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Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism

Barris, Michael C.

Optometry & Vision Science: January 2000 - Volume 77 - Issue 1 - p 10
Book Reviews

North Miami Beach, Florida

Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism John Gage. Los Angeles: University of California Press.1999. Pages: 320. Price: $55.00. ISBN 0-520-22039-0.

When I compare the bibliographies of Stephen Polyak’s huge tome The Vertebrate Visual System1 and John Gage’s new book, I find the same names in each; Alhazen, Isaac Newton, Jan Purkinje, Johannes Mueller, Charles Darwin, Hermann von Helmholtz, and Ewald Hering. What spirit of consilience 2 could inspire a retinal anatomist and an art historian to draw from the same sources in the same way as did the chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul and the painter Horace Vernet (pp. 196–200) in the previous century? FIGURE

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The art historian Gage has written a sequel to his 1993 book, Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. 3 The earlier book has a larger format and more illustrations printed in color. It summarized 30 years of effort in occasional consultation with a colleague at Cambridge University, John Mollon, 4 Professor of Experimental Psychology. Gage’s new book emphasizing science revises platform presentations and scholarly papers to cohere as a single unit, yet each chapter can be comprehended without having read the previous chapters. However, the reader without a fine arts degree who has not visited art museums on at least a monthly basis for the last 50 years may find this book exasperating, because the names of artists, art critics, and stylistic schools of art are presented without definition. For those readers, constant consultation of an encyclopedia will be necessary because comprehension of the text depends upon knowledge of the careers of those artists, critics, and schools cited.

The first part of the book has three general survey chapters followed in the second part with 18 chapters ordered chronologically from the renaissance through modern times. Several chapters focus exclusively on the work of one artist. The book is illustrated with 136 figures; 37 are in color. Some of the color figures in Gage’s 1993 book 3 are reproduced in black and white and in a smaller format here. The figures reproduce creations across a 1402-year span from the year 550 (Fig. 22) to the year 1952 (Fig. 3). One creation was achieved in Asia (Fig. 22), six in the Americas, and the remainder in Europe. This is not a worldwide survey, which represents an opportunity for another author. The chemistry of paint pigments and dyestuffs (chapters 3, 4, 5, 7, 11, 15–18, and 20) as well as stained glass (chapters 3, 4, and 6) is considered along with optics, specifically, the history of prisms (chapter 8).

Gage considers four specific clinical visual phenomena as they are taught to the optometry student: (1) In an extended quote from the 19th-century English painter James Northcote, the Purkinje shift is eloquently described (p. 16). (2) The 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner discusses the importance of brief dark adaptation before viewing paintings (p. 168). The importance of this has only recently been described by scientists. 4 (3) A 12th-century teacher describes the importance of resting accommodation by viewing a complementary color after extended near-work with another color (p. 96). (4) Chapter 21 discusses synesthesia, the phenomenon in which the sensations of one sensory modality are perceived by the submodalities of another. There is material in these four topics to generate quantitative doctoral theses.

Gage pushes back the boundaries of our historical knowledge of vision care. He finds the first use of spectacles described in the England of 1180 rather than in late thirteenth-century Italy (p. 90). He finds the origin of the Farnsworth-Munsell 100-Hue Test for the Examination of Color Discrimination in the work of the “Swedish mathematician Sigfrid Forsius. . . about 1611” (p. 297, note 27; see also p. 277, note 100).

This samples, but does not exhaust, the range of topics that Gage embraces. For the color scientist, Color and Meaning is a real page-turner, a fine book for a graduate seminar in color vision.

The printed work of historians is noteworthy for its typographical quality. With three typographical errors in 280 pages, Gage’s book is no exception to this standard.

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1. Polyak SL, Klüver H. The Vertebrate Visual System; Its Origin, Structure, and Function and its Manifestations in Disease with an Analysis of its Role in the Life of Animals and in the Origin of Man, Preceded by a Historical Review of Investigations of the Eye, and of the Visual Pathways and Centers of the Brain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1957.
2. Wilson EO. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf; 1998.
3. Gage J. Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. Boston: Little, Brown; 1993.
4. Webster MA, Mollon JD. Adaptation and the color statistics of natural images. Vision Res 1997; 37: 3283–98.
© 2000 American Academy of Optometry