In the Mood for Colours: Red Objects

The many shades we call red range from orange to pink, with purple on the way. Vivid and distinctive, red stands apart from others in the spectrum, a virtue that has made it the colour of strength and power. Green and blue are cool by comparison; red is the colour of fire, blood and rubies.

One of the fundamental colours of nature and the human body, it is in red that the concepts of blood, life and vitality find their expression, and even in prehistoric cave paintings, it appears as the colour of vitality and victory. Fire, an element that defines the boundary between nature and human culture, is inseparable in its physical essence and representation from shades of orange, crimson, scarlet and purple. Fire is where strength and power, security and danger, holy and profane, and hell and purgatory all come together.

In the Roman Empire, red costumes and clothes expressed power, war, control and holiness. Then in Christian culture, red became the symbol of martyrdom. In the liturgy, it had a role concentrated on the sacrament, but its demonic registers did not disappear. In profane life outside the world of religion, art and literature were infused with love and eroticism, in which red embarked on a spectacular career.

Revolutions, political resistance and communist ideologies gleefully chose red for their banners, and the colour in that context expressed revolt as well as strength. In the kaleidoscopic swirl of modern leisure and urban experience culture, the red textiles of curtains, stages and auditoria and glistening red lipstick pervade the world of theatre, opera and cabaret. And in what colour other than red could we imagine a Ferrari?

Red is at once the colour of fire, revolution, theatre, love, the avant-garde, liturgy, saintliness, haemoglobin, coral, ripe strawberries, rust, and autumn.

by Zsófia Frazon, ethnographer (Museum of Ethnography, Budapest)