Bull Piss and Mummies

by wjw on April 10, 2018

Turner_-_Rain,_Steam_and_Speed_-_National_Gallery_fileWould it change the power or poetry of Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway if we learned that the evaporative yellows that infuse the atmosphere with mystical light were wrought from the distilled urine of cows cruelly raised on a diet consisting exclusively of mango leaves?

Here Kelly Grovier asks the question: What is great art actually made of?  Or from?

The answer is found in  An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour, which explores the vast array of colors of the Forbes Pigment Collection, held by Harvard University.

Flipping through An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour is to discover a rich and inspiring vocabulary of every shade into which life and art is splintered. Here, one learns to distinguish between “Cadmium Scarlet” and “Dragon’s Blood”, “Geranium Lake” and “Chinese Vermillion”, “Murez Shell” and “Alizarin Violet”. If the bovine backstory to Turner’s sunrises has put you off the magic of his skies, turn away now before I fill you in on what the topless heroine of Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is really trudging over as she marches triumphantly forward towards freedom.

In all likelihood, the crumpled browns that describe the defeated flesh of the fallen revolutionaries whose bodies lay scattered at Liberty’s feet was, in fact, fashioned from powderised remains of long-dead and embalmed Ancient Egyptians.

Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.
Liberty Leading the People. 1830. 

“Mummy Brown,” to be precise.

The dead people are, umm, made of dead people!

According to Finlay, the British writer Rudyard Kipling remembered his uncle, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, conducting a funeral procession and solemn burial for his earthen tube upon the appalling discovery that the colour had been harvested from the bodies of the dead.

Those Victorians knew proper behavior, all right.

Gotta say, this puts the whole “Piss Christ” controversy into a new perspective.

John Appel April 10, 2018 at 3:46 pm

Gives a new meaning to “Reduce, reuse, recycle.”

Of course, over a long enough time period, our atoms are all likely to wind up in someone’s pigments, someday down the line…

Laura F. Sanchez April 19, 2018 at 8:24 am

Whenever I use Hooker’s Green (a very versatile pigment) I visualize a bevy of blowsy courtesans lounging on the village green.

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