“The colour that seems the softest can often speak the loudest" — Robin Cembalest
Pink, thought to be named after the frilled edge of a small flower of the Dianthus genus, emerged in the 17th century as a gender-neutral fashion choice for Europe’s elite, only becoming associated with femininity when men transitioned into business suits in the 19th century. The colour began to take on a more active role when it became the symbol of various campaigns in the twentieth century. One of these was post-World War II propaganda to lure women back into the kitchen. A more benevolent campaign, however, was that in the fight against breast cancer, with the symbol of the crossed pink ribbon.
From October 2013 to May 2014, the Boston Museum of Fine Art held a phenomenal show, “Think Pink”, charting the history and associations of the colour pink. It juxtaposed clothing (both men’s and women’s), accessories, graphic illustrations, jewellery, and paintings to shed light on changes in style; the evolution of pink for girls, blue for boys, and other colour associations were analysed. Not only all of this, but the exhibition also touched on the topic of breast cancer, and its pink link, including a selection of dresses and accessories from the collection of the late Evelyn Lauder, who was instrumental in creating an awareness of breast cancer by choosing the pink visual reference.
What better way is there to represent the colour pink than through the visual arts? Pink, with its associations with femininity and intimacy, sex and violence, challenges and perplexes contemporary artists. Here are a few phenomenal works in which artists have turned pink into an active and aggressive storyteller.
Beverly Semmes’ uses paint to cover up old 1990s porn magazines in her Feminist Responsibility Project. The premise of censorship springs to mind, but somehow, its not outwardly aggressive — Semmes uses salmons and ochres to make broad objects that cover more than just genitalia, as we can see in Pink Pot (2008). The lines of her pot flow fluidly, like the curves of the body behind, generating a harmonious composition. Her art takes on a quality of protection, both for the model and for the viewer, rather than drawing attention to the explicit, as is so often done in the media, with small rigid squares in harsh blacks and whites.
Melanie Braverman lives up to her name in tenderly embroidering quilts. One particular quilt, part of the Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community exhibition at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (Soho, New York), displays a range of anti-gay slurs. An emotional collection of abusive phrases including ‘nellie’, ‘butch’ and ‘pussy’ hits home, making the viewer agitated by the work, despite its light pink colouring, antique fabric, and delicate weaving of silk ribbon. Braverman destructs any connotations of ‘soft’ art with this work, that bites through our core despite its demure surface.
Sue Williams' Pink Pentagon follows a different theme than Semmes and Braverman. Challenging earlier feminist artists like Judy Chicago, Williams’ early works explore themes of domestic violence, sexual obscenity and the acceptance of sexism in society. In the 1990s, her work became highly Expressionist, her violent images becoming more abstract and fragmented, and she often combined text in her paintings. Pink Pentagon, from 2013, conveys the somber theme of 9/11 and its aftermath, reflecting all of these qualities that Williams’ later work came to embody. We see a plethora of explosions and fire, intermingled with beetles and organs, on the backdrop of the cartoon skyline of New York, creating a powerful sense of anarchy and ataxia that rampages through the melancholic confusion. The fissures of plain white set off the red and blue detailing and, more importantly, the pink block colouring. We see pink being used here to represent violence, but paramount to this, it conveys deep, emotional turmoil, conjoining peaceful white with gruesome red, replicating the complex and heartfelt despair of this time, both in New York, and around the world.
This study in pink has opened my eyes to the possibilities of a complex colour that is bound in a rich history, and glorious in a meaningful present. Help keep its present such a gratifying representative of its potential. So, finishing Cambridge Pink Week in style, please donate to one, or many, of the magnificent Breast Cancer charities (links below), and put some pink on, to add fashion to that killer list of visual arts that we’ve discussed.
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.