The Rainbow’s Gravity: Color, Materiality and British Modernity owes Pynchon’s door-stopper not more than its playful title, but Kirsty Sinclair Dootson shares with the observant colonel a profound consciousness of color not merely as a spread of sensory perceptions translating a spectrum of electromagnetic wavelengths, but in addition as an array of chromatic results produced by particular configurations of bodily substances and applied sciences. As Dootson reveals, the historical past of color in trendy British visible tradition is concurrently a historical past of technical innovation during which engineers, chemists and artists collectively developed supplies, units and strategies that enabled new visible results, and a social historical past during which Britain’s imperial exploits furnished the means for these results (by the exploitation of colonial assets and labour) and challenged artists and audiences to recalibrate the standard values they hooked up to colors. In Dootson’s argument, every new expertise of color, from mass-produced oil paint to color tv, has taken as a vital take a look at case the capability of the medium to provide correct representations of human pores and skin tones – understood, in nearly each occasion, as white pores and skin tones.
The color of pores and skin, Dootson notes, ‘was constantly used because the benchmark for the chromatic constancy of any color course of’, from the unreal pigments that British chemists started to synthesise from coal tar within the late 1850s, to the electromagnetic marvels of color tv a century later. In every case, she reveals how, in searching for to reveal the colour-reproducing capacities of latest media, artists and technicians invariably calibrated their chromatic spectrums in response to the distinction between an idealised white complexion (the ‘English Rose’) and the darker pigmentation of these colonial topics, primarily of Asian and African heritage, whose pores and skin ‘was already imagined as a locus of color’.
Dootson charts the resistance mounted to artificial pigments by Pre-Raphaelite artists reminiscent of William Holman Hunt, who swore revenge on his provider when he discovered the delicately depicted flesh of his Christ in The Shadow of Loss of life (1870–73) turning ‘the color of outdated leather-based’. From there, she considers the event of the business color printing strategy of chromolithography and its overlapping makes use of in late-Victorian promoting – particularly the racist publicity supplies circulated by cleaning soap producers reminiscent of Pears – and in dermatological textbooks. A chapter on interwar pictures focuses on the exceptional portraits and self-portraits of the society photographer Yevonde Cumbers (‘Madame Yevonde’). Dootson describes how the event of color pictures, initially related to commerce, gave rise to debates concerning the ‘feminisation’ of the medium, during which color was dismissed as superficial and secondary to extra ‘masculine’ concerns reminiscent of composition and depth of discipline.
Transferring from Madame Yevonde’s nonetheless frames to post-war movement footage, Dootson traces the imperial associations of color cinema, explaining how British movie producers and technicians, having established a monopoly on the brand new American-made expertise of Technicolor outdoors the USA, deployed it within the service of a brand new ‘chromatic imperialism’ which, for a time, buttressed racial hierarchies in a interval of Britain’s imperial decline. Lastly, the launch of color tv in Britain within the late Sixties serves as the inspiration of a virtuoso chapter encompassing Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969), BBC take a look at playing cards, the UK’s first color broadcast of an opera (Verdi’s Aida, in February 1968), and the now infamous Black and White Minstrel Present (1958–78).
The issues of Dootson’s post-war narrative start to overlap with these of The Tiger within the Smoke (2018), Lynda Nead’s examine of the color and environment of post-war Britain. However the place Nead emphasises the emergence of a brighter and apparently extra numerous Britain out of the smog of Blitz-time black-and-white, Dootson takes an extended and in some methods extra uncertain view of the nation’s ‘kaleidoscopic historical past’. Her quantity is extra grounded within the materials particulars of strategies and assets than Nead’s. It is usually a extra specialised quantity than latest colour-focused works reminiscent of James Fox’s The World In keeping with Color (2021) and The Historical past of Color (2023) by Neil Parkinson; its worth lies much less within the broad sweep of a grand narrative than in its luminously detailed descriptions of particular applied sciences and strategies and the consequences they enabled – or, every now and then, precluded – in a rigorously demarcated set of occasions and locations.
The Rainbow’s Gravity concludes with a topical coda specializing in Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s lockdown set up Remembering a Courageous New World, which within the winter of 2020 lined the facade of Tate Britain with neon illuminations invoking a pantheon of Hindu deities for Diwali, and mixed a celebration of the artist’s British-Asian heritage with a crucial reflection on the legacies of British colonialism. Dootson reveals how Burman’s set up ‘makes use of color as a means of interrogating notions of British id’ from a British-Asian perspective and, fairly fairly, reads its title as a reference to Aldous Huxley’s Courageous New World (1932) at a second when ‘the plots of science fiction have turn out to be on a regular basis truth’. However one may additionally observe the phrase again to its supply in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Right here the enslaved determine of Caliban – Prospero’s ‘freckled whelp’ and ‘factor of darkness’ – evokes a fair longer historical past of entanglement within the British creativeness amongst color, race and empire, and lends additional assist, if it have been wanted, to the conclusions of Dootson’s magnificent examine.
The Rainbow’s Gravity: Color, Materiality and British Modernity by Kirsty Sinclair Dootson is revealed by the Paul Mellon Centre.