Crushed up Corpses, Powdered Poisons, and a Flamboyant Feud: 3 Colourful Tales from the Art World
Ah art. Look at it there. Being… arty. Oh who are we kidding, we know nothing about art. But we do know about weird shit and frankly, the art world is teeming with weird shit.
So join us on an adventure in art and an adventure in our first jointly written ARTicle! (bah dum tsssh).
Mummy Brown: Does exactly what it says on the tin
Every child of the 90s knows you don’t mess with mummies - that is literally the entire premise of the 1999 classic, The Mummy for heaven’s sake. But try telling that to the art world who, for the better part of four centuries, thought it was a good idea to grind mummified corpses into powder and sell it to painters under the name “Egyptian” or “Mummy Brown”. I mean honestly, it’s like they wanted to be cursed or something.
Mummy Brown was a warm pigment that sits somewhere on the colour spectrum between raw umber and burnt umber (quite the little Goldilocks of the colour world - this umber is too raw, this umber is too burnt, but this one is just right!). It was originally manufactured in the 16th century from a mix of white pitch (a type of resin), myrrh (also a type of resin), and the ground-up remains of human or feline mummies (unfortunately, not a type of resin). The popularity of the colour was such that demand often outpaced supply, leading to a few unscrupulous pigment dealers to make their own mummies out of the corpses of criminals or slaves (wow that got dark).
One famous work that may have utilized Mummy Brown was “Liberty Leading the People” by French artist Eugène Delacroix.
The pigment was also often used in the works of Pre-Raphaelite painters who praised it for its richness and transparency, though it began to fall out of favour when the artists learned more about its composition. According to the wife of one such painter, Edward Burnes-Jones:
Edward...said the name must be only borrowed to describe a particular shade of brown — but when assured that it was actually compounded of real mummy, he left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then. So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it.
Though demand had slowed down enough by 1915 that one London-based dealer was able to claim that a single Egyptian mummy could last him 20 years, it was the 1960s before the last tube of Mummy Brown was finally sold. According to a short article published in Time Magazine on October 2, 1964:
Geoffrey Roberson-Park, managing director of London's venerable C. Roberson color makers, regretfully admits that the firm has run out of mummies. "We might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere," he apologized, "but not enough to make any more paint. We sold our last complete mummy some years ago for, I think, £3. Perhaps we shouldn't have. We certainly can't get any more."
I think I speak for us all when I say - good.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for the good old days when a man was free to paint with all the corpses he liked, perhaps you might be interested in Bauxite Mummy? While it doesn’t contain any dead people (that we know of), it will at least guarantee* that your artwork is 100% curse free.
*not a guarantee
Scheele’s Green - Dying to be fashionable
Next on our list of pigments that want to kill you (though this time it’s not because you have disturbed the undead but because you are literally poisoning yourself) is Sheele’s Green. Developed in 1775 by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, his eponymous colour was made by heating sodium carbonate with arsenious oxide and stirring until the mixture was dissolved before adding copper sulfate. The result was a vibrant green colour that mimicked shades found in nature, making it a firm favourite among our old friends, the Pre-Raphaelites!
Because the pigment was cheap and easy to produce, it began to be used everywhere from dresses and waistcoats to children's toys. You see, by the time the Victorian period rolled around, the effects of the Industrial Revolution were being well and truly felt. Cities were dirty and smoggy and everything felt a little grey. As a result, there was a growing movement toward all things pastoral (the original cottagecore if you will) and the most fashionable among Victorian society soon began decorating with fake flowers and wallpaper depicting idyllic countryside scenes, all of which were painted with - you guessed it - Scheele’s Green.
There was one teeny tiny little issue though - it was hella poisonous. Just like, filled with arsenic. It seems that Sheele knew exactly how poisonous his concoction was, but in a move that would make a lot of modern politicians and business folk proud, apparently wrote to a friend and stated, “what’s a little arsenic when you’ve got a great new colour to sell?”. Charming.
Look, I don’t want to get too graphic here, but death by arsenic is really not a pleasant experience. At best, exposure can lead to rashes, weeping sores, vomiting and diarrhoea. At worse, well...take, for example, this account from historian Alison Matthews David of the death of a young flower maker in 1860s London after the arsenic from the dyes she worked with had reached her liver, lungs and stomach:
She vomited green waters; the whites of her eyes had turned green, and she told her doctor that ‘everything she looked at was green.
There is even speculation that the wallpaper in Napoleon’s home-prison of Longwood on the island of St. Helena contributed to his death since a sample of the wallpaper was found in a 1990s test to contain arsenic.
Luckily, Sheele’s Green began to fall out of favour when William Morris, the most famous wallpaper maker of the time (a profession that you really don’t hear about anymore), bowed to public pressure and began only using arsenic-free dyes in his work (cancel culture strikes again, am I right?). That, along with the changing fashion of the late 19th and early 20th century meant that green hues were no longer de rigueur (why yes, I have been marathoning Frasier lately, why do you ask?) and Sheele’s Green soon became a relic of the past.
The Blackest Black: a feud for the ages
There is a sitcom in Ireland with a joke about priests and their black socks. The joke goes something along the lines of - if you’re a priest, you need to buy socks from a special retailer as opposed to a layman’s store, because layman’s socks aren’t really black but are in fact “very very very very very very very very dark blue.”
Well, Vantablack cannot be accused of being such.
Developed by Surrey Nanosystems in the UK, this black is one of the darkest substances known to man (though experts have yet to see my humour) and it is said to be the closest we can get to experiencing a black hole. You see Vantablack absorbs light. Think about that for just a second. It. ABSORBS. Light. 99.965% of light. Sciencey stuff explains that the particles that Vantablack is made from trap light. Now this is not a science blog dear reader, and I am sure by now you know that I am not a scientist so while I researched and read (and re-read) the explanation, I would not be able to explain the makeup of this paint without directly copying and pasting so what's the point? Here’s a link should any budding Doc. (Mummy) Browns want to find out more.
Vantablack is so dark that any 3D shapes that are painted using it appear 2D to the human eye because we just cannot figure out what we are looking at.
Vantablack can be used in a number of ways, such as for space technology and optics & lens production, (although painting a car in all Vantablack without thinking of the practicalities that might arise at night was definitely a man’s idea), but the one way it cannot be used is in art… unless your name is Anish Kapoor because (as of this article's writing) he has the exclusive rights to use Vantablack in his artwork.
The (artistic) world vs. Anish Kapoor
Anish Kapoor is an artist known for playing with perceptions and optical illusions so of course, Vantablack would appeal to him. He is also the creator of Cloud Gate, lovingly referred to as The Bean in Chicago, his inspiration for the piece coming from liquid mercury.
In 2016, Kapoor acquired exclusive artistic rights to the paint which caused a little bit of outrage in the art world at the idea of one person having exclusivity or monopoly over a colour. His critics say that it is appropriation of a unique material and that it is not right to keep artists from using it. Kapoor has said that it is a collaboration piece with the developers and that of course, it needs to be copyrighted. Thus begins a colourful battle for the ages, but the art streets are not awash in red like most wars dear friends, but in pink.
In the Pink Corner
Stuart Semple is a contemporary artist known for his societal artwork and says that art should have a social function. He also believes “that art is neither an object nor an activity, but rather an experience”, which is perhaps why he had such an issue with the “keep away” game Kapoor was playing by himself. And so Semple decided to fight fire with fire.
Introducing “The Pinkest Pink":
The Pinkest Pink is a colour developed by Semple that he has allowed everyone to use. Well, everyone except Anish Kapoor. On his website, if you want to buy the Pinkest Pink you need to confirm the following:
This ultra-bright paint by Stuart Semple is available to everyone except Anish Kapoor! (who won't share his black!).
*Note: By adding this product to your cart you confirm that you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated to Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor. To the best of your knowledge, information and belief this paint will not make its way into the hands of Anish Kapoor.
Along with the Pinkest Pink, Semple has also developed Black 3.0 (his answer to Vantablack, which is not as black but it is a close, cheaper alternative), The Glitteriest Glitter (which is made with mirrors instead of plastic and is as shiny and lovely as you can imagine!) and a variety of other colours. Semple has stated that, until Anish Kapoor shares Vantablack, he is not welcome to purchase any of Semple’s paint.
Despite all my rage I am still just a pigment on a page
Despite Semple’s disclaimer, Anish Kapoor got his hands on The Pinkest Pink, and he had something choice to say about it… well… I say “say”...
In an interview with De Zeen, Semple said,
I was really sad and disappointed that he felt so left out that he needed to orchestrate some conspiracy to steal our pink, […] We'll be dobbing him in, he will be told off and hopefully that will teach him to share his colours in future. It would be nice if he owned up, said sorry and gave me my Pink back.
Kapoor was due to exhibit his first pieces using Vantablack last year, but due to the pandemic that has been delayed. I guess Vantablack isn’t the only thing to suck the light out of the world.
And there you have it, dear readers, three stories of colour - one that will haunt you, one that will kill you, and one that will probably amuse you, or at worst slightly irritate* you.
*irritate as in bother you, not irritate in an arsenic rash kind of way.