne (1524) is a scene of secular paradise, with an incredible blue sky, plastered with the purest ultramarine ever found.

From about 1800, blue became the great symbol of Romantic longing, the colour of our internal world. For Picasso, in his Blue Period (above), it was the colour of despair. For Yves Klein, who patented the vibrant International Klein Blue, it was the colour of obsession (his widow claims his fatal heart attack, in 1962, was triggered by poisons in the pigment).

There’s a lovely turning point to all this when, in 1968, photos from the Apollo 8 mission revealed Earth, viewed from space, as blue. All through the centuries we have thought of blue as the colour of escape from earthly things. But when we finally breach those horizons we find that blue is the colour of our own planet.

Greek Parthenon

White: the darkest colour of all

When we think of white, we think of the pure forms of antique sculpture. In fact, antique white is a fallacy; Greek marble was veiny and buttery; the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum (left) were “cleaned” to make them whiter in 1938.

In the 18th century, however, a German antiquarian and historian called JJ Winckelmann decreed that whiteness was the secret to the beauty of classical statuary. He probably knew that antique sculpture and architecture was originally covered in colour, but for him, white was the colour of reason and good taste and his ideas became very powerful.

As neoclassicism took hold, white became the colour of the modern Utopia. Soon, white classical buildings were cropping up everywhere. The White House in Washington and the Konigsplatz in Munich were grand civic buildings that bought into the notion of white as a symbol of unity and spiritual value.

American painter James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in White, No 1 (1863) was an attempt to subvert the fashionable sentiment associated with the colour. Exhibiting his work 20 years later, he painted gallery walls white and put white frames round the pictures, creating, in effect, the first minimalist “white cube” gallery.

Marcel Duchamp also chose white to distance himself from the people. His famous urinal Fountain (1917) ridiculed traditional statuary and emphasised white’s sterile coldness. “I chose white,” he said, “because it’s too hard to like.”

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, believed in the cleansing power of light. The great modernist architect believed that by painting walls white, he could wash the working classes better.

By the inauguration in 1940 of Mussolini’s Palazzo della Civilt Italiana – a monolith with marble statues of perfect Aryan Italians – racism was laced into the notion of purity. White may have offered a dream of a better world, but it ended the darkest colour of all. 

A History of Art in Three Colours is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4