• gerard van weyenbergh

The color 'Black" through the ages

Color of night and symbol of death, black structures our vision of the world and seems to impose itself. Michel Pastoureau invites us to go beyond our visual impressions and deconstruct our obviousness to unravel the secrets of the dark by analyzing it as a cultural and social fact.

We are in the company of the historian Michel Pastoureau, director of studies emeritus at the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, where he occupied for thirty-five years the chair of the history of Western symbolism. A specialist in animals, images, and symbols, he has been interested several years in the history of colors to which he has devoted numerous works, notably Noir. Histoire d'une couleur , published in 2008 by Editions du Seuil.

I realized this when I gave lectures: architects, stylists, and designers, often men, are dressed in black. There is the idea that with black, we do not make a difference; we do not make a mistake of taste. Black goes with just about everything and is relatively neutral in our contemporary societies. (Michel Pastoureau)


Listen again Tastes and Colors with Michel Pastoureau (3/5): Le noir 44 MINS


Tastes and colors with Michel Pastoureau (3/5): The black

All color notation is cultural and ideological. This is the fundamental thesis that carries the research work of Michel Pastoureau on colors. The historian has demonstrated the constructed character of our colorful representation of the world. Colors are not simply given to us in nature; they are also and above all named, ordered, classified by men within a system of representations and, above all, in relation to other colors.

What makes a color to be a color is not nature, it is not the eye-brain pair, but it is society. By that I mean that the problems of color are primarily social problems. (Michel Pastoureau)

A color, from this perspective, does not exist on its own, in isolation, but is defined in relation to other colors within a complex set of oppositions.

Now, such is the situation of black, a symbol, in Western culture, of chaos and night opposed to divine creation, conquered from obscurity. The inaugural "let there be light" of Genesis establishes a symbolic division between light and darkness, a division observable in other mythologies, such as Greek mythology or Scandinavian mythology.

In terms of colors, in any case, it is the West that imposes its codes, its values, its sensibilities, its systems. There is very little resistance. There are a few in sport: for example in judo, the color code, linked to the belt, indicates the strength of the person wearing it on the tatami; it is a Japanese system; the West has failed to impose its codes. But on the ski slopes it's a western system. (Michel Pastoureau)

Michel Pastoureau details the symbolic ramifications of the color black, its deadly connotation, the fear associated with it, and the look we have on black animals such as the crow or the cat.

This is true of all the other colors, they all have good and bad aspects, and these good and bad aspects go hand in hand. Simply, there are contexts, times when sometimes the good aspects outnumber the bad ones, and vice versa. In the heart of the Middle Ages, for example, black is indeed the color of Hell where darkness reigns; it is the color of the devil, black animals like the raven are extremely devalued. But there is still the good black, at the same time, which is the color of humility, temperance, dignity. The Benedictine monks wear a black robe.

Sometimes the color of the devil, sometimes the visible manifestation of the Puritan spirit, black thus appears to us in its ambivalences and its history. A story made up of ruptures and contradictions, a story of our imagination which demonstrates, to use the title of a work by Michel Pastoureau, that "A color never comes alone. "

© France Culture