7/ Museum Week : Difference, Shades Creation and Colour Creation

Home / Brief Reading / 7/ Museum Week : Difference, Shades Creation and Colour Creation

Last theme of Museum Week: the difference. I spare you the cliché about the wonders of the differences between culture. Humans are primarily diurnal animals which has conditioned a lot of stuff and impacted a whole bunch of other hugely important things too. And from this point common to all human beings, differences could arise. The palette of artists and their use of color is an excellent example.

There is no universal symbolism of colors. Every society, every culture has shaped its own symbolism closely linked to its history and geography. However, there is a chromatic trilogy linked to referents that meet (almost) everywhere: black and dark, white and light, red associated with fire and blood.



Mankind is not optimized to live at night: we do not see anything in the dark, and seeing nothing is viscerally frightening because you are always scared of being eaten by a wild animal that does not suffer from this unfortunate handicap. Since the beginning of humanity, the first reflex of a human at night has been to hide in a safe place. However, not yet paying in monthly instalments an electricity supplier, the prehistoric man was safe in closed and hidden places, in other words … in the dark.
There are then two types of black: threatening black and reassuring black.
The demiurgic narratives of almost all cultures characterize the black of the same ambivalence: the original black precedes the light and the life that is attached to it, it is very often a mass of water from which emerges the life or large dark clouds gorged with rain, which in falling fertilize the earth. However, black is also disturbing because it “hides” (hi Allegory of the Cave of Plato !), it is dangerous (a big hungry beast, an abyssal chasm, etc.). This black misleads the human between life and death.

Black pigment
Manganese oxide, especially used in the cave of Lascaux

Get on Fire

It is the control of fire 500 000 years ago that will be a game changer, it is this knowledge that will make the human being a little less cowardly than other diurnal animals. Fire allows man to enlighten himself and to push darkness back.

Fire and blood appear as the two almost universal referents for the red color. The link between blood and red is natural but also appears ambivalent: blood is synonymous with life as long as it remains in circulation in the body; however, there is an opposite effect when it is spilled in quantities outside the body. As Michel Pastoureau notes in his book Rouge, histoire d’une couleur, fire must perhaps be red in color due “to what it is perceived as a living being”. Michel develops:

« At least for ancient societies for which red is the color of life. Source of light and heat, like the sun to which it is related, the fire seems indeed endowed with an autonomous life. »

And as for darkness and blood, fire has its ambivalent character. At the same time favorable (it lights, warms, cooks) it can be harmful and destructive (it burns, destroys). It must therefore tame it because it is a source of benefits but also control it to guard against its malefic and destructive side.

Ocher pencil
Peyrony excavations
National Museum of Prehistory, Eyzies-de-Tayac (24)
© Hominides

Same for the bright, vital white that brings rest and peace. In many cultures it embodies purity and wisdom. But white is also the color of the bones, the skeleton. So it’s no coincidence that most ghosts, wandering spirits, and other fun from the “dark world” are white.

Cave of the hands
Patagonia, Argentina
Hand traces left are either by contrast either by fingerprints
 to mark the human presence.
The more white / black, white / red contrasts, the more human lives there are.
We know that some smart Alec put their hands several times,
to make other prehistoric guys passing by believe that they are a lot in here


Finally, the concept of “basic terms” for colors in linguistics was highlighted by a major study published in 1969 by Brent Berlin (born in 1936) and Paul Kay (born 1934). The latter in their Basic Color System have proposed a universal model of the development of the vocabulary of color. Be careful, we are not talking here about symbolism but about the way humans designate colors.
But it turns out that each language has a limited number of elementary color names (color names that serve as a general reference to a more nuanced range).
Thus, both linguists have found that elemental names do not appear in languages in an unpredictable way.
When a language has only two color names it is inevitably black and white. When it has three, it’s black, white, and… red. Well done Sherlock.

Basic Color System


The two partners in crime also noted that when a language is in Stage 1, when it has only two color names, it is more of a distinction between dark and light, cold and hot … life or death eventually.

All cultures use color, all of them have assigned a symbolism that draws on the history of its society and attaches to almost every area of life. The color does not represent a thing or a person but it characterizes it by the quality that one lends to this color.

The differences between cultures are thus innumerable, sometimes quite contrary to our own culture, sometimes cousins.

Only white, black and red have a symbolism common to almost all humanity, in memory of a time when fire allowed the human being to discover that the darkness could be nuanced, thus opening the way for different perceptions of the world around him.



• GAGE J., Couleur et Culture, Usages et significations de la couleur de l’Antiquité à l’abstraction, Thames & Hudson, Paris, 1993
• PASTOUREAU M., Rouge, Histoire d’une couleur, Seuil, Paris, 2016
• PASTOUREAU M., Noir, Histoire d’une couleur, Seuil, Paris, 2008

Suis et aime Objets d'Histoire ici
Related Posts

Leave a Comment