Higher Learning: Chromatic Modernity
Higher Learning is a regular feature at Film Comment in which campus-based scholars share their work, bringing our readers into the rich and varied conversations occurring in the fields of film and moving-image studies.
The Wizard Of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
The following abridged excerpt comes from the book Chromatic Modernity: Color, Cinema, and Media of the 1920s by Sarah Street and Joshua Yumibe (published by Columbia University Press). In the book, Street and Yumibe show how color sensibilities and industries developed in relation to cinema’s rise at a key moment in history, digging into the meaning and making of color as we know it, from a deeply grounded perspective.
Color today is by and large ready-made, purchased prefabricated, and mixed with the help of matchable color cards, charts, and digital indexes that allow one to choose the ideal hue, saturation, and combinations for the job at hand. This was not always the case, for at one time most pigments were profoundly expensive and required trained specialists to mix and prepare for each application. Our modern sense of color as a standardized commodity available off the shelf dates back to the nineteenth century.
Beginning in the 1850s and accelerating rapidly after World War I, new forms of color revolutionized the spaces of modernity through an array of industrial innovations, standardizing procedures, and aesthetic experiments, and by the 1920s cinema in all of its various hues was at the vanguard of these transformations. The colorant industry went through fundamental changes during the era, as it shifted from the use of natural dyes to synthetic anilines. Aniline is a chemical compound synthesized from coal tar, a common industrial waste product. The German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge initially discovered coal tar’s potential for producing dyestuffs in the 1830s, but it was the British chemist William Henry Perkin who was first able to market aniline dyes after he distilled a deep purple compound he named and patented as mauveine in 1856. Mauveine inaugurated a massive expansion of color in the textile and chemical industries, as numerous other synthetic dyes were soon developed across Europe, particularly in Germany. It was not just new colors that emerged from these innovations, but also a whole host of chemical offshoots: pharmaceuticals, film and photographic stocks, fertilizers, and eventually tear, mustard, and chlorine gases, often as by-products from the waste of colorant production.
Synthetic dyes were cheaper and more colorfast than the colorants used previously, for before aniline, dyes were extracted from organic materials that by and large were relatively unstable and imported at great cost through colonial trade. With the tints of aniline flooding the market, new colored goods were transformative, making the world seem like a fantastic dream come to life. Aniline-dyed magic lantern slides and tinted theatrical lighting illuminated the spaces of popular entertainment, and urban sidewalks overflowed with passersby draped in the newly saturated fashions of aniline-colored fabrics, which came to define the fashion look of the New Woman. Print ephemera was also a major site for the expansion of color, as city streets were plastered with chromolithographed advertising posters and subsequently by neon signage. Wallpapers, reproductions of artwork, hand-painted photographs, and stenciled trade postcards colored the walls of domestic spaces. Meanwhile, color printing revolutionized the space of reading, as vibrant illustrations—in women’s journals meant to be clipped out to decorate the home, in children’s books, and on dime-novel covers—grew increasingly popular at the end of the century. It is out of this synthetic prism that cinema emerged in the 1890s, and as the medium crystalized into its classical form of mass entertainment, the moving image became a hallmark of the chromatic modernity of the 1920s, resplendent in the tints, tones, and Technicolor hues that saturated the Jazz Age.
Color and cinema have entwined histories. Each expanded industrially as well as artistically in a global context after the First World War, and this growth necessitated new standards for color production. Within the industrial field, the codification of colorimetric values and meanings became essential for taming color’s polyvalence and industrial unruliness. Color has always been uncontainable—it spills over borders and makes sparkling messes, and as such it is a constant variable in the industrial arts. Tints shift both chemically and in reproduction, depending on lighting conditions, ingredients, color juxtapositions, the physiology of the eye, and time, as dyes fade and decompose.
But color is simultaneously a vital aspect of our lived environment and a hallmark of 1920s consumer culture as illuminated through the cinematic field. In particular, the hues of the screen illuminated new modes of female fashion as well as a host of Orientalist and Primitivist fantasies through various Art Nouveau and Art Deco flourishes. In order to better commodify and control such gendered and racialized excesses for the new mass markets, colorant firms began to distribute color card indexes increasingly in the latter half of the nineteenth century. At the same time, various aesthetic and industrial theories emerged for codifying color harmony in tandem with the development of aniline colorants… These processes enabled forms of technical and aesthetic innovation in 1920s cinema and were generative for the new modes of production and reception that defined the modernity of the decade. New forms of chromatic standardization across the cinematic and industrial fields of production necessitated new, international modes of technical research. Color in the 1920s transformed, and was transformed by, the various intermedial, industrial, and cultural spheres that it interacted with—in, around, and through the cinema.
German corporations dominated the conglomerated chemical and colorant industry at the turn of the last century, but with the conclusion of the First World War and the ensuing reparations, the German industrial sector was forced to divest a portion of its international factories and chemical patents. Global colorant production diversified and surged in the ensuing postwar consumer markets, which necessitated new, transferable principles of research and design. The international history of color intersects with what Olivier Zunz has examined regarding the rise of U.S. power in the “American twentieth century.” As he explains, one of the overarching drives of the United States at the turn of the century was “the creation of an industrial economy on a continental scale,” which in turn would grow to dominate global trade, eventually overtaking the German industrial complex during the interwar period. [Detailed] through comparative studies of Eastman Kodak, Pathé Frères, and Technicolor, part of this rise to global power relates to intersecting developments in the U.S. colorant and film industries during the 1920s. Tracking the industrialization of color and cinema in a global context illuminates a structural transformation in knowledge production during the era. Laboratory research, particularly in Germany and the United States, was being professionalized through increasing partnerships between industry and technical universities that accelerated the rate of knowledge transfer.
This change in the structure of industrial knowledge was one of the factors—alongside other professionalizing shifts, such as the rise of the studio system and the development of the trade press and organizations such as the Society of Motion Picture Engineers—that enabled cinema to crystalize as an autonomous mass medium. Industrialized and standardized, color became a hallmark of modernity and modernism, consumer culture, and film and mass media.
Excerpted from Chromatic Modernity: Color, Cinema, and Media of the 1920s by Sarah Street and Joshua Yumibe. Copyright (c) 2019 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Sarah Street is professor of film at the University of Bristol. She is the author of Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation, 1900–55 (2012) and Deborah Kerr (2018), among other works. Joshua Yumibe is associate professor and director of the Film Studies Program at Michigan State University. He is the author of Moving Color: Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism (2012) and co-author of Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema (2015).