Fortheloveof White

Vorige week kocht ik een nieuw boek om mij verder te verdiepen in de kleuren van mijn winkel concept. Afgelopen drie maanden kleurde de winkel geheel in roze en had zelden mannen die iets roze kochten voor zichzelf, dus was ik eens gaan opzoeken hoe het komt dat kleur zo verbonden word aan gender. Ik kwam terecht op een interview met schrijver Kassia St Clair. Ze vertelde dat roze pas in het midden van de twintigste eeuw als kleur voor meisjes en vrouwen werd gezien. Niet veel generaties terug was dit namelijk geheel anders. Jonge jongetjes droegen vaak roze omdat het een verzachte versie was van het rood; een kleur dat stond voor macht en mannelijkheid omdat dit de kleur die in het leger werd gebruik en gedragen. Blauw daarentegen was een zachte vrouwelijke kleur en de symbolische kleur van de heilige maagd Maria. Na het lezen van het interview wist ik dat ik dit boek moest hebben omdat ik zo benieuwd was naar alle andere verhalen over kleur; pigmenten, de geschiedenis en culturele verschillen. Omdat mijn winkel nu geheel in het teken staat van wit wil ik graag de introductie van het witte hoofdstuk met jullie delen.

“For all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood”

So wrote Herman Melville in the forty-second chapter of Moby Dick. Entitled ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’, the passage is a veritable homily on the troubling, bisected symbolism of this colour. Because of its link with light, white had laid deep roots in the human psyche and, like anything divine, can simultaneously inspire awe and instil terror in the human heart.

Like the eponymous albino levianthan of Melville’s novel, white has an otherness to it. If colours were people, it would be admired, but it probably wouldn’t be popular: it is just a little too exclusive, autocratic and neurotic.

Lead White pigment in de maak

For a start, it’s tricky to make. You can’t reach it by mixing together other coloured paints, you have to begin with a special white pigment. And anything you add to that pigment will only take it in one direction: towards black. This is due to the way our brains process light. The more pigments there are in a mixture, the less light is reflected back into our eyes, and the darker and sludgier it becomes. Most children will, at some stage, try mixing all their favorite paints together expecting to make an extra special colour. That such a mixture results not in something beautiful, but in an irretrievably murky dark grey, is one of life’s hard truths.

Lead White in Vermeer’s schilderij ‘Schrijvende vrouw met dienstbode’

Fortunatly, artists have always had relatively easy access to white thanks to one of the most popular pigments known to many: lead white. Pliny the Elder described the process of making it in the first century and it continued to be the white of choice in art for centuries, despite being highly toxic. In the eighteenth century Guyton de Morveau, a chemist and politician, was asked to find a safer alternative by the French government. In 1782 he reported that a lab technician by the name Courtois was synthesising a white called zinc oxide at the Dijon Academy. Butalthough it wasn’t toxic and didn’t darken when exposed to sulphurous gases, it was less opaque, dried slowly in oils and, most importantly, was about four times the price of lead white. It was also brittle – the fine tracery of cracks in many painting of that era can be laid at its door. A third metal-based white was more succesful. Titanium white, first mass produced in 1916, was both brighter and more opaque then its rivals and by the end of the Second World War it had conquered 80% of the market. Now, everything from the markings on tennis courts to pills and toothpaste uses this sparkling pigment, while its older siblings languishes on the sidelines.

White has long been intricately connected with money and power. Fabrics, including wool  and cotton, had to be heavily processed in order to appear white. Only very wealthy, supported by battalions of staff, could afford to keep the fresh lace and linen cuffs, ruffs and cravats worn in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries pristine.

For many white is seen as positive or as having transcendent, religious quality. It is the Chinese colour of death and mourning. In the West and Japan, brides wear it because it is a colour symbolic of sexual purity. And despit, or perhaps because, white so readily shows the dirt, it has also become associated with cleanliness. “White goods”, tablecloths and lab coats are all defiant in their spotless impracticality, daring users to even think about spilling anything.

Laocoön and His Sons

The foundations of the architectural idolisation of white are built on a mistake. For centuries the bleached bone colour of classical Greek and Roman ruins provided the keystone for western aesthetics. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that researchers discovered that classical statuary and buildings were usually brightly painted. Many western aesthetes refused to believe it. The sculptor Auguste Rodin is said to have beat his chest in sorrow and said: ‘ I feel it in here that they were never coloured’

– Kassia St Clair – The Secret Lives Of Colour



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