Illus. 57   Gustave Doré, Chaos watches, illustration to John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1866.

THE STORY OF BLACK

The Greek word melancholia (literally meaning ‘black bile’) defines our sense of depression and black moods. Yet the little black dress is the epitome of chic and has positive meanings. From ancient and classical times to today black has been used as a symbol, a tool and a metaphor in a plethora of startling and often problematic ways. The Story of Black is an exploration of our ambiguous relationship with this most ‘accursed’ of colours throughout cultures worldwide.

The ancient Egyptians used black as their colour of death, becoming the standard garb for millennia of priests of myriad churches and cults. The innate austerity and gravity of black has made it a perennial choice for the robes of merchants, lawyers and even monarchs. Conversely black gained popularity with the Dandies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in the street-fashions and subcultures of our present time. Artists and designers have always been fascinated with the use of black; from the earliest cave paintings, to Caravaggio and Rembrandt’s bold use of darkness and on to Rothko’s imposing canvasses, black as definition or absence has always been central to our representative traditions. White Europeans’ association of the colour with negativity, evil and ‘the other’ aided and fuelled the enslavement of millions of black Africans.

What is the secret of the continuing power of black to fascinate, compel and divide? How can a single colour embody such disparate values as evil, death, chic, and glamour? The Story of Black skilfully unpicks the social, political, aesthetic and sexual nuances of black throughout the ages.

‘A pacey tour de force for any reader with little or no previous knowledge of colour, fashion, religion, anthropology or art . . . An extremely readable work, which is no mean feat in view of the scope and density of the subject matter and the wealth of information provided . . . The Story of Black serves as an excellent, readable and even joyful general introduction to a complex topic.’  Visual Studies

 

‘Despite the formidable erudition, an accessible style and enthusiastic tone that encourage the reader to devour the text greedily.’  Tredynas Days

‘What is narrated in this book is a story containing so much information that one has to come back to it ... As a black  painter ... I found in certain thoughts of the author the spoken expression of that evasive sense of blackness.'  kapnissi.wordpress.com

 

Editions: Reaktion Books, 2013; University of Chicago Press, 2013. Translated into Japanese , Korean (Wisdomhouse, 2017), Mainland Chinese.

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

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