“Green: The History of a Color” by Michel Pastoureau


The small book of the French historian Michel Pastoureau is the long-awaited continuation of his series of works on history and color semiotics, begun by “Blue” and continued by “Black”. This time Pastoureau refers to one of the most controversial, not to say ambiguous colors – green, which has managed for many centuries to remain at the same time the color of youth, hope and spring on the one hand, and the color of the devil, envy and temptation on the other.

The ancient Greeks in the language did not have a special word for green, which gave rise to centuries of discussion about whether the Greeks could perceive this color at all, or their visual apparatus was significantly different from ours. In Rome, green in clothes was considered a manifestation of extravagance and even vice (as opposed to respectable white, yellow or terracotta) – it was no coincidence that he preferred one of the most unpopular emperors Nero. However, at the same time, green was considered useful for the eyes – the same Nero, tired of contemplating gladiatorial fights, loved to admire his collection of emeralds.

In the Middle Ages, this reputation was preserved – first of all, because to obtain a saturated green color, it was necessary to mix two dyes, yellow and blue, and this was prohibited by the then rules of the dyeing shop, and generally suggested thoughts of heresy and debauchery (any mixed, unclean the shade was considered sinful, since it was not from God). However, in the same epoch, an alternative concept of green appears – it begins to be perceived as neutral, intermediate, a kind of compromise between red, black and white. At the same time, a meaning is fixed behind it, well fixed by the expression “young-green”: the green color becomes a symbol of inexperience, immaturity and even touching youthful love. Only by the era of romanticism does green acquire today’s meaning and finally becomes primarily the color of nature, purity and health, as well as the banner of environmentalism.

By inviting a stroll through the history of green, green dyes (the long-term unpopularity of green was due in particular to the fact that people did not know how to make durable green pigment for a long time) and color semantics at different times, Pastoureau skillfully entertains the reader with various kinds of stories – from a story about the origin the famous song “Greensleeves” to the almost anecdotal utterance of Kandinsky, who likened the green color to a fat and stupid cow. However, throughout this cute, entertaining substrate, as usual at Pastoureau, thoughts are unbanal and important – about relativity of perception, about how difficult it is to establish an unambiguous connection between an object and its designating word, and how much we make mistakes by attributing to others epoch own picture of the world.


6 Responses

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    2019-03-16 4:32 PM

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