Blacker Than Black: Technology And Color In Art

For most of us, paint colors are something we think about only when we’re engaged in home improvement projects, or when we’re judging renovations made by other people on television. For artists however, selecting the right color of paint can make an enormous difference in the way that their work is perceived, and indeed valued by their patrons. In the past, naturally-occurring materials like gold and gemstones were used to create the most costly pigments. Today however, there is a major battle raging right now over the creation of technologically advanced black paint.

Now, we’re not talking any ordinary, ho-hum, Henry Ford you-can-have-any-color-Model-T-you-want-so-long-as-it’s black, black. Rather, this is a black which is unlike anything you’ve seen before: one that acts in much the same way as a black hole does in space, sucking all light into it, and creating what to the human eye appears to be a two-dimensional surface. In recent years, the search for blacker-than-black paint has become something of a grail quest in the world of Contemporary Art.

Back in 2014, a British tech company called Surrey NanoSystems came up with a carbon nanotube-based fabric, whose color was described as “the new black to end all blacks.” Called “Vantablack”, its creators originally intended for it to be used as a material with military and aerospace applications. As you can see here, an object covered in Vantablack seems to virtually disappear, since the surface of the treated object reflects almost no light whatsoever.

Vantablack

In 2016, sculptor Anish Kapoor signed an exclusive deal with the creators of Vantablack, becoming the sole artist in the world permitted to use Vantablack in his work. This caused an uproar in the Contemporary Art community, which wanted to gain access to this blacker-than-black substance. A hashtag campaign was undertaken on social media called “#ShareTheBlack”, trying to convince Vantablack’s manufacturers to allow wider use of the material. Ultimately, this descended into the childishness that one has come to expect from social media.

Fortunately for the Contemporary Art world, despite its regular criticism of capitalism in an effort to bite the hand that feeds it, free-market competition has come to the rescue. For now an American company, NanoLab, Inc., has come up with its own version of carbon nanotube black, called “Singularity Black” – and unlike Vantablack, it will be available to anyone to use. On its website, NanoLab describes how the pigment works, which I won’t even attempt to explain it to you because I don’t fully understand it myself. Those of you who have science backgrounds will no doubt appreciate the technology at work here, whereas for my part, being a giant nerd, I appreciate the fact that it was most likely named “Singularity” for reasons related to Star Trek.

While the technology involved in the creation of these new pigments is new, this is not the first time that the art world has obsessed over the production of a particular paint color. If you’ve studied any art history, then you know that purple was highly prized by the Ancients: particularly that which came from Phoenicia, where there was an entire industry dedicated to the creation of what was known as “Tyrian Purple” from the labor-intensive processing of a particular species of sea snail. It was so costly and taxed so heavily under sumptuary laws, that its use was normally reserved to monarchs. One of my favorite objects in art history featuring this pigment is the magnificent Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus, a 6th Century illuminated Book of the Gospels that was created for the Byzantine Emperors.

Purple

Later on, the color blue came to hold enormous importance in Western art, from the Middle Ages up through the Baroque era. Although there were many ways to obtain blue from readily available sources such as indigo plants, the most prized and costly type of blue was typically called “aquamarine”. It was made from ground-up lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that had to be imported to Europe, primarily from present-day Afghanistan. Aquamarine was so expensive to produce, that many archives still preserve the written contracts between patrons and artists executed during these centuries, specifying the amount, quality, and cost of the highly prized blue pigment to be used in different parts of a particular commission.

The quest for the perfect blue made works such as Philippe de Champaigne’s “Jesus Among The Doctors” (1648), shown below, very expensive to produce. Notice how the blue mantle of the Virgin Mary is a very different hue than the blue of the sky behind her, which would have been painted using a less costly pigment. If you see an Old Master painting like this, where there are figures dressed in blue, and the blue garments seem to glow and stand out from the other blues in the picture, it’s almost certainly a lapis lazuli-based blue paint that you’re looking at.

Finding

With the arrival of the Modern Age, we also arrive at the color dominance of black. If purple was the most prized pigment of the Romans and Byzantines, and costly blue helped to define Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque art, then without question black is the single most important color in Modern and Contemporary Art. Apart from a few exceptions, most of the more prominent movements in art history over the last century have relied heavily upon black paint. For example, Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica” (1937) – arguably the most important painting in all of 20th century Art – is essentially a monochromatic painting, dominated by the color black.

Picasso

Certainly Modern and Contemporary artists have looked to other colors as well, and individual artists are often associated with their use – both Marc Chagall and David Hockney loved blue, for example, albeit very different shades of it. But whether you examine the work of important artists painting in the styles of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, or Pop Art, they’re all relying heavily on the use of the color black – as these examples show:

Magritte

Pollock

Rothko

Warhol

As artists begin to play with these new, incredibly dense blacks, which are unlike any black pigment in the history of art up to now, we are left with some tantalizing questions. Which is better, Vantablack or Singularity Black? What new and interesting works of art will we see emerge from the use of this previously unknown form of black paint? How will these new, technologically advanced pigments hold up over time? Will they continue to grab the eye, centuries from now, in the way that say, a Renaissance painting featuring blues made from lapis lazuli still does? Or will they prove to be little more than a fad, with a limited impact on art history?

Only time will tell.

Peter of Bethsaida: Archaeology, Art, and Audacity

I’m going to attempt to tie together a few threads this morning, as I often do in these pages, and see whether the whole thing hangs together. This past Sunday, Christians celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration, while today is the Feast of St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers. Combine these two commemorations with a fascinating new archaeological discovery that will prove of great interest to Christians everywhere, and throw in some great works of art, and away we go. Bear with me, gentle reader.

On the news-y side of things, archaeologists in Israel believe they have found the site of Bethsaida the hometown of the Apostles St. Peter, St. Andrew, and St. Philip, near the Sea of Galilee. The Roman city of Julias was built on the site of Bethsaida, and is mentioned by the Roman historian Josephus, but its location was lost down the centuries. With the remains of a Roman bath house and other substantial finds at the dig site, scientists are now convinced that they have found the right spot. As of right now, the public isn’t allowed to visit the dig, but no doubt when it becomes accessible this site is going to be added to the pilgrimage trail for Christians visiting Galilee.

Bethsaida’s most famous resident, St. Peter, plays a major role in the Feast of the Transfiguration, which Christians celebrated this past Sunday. As retold in the Gospels, Jesus, accompanied by the Apostles Peter, James, and John, climbed up a mountain and revealed His true nature to these three closest followers, in a vision which was accompanied by the appearances of Moses and Elijah with the transfigured Christ. In St. Matthew’s recounting of the event, we read the following:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.

Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

St. Matthew 17:1-9

The Transfiguration has been portrayed many times in art, perhaps most famously in Raphael’s final masterpiece, left unfinished at his untimely death in 1520 at the age of 37. The depiction of Jesus in this painting, in particular, has proven to be hugely influential not only in art, but in popular culture. In Raphael’s interpretation of the event, St. Peter is clothed in blue and yellow, shown below and to the right of the transfigured Jesus. He has just finished offering to put up three tents, for Christ and the two Prophets, and is now lying on the ground and twisting his upper body so as to cover his face from the blinding light:

This beautiful but rather complex depiction of the Transfiguration contrasts sharply with the simpler and perhaps more profound one rendered by Blessed Fra Angelico, the Dominican friar and Early Renaissance artist. This particular fresco was painted on the wall of a cell in the Dominican friary of San Marco, outside of Florence, sometime between 1440-1442. In his more solemn and minimalist imagining of this event, Fra Angelico’s image is one of great stillness, rather than one of movement and energy.

Like Raphael, Fra Angelico places St. Peter to the lower right of Jesus, and the Prince of the Apostles still shields his eyes from the celestial light, but this time we see him is in a more upright position: unlike the other two Apostles, St. Peter is trying to see what is happening. Notice also that on the extreme left and right of the picture we see two individuals who were not present at the Transfiguration, but who are shown meditating about it: the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, and St. Dominic, whose feast day we celebrate today. The presence of such individuals is anachronistic, historically speaking, but was quite common in sacred art. It often provided a context for placement of the work of art – such as in this case, inside a Dominican friary, and bearing in mind that Dominicans have a particular devotion to the Blessed Mother.

While the individual focus of not only these works of art, but of course the Gospel retellings themselves, is Jesus, they also give us an opportunity to think about the character of St. Peter, and how he grew so far beyond what could reasonably have been expected of someone hailing from Galilee. I was particularly struck by this change in his character when reading-listening to the 2nd reading from Mass on Sunday, which was taken from the Second Letter of St. Peter. It personalizes the Transfiguration in a way which shows us that St. Peter is no longer that provincial fisherman, nor merely an easily-frightened follower of a maybe-Messiah, but a figure of authority, strength, and conviction for the first Christians to turn to:

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
2 St. Peter 1:16-19

This absolutely explicit defense of the reality of the Transfiguration – and indeed, of the Resurrection, for St. Peter and the other two were enjoined by Christ not to tell anyone about the Transfiguration until after His Resurrection – shows us how far St. Peter has come. He may have started life uneventfully enough, in small-town Bethsaida, but by the time the scribe is writing this final letter to his dictation, St. Peter is imprisoned in Rome, and is aware that he is about to die because of his faith in Christ. “Therefore, I will always remind you of these things,” he notes, “even though you already know them and are established in the truth you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this ‘tent,’ to stir you up by a reminder, since I know that I will soon have to put it aside, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me I shall also make every effort to enable you always to remember these things after my departure.” (2 St. Peter 1:12-15)

With a last look at the two paintings we considered today, then, and in the light of the discovery of St. Peter’s birthplace, perhaps the takeaway for us today is one of courage. No matter what forgotten town we start from, and no matter where we find ourselves – in the cell of a monastery, the cell of a prison, or a cell of our own construction – we must be brave in preaching what we know to be true. We may not have the opportunity or indeed the calling to go out and preach the Gospel fearlessly to great crowds, as St. Peter and St. Dominic did. Yet in our own small lives and small towns, we can preach with equal bravery, when we stand up for the things that we know are right in spite of both ourselves, and the rest of the world standing in opposition to us.

TBT: Ancient Edition

As curated link posts have been the thing of late, and I received a number of positive comments in response to my most recent iteration of same, here are a few topics that have piqued my interest in the area of ancient art over the last few days:

More Problems At The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York continues to reel from one disaster to another of late. The latest kerfuffle involves two works from antiquity which the museum has had to hand over to authorities. On Monday, the news leaked that the Manhattan District Attorney had seized a magnificent Greek vase decorated with scenes of Dionysus from the 4th century BC, which had been on display at The Met since 1989. Authorities believe the object was looted from a tomb sometime in the 1970’s.

The following day it was revealed that, a month earlier, the Manhattan D.A. had also seized another object of Ancient Greek origin from The Met. This time the art in question was a fragmentary Greek marble sculpture of a bull’s head, which may have been looted from Lebanon during the long civil war which that country suffered through for much of the 1980’s. The sculpture was on long-term loan to The Met from collectors in Colorado, who have unwittingly been drawn into an international dispute while ownership of the sculpture is sorted out.

Bulgarian Baptism

Archaeologists have recently discovered an ancient baptismal font dating from around the 5th century A.D. at a dig in the very ancient city of Plovdiv – at one time it was known as Philippopolis, a wealthy and luxurious town named for the father of Alexander the Great. The font was donated by a Bishop Makedonii to the Christian basilica which once stood on the site, and which seems to have been the largest Christian church in the country at one time. The city was burned to the ground by the Huns in the mid-5th century, so this new basilica replaced the old one, remnants of which have also been found. You can see the font, as well as the magnificent mosaic floors of the church, by following the link.

France’s “Little Pompeii”

Meanwhile in France, the excavation of a new housing construction site in Sainte-Columbe, a town outside the city of modern-day Vienne, has uncovered the most important archaeological site to be found in that country in the last 50 years. A series of houses and public buildings dating from the time of Christ are being excavated, and because so much of it is well-preserved, archaeologists are referring to it as a “Little Pompeii”. It is believed that a series of fires eventually caused the residents to abandon the town and move elsewhere, but as in any disaster scenario it means that many things were left behind, as-is. While the beautiful mosaic floors will be moved to a nearby museum, scientists may be able to reconstruct what one of the houses looked like, from top to bottom, since during the blaze it collapsed on itself like a stack of cards.

A Brassiere Fit For A Queen

Finally, there are lots of interesting stories about the Queen of late – such as this piece about the sort of tipple which she enjoys at various times of day – but this one is quite something. In 1953, on the occasion of the Queen’s coronation, the then-President of Panama sent a rather unusual gift: a large gold Pre-Columbian-style breastplate. It’s something that Queen Boadicea or even Wonder Woman would appreciate, but I don’t imagine HM tried it on for size when she received it.

For unknown reasons it went into storage and was forgotten about, until curators sorting through the royal basements and attics came across it, and realized its significance. Although originally dated to sometime around 1300, experts now believe that the piece could date from as early as 700 A.D. If you happen to be in London, you can toddle along to see it in the “Royal Gifts” exhibition, taking place at Buck House now through January 10th.
Vase