In BRIGHT EARTH, Philip Ball says, in the early 20th Century, Louis Vauxcelles, the art critic, on viewing Florentine-inspired sculptures standing in the midst of an exhibit of paintings that included the works of Matisse, Kandinsky, Braque, and others of their ilk is reported to have said, "Look, Donatello in a cage of wild beasts" (dans la cage aux fauves)--giving this group of artists the sobriquet by which they are known. Vauxcelles comment was prompted by his reaction to what he perceived to be an enthusiastic use of colors. Ball says the Fauvists were inspired by Van Gogh and Gauguin--the late impressionists, and in turn they inspired Picasso and the modern art movement of the 20th Century which Ball says was largely driven by color.
I had read Vauxcelles' comment elsewhere, but in Ball's retelling, the quip makes complete sense. The cages are the framed canvases. The colors are wild like the exotic beasts brought to Europe from faraway places. These colors were virtually unknown before the late 19th Century and the rise of the petrochemical industry. Like Van Gogh and Gauguin before and Picasso after the Fauvists used these pigments in unnatural ways.
Generally, art histories divert one into a discussion about lighting, atmosphere, iconography, brush stokes, or composition. Color is discussed but usually as an adjunct or afterthought. In BRIGHT EARTH, color IS the organizing principle--and it makes all the difference. The light in Monet's boating scene bounces off the water because the waves are composed of tiny flecks of violet and yellow. Van Gogh's Sunflowers have the tone they do because he liked to experiment with color and he used an unstable lemon-yellow pigment that has deteriorated over time. Rembrandt was brilliant not only because he created classic compositions and used deft brush strokes to do so, but because he understood how to use pigments that would stand the test of time.
What is color? I once visited a museum in Chicago which had an interior room filled with white canvases. Each canvas may have had a small black mark on it, I don't remember. What I remember is a completely white room which was supposed to be devoid of stimulation--but I found the room very stimulating. Is white a color or isn't it? Ball debates both sides of this argument. I find it amusing that over the millenia, artists, weavers, and other have found the non-color white one of the most difficult colors to acquire. Ball says that at the end of the 20th Century, the nine-volume publication entitled, "Color Index International", includes 9,000 pages of "colorants" and the pigment produced in the greatest numbers is white. White is the most "widely preferred veneer for our synthethic environment." One has only to think of paper towels, napkins, toliet paper, toothpaste, bread, and a variety of material goods that are made white so that consumers will buy them.
BRIGHT EARTH is an incredible and comprehensive book covering painting from Altimira to Hockney, pigments from Madder Red to Cadmium Red, art works from Greek vases to Miro tapestries, and chemicals from organics such as Woad and Indigo, to the enamels used by artists who no longer can be divided into categories such as scuplter, painter, weaver. Ball has skillfully handled a plethora of complex material. He is an incredibly well organized researcher and this is a well written book.
I have only one criticism of Ball's book. In his effort to concentrate on color relative to the visual arts of painting, photography, and print making, he has failed to include much material about textiles (some, but it won't be enough if this is your medium), and he virtually omits discussion of ceramics and pottery, and garden design. Because of this, he cannot clearly frame the future of art which most assuredly will include both visual and tactile dimensions. In Ball's defense, if he had covered these other arts his book would have been 9,000 pages long and filled nine volumes.