With such relatively abundant purple material at hand it is not surprising that pre-Columbian textiles exist with painted-on motives and hand-prints.
A robe’s fragment from a woman’s grave of the 4th century B.C., found in an ancient Greek colony in the South of Russia, shows that purple has been led on with a brush.(Born 1937). As a watery liquid, even without any binder, fresh purple secretion is quite suitable as artist’s paint, depending on the techniques employed.
A very special technique was discovered by the French zoologist Henri Lacaze-Duthiers in the 19th century. During a stay in Mahon on the Balearic Islands he observed a fisherman drawing on his white shirt with a little stick dipped into the mucus of a Purpura haemastoma. This was the beginning of a new passion for the scientist, which led him to use the photosensitive power of the secretion. He literally created photographs with purple. Besides several auto-portraits, he used various motifs drawn from history or art. How did he achieve this?
He explains the procedure in his “Mémoire sur la Pourpre”(Lacaze-Duthiers 1859): a little piece of silk or other textile is drenched with the secretion from the hypobranchial gland of several molluscs, spreading it as evenly as possible by help of a small brush. The wet cloth is stretched over the plate carrying the negative, avoiding air bubbles and keeping it moist by adding more layers of humid cloth. Another glass plate covers the whole lot, which is then exposed to bright sunshine for a certain period of time. After that, the impregnated textile is submerged in water where the positive image of the motive appears.
Without access to Murex brandaris, experiments were repeated with M. trunculus but did not yield convincing results. No photographic glass-plate of the early century was able to help resolve the problem. Before reaching any sunshine in the garden the precursor had developed all the purple there was, with no image in sight. Thinking that the negative was not dark enough to avoid light entering it, a stencil was cut out from x-ray celluloid and the procedure repeated under a large black sheet to keep any light away. The only difference was a somewhat sharper contour trace of the cut out motif.
The author came to the conclusion that Murex trunculus, due to its development without the influence of light, was not the right medium and bought M. brandaris snails from remote areas which confirmed the experiments of Henri Lacaze-Duthiers. The delicate nuances between the exposed and non-exposed parts of the image were clearly visible and stayed on without altering for months to come. The mystery, though, remained intact as to why the covered part of the image did not continue to develop once exposed to bright light.
Other artists, too, were trying to deal with this complex subject and medium in their work. In 1986 Sigmar Polke, a well-known contemporary artist, was in charge of the German art pavilion in Venice. His contribution to the XLII. Biennale of Venice carried the name of Athanor. He used colours and materials that seemed to derive from the alchemist’s kitchen, submitted to the laws of transformation as soon as they were ‘born’. They reacted to temperature and humidity, they were paintings with silver compounds such as halogens, nitrates or oxides, with varnish reflecting the onlooker, with long forgotten pigments and of course with shellfish purple from the markets in Venice. The secretion of Murex trunculus, Murex brandaris and Thaïs haemastoma was pressed unto a silk cloth of 90 x 400cm and exhibited. But he did not develop the purple idea any further.*
In Switzerland, Bernhard Heinrichs, a painter and musician, also works with traditional colours and materials. Besides lapis lazuli, saffron, even green tea, he has used shellfish purple according to the Neue Zuericher Zeitung. (9./10.11.2002).
Why are there so few artists using this particular colorant? One reason is certainly the difficult access to purple producing mollusks. Another important consideration is the death of the animals. Life and death is thoroughly connected with the splendors of purple. Nowadays, dyeing the sails of Cleopatra’s ship, as was done in antiquity would be unthinkable, and our perception of ethics is closer to the American Indian principle that killing animals is acceptable if ‘only as much as necessary’ and for your own needs. Therefore painting with life snails is limited to very small sizes, just big enough to enjoy the unique event of recognizing a 5000-year old tradition by creating a colour from the sea. The small paintings of Paul Klee come to mind; they contain the power of a jewel and need not be bigger.
Perhaps this is the conclusion after working for so many years with a colour that will not be a simple pigment: to accept the multitude of nature while attempting to exhaust a maximum of variations. As Plotinus said to his pupil, Porphyry of Tyre: ”To any vision must be brought an eye adapted to what is to be seen.” (Plotinus).
In October 2005, 26 years after the first attempt, the author finally achieved the purple pigment she was looking for. Many experiments were carried out before the right ‘body’ or ‘charge’ was found to catch the colorant of the fresh glands. After cleaning the mixture from undesired proteins and debris, after repeated washing and filtering, the wet mass was dried and powdered.
Now the purple colour can join the range of normal pigments, can be stored in a glass on the shelf, maybe mixed with any binder to produce a high quality artist colour. “La boucle est bouclée” as the French would say…
But is it thinkable that a colour of such origins, with a history of many thousand years, becomes a simple medium to fill out the space between two outlines
With all the confusion around the right hue of true purple, there is finally one useful comparison that might convince the one who doubts. The ‘modern’ purpurissum’s colour corresponds exactly to the violet found in the petals of the saffron crocus. Those have become the centre of interest on wall paintings found at the Akrotiri site on the Isle of Santorini in Greece, destroyed by earthquake and volcanic eruption around 1600 BC. It is now certain (Sotiropoulou 2005) that the pigment employed to colour the crocci petals and other items in the paintings is of shellfish purple origins. We can conclude that up to now these wall paintings are the world’s oldest art pieces with traces of the famous ancient purple.
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Book xxxv ; xxv. 44-46*
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