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A Bibliographical History of the Study and Use of Color from Aristotle to Kandinsky

by Kenneth E. Burchett
The Edward Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY, 2005
416 pp., illus. $129.95 ( 79.95)
ISBN: 0-7734-6041-1.

Reviewed by Wilfred Niels Arnold
University of Kansas Medical Center


Professor Burchett has performed a labor of love, and his product is both a reliable source and an encyclopedic reference for historical aspects of color usage. This book will certainly be one of the important places to start for serious scholars who wish to consult the original literature.

Part one is a short history of color harmony with 10 chapters on topics ranging from ancient concepts through color vision, meanings, and information, to color guides. The items are handled as short summaries. In general, the author is more concerned with a rapid introductory trip through a large territory rather than analysis, evaluation, or criticism of landmarks.

Part two is entitled "Books on color harmony and color in art." I particularly appreciate the figure on page 92, which depicts the timelines for 12 outstanding authors in the field. Dates of first copyright are also indicated on the graphic. The viewer can instantly see the possibilities for overlapping influences. Chapters 13 to 24 are devoted to these dozen books, and the individual themes are summarized. The choice came out of the author's doctoral dissertation (1976) and was based initially on 32 items offered by five experts (Rudolf Arnheim, Faber Birren, Frans Gerritsen, David McAdam, and Siegfried Rösch) who are given brief biographies in chapter 25.

Part three, color bibliographies and indices, is a large compilation, reflecting the author's years of scholarship and experience and is expected for a book of this type. Specific references (of the order of 800) occupy 42 pages of text. A general bibliography has some 77 pages and over 1,400 references. This is followed by subject lists, arranged internally by dates of publication, e.g. under "aesthetics" are found Hogarth, 1753 "The analysis of beauty," followed by 95 others ending with Pavey, 2003 "Color and humanism." (One can imagine great utility here for term papers.) The index of subjects is adequate and is not damaged by the inclusion of some rather global headings such as "art" and sub-headings such as "color in art," because it is much better to be redundant than frugal. The index of names is extensive and good. I sampled a few examples for which I have a personal attachment and always found fidelity between text and indexed page number. Vincent van Gogh is given a total of seven mentions––a bit skimpy for one of his fans. Burchett may not be among them because he makes a small error by employing an upper case "Van" throughout the text. Otherwise, typographical and compositional errors are joyfully rare.

There are a couple of quirks about the title itself. The particular bracket of Aristotle to Kandinsky is never properly explained in the text. And the absence of "color harmony" in the title is surprising even though this term is mentioned a dozen times by commentator Jack Davis in his two page preface and is given repeated prominence by the author himself in chapter 1, "Classical color harmony." A clue comes from the introduction, "The knowledge of color harmony, despite the effort which has gone into color study in the past, has never been assembled into an agreeable modern concept. The essential requirements for producing a satisfying affective response to color remain unclear." This statement will elicit significant argument in the audience because we do know a few things (from both neurophysiology and neuropsychology) about complementary colors and so forth. And Burchett's term "agreeable modern concept" is surely not much of a goal for the science of color.

The author's declared emphases were history, philosophy, and bibliography rather than example or experiment and, perhaps, justify the absence of color plates––it's a pure black and white book except for the covers. On the other hand, if the aim were to decrease production costs, then it was not reflected in the final price. Unfortunately, this issue will inhibit a wider reading that the book deserves. (Reviewer's note: an academic discount of 20% is apparently available by dealing directly with the publisher.) Dr. Burchett currently teaches color theory at the University of Central Arkansas, in the town of Conway.




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