The Failure of Colour

Freedberg, David A.

Forty years ago, in his review of a book that has some to be much admired by historians of prints - W.H. Ivins's Prints and Visual Communication - E.H. Gombrich took Ivins to task for overrating the technological and scientific importance of printmaking (I.e. ' exactly repeatable pictorial statements', as Ivins put it). In the course of doing so, Gombrich raised a crucial issue in the history of relations between color and classification. He illustrated this by citing a passage fro the Elder Pliny which Ivins had inadequately translated and which Gombrich did not translate at all.

The passage comes not, as one might have expected, from the well-known Books 33 to 35 of the Natural History on the history and technologies of art, but rater from Book 25, chapter 4, in which Ply speaks of the first Greeks- Cratevas, Dionysius and Metrodorus - to paint picture so fplants and to write their properties below them [translated]: 'But painting is also deceptive, and with its many colors, is particularly so in the copying of nature, where it also falls short as a result of the varying ability of the copyists. Furthermore, one cannot just paint them [i.e. plants] at individual stages of the their life, since they change their appearance according the fourfold changes of the year.' In glossing this passage, Gombrich alluded, with characteristic suggestiveness, to on e of the most fundamental of all taxonomic tensions: the tension between the mutability of natural things, especially plants, and the selection of those characteristics, or not as they were later often to be called, that were - or at least seemed to be - unchanging and unambiguous. Colour failed as a criterion for classification because the portrayal of a plan in colors conveyed its appearance at a particular time, whether of day, year, or a particular stage of its life


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Also Published In

Sight & Insight: Essays on Art and Culture in Honour of E. H. Gombrich at 85

More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Published Here
April 7, 2010