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Art & artists

David Batchelor: Delving into grey areas

— September 2014

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

London E2, July 2000. The author. Image from The Luminous and the Grey

In writing about grey, David Batchelor opens up a world of colour

The Luminous and the Grey by David Batchelor

I must be one of the few people not to have read Chromophobia, David Batchelor’s  earlier book on colour published in 2000. Well, having now read his  The Luminous and the Grey, I will be ordering a copy without delay. Batchelor references his earlier book in the preface stating that it was, ‘…not, strictly speaking, a book about colour. Rather a book about ideas about colour’. It is interesting that given the ubiquitous nature of colour that there are not more books devoted to the topic, and what is fascinating with this publication is the way that the attention given to problematic grey, tells us so much about other colours.

In setting the scene, Batchelor spends time with some critical applause for one of the most iconic moments for colour within the genre of film, the moment when Dorothy arrives amongst the synthetic colour of the land of Oz. She is transported from home, black and white (grey) Kansas, to which she returns at the end of the film. The Wizard of Oz is, for Batchelor, a turning point in the understanding of colour. He contrasts this film with the unrelenting greys of the more recent novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road, where colour has but been all but forgotten and lingers only in dreams.

Although a measured and carefully researched book, it also takes the reader by surprise, particularly in the run up to the final section on grey, where at first we have a re-run of the many prejudices to be found against this colour, but then suddenly Batchelor turns this around and allows all the bad feeling to unravel. He moves elegantly to a subtle and thought-provoking reflection that draws upon a wide range of sources including his personal reflections.

Oddly, I found myself relieved at so few illustrations (a mere five); those that are there are simply to explain the context for points in the narrative. They are not, thankfully, examples of colour. This means that the reader focuses on the text, and it really does read like a story with three chapters, ‘The Beginning and the End of Colour’, ‘The Luminous and the Grey’ and then ‘The Grey and the Luminous’.

There are useful notes and references for his thoughts and the book is thoughtfully laid out allowing the reader an easy engagement with the text. The paperback cover has that lovely fold-out which is so helpful for book marking.

Gerhard Richter, having worked extensively with grey, says: ‘It makes no statement whatever; it evokes neither feelings nor associations: it is really neither visible nor invisible. Its inconspicuousness gives it the capacity to mediate, to make visible... It has the capacity that no other colour has, to make 'nothing' visible.’

Batchelor literally delves into ideas about grey and goes further and deeper than I have come across in other publications. So, when I recently found myself glancing up at an ominous overcast sky, I began looking at the quality of greys, not simply for their beauty, but for what was happening to all the colours that invariably infiltrated the grey, and saying to myself, as Batchelor does,  ‘so, what is grey’?

Great read.

The Luminous and the Grey by David Batchelor is published by Reaktion Books. 112 pp., 5 colour illus, £12.95 (ppb). ISBN 978-1-78023-280-5



Howard Hollands
Middlesex University, UK.
Art historian, artist and teacher

Editor's notes

Read Sue Ward’s interview with David Batchelor in this issue of Cassone.

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