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


“Nymphomaniac”- a study on hypocrisy

“Nymphomaniac I & II”, a film by Lars von Trier, 2013

A double trap woven with artistic values; a European story of satisfaction versus in-satisfaction and of sex-excess versus sexual abstention. It could be one film. The  reason that it is divided in two is mainly part of the plan of getting us in the end. Because this end is the black hole that sucks the whole story in and reverses it back to what we made of it. Incomprehensible? Not really; if you went to see the film, you are first of all curious, or you belong to the audience of Lars von Trier; so, cruelty towards your feelings, crashing of your beliefs, mockery of your aesthetic visions and none of this all, or exactly the opposites, are in the expected. So is the – unnecessary to my view – explanation in the end that the narrated extremes would not be so shocking if they referred to a male person instead of a female. Thanks, but then again we could figure that out without much.

After watching the first part of the total 330 minutes, it felt shorter than expected and incomplete, so I went to see the rest on the same evening. Whether entertained, shocked, bored  or not by the detached repetitive encounters bluntly shown, the confession of guilt and the references to our continent’s brilliancy in philosophy, music, cinema, etc. create expectations for a justified crescent; nothing like that happens of course; the “pain that must awaken the senses” part felt longer, even more because of it non concluding to anything; … and then once more we must thank art for being the buffer of reality.

The film could have a subtitle, like “-a European story”, “-pleasure and pain as daily practice” or “-a study on hypocrisy”. This last, the notion of hypocrisy, seems to bother von Trier mostly having been himself on the chair of the accused by journalists and the politically correct  who see the words and miss the meaning deliberately; that is how a decent living is made. Here to note that the chapter “Dangerous people” starts as a provocative joke. From that moment on it is clear that we are provoked to judge the persons and their actions and the one who put them there above all; a provocation that runs along the whole work; naturally.

As an artist in full control of his material von Trier makes a film of narration with flash-backs, some rules of the Dogma alive, some dead (where is the here and now?); but as said before, so what; they are his rules, so he breaks them as he wishes and that’s that. As form it is more built as a game of visions from the European cinema.

The film ends in a few minutes of blowing up the sex obsessed and the virgin and their stories too; whatever part we’ve taken, whatever prickled our senses (to say it in a civilised way) is thrown back to our face; live with it; angels and devils in one.

P.S. “The symptomatology of black bile had grown complex: depending on the humour on which it originated, and whether it was too hot, cold, moist or dry, it could produce lethargy or mania, taciturnity or loquacity, workaholism or paralysis, insomnia or stupor and anorexia or gluttony (showing in obesity or emaciation); it could make one a voluptuary or an ascetic. Though elaborate, the symptomatology gave a good accommodation for the ‘bipolar’ dimension of melancholia.”
Excerpt (p.140) from the book “The story of black” by John Harvey, Reaktion Books Ltd, 2013

Day 12 from the series "360 days", ink on paper, 2005-..., S.Kapnissi
Day 12 from the series “360 days”, ink on paper #ink, 2005-…, S.Kapnissi