Sunday, December 22, 2013

The politics of paint

Never told you folks that I collect paint, did I? Probably figured you wouldn't be interested. But this is the Sunday before Christmas and I am sick of writing about the NSA.

So gather round, my friends, and hear a tale. Pigment and politics are more closely related than you might think...

As a young man, I painted in oils. Not very well. Then the professional gigs started coming, and I switched to other media. The collection of tubed oil paints -- which included some expensive rarities -- went into the closet, nestled within a couple of wooden Mouton Cadet Rothschild caskets. (Yes! Rothschild! A name to make all conspiracy theorists shudder!)

Despite losing all other possessions, I held on to those two boxes. Over the course of the next thirty years, the stash grew whenever the wallet allowed and a bargain presented itself. The collecting bug turns us all into helpless idiots, doesn't it? I rationalized these purchases by telling myself that one day there would be a return to the easel. To tradition.

Needless to say, my knowledge of the history of pigment is characteristically quasi-expert. Or at least not bad. Thus, I took particular interest in an episode of Elementary broadcast late in the first season. (Elementary is the Sherlock-in-modern-New-York television series, which I, just to be perverse, like better than the BBC version.)

The plot turned on the discovery of a jar of gamboge -- raw powdered pigment, not tubed -- in the house where our heroes find an amnesiac kidnap victim. The detectives attempt to track down the kidnapper by consulting the only store in the city where one can buy that ultra-rare pigment.

In real life, that supplier would be Kremer's. They sell only the raw and powdered stuff, which you must mull yourself. You can't find gamboge in paint tubes these days. Even these guys don't make it -- and they offer mummy, fer chrissakes...!

No, I don't have any gamboge. Neither do I possess any orpiment (a similar color), although I'd love to get hold of some: It's marvelously poisonous. (So are many other traditional pigments. Gamboge itself can do hideous things to your intestines. A dangerous business, art is.) I do have a very ancient tube of aureolin -- golden in glazes, but more like Grey Poupon in masstone -- which can, in a pinch, substitute for gamboge. M. Graham makes a gamboge hue which I have not tried, although the brand itself is superb.

What's the political angle? We're coming to it.

The writers of Elementary have tweeted thus:
Gamboge pigment is harvested from The Killing Fields in Cambodia.
To prove the point, they gifted us with a segment of the original script (which was changed before production). The text surprised me. Even though gamboge is yellow, the teleplay identified the pigment as red.
It's the kind of red. It comes from a resin that you can only find on the border between Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. They mine it from the sap of trees that are in the Cambodian Killing Fields. The red tint comes from the blood-soaked bullets that lodged in the trunks during the mass executions. The bullets rust, the blood mixes with the sap...
(she holds up the pigment)
Where the hell (I wondered) did they get that?

Yes, gamboge comes from the resin of a tree found in that region; the very name "gamboge" is a Frenchified corruption of "Cambodia." But that stuff about blood and bullets...? Ridiculous. Gamboge predates the advent of Pol Pot by hundreds of years. Buddhist monks use the stuff to dye their robes yellow.

I wondered: Were the Elementary writers trying to inject a little propaganda into the proceedings? Did someone on the staff take a pay-off from the same folks who brought us the Mitrokhin hoax?

Determined to solve this mystery, I turned to Victoria Finlay's invaluable 2003 work, Color: A Natural History of the Palette. Finlay traveled the world to discover the true origins of various traditional pigments.

The book contains a passage which explains all. Obviously, the television writers misunderstood the following:
This pretty paint can be dangerous in other ways, I learned later. Winsor and Newton have been receiving small parcels of gamboge from their Southeast Asian suppliers since before anyone can remember, and probably since the company started in the mid-nineteenth century. When it arrives at the factory they grind it up carefully and sell it in tubes or pans as one of their more expensive watercolors. But some of the packages that arrived in the 1970s and 1980s from Cambodia and possibly Vietnam were different: the gamboge contained exploded bullets. The company’s technical director, Ian Garrett, has five of them displayed in his office now: a reminder to him and his colleagues of how some of the paint materials they can so easily take for granted come from places where people have lived through unimaginable suffering. One day, during the height of the Vietnam War, or perhaps during the horrors of the murderous Pol Pot regime, a soldier, or a group of soldiers, must have gone into the garcinia grove and sprayed bullets around the area with machine guns. Some of these lodged safely in the bamboo, to be found months or years later by paint-makers in Harrow. What happened to the other bullets can only be imagined.
Ah. So bullets were found. But they did not turn this traditionally yellow product red.

W&N stopped offering gamboge as a watercolor in 2005. Gamboge disappeared as an oil paint long before. Frankly, I've never seen it on sale anywhere.

W&N does, however, offer a fine version of Indian Yellow -- I have a tube of the stuff -- although they no longer make it according to the original recipe. Traditionally, Indian Yellow derives from cow piss. But not just any cows: Cows fed nothing but mango leaves. This practice was cruel -- cows don't do well on mango leaves -- and so the British government forced an end to Indian Yellow production in the late 19th century.

Next time you go to a museum and you see an old painting with lots of yellow in it, remind yourself that you're probably looking at a very expensive arrangement of cow piss.

Victoria Finlay (who traveled to India) reports that she could not confirm the "cow pee" story, but I've seen one old book which reports that the paint's smell offered a strong indication of its bovine origin, and I'm told that W&N still keeps a few samples of "old vintage" Indian Yellow hanging around the offices. Perhaps the only way to prove the story is to buy a cow and a few mango trees.

Have I alienated my usual audience...? If this excursion into the politics of paint has held your interest, then perhaps one day we shall discuss the strange and blood-curdling history of ultramarine blue. Otherwise...

...well, we can always talk about the En-Ess-Fucking-A.


Anonymous said...

Now I see how you and I are similar.

"Jack of all trades; Master of None"

I prefer to spread myself thinly for more coverage. :)


Twilight said...

Not alienated! Enjoyed it and have passed a Permalink on to my husband - he'll be interested too.

CBarr said...

Best thing I've read this morning.

prowlerzee said...

Very interesting! Just today I was grumbling about civet poop coffee and coffee snobs' insensitivity to poor civets, and now I find that the danger-defying artists once relied on giving cows indigestion for the sake of a shade of yellow!

Bob Harrison said...

As Spock would say, :Fascinating." I'll add this tale next to my bishop-pee enhanced gunpowder story.

William said...

Thank you! I lean something new every time I read your Blog.