Two recent and ‘illuminating’ articles by Kelly Grovier on BBC Culture ‘highlight’ the histories of using and thinking about colour in art, science, and politics, including in the early modern period. Her examination of ‘The toxic colour that comes from volcanoes’ considers orange pigment, that strange and often shocking hue somewhere between yellow and red which was for millenia harvested as ‘orpiment’ from a mineral spewed from volcanoes. The depiction of a velour jacket in this fiery colour serves as the allegory for ‘Inspiration’ in a 1769 ‘portrait of a generic writer captured at a moment of intense vision’ (pictured above) by the French rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The otherworldly qualities of orange pigment also inspired alchemists, who regarded orpiment as ‘a key ingredient in concocting the Philosopher’s Stone’–clearly ignoring any alchemical ‘orange alert’ due to its toxicity, and akin to Lord Percy’s synthesis of ‘purest green’ in the Blackadder II episode ‘Money’ (see this clip). Grovier notes that though ‘the influential European royal House of Orange traces its name back further than the actual coining of the colour in the 1540s’, William III recognised its highly distinctive qualities and happy coincidence with the name of his royal house, such that the colour was incorporated into the flag of Dutch independence and became the national colour of the Netherlands. Thus, as Stadtholders and monarchs in the Netherlands, the House of Orange has had a ‘ripe’ and ‘fruitful’ dynasty, albeit lacking the ‘juicy’ and ‘seedy’ gossip of such ‘pulpy’ TV shows as ‘Real Housewives of Orange County’.
The other article by Grovier, ‘The mysterious painting that changed how we see colour‘, looks at Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic painting, ‘T’um’ (which, she explains, ‘is a terse abbreviation of the tetchy French phrase tu m’ennuies, or “you bore me”‘–not a reference to the popular antacid tablets). This 100 year-old painting (his last, despite living for another 50 years) features a series of ‘readymade’ colour swatches, like the ones encountered in any paint shop. Grovier interprets the painting as a radical departure from earlier colour theories such as those of J.W. von Goethe and ‘the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul’: while Goethe and Chevreul ‘are concerned with how colours are perceived by the human retina, the disciples of Duchamp became obsessed instead with colour as a commercialised concept – a pigment of their imagination’ (well-punned indeed!). Fascinatingly, she links Duchamp’s commentary on the commodification of colour with an obscure early modern treatise, Klaer lightende Spiegel der Verfkonst, ‘an 800-page handwritten and hand-illustrated volume from 1692 that seeks not only to illustrate every conceivable shade of watercolour possible, but to explain how to create them’ by an obscure author named A. Boogert. Grovier’s point is that Boogert displays a similarly mechanical fascination and obsession with colour pigments through the endless colour swatches (with accompanying text) in his book. One can imagine readers’ horror at contemplating the nearly infinite possibilities for colouring masculine beverages steeped in Camellia sinensis when they utter, ‘Oh the hue-manly-tea!’–not to mention the outcries of animal rights groups when they discovered that Boogert was testing watercolour shades on his horses’ necks, which was clearly ‘in-hue-mane’ treatment.
In our classes this week: In EMSP 2000, Laura Penny regretfully ends her discussion of Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals and turns to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s highly nostalgic and romantic playlist of 1980s songs as recorded on a single cassette tape, Reveries of the Solitary Walkman. The songs include such weepy hits as Dire Straits, ‘Walk of Life (Got Hit By a Dog and Loved It)’; Gowan, ‘A Criminal Mind (I Stole a Ribbon and Lied About It)’; The Eurythmics, ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This: Lying in a Boat in Lake Brenne)’; and Madonna, ‘Like a Virgin (Touched by Maman for the Very First Time)’.
Continuing with the 80s pop theme, Jannette Vusich takes her ‘Renaissance Print and Cross-Cultural Exchange’ students to the Dalhousie Art Gallery to see their collection of ‘Prince’, e.g., ‘1499’, ‘Purple Reign of the Medici’, ‘Darling Nikki Machiavelli’, and ‘I Would Die 4 the Pope’. In addition, she may very well consider Leonardo’s designs for Prince’s assless fishing jumpsuit in her class on ‘Merging bawdy and sole’ for Leonardo Da Vinci: Between Art & Science.
Kathryn Morris‘s students in EMSP 3000 complete their consideration of nature in the French Enlightenment and turn to animals in Kant’s ethics, including not only the Cat-egorical Imperative but also the imaginary realm of morally autonomous chickens, the Kingdom of Hens. Those studying Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe examine how women accused of sorcery were thought to acquire property in memory aids in the form of ‘mnemonic possession’. Her class on ‘The Body in Early Modern Europe’ will discuss the ‘polite body’ as well as food and health, including the McCain’s-sponsored eighteenth-century British journal by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele on German ham-and-potato recipes, The Speck-Tater.
My students in EMSP 4000 will engage with Goethe’s Weimar Classicist play about the revolt of the Netherlands due to the pervasive odour of an ‘Egg-mount’. Sarah Toye (piratical guest blogger for Early Modern Times as well as TA for The Pirate & Piracy course) lectures on the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’–that proliferation of corsairs in the early eighteenth century before they all retired in their senior years during the ‘Olden Age of Piracy’. And in the Automatons lecture series, I will be giving a talk on Asian Robots & Orientalism on Wednesday evening. Among other things, I will discuss ‘Astro Boy’, the robotic hero of Osamu Tezuka’s famous manga–not to be confused with the Yiddish comic strip about an obscure non-Jewish chef, ‘Gastro Goy’, or the graphic novel on the life of the reluctant Cuban revolutionary ‘Castro Coy’.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Studies Program