The World According to Color: A Cultural History by James Fox
Most people wouldn’t think of a squashed fly as the gateway to a world of beauty and art, but that was exactly the path art historian James Fox took, describing in the opening pages of The World According to Color (2022), how when he “first started seeing color at the age of six,” after his mother swatted a fly and James:
leaned in to examine the carcass … [It] looked like a precious jewel. Its eye blushed with the deep burgundy of ripe cherries, its wigs shimmered like miniature rainbows, and the emerald greens and sapphire blues on its abdomen exploded into copper and gold. I had never seen anything so beautiful.
From the wonderfully vivid opening, and after a relatively brief foray into the physics, biology, and evolution of color perception, Fox takes his readers on a journey through seven colors (black, red, yellow, blue, white, purple, and green).
While he delves into the nuts and bolts of the colors, explaining the creation of certain dyes, for instance, Fox’s larger focus is on the intersection of color and culture. The ways, for instance, that despite how “many ancient belief systems hinged on a dualism of light and darkness,” the connection between black and evil or darkness (versus absence) “wasn’t inevitable — Many ancient societies thought black was no more sinister than any other color, and some even rather admired it.” While some early societies, such as the Romans, associated black with death, it took the Christian Church, especially beginning with St Jerome, to “establish the white-good/black-evil polarity that still exists today.”
Red, meanwhile, is both more ancient and more grounded, literally, in the form of the red ochre mined and employed not just by homo sapiens but by our cousins the Neanderthals and perhaps by Home erectus over a million years ago. Fox explains several reasons our ancestors were so fascinated by red, including its obvious connection to the necessary substance pumping through our veins.
For Yellow, Fox explores its real world analogues in the sun (which Fox points out isn’t really yellow) and gold, as well as various ways of forming the color, such as saffron and turmeric, taking us on a journey across several continents and through subjects such as Buddhist monks, the yellow star Jews were forced to wear, the discovery of primary colors, the science of materials aging into yellow, and the artwork of Joseph Turner, who “spent hours studying its myriad iterations, using more yellow pigments than any other — so many in fact, that scholars have yet finished cataloging them.”
That gives a sense of how wide-ranging Fox’s explorations are. And I mean wide-ranging.
I could also add discussion of baboon genitalia, The Wizard of Oz, blue sirens on emergency vehicles, Chinese lacquerware, the Communist Party, mandarin fish, Romantic poetry, classical sculptures, racism, “mauve mania”, and more.
Thus, while some of the information may be familiar to people who have read casually about the subject matter (the use of tiny insects for red dye, the connection between purple and elites, rods and cones in the eyes), Fox’s curious nature, peripatetic eye, depth of research, and breadth of coverage ensures that the vast majority of readers will find lots of new information here, all of its fascinating, while the focus on morality/values and social history and interpretation (beyond western culture) adds a level of analysis and depth that isn’t always found in other works on color.
Nor is this a dryly academic tone. Fox’s voice is consistently inviting and engaging and that, combined with the intelligent discussion of content, makes this an easy work to recommend.