Color: A Natural History of the Palette
By: Pat LaFleur
If you come across a copy of Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette (Random House, 2002), take pause before opening and ask yourself at least 3, if not all 6 of the following questions:
1) Do I like history books?
2) Do I like travel books?
3) Do I like reading other people’s journals?
4) Do I have a pathological obsession with the color wheel?
5) Do I actually like the unrelenting, scrupulously detailed narrative typical of my least favorite Victorian author?
6) Do I have a lot of time on my hands?
Okay, I’ll back up. It’s only fair to say that Finlay’s book embarks on an admirable (and potentially interminable) task: to chronicle the cultural histories of the color wheel’s most ancient ancestors. While she admits that this fascination is not new, she’s right that it warrants continued pursuit - if only because it takes something that is easily shelved as part of “nature” and recasts it as a very human thing. In an academic sense, her scientific treatment of these pigments sheds a different light on why, for example, the Boddhisatvas in Dunhuang’s cave 419 appear with darker skin than the depictions of the Buddha in the foreground. Rather than reading the darker skin in a racial context, Finlay explains how these pigments simply darkened with time, and so, in one sense, her histories open new avenues of interpretation and meaning for us to consider. In an even more vital sense, though, Finlay describes the potentially bloodier side of some red dyes derived from the cochineal beetle, inhabitants of the prickly pear plant: “[The harvesters] made a surreal scene, with their hoods and gloves and glasses, and the constant hiss of the compressors echoing around the fields... The protection was necessary: one of those fine spines in the eye and a worker can go blind.”
She’s got stories like this for all the major colors, and it’s no secret to anyone who has moved beyond a freshman-level art survey that there is more to color choice than hue, saturation and value. Colors have cultural connotations and consequences, too, and Finlay resolves to flesh out these connections between hue and humanity.
And my, oh, my does she flesh them out. To a fault. Part history textbook, part travelogue, part art theory thesis, Color: A Natural History of the Palette takes what is a dense, rich topic and refuses to discriminate in its choices of detail or digression. In fact, where most lay history or travel writing relies heavily on careful narrative craftsmanship, Color reads more like a polished version of her apparently extensive field notes. And it’s not that her writing is bad. Finlay can certainly craft a sentence, a paragraph, and - like the cochineal example above - she has no trouble weaving drama into the production of these inks and dyes.
Ultimately, though, she doesn’t seem to know the boundaries of her stories. Take her chapter on the color Yellow, which moves somewhat erratically from Mumbai to Hong Kong, to Britain, back to Hong Kong, and finally to Iran - with references to New Zealand, Macedonia, Tasmania and La Mancha, Spain sprinkled in for flavor. To a certain extent, I wonder if this is a consequence of her topic: these hues have rich, extensive human histories. But I think Finlay limits her audience by providing such meticulous historical detail, particularly when it’s crafted as a linear travel narrative. As a whole, Color shows little notable effort to shape these histories into something palatable.
So my tone in beginning this review, I’m convinced, stems directly from the way in which I set out to digest Color. Some of you might be thinking: “Oh, he just doesn’t have the same passion for color that I do... I’m sure it would keep my interest!” Okay, maybe you’re right. But I’m not wrong in saying that if you try to sit down and read this book in one, two, or even five sittings, you will fail. The topic might be fascinating, but the writing fails to captivate. Take home the book if you must, but leave it on your coffee table, your night stand, or your bathroom sink, and read it bit by bit. Read it for the information, not for the storytelling. Otherwise, a rich, textured history of art will quickly be drained of all its color.