The Colours of Our Memories

We all view our lives through tinted spectacles that shape our recollections, finds Helen Fulton

July 26, 2012

For as long as I can remember, I have associated the days of the week with particular colours - Monday is navy blue, Tuesday is primrose yellow, Wednesday a rather indeterminate taupe, Thursday the colour of blue-grey clouds, Friday a very definite emerald green, Saturday white and Sunday a brown that I now know, thanks to Michel Pastoureau, to be marron, or "chestnut".

In this lovely memoir, Pastoureau, a distinguished medieval historian and author of many books on the social history of colour, shares some of the colour associations that signposted his childhood and young adulthood, conjuring up a very particular kind of French bourgeois experience of the 1950s and 1960s.

The book is divided into seven areas of experience: clothing, arts and letters, taste, sport, myths and symbols, daily life, and words. Within each section are several short observations on colour, many of them arising from identifiable moments in Pastoureau's life, including the purchase of his first blazer (navy blue, of course) at the age of 13; his discovery, through an inspiring teacher, of the magic of heraldry; and his role as historical consultant on the film of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

The child of "bohemian intellectuals", Pastoureau's earliest memories are of his mother's pharmacy at the top of Montmartre in Paris, where "aggressive" red and black were the colours of poison while white packaging connoted the hygienic and beneficial contents within. His father, a proud member of the Parisian bourgeoisie, was a friend of artists and writers such as Andre Breton, whose yellow waistcoat made as big an impression on the infant Pastoureau as the paintings that Breton carefully executed using half a potato and watercolour paints.

In the book's rich kaleidoscope of topics and memories, from cars and films to horses and food, some patterns recur. One is the link between colour and class, exemplified by the changing status of the suntan from peasant stigma to jet-set pretension and back to package-holiday vanity, while the privileged classes, ever alert to health threats, protect their pale skin beneath layers of expensive sunblock.

On the subject of class, Pastoureau is disarmingly snobbish. He is keen to define "his" bourgeoisie as that of "old France", a traditional middle class "closer to a vague, waning, minor nobility than to opulent nouveaux-riches or captains of industry". Within this social stratum, clothes comprised a crucial semiotic based on a daunting list of embargoes: trousers should never be a darker colour than one's jacket or jumper, ties should not be striped or spotted, brown was banned during the autumn months. In 1960s France, "Mitterrand beige" was vulgar and provincial (unlike the "splendid aristocratic beiges" worn by Vladimir Nabokov), while blue jeans - still a distinctive uniform for the youth of France - were daringly transgressive.

Another theme is the consistency of colour as value in European culture. Across time, space, gender and technology, the hierarchy of colours, from most to least favourite, remains relatively stable. From the late 19th century, when surveys began, to the present, the favourite colour of almost half the respondents continues to be blue, followed by green, red, white, black and yellow. The "second-rank" colours (pink, orange, grey, purple and brown) "are left to share no more than crumbs from the table".

Intriguingly, these six favourite colours of the modern age are also the six colours of medieval heraldry, Pastoureau's specialist subject and source of his fascination with colour and time. The traditional names of the heraldic colours - or (yellow or gold), argent (white or silver), gules (red), sable (black), azur (blue) and vert (green) - signify not single colours but a range of shades and tones that create almost infinite variety.

Organised into a signifying system that Pastoureau compares to that of musical harmony, the heraldic colours fall into two groups, with yellow and white in the first group and red, black, blue and green in the second. No two colours from the same group can be juxtaposed with or superimposed over each other. So a red lion can be painted on to a yellow background, for example, but a yellow lion cannot be painted on to a white background. Displaying the "wrong" colours was as much a faux pas in the Middle Ages as it is in today's middle classes.

Pastoureau rarely attempts to explain why particular values might have been assigned to colours - why stripes were once seen as agents of the devil, for example, or why Catholics are more fond of gold than Protestants - but he follows his historian's nose in recounting the fortunes of some individual colours. Green was an unstable shade to achieve because of the pigments needed to create it, and as a result, suggests Pastoureau, it was the colour associated with uncertainty, chance, good and bad fortune, destiny, hope and despair, gambling and competing to win (all represented, of course, in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).

Purple, disliked apparently by many children (or at least French children), was originally perceived as a type of black and therefore signified sorrow and penitence. It was only after Newton's prism revealed the spectrum of colours in sunlight that purple took its place between red and blue, at which point its semiotic value changed to something more regal and positive, the colour of bishops. I must confess that I wear rather a lot of purple myself, so I'm somewhat alarmed by Pastoureau's claim that "for most Europeans, purple is aggressive, eccentric, disturbing". I take comfort in his assurance that the perception of colour is subjective; perhaps my purple is less eccentric than his.

A third theme of the book is the proposition that, as a means of representing the real world, colour is actually less authentic than black and white. Its obvious constructedness, its technology, its wide range of tones and brightness, all work to draw our attention to the artifice of colour, even as it pretends to offer a mirror image of the world. As one example of the limitations of colour photography, Pastoureau points out that it is impossible to photograph gold, which comes out too yellow or red. Yet Pastoureau's delight in the 1952 colour film Ivanhoe, the film that first sparked his interest in the Middle Ages, captures an endearing memory of the impact of Technicolor on the grey world of post-war Europe.

Perhaps inevitably, given its backward gaze over six decades, the book has an old-fashioned, analogue air to it, waspishly dismissing "computer technology" and finding nothing at all to say about the new significance of colour in digital media such as websites and smartphones. It does no more than allude to the commodification of colour, especially in fashion, where French women's tights, excitingly, come in shades of "Intoxication" and "Not This Evening" rather than ordinary beige or grey.

At its heart, the book is a homage to French structuralism and semiotics of the 1970s and 1980s, reminding us that the process of signification, now so taken for granted that it is almost invisible, was radically re-theorised by French intellectuals such as Pastoureau himself.

If The Colours of Our Memories has a single message, it is that colours and their meanings are not absolute or universal but are, like my colour-coded days of the week, culturally constructed. Embracing the belief that our identities depend on the memories we accumulate, Pastoureau elegantly shows how memories themselves are shaped by colour.

The Author

"I have always lived in Paris, where I was born in 1947. I grew up in Montmartre, right at the top of the hill, where my mother had her pharmacy. I am a 'child of the Butte'," affirms medieval historian and author Michel Pastoureau, who is a director of studies and holds a chair in the history of Western symbolism at the Sorbonne's École Pratique des Hautes etudes.

Many of his male relatives were noted scholars, but Pastoureau says "the women wore the trousers" in the family. "They all studied and worked, and were as learned as the men. My Aunt Lise, an archivist, was a Latinist; my mother, a pharmacist, was passionate about botany. My grandmother loved the cinema and took me there every week, and sometimes twice. My four great-aunts were very cultured; they were my first inspirations, and all of them lived to 95 or 100."

Aside from writing and research, his "greatest pleasures are drawing and painting. I am a 'Sunday painter'. My children tease me for being a historian of colour who paints largely in shades of...grey! I have played bridge weekly for the past 35 years with the same friends. Sport is also one of my hobbies. I seldom participate now (I am old and stout), but I am interested in sporting competitions, especially athletics, skiing and tennis. Sporting grounds are wonderful sites to observe the place of colours in society."

Pastoureau adds: "I love to walk in Paris, a large city where everything can be done on foot and where the shops are more numerous than in any other big European city. Of course, my preference is for bookshops, which are sadly less and less numerous.

"I would have no difficulty living in Germany or Switzerland - probably the only country in the world where 'everything works' (trains, postal system, education, health, civic life). But my favourite European city is Edinburgh; magnificently situated and with an atmosphere that is medieval in parts."

The Colours of Our Memories

By Michel Pastoureau, translated by Janet Lloyd

Polity, 240pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780745655710

Published 20 July 2012

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