As I mentioned just before heading out on vacation, I’ll only be posting once this week, today, to repeat a Valentine’s Day post from last year about the color red. I figured it would be a post that wasn’t really on the news, but as it turns out the religious authorities of Saudi Arabia have made my color newsworthy this week by banning red flowers and red gift shop items in an attempt to crack down on Valentine’s Day. I guess that’s what happens when you let something with a name like the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice get the upper hand.
Anyway, on to the post from last year. And don’t let that Commission know anything about this:
Here it is Valentine’s Day, which inevitably got me thinking about the color red and the pictures that were burned into the collective memory by way of that color. (Love being what it is sometimes, maybe it’s appropriate that cadmium red, the richest variety, is classified in chemical terms as a toxic heavy metal.) I started to flip back through my internal image bank to call up pictures that deploy red to maximum effect..
Once you start moving down this road, you can go on pretty much forever, which is why I decided to limit myself here to ten examples. So this is a Valentine’s Day shout out to my partner Jeff and an all purpose appreciation of red’s redness and of all things red, including Prince’s Little Red Corvette the third and best part of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s great film trilogy and my good old alma mater, Big Red.
Let’s start with van Eyck. While it’s not true, as they once taught in art history classes, that he invented oil painting, he brought it to its first great fulfillment by learning how to build up thin layers of oil glaze that gave his colors the power of deep saturation. That’s why the red of this turban, when you see the actual picture, imprints itself so powerfully into your sense memory.
The techniques of oil glazing were brought to Italy by the Italian painter Antonello da Messina, who learned them from van Eyck. That development catalyzed the move from tempera to oil among Italians, who needed heavy supplies of red to paint all those ecclesiastical garments.
Caravaggio sometimes used the device of an abstract image in the upper part of his canvas as a counterweight to the drama below. (Think of the huge shadowy window in the upper half of The Calling of St. Matthew.) In this canvas, he turned a flourish of red drapery into one of the greatest dramatic gestures in the history of painting.
Eighteenth century British portraiture is full of redcoats. According to Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, an indispensable book by Philip Ball, Reynolds never entirely mastered the art of mixing pigments. As a consequence his reds often faded quickly. For whatever reason that wasn’t the fate of Capt. Orne’s Coldstream Guard uniform in this unforgettable portrait. And it’s a good thing for him it didn’t. That coat is the only thing that lets him hold his ground in the picture against the magnificent presence of his horse.
I include the Manet here because the intensity of those red pants have always made them seem to me like a color field painting all on their own.
The Italian Futurists were introduced to the divisionist color theories of Seurat by way of the writings of a painter named Gaetano Previati. Boccioni then adapted those to his own more muscular purposes, for which the energies of red were perfectly suited.
Matisse inherited the use of intense cadmium red, a 19th century invention, from the Impressionists. The critic John Rusell was right when he called this canvas “a crucial moment in the history of painting. Color is on top, and making the most of it.”
With the beginning of color field painting in the 1950s, the subordination of form to color begun by Matisse was complete. Newman’s immense canvas, which engulfs any viewer, is a complete immersion into the experience of red.
Howard Hodgkin’s paintings are frequently about the tension between intimate spaces and explosive feeling. Here the feeling spills beyond its confines and turns the whole space into a powerful red chamber.
I’ll go out with this one, a 1981 sculpture by Anish Kapoor that uses pure red pigment. It doesn’t get much redder than this.