It’s a wonderful colourful life

People are captivated by colour, which transformed Earth long before they did and which today is riotously embedded in society and culture. Inconceivable that people could – or would want to – live without it, and that may always have been the case.

Evolution determined why (and how) living creatures perceive colour. One factor was the need to recognize different sources of food. In herbivorous primates, colour perception is essential to finding edible leaves. In hummingbirds, particular flower types are often recognized by colour. And it seems that trichromatic vision in primates (usually red, green, blue) developed as the ancestors of modern monkeys, apes, and humans switched to daytime rather than night-time activities and began consuming the fruits and leaves of flowering plants.

None of which really explains the fascination human beings have with primary and secondary colours, nor the intrinsic role they play in society and culture. Outside mind games, it is inconceivable that people could, or would want to, live without colour.

Russian-American painter Mark Rothko (1903-70) is well known for the large swathes of colour that dominate his canvasses. His paintings dominate the rooms in which they hang and exert a profound influence on people who see them. Rothko once wrote, “The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point.”

Rothko and other abstract expressionist artists were responding to a basic need of the human psyche. In France and Spain in more than 350 caves prehistoric art long been known that attests to this craving. The most common images – in what must once have been vibrant colours – are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer. But there are also tracings of human hands as well as abstract patterns, called finger flutings. The paintings have been interpreted as hunting magic, intended to increase the number of animals captured, and as shamanistic visions. Shamans would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance and paint what they saw. Of course, the caves might just as easily have been a rudimentary gallery of modern art whose entrance fee was a spare rib or a pair of woolly mammoth mittens. We shall never know.

However, the most ancient examples of cave art turn out to be red dots and hand stencils. Researchers have been using modern dating techniques to get an accurate determination of their age. Now, one faint red dot in a cave in Cantabria, Spain, has been found to be more than 40,800 years old. Nearby, on the “Panel of Hands” in El Castillo Cave near the village of Puente Viesgo, where there are stencils formed by blowing paint onto a hand pressed against the wall, one dates back 37,300 years. Apparently, the older date coincides with the first known immigration into Europe of modern human beings (Homo sapiens). Before about 41,000 years ago, it was their evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), who dominated the continent. Now scholars are perplexed as to whether it was the supposedly less sophisticated Neanderthals or the anatomically modern humans that replaced them who were responsible for the artwork.

In The Stones of Venice (1853) the English art critic John Ruskin wrote, “The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


One comment on “It’s a wonderful colourful life

  1. tillyv says:

    I have often been very dismissive of “modern art” and mixed colour blocks etc .. however, the blue painting in Tate Modern by Yves Klein is a shade of blue that I can gaze at all day long and has a profound effect on my mood .. so who am I to comment if someone else finds a block of red (my idea of nerve-janglingly ghastly) “speaks” to them. Whether a block of a single colour is in itself a work of art is another debate…!

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