Black is what you make it

A review of the book
The story of black,  by John Harvey
Reaktion Books, 2013

A book for those intrigued by black colour. It could be a pop-up book, an atlas with many dimensions and complex links between the exposed points; all drawing a story of a colour that is often discarded as not belonging and equally attributed to the “not belonging”. The story of black narrates in 300 pages the story of the colour black and its somewhat abstract characteristic, blackness, attached to art, to religion, to society, to fashion, to politics, to industry, to the environment, and of course to fears and prejudices, always inseparable from humans.

“One may speak of a will to find blackness within, because black bile is an invention, and its blackness another imaginary colour, like that of sin. For there is no black bile.” … For there is no talk about black colour without mentioning melancholia, depression as more modern term, as well as sin and the sense of an end, a death. But these are only a small part of what black can stand for; its story is much more fascinating.

John Harvey, Doctor of Letters of Cambridge University,  narrates with a privilege earned by teaching; of talking extensively and in detail  about a subject that can in the end stay an open discussion. Maybe every story must stay within reasonable limits so that what we call exhaustive does not become a dead-end. The author leaves the door open for further research and more stories to be told about black. However, what is narrated in this book is a story containing so much information that one has to come back to it, to one’s notes, to check again and combine, in time, with own thoughts and experiences. In that sense the Story of black is a study book that could become part of a curriculum.

Each reader will choose a part of the book to focus on, or associate with, while in the end art is what connects the dots; as a painter I appreciate that of course. As a black  painter at some stage of my painting life, somehow the most important till now, I found in certain thoughts of the author the spoken expression of that evasive sense of blackness.

“An element in Rotho’s depression –  and in the disappointment of other notable black painters – was the sense that they had led art to a final high place, and art had not stayed there.”

There are many ways to search for the ‘something more than’ ; black is one of them: a destination, as a safe place and an end, in one; a deep and pointless search at the time; closer to philosophy and music than to tangible successes and commerce (for those who care: the term creative industry hurts!)

“But still we call colours ‘delicious’: they give us a pleasure like the pleasure of taste. We might say colour feeds the soul, not the stomach. But still colour feeds, while black-and-white signifies”.

P.S.1 Some thoughts on black by the author of this article can be read here

P.S.2 I have referred to the book in this post too: “Nymphomaniac”- a study on hypocrisy

SpaceA, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 1999
SpaceA, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 1999, S.Kapnissi #blackandwhite


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