The latest attempt to plumb these depths comes from Anish Kapoor, a British- Indian artist whose work questions notions of perception. He has co-opted a revolutionary black material which, he hopes, will break completely new ground. “I’m really invested in the process of what is real and what is not real,” Mr Kapoor says. “What is an appearance? What’s a trick? What’s an illusion?”
The discovery in ancient Egypt, China and Rome that writing (and, later, printing) worked best when black was used on a white background gives black a special place in the pantheon of colours. But before the concoction in Europe of black ink from gall nuts (tumours that grow on trees where insects have laid eggs), real black was hard to conjure up. The early artists in France’s Lascaux caves drew crude animals and human figures with charcoal, which sometimes washed away. Most confected blacks, especially fabric dyes, produced a muddy purply-grey or brown at best.
It was only when black pigments—made from coal, lampblack or even burned ivory— were successfully mixed with gum arabic or linseed oil that it became possible to create the black gloss that many European artists came to love. Caravaggio revolutionised Baroque painting with his studies of darkness; yet it was the Spaniards of a generation later, when black was the colour of high fashion, who made black painting all their own, starting with the power portraits of Diego Velázquez and the brooding figures that haunt the tall works of Francisco de Zurbaran. “Black became the colour of distinction,” Philip Ball, the author of “Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Colour”, has said. It wasn’t only a hue in its own right, artists realised, but an enlivener of other colours.