Celebration of colour in the Victorian era

Last weekend, I went to see the Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion and Design at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The very first exhibit is Queen Victoria’s black silk mourning dress, which has shaped our conception of the Victorian era — but wrongly so! This is the interesting premise of the exhibition which aims to dispel the commonly held idea that the Victorian era was monochrome. Instead, we are invited to ‘rediscover Victorian society as a vibrant colour-filled era – from dazzling dyes used in chic corsets, bold experiments by avant-garde painters, and the flamboyant use of nature’s beauty in jewellery’. 

I was intrigued, not least, because it seemed to call one of the main hypotheses of my book Exotic Cinema: Encounters with Cultural Difference in Contemporary Transnational Film into question, namely that vibrant chromatic designs are one of the aesthetic hallmarks of exoticism and that in Western art and aesthetic theory colourfulness has been haunted by pervasive suspicion. As David Batchelor (2006) proposes in his provocative exploration of colour in Western visual culture, Chromophobia, ‘in the West, since Antiquity, colour has been systematically marginalised, reviled, diminished and degraded’. Western culture’s ‘chromophobia’ has been associated with ‘fear of contamination and corruption’ by contact with ‘some “foreign” body’, be it ‘the feminine, the oriental, the primitive’. Since the colourful is coded as alien, it is perceived to pose a threat to ‘the higher concerns of the Mind [and…] the higher values of Western culture’.

 But as I looked at some amazing works of art and artefacts, including a hummingbird necklace with rubies, gold and feathers, Japanese prints by Utagawa Hiroshige in shades of deep blue, a portrait of Scheherazade and various paintings of the ‘Decadent Movement’, it dawned upon me that my misconception of the Victorian era was indebted to Charles Dickens’ novels with its cities shrouded in grey fog and houses covered in black soot. But the Victorian era was one of exploration and empire, foreign trade, travel and, thus, manifold encounters with cultural difference. These encounters have clearly shaped the aesthetic sensibilities of the Victorian era, here in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. 

The infallible colourists of the Decadent Movement, who cherished colour for colour’s sake (esp. the ‘subversive’ shades of absinth green and yellow), or James Whistler’s Three Figures: Pink and Grey, which was inspired by the artist’s love of Japanese prints, actually seem to confirm my hypothesis that colourfulness is associated with the foreign, the exotic, with the senses and sensuality. Therefore, the sensual pleasure derived from colourfulness was seen to pose a threat to the higher concerns of the mind. 

If the Victorian era was indeed, as the exhibition Colour Revolution demonstrates, a celebration of colour in all its mesmerising shades, then the encounter with other, non-Western cultures, must be seen as a significant impetus that inspired artists and craftsmen.