Fall 2011

Colors / Umber

Only the shadow knows

Yara Flores

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

Between the doubled earth and dirt, dirt
There is not a single single thing …

—Nachtborg Haam, “The Still, the Soul, and the Soil”

The fragile art of painting has had, from the outset, two basic enemies: clay and gold, or, if you prefer, shit and splendor. Pliny, in his backhanded history of art (it is sandwiched between long sections on the medicinal uses of various minerals), deals with both. On the one hand, there is his lovely lamentation that the art of painting was once highly prized, before the nouveau riche Romans around him simply began gilding everything in sight, in lieu of commissioning handsome, traditional frescos. (Moral: sheets of gold trump pretty pictures; painting falls to tavern walls.) On the other, there is his ambiguous story about the daughter of Butades—she who made what was supposed to be the world’s first portrait, a tracing on the wall of the lamp-lit profile of her lover. This young woman may be the mother of all two-dimensional representation, but her pioneering work is promptly doubled and displaced: her father—a potter, we are told—lays moist clay upon this first figuration, and fires it, producing … well, what? No one is exactly sure. A bas-relief? A bust? A terra cotta shrinky-dink? Put the specifics aside, and focus on the moral: molded earth trumps crepuscular brushwork; real creation consists in manhandling the wet heft of dark matter (and painting is for girls and their girlie men, QED).

If one accepts this tendentious account of the painter’s perilous course through a gilt Scylla and a Charybdis of filth, then the delicate business of picture making must forever thread its way precariously between those inclined to preen themselves in a golden mirror and those who prefer to play with the excremental stuff of the deep earth. One can even imagine a history of painting told as a pushing open of the narrow passage between these rival camps: along one side, the iconophilic narcissists (Byzantium to Damien Hirst); and down the other, the chthonic monsters (Bosch to Piero Manzoni). Think of that long gallery as a kind of gauntlet run between shine and shite.

Which brings us to umber. Umber: a mineral pigment; a “natural earth”; one of those face-daubing mucks of the prehistoric hominids. Scratched up out of dead riverbeds, raw umber is more or less chemically identical to that other ancient cave paint, ochre (a mixture of iron oxide, silica sand, and a little aluminum oxide), but with the addition of a wee bit of oxidized manganese, which walks the hue from mud-yellow over to mud-mud—to, let’s just say it, brown. The true ochres, in their pure, straw-colored glory, can play at being gold; but the tainted umbers—and there are many of them, mined here and there, from Cyprus to West Virginia, from the Harz mountains to the Turkish steppes—know that they are dirt. Just dirt. They come from the dark side.

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