The Red That Colored the World
A first-class exhibition stirs up a sensation like jumping off into the unknown. “The Red That Colored the World,” originally at the Santa Fe Museum of International Folk Art, did that and more, taking the novel approach of investigating the long-lost legend of a color. Called “an epic story of art, culture, science, and trade” by Camilla Padilla, exhibition co-curator with Dr. Barbara Anderson, it led one, like going through the Narnia closet, on a great adventure to seize upon marvels of red.
The essential marvel is cochineal: a tiny bug that lives and breeds on prickly pear cactus in the Americas. The female stores in her body enormous quantities of carminic acid, which produces a deep crimson-red dye. For close to two thousand years in Mesoamerica it was cultivated as an ideal colorant for protein fibers like silk and wool. Not until the arrival of the Spanish in the 1520s in Mexico did cochineal pass into recorded existence and become an invaluable dyestuff in global trade. As an archetype of a brilliant collaboration between nature and human ingenuity, cochineal was and still is applied to almost everything conceivable: textiles and clothing, books, murals, sculpture, furniture, oil paintings, as a varnish on violins, and in cosmetics, food and candy.
It took six years to locate and organize around one hundred and twenty-five magnificent examples of art with cochineal, loaned from museums and collections in London, New York, Denver, and Austin, and from Mexico, Peru, Spain, and Italy. The exceptional quality and craftsmanship of the selection celebrates how much red mattered. Whatever the culture or the epoch, red connoted rank and wealth and symbolized the sacred. It was hard to produce. The exhibition included samples of other natural sources of red dye—vermilion, cinnabar, lac, kermes, madder, even Polish and Armenian cochineal. They were expensive, toxic to extract, and not very stable. By comparison, cochineal was a dream, because of its super-saturation, its colorfastness and its ability, combined with mordants like lime or alum, to create an amazing spectrum of colors, from pink and salmon to apricot, magenta, scarlet, and a rich plum purple. A gilded beech armchair, upholstered in warm red wool dyed with cochineal, came from Napoleon’s council room at Malmaison. Cochineal was so coveted (and everyone was forking over such a fortune to the Spanish to buy it) that Napoleon offered a hefty “prize of 20,000 livres to the person who will find how to give wool by means of madder a solid vivid color… which most closely resembles cochineal scarlet.”
Maybe to stymie competitors, the Spanish claimed it was a grana, a little seed. Europeans never realized it was an insect until the invention of the microscope in the late seventeenth century. By the same token, everything in the exhibition was tested. Mark MacKenzie, head of the museum’s conservation department, did approximately twenty-five hundred analysis runs using primarily HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) technology to confirm wherever American cochineal was present. The point was not for viewers to figure out that a particular red comes from cochineal, like finding Waldo in a crowd, but to amplify our appreciation for its singular and inexplicable beauty.
Cochineal travelled everywhere. A sixteenth-century painting by El Greco of El Salvador in a red robe, and a Van Gogh picture from 1888 of a pair of worn boots both contain it. Spanish colonial artists lavished cochineal red, called carmine lake by pigment makers, on sumptuous rococo-inflected devotional art. Cochineal turns an eighteenth-century Japanese ceremonial firefighter’s coat bright red, and animates embroidered silk flowers with a vivacious wine red in an early nineteenth-century valance from Samarkand in Central Asia. From Mexico, the pièce de résistance is an eighteenth-century lacquerware papelera (writing chest) made in Michoacán and intricately painted with mythological figures, flowers and landscape views containing a soft berry red.
Once synthetic dyes came along in the late nineteenth century, red went into decline as a precious color. But since the 1970s, a revival of interest in natural dyes has steadily grown. Today Peru produces over eighty-five percent of the cochineal on the market, with the Canary Islands close behind. Fashion and textile artists especially favor cochineal. Two dresses from designer Mariano Fortuny were one of the crowning glories of the exhibition. Fortuny had a passion for color and experimented with cochineal to produce a palette of superb reds. To see an iconic pleated-silk Delphos gown up close is to realize just why he was called the Magician of Venice.
“The Red That Colored the World,” an integral part of Santa Fe’s 2015 Summer of Color, has now closed. Fortunately, there is still an opportunity to see this thematic presentation in another venue. It is showing at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, through March 21, 2016.
Leslie Clark is a freelanced writer and editor in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Clark, who claims red is her favorite color, was flabbergasted by her visit to the “The Red That Colored the World” exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art up on Museum Hill. “I had no idea how exhaustively people worked, for centuries, to produce a red color. No wonder kings and prelates hogged it for themselves. Cochineal changed everything. Even now, with synthetic dyes around, its amazing properties are still the best. It makes you grateful to Mother Nature and those little bugs.”