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234 × 156 × 21 mm
320 pages
106 illustrations, 60 in colour
01 Jul 2015

The Story of Black John Harvey

As a colour, black is a single hue. It comes in no other shades. It is pure darkness, absorber of all light. But despite its commonly accepted role as one half of a pair (black and white, dark and light), in symbolic terms black envelops the entire spectrum of meaning. The Story of Black explores the ambiguous relationship the world’s cultures have had with this often self-contradictory colour, examining how black has been used as a tool and a metaphor in a multitude of startling ways.

The Greek word melancholia (literally ‘black bile’) defines depression and dark moods, yet the little black dress is the epitome of chic. For the ancient Egyptians black was the colour of death and it has since become established as the sartorial hue of priests and puritans, witches and monarchs, intellectuals and artists. The colour’s innate austerity has made it the choice for both funereal dress and lawyers’ gowns, and of Goths and other subcultures today. This book also assesses black’s problematic association with race, observing how white Europeans exploited the negative associations of ‘black’ in enslaving millions of black Africans. And it looks at how artists and designers have applied the colour to their work, from Caravaggio to Turner, Reinhardt and Rothko.

How can this one colour embody such disparate values as evil, glamour, death and creativity? Not simply a history of a colour but a readable sketch of the history of culture and art in the West, The Story of Black skilfully unpicks the social, political, aesthetic and sexual nuances of black throughout the ages, unearthing the secrets behind black’s continuing power to fascinate, compel and divide.

‘A richly informative treat, with curiosities culled from a very wide range of sources, and written with unostentatious elegance . . . In this book [Harvey] casts his net wide, taking his story as far back as prehistory and across areas of interest that seldom come together within the same covers: art history, religion (particularly Christianity and Islam), anthropology, literature, fashion, heraldry, geology and politics . . . This is a book to instruct and delight.’ — Literary Review

‘Harvey presents a wide-ranging, often illuminating survey of many of [blacks] aspects . . . this book is a lively, well-written essay on an intriguing topic. Recommended.’ — Choice

‘a pacey tour de force for any reader with little or no previous knowledge of colour, fashion, religion, anthropology or art . . . [Harveys] style is composed and elegant . . . an extremely readable work, which is no mean feat in view of the scope and density of the subject matter and the wealth of information provided . . . The Story of Black serves as an excellent, readable and even joyful general introduction to a complex topic’ — Visual Studies

‘No less an expert than Leonard da Vinci made it clear what he thought about the subject of this wonderfully written and illustrated book. Black is no colour said the Italian master of light and shade. This was not an artistic opinion (his palette included a much used black pigment), but a factually precise statement. Scientifically black is the absence, or complete absorption of light. The view that Black is Beautiful was shared by many fine artists: the most beautiful of all colours said Tintoretto the Queen of colours was Renoirs view. Beethoven talked of the black chord he liked to use. With 100 fine illustrations, this is an enlightening (literally!) book.’ — Diplomat magazine

‘a highly engaging prose, with carefully modulated, elegant sentence structure and, despite the formidable erudition, an accessible style and enthusiastic tone that encourage the reader to devour the text greedily.’ — Tredynas Days

‘If you fancy something thought-provoking to mull over, try John Harveys new work, The Story of Black. A thoughtful exploration of the colour (or is it a colour at all?), the book covers everything from black's connection with depression, mystery and death to artists and designers obsession with the hue.’ — Cambridge News

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John Harvey is a novelist and critic. He taught for the Cambridge English Faculty from 1974, and in 2000 became University Reader in Literature and Visual Culture. He is a Life Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is the author of Men in Black (Reaktion, 1997) and The Story of Black (Reaktion, 2013).

Introduction: How Black is Black?
1 The Oldest Colour
2 Classical Black
3 The Black of God
4 Black in Society: Arabia, Europe
5 Two Artists in Black
6 Black Choler
7 Servitude and Négritude
8 Black in the Enlightenment
9 Britain’s Black Century
10 Our Colour?
A Note on Chessboards, Death and Whiteness
Select Bibliography
Photo Acknowledgements