The World According to Color: A Cultural History

The World According to Color by James FoxThe World According to Color: A Cultural History by James Fox

The World According to Color by James FoxMost 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.”

The World According to Color by James FoxRed, 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.

Published in April 2022 A kaleidoscopic exploration that traverses history, literature, art, and science to reveal humans’ unique and vibrant relationship with color. We have an extraordinary connection to color—we give it meanings, associations, and properties that last millennia and span cultures, continents, and languages. In The World According to Color, James Fox takes seven elemental colors—black, red, yellow, blue, white, purple, and green—and uncovers behind each a root idea, based on visual resemblances and common symbolism throughout history. Through a series of stories and vignettes, the book then traces these meanings to show how they morphed and multiplied and, ultimately, how they reveal a great deal about the societies that produced them: reflecting and shaping their hopes, fears, prejudices, and preoccupations. Fox also examines the science of how our eyes and brains interpret light and color, and shows how this is inherently linked with the meanings we give to hue. And using his background as an art historian, he explores many of the milestones in the history of art—from Bronze Age gold-work to Turner, Titian to Yves Klein—in a fresh way. Fox also weaves in literature, philosophy, cinema, archaeology, and art—moving from Monet to Marco Polo, early Japanese ink artists to Shakespeare and Goethe to James Bond. By creating a new history of color, Fox reveals a new story about humans and our place in the universe: second only to language, color is the greatest carrier of cultural meaning in our world.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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