A Book of Color
Derek Jarman
The under-painting of many Renaissance paintings was green, "which gobbles up the pink, so the face of Masaccio's Madonna has taken on the green hue of a ghost."

    Joshua Reynold's use of bitumen turned his portraits a ghostly grey. Some colours faded, like the death of copper greens in Venetian paintings, the violets that turned to white.

Isaac Newton noted that "the most refracted rays produce purple colours and those least refracted red, while those that proceed along intermediate lines generate the intermediate colours, blue, green and yellow." Jarman relates that

    There are seven colours, the perfect number, one for every day of the week, and Sunday is violet.

Chroma consists of nineteen essays on the seven primary colors, plus gray, white and black ... although technically white isn't a color (being all of them) and black is no color at all (being the absence of light and color.) He slips in silver and gold (and alchemy), offers a chapter on perspective, shadow and light, translucence, and iridescence.

The writing is choice, precise, and shows a wonderful inquisitive mind, one that is not only painterly, but scientifically, if not philosophically inclined --- with appropriate quotes from da Vinci, Goethe, Morienus, Albers, Wittgenstein, along with droll comments on arts, artists, and tastes. Such as, "I once met an excited Frenchman in a supermarket; he had packed a dozen loaves of white sliced bread for his friends in Paris."

Or, noting that the ancients painted their statues with various bright colors, "All the ancient monuments are ghostly white, the statues of Greece and Rome were washed of their colours by time. So when the Italian artists revived antiquity, they sculpted in white marble unaware that their exemplars were once polychrome."

"Into the Blue" is perhaps the most interesting chapter, for after comments on "once in a blue moon" and the "Pictish Britons" who painted themselves blue, suddenly Jarman himself injects himself into the reverie: "I step into a blue funk." Then,

    The doctor in St Bartholomew's Hospital thought he could detect lesions in my retina --- the pupils dilated with belladonna --- the torch shone into them with a terrible blinding light.

Jarman has AIDS, so, when we get to the color blue, the book on painting and light and color takes a pause to live with him living near St Bartholomew's. "The virus rages fierce. I have no friends now who are not dead or dying. Like a blue frost it caught them. At work, at the cinema, on marches and beaches. In churches on their knees, running, flying silent or shouting protest."

Jarman is going blind. He calls AIDS "A sense of reality drowned in theatre."

    I caught myself looking at shoes in a shop window. I thought of going in and buying a pair, but stopped myself. The shoes I am wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life.

The University of Minnesota Press published Chroma this year, but Jarman died, in a sad and blue funk, in 1994.

--- Lolita Lark
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH