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.

New Scans Reveal The Architectural Ingenuity Of England’s Persecuted Catholics

An interesting news item about using new technology to uncover a relic of England’s past caught my eye this morning.

Coughton Court is a grand country house in Warwickshire, England, built by the Throckmorton family over the course of several centuries, and whose descendants still live in it today. In one of the turrets of the primary entrance to the home, the Throckmortons constructed what is known as a “priest hole”, an architectural term with which you may not be familiar. Now, thanks to 3D scans, we can get a better sense of how this unusual space functioned, and how cleverly it was concealed within the building – but first, let’s have a bit of background.

Beginning in the latter half of the 16th century, it became an act of high treason for a Catholic priest to even set foot in England. Henry VIII had already closed all of the monasteries and seminaries, appropriating much of their property for himself. His daughter Elizabeth I furthered her father’s madness by having Catholic priests declared traitors under English law, while those who harbored them or attended Catholic religious services were de facto guilty of committing a felony. As a result, a number of Catholic families who refused to convert to Protestantism decided to build secret hiding places inside their homes, where Catholic priests could escape detection by the authorities.

Some of these spaces were just large enough for a single individual to hide in for a short period of time. Others were of more substantial size, including living quarters and even tiny chapels. In the case of the priest hole at Coughton Court, the occupant of the secret chamber had enough room for a bed and a portable altar, where he could celebrate the Mass in secrecy if needed.

In addition to operating a kind of Stasi police force aided by local informants, England employed special bounty hunters popularly known as “priest hunters”, in order to combat the phenomenon of priest holes. These men traveled the countryside looking for Catholic hiding places, often accompanied by builders, stonemasons, and carpenters, in the hopes of bringing back a Catholic priest in chains. However some of the priest holes were built so successfully, that they were only discovered centuries later. Even today, previously unknown hiding places are still being stumbled across during renovations and restorations of historic homes.

Perhaps one of the largest concentrations of these hiding places can be found at Harvington Hall in Worcestershire, where a total of seven priest holes were concealed throughout the house by the Pakington family. These rooms are believed to be the work of St. Nicholas Owen, a builder and carpenter who constructed many such holes (or “hides”, as they are sometimes called) over the course of several decades. As his experience in designing these spaces increased, his work became more and more clever, and difficult for the priest hunters to detect. Nevertheless, he was eventually captured and executed in 1606, and was canonized a saint by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

While we don’t know who built the priest hole in the tower at Coughton Court, being able to see how this ingenious structure fits into the building is a fascinating use of technology. Whoever designed this hiding place was particularly clever, in that he created a stacked structure to avoid detection. Even if the authorities managed to discover the first priest hole, which would be empty other than for some bedding and other materials, they would be unlikely to realize that this space was just a decoy: the real priest hole was lying just underneath it, as the scans clearly show. Given the narrow and cramped location of the hiding place inside the house, these new 3D scans give the public a much better picture of how this concealment would have worked, than might be appreciated by simply viewing the structure from the outside.

In our present age, it sometimes seems as though we may need to return to the construction of priest holes at any moment. For the clergy, places like Coughton Court are reminders that Holy Orders can often be accompanied by great suffering. And for the laity, the courage of families like the Throckmortons to build these places, even at the risk of losing everything, ought to inspire us to bravely face whatever the future holds.

​Fallen Angel: Rethinking The Selfie

Recently a tourist was visiting Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art, when he decided to take a selfie with a magnificent Baroque statue of the Archangel Michael. The image, which stood on a plinth in one of the galleries, was carved in the mid-18th century by an unknown artist. It is made of polychromed wood and gesso (plaster), and depicts St. Michael dressed in gleaming armor, with his cloak billowing out behind him as he steps onto a cloud.

To the horror of onlookers, as the tourist backed up to take his selfie, he knocked the statue over. It fell to the floor, and smashed into pieces. While initial reports stated that the damage was irreversible – which at the time I thought rather a hasty conclusion given the materials involved – the museum later indicated that the statue can eventually be repaired.

The selfie, whether obtained by stick, outstretched arm, or self-timer, can be a godsend in some situations. We have all been at events such as birthday parties or family vacations where we want to record a memory of our time together, but there is no “other” to whom we can turn to capture an image for us. In these moments, the selfie becomes a manifestation of love and gratitude.

However in many instances, the selfie has become a way to actively avoid trusting other human beings. If you are standing in front of the Capitol here in Washington for example, there will be plenty of passersby whom you can hand your phone or camera, and ask them to take your picture. Such requests were once so commonplace, that it became a kind of internationally-recognized cultural behavior: people who could not communicate to one another using words, could use gestures to politely ask for, and give, assistance to one another. The selfie has, to a significant extent, reduced or eliminated such trusting interaction, turning the focus back exclusively upon the self.

Of course, not all selfies are indications of an insidious, underlying selfishness, any more than all images which do not feature their photographer are inherently selfless. A woman photographing still lifes of her jewels or fine clothes and sharing these images on social media, may well be acting out of a greater selfishness than a woman who posts a selfie of herself and her friends, all dressed to the nines for a joyful wedding celebration. There is nothing inherently evil about taking and periodically posting a self-portrait, even if there is something unquestionably stupid about allowing selfie sticks into places like public galleries and museums.

We do not know the motives of the tourist who ruined the statue of St. Michael. Perhaps we can take a kindly view, assume that he has a pious devotion to the Archangel, and wanted a picture of himself with this striking image of the Heavenly warrior. Yet even if this is the case, both prudence and an underlying respect for others would dictate that he should have asked for help. Would it really have been so difficult to, in a moment of trust, ask another of the museum patrons to capture the image for him, directing him so as to not only avoid damaging the statue, but also to achieve the result he wanted with a minimum of disruption?

Media analysis of this incident has largely focused on the lack of adequate museum funding, saying that if there had been more guards, this accident would not have happened. However I doubt that even a fully-funded staff of guards and docents could ensure that such an occurrence would never take place. Rather it is the underlying view of the selfie that needs greater consideration, particularly with respect to how it can negatively impact others.

Philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand once observed that “vanity as a rule is referred to intellectual, vital, and exterior assets rather than to religious or moral virtues. What occupies the center of attention here is one’s social figure.” Yet vanity turns into something more destructive, when it is employed in such a way as to injure others, whether directly or through the loss of beautiful works of art or natural wonders shared by all mankind.

Again, selfies are not in and of themselves, bad things, and the solution to the problem of accident prevention is not to ban museum photography entirely. But perhaps what our cultural institutions can do to avoid situations like this in the future, is to encourage visitors to think more carefully about why they are visiting in the first place. For when we choose to place ourselves in front of a great work of art, merely in order to photograph ourselves with it, we may be saying more about our attitude not only to the art itself, but more importantly toward our fellow man, than we may realize.