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£246,000 for research into colour in the 1920s

At the Villa Rose, a British film released in 1920s displays colour tinting and toning

At the Villa Rose, a British film released in 1920s displays colour tinting and toning courtesy of the British Film Institute National Archive, © Austin Shaw

11 April 2012

Professor Sarah Street in the Department of Drama: Theatre, Film Television, has secured a three year Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant worth £246,243 for her project ‘Colour in the 1920s: Cinema and its Intermedial Contexts’.

The 1920s was a decade when debates about the cultural, scientific, philosophical and educational significance of colour were intense.  Before the First World War, Germany dominated international colorant production, owning most of the modern dye patents and factories.  During the shortages of the war, colour usage diminished, but following the break-up of Germany’s chemical patents as part of war reparations, colour surged internationally as a defining aspect of culture.  In the art, advertising, architecture and cinema of the jazz age, cultural fascination with colour was lively and ranged across media and disciplines.

Professor Street, together with co-investigator Dr Joshua Yumibe of the Department of Film Studies at the University of St Andrews, will investigate the major spheres of colour expression in commercial and experimental motion pictures of the 1920s.

Taking cinema as the galvanizing focus, the project will also examine colour’s intermedial role in other arts—including commercial and print culture; fashion and industry; theatre and the performing arts—in order to produce a fully comprehensive, comparative and interdisciplinary study of the impact of colour during a decade of profound social, economic and cultural change.

More than in any other decade, international theorists and practitioners in a variety of media were keen to invest colour with a utopian sensibility that created dynamic exchanges between media, as with Adrian Klein’s writings on and experiments with abstract, ‘colour-music’.  British printmaking was revolutionised by the influences of European avant-garde art, and filmmakers such as Walter Ruttman and Oskar Fischinger drew on this tradition as they explored multivalent approaches in the integration of colour in film.  From art to advertising, the French film company Pathé collaborated with the clothing industry to produce a popular fashion newsreel genre, united by a desire to sell commodities to female consumers who dominated cinema audiences in Europe and the USA.

Through cases such as these, the project will compare and contrast the ways in which colour in the 1920s was associated with modernity, mass democracy and consumer culture.  It will also investigate critics who feared that colour’s unregulated application might lead to social instability and the advancement of taste cultures and media considered vulgar and undesirable.

The researchers will work closely with archivists in examining surviving prints and secondary sources that document contemporary practices of tinting, toning and attempts to introduce ‘natural’ colour.

Excavating the history of colour film in this period is frustrated by the physical deterioration and loss of many key titles.  To confront an historical record that is partial, the project will address the methodological challenges of working with the instability of colour and attendant issues of preservation and restoration.

Surrounding motion pictures, the range of colours available for use in new consumer goods, buildings, magazines and in theatrical performances created an exciting, chromatically rich visual culture.

Professor Street said: “By producing new research that integrates these various practices of colour expression, our project will facilitate an unprecedented assessment of the period.  A chromatic revolution was taking place, profoundly influenced by the increasing availability of synthetic dyes and building materials, and incandescent lighting.  Mapping this international colour field will demonstrate the extent to which it was forging new ways of looking at, and experiencing, the world – a history still relevant for today’s digitally interlinked colour horizon.”

About the Leverhulme Trust

The Leverhulme Trust was established in 1925 under the will of the first Viscount Leverhulme.  It is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing funds of some £60 million every year.

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