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Seeing Color: A Matter of Nature, or Culture?


The days have turned gray, the future feels black. We’re all seeing red, we’re all feeling blue. Perhaps it’s the isolated colors that are bringing us down; perhaps what we need is a whole spectrum.

All the shades of the planet are brought together in “The Nature of Color,” a polychrome production at the American Museum of Natural History that delves into the chemistry, the physics, and the culture of the visible spectrum. This show opened back in March and closed swiftly thereafter, along with every other museum exhibition in town. New sanitary restrictions required the reopened installation to remove several interactive exhibits, do away with touchscreens, and eliminate games and puzzles.

The show offers visitors, old but especially young, a broad view of color as both a scientific and a cultural phenomenon — even if, to my eyes, it now feels a bit thin for an exhibition with an additional admission charge. But I’m not the target audience: the masked-up kids in “The Nature of Color” were having a blast, preening in front of projected lights and staring wide-eyed at their prismatic reflections.

Your eyes don’t perceive color, not exactly. They perceive light — specifically, light with wavelengths of 380 (violet) to 740 (red) nanometers. Light stimulates the cone cells in your retinas, and then the brain takes over. As Isaac Newton first showed in his “Opticks” of 1704, color is not an inherent property of objects (excepting luminescent ones). Color is, rather, the effect of an object’s reflection of certain wavelengths of visible light, and absorption of the rest.

The kids’ crack Newtonian lessons begin in the first groovy gallery of “The Nature of Color,” which is equipped with two sets of oscillating light bulbs, one white and one yellow. When the yellow ones go on it makes everything in the room look gray, unless you are wearing a yellow rain slicker or carrying a rubber duck. When the white lights are on everything looks normal, proving that white is the sum of all colors. Later in the show children can boogie in front of beams of colored light, and can discover the secrets of additive color mixing if they aren’t too in love with their own multicolored shadows.

We humans have a trichromatic view of the world, with cones aligned to red, green and blue. Other species have other perceptions — both bees and reindeer can see ultraviolet wavelengths — and, evolutionarily speaking, color has allowed us to find love or find food, or else to avoid becoming someone else’s lunch. The rainbow lorikeet, resident of the Philippines and New Guinea, has riotously parti-colored plumage on its breast (the better to attract a mate), but tail feathers of solid green (the better to blend into the trees).

Other species making use of color for courtship include the fan-throated lizard, with a wattle of iridescent blue and orange, and the Siamese fighting fish, its tail bristling with blood-orange finnage. As for our own species’ pigmentation, a photo display by the Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass pictures humans of all “races” — the word, appropriately for a science museum, appears in quotes in the wall text — classified according to the one true universal color language: the Pantone palette. (I threw a selfie of my own into Photoshop and grabbed a pixel from my skin. Under even lighting, my “white” skin appears to be Pantone 481c.)

Humanity’s favorite color, polls confirm year after year, is blue. It was also, for centuries of Western art history, the most expensive color, produced from rare lapis lazuli. (In the past you’d paint the Virgin Mary wearing pricey blue as a symbol of your devotion, though if you did so today you might get brought up on charges of abetting a terrorist organization: Lapis lazuli comes chiefly from mines in Afghanistan, many controlled by the Taliban.) Its rarity endured until the early 18th century, when a German color grinder accidentally contaminated a batch of red with some oil and ended up with a rich aqua he called Prussian blue. It was the first ever cheap synthetic pigment, and it set off a “blue fever” as far as Japan, where Hokusai and other printmakers used the rare imported color.

If blue is the most prized color, red is the oldest. Ocher clay, like the sample here, appears in South African cave paintings 73,000 years old. And it seems fair to proclaim that red has the most diverse cultural meanings of any color: love and also anger, fortune and also injury. Red was thought to ward off smallpox in medieval Europe; Charles V, king of France, wore scarlet shirts, hose and veils when he got the virus. Red signifies the political left, except in the United States — and even here the Republican Party has been identified with “red states” only since the 2000 presidential election. Too bad for you if your stock portfolio is in the red — unless you live in China or Japan, where red means the price went up.

Is color a universal thing or a particular one? Is it an affair of nature or culture? In Europe only the highest nobility could wear purple clothing; in China, they wore yellow. You wear white for a Buddhist funeral and a Christian marriage. Kids can explore the cultural meanings of color in an interactive game show here, with the adorable title “All About Hue,” hosted by an anthropomorphic blob of paint, which they can play live on a smartphone.

And yet beyond these cultural meanings, and beyond the scope of this show, lies a larger debate, one still raging among linguists and cognitive scientists. Every human eye, unless you are colorblind, catches the same 0.0035 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum. But does that mean that every human understands these colors in roughly the same way?

After all, Homer, in both the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” repeatedly calls the Aegean Sea “wine-dark” — though it doesn’t look very purple to sunbathers in Rhodes or Bodrum. In the language of the Karajá people of central Brazil, the single word “ãrè” can signify what English speakers identify as blue, yellow or green (and women and men use different color names). The Warlpiri people of northern Australia, it’s argued, have no words for colors at all, but instead describe chromatic phenomena within a multidimensional space of texture, iridescence or size.

My job is to write about pictures, in English. The cones of my eyes aren’t especially sensitive, in the way that a perfumer’s nose might be, but over the years I’ve had to build up an extensive color vocabulary: amaranth, gamboge, falu red, Tiffany blue. I use these words because I’m trying to capture some objective qualities of hue, lightness, saturation — but the colors I see may be a subjective impression, from which you might reasonably diverge. And what about the dog, who can distinguish blue from yellow but not red from green, or the shark with no color perception at all? Might the shark art critic see things I’ll never perceive, unshackled by my rainbow handcuffs?

The Nature of Color

Through Aug. 8 at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West, Manhattan. 212-769-5100; amnh.org. (Timed tickets required.)



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