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Art: Seeing the Past in Black and White

By Catriona Miller

A new exhibition in Oxford boasts about the Victorians' 'colour revolution', but people have always loved colour and pattern. Why do we persist in seeing the past as a place of grey and sepia, black and white?

‘Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion and Design’, currently on at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, begins with the assumption that we view the nineteenth century as sooty, smoggy and sombre. Visitors are presented with quote from Dickens’ Hard Times, Queen Victoria’s mourning dress and an early photograph to prove the point. It is a clever start to an exhibition which seeks to promote the idea of a ‘colour revolution’, but it also perpetuates the myth that the past is a monochrome place. Throughout history, people have been constantly surprised and often shocked to find out that humanity has always loved colour.

The exhibition itself is a fascinating mix of the bizarre and the beautiful, the interesting and the appalling. It does a very good job of presenting the ways in which science and technology, in the form of new aniline dyes and electroplating, allowed the Victorians to indulge their love of colour, pattern and excess. It shows how they plundered the natural world and global cultures for inspiration, regardless of the costs involved. It is packed full of all kinds of wonderful objects from Pre-Raphaelite classics like John Everett Millais’ Mariana, to gaudy striped stockings; from a brilliantly-hued, oversized and frankly kitsch Majolica peacock to minutely precise Medieval illuminations. There are moments which catch your breath: the terrible beauty of a necklace made of hummingbird heads, or the shockingly modern 1897 image of a morphine addict injecting her thigh. And there are times when you just stand and stare, soaking up the sun-enhanced sensuality of one of JMW Turner’s very best Venice scenes. However, running like a thread throughout is the influence of the past: manuscripts from the Middle Ages, Antique sculpture, old Middle Eastern Mosques. The Victorians were as surprised as we are to discover that the past was not all black and white.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 'Pheidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon', 1868, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, UK (Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this year the Met Museum in New York held an exhibition looking at colour in the ancient world, which included several replicas of what classical sculpture actually looked like. It is a shock. We are so conditioned to expect pristine marble, or sleek bronze, that the reality of painted-in eyes and hair, coloured drapery and gilded jewellery, looks almost tawdry in comparison. The idealised perfection of these gods and goddesses depends on their universal blankness: painted they become too human, too ordinary. The Ashmolean exhibition includes Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s representation of Greek painters working on the Parthenon frieze. It is a completely imagined scene, one of many in which the artist made the classical world accessible to his Victorian audience. Yet fragments of paint have been found on the marbles in the British Museum. Although we now know they were brightly coloured and patterned, it still requires an impossible leap of imagination to actually picture the building complete and colourful.

An exhibition currently showing at Charleston, the country house base for the Bloomsbury Group, looks at the fashions of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant and their friends. Discussing it, and his accompanying book, fashion journalist Charlie Porter talked of the shock of ‘violent...wild, bright colour’ in comparison with our view of these writers and artists which has been mediated through black and white photographs. Yet these were people who had been brought up during the Victorians' 'colour revolution'. Whilst the Bloomsbury Group were as radical in their transgression of fashion norms, like dressing for dinner or wearing corsets, as they were in their attitudes to gender and sexuality, it is a stretch to say that their love of colour, evident in their art as well as their fashion, is in itself rebellious or modern.

Before and after images of the figure of Christ from Michelangelo's 'Last Judgment' c. 1536-1541, Sistine Chapel, The Vatican (both Wikimedia Commons)

When the past is coloured, we expect and prefer it to be pale and muted. Cathedrals and churches are seen as places of stone or white-washed walls, brightened only by the illuminated glow of stained-glass, with any remaining decorations faded and fragmented like ghostly shadows. These might be evocative interiors, but they do little to suggest their original impact or role, crammed with images that told the Christian story for a largely illiterate congregation. Recent schemes have projected colour onto the façade of cathedrals, and restored frescos in Italy bring back the vibrancy of the original colour and design, but both can be controversial. When Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Last Judgment was revealed in 1994, after a cleaning project which had lasted a total of fourteen years, reactions were split between those who relished the new intensity of colour and visible details and those who thought it had been ‘tarted up’. Many art historians, having to reassess their view of the tortured darkness of Michelangelo’s late masterpiece, were initially sceptical. Perhaps it is just that we prefer the past to look old.

Another book out this autumn, Jane Austen’s Wardrobe, by Hilary Davidson stresses the colourful nature of early nineteenth century fashion. Criticising the pale muslins, florals and earth tones favoured by costume dramas, Davidson instead highlighted decoration, pattern, including leopard prints, and often clashing colour. Asked about the styling of Netflix series Bridgerton she argued "as far as I'm concerned they didn't go far enough". Bridgerton uses strong colour in the same way as it uses string quartet versions of contemporary music and energetic sex scenes, to 'reimagine' the past. The choice seems as radical and modern as the mixed race cast to viewers brought up on BBC versions of Jane Austen, but it is perhaps closer to the real palette of the early nineteenth century than the makers realise.

Seeing the past in black and white helps to emphasise the separation between then and now. How much easier is it to look at grainy photographs of First World War soldiers, than to deal with Peter Jackson’s 2018 colourised film They Shall Not Grow Old, showing trenches populated by men who suddenly look just like us. Seeing the past in black and white helps us feel superior: a better, brighter version of our grandparents and great-grandparents. We are also more inclined than ever to see the past in metaphorical black and white, as a series of increasingly polarised binaries. It is not just colour but nuance which is lost. The Ashmolean exhibition, admirably, has made an effort to explore both. It includes a striking, shocking sculpture representing an enslaved woman, A Daughter of Eve - A Scene on the Shore of the Atlantic by John Bell. The life-size figure, her skin colour naturalistically rendered using bronze-patinated electrotype, chains highlighted in silver plate, was exhibited at London's 1862 International Exhibition, as an abolitionist response to the ongoing American Civil War. However, the statue, created using the latest technology, was part of a trade stand: not given the status of Art but exploited as an example of craft and engineering. The display label reveals all this but allows exhibition-goers to come to their own conclusions. Seeing the past in black and white is not just dull, restrictive and inaccurate, it can be dangerous to.

Colour Revolution, Victorian Art, Fashion and Design is on at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford until 18 February 2024.

Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion is on at Charleston, East Sussex, until 7th January 2024.


About the Writer:

Catriona Miller is an independent art historian and writer on art based in the UK. She has taught and lectured on all aspects of art history and is currently researching women artists in British collections and issues of nationalism and identity in nineteenth-century landscape painting.

Twitter: @cmillerartlife


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