Conference: Toward a History of Modern Colour

Hanno Balz's picture
June 9, 2021 to June 11, 2021
United Kingdom
Subject Fields: 
Anthropology, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Cultural History / Studies, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Modern European History / Studies


A hybrid conference held at the Faculty of History

University of Cambridge

9-11 June 2021


Far from being universal, the connotations, meanings, and perceived power or ‘affect’ of colours are historically contingent. We select clothes, paint houses, buy cars, and are attracted to the polychromatic density of our televisions, phone screens, and computer monitors. In European history, the ‘red’ scare and ‘black’ shirts evoke key moments of twentieth-century experience, while ‘brown’ and ‘red’ (with the recent addition of ‘green’) function as powerful symbolic markers of political modernity. The embodied, material, culturally specific and emotive nature of colour necessitates an anthropological approach manifest in new histories of colour in the early modern world and 18th-century Europe. 

This workshop will bring an interdisciplinary focus to bear on questions of political identity, symbolism, and economics in modernity by exploring the ‘colour culture’ of modernity in a transnational and comparative perspective, bringing art, social, economic and political history into conversation with narratives of modern colour in global contexts. 

The workshop will serve as a starting point for establishing a high-impact research network of scholars from Germany, UK, US and Europe exploring conceptions of colour in modern history. Panels will be divided into 6 major themes:

  1. Skin colour, racism and society.
  2. Gender and sexuality.
  3. Material culture and economy of colour.
  4. Political representations of colour. 
  5. Cultural representations of colour. 
  6. Colour and visual culture.

Panels will be held across a period of three days from 9-11 June 2021 in a hybrid online and in-person format. A keynote lecture open to the public (via Zoom) will be given by Professor Richard Dyer (King’s College London and University of St Andrews) on Thursday 10 June 2021 at 16:30 GMT / 11:30 EST. 




14:00 – 14:20 BST | 15:00 – 15:20 CET | 9:00 – 9:20 EST

Opening Remarks: Hanno Balz (Cambridge)


14:20 – 16:20 BST | 15:20 – 17:20 CET | 9:20 – 11:20 EST 

Panel 1: Skin Colour, Racism, & Society

·Stefanie Affeldt (Heidelberg) – The Eclipse of Whiteness

·Cecil Foster (SUNY) – Transnational Citizenship: Modernity’s Hue for Being Black, Proud, and Possibly Free

Discussion: 20 mins

·11 (Oxford) – Fugitive Colours

·Nina Jablonski (Penn State) – The Evolution of Skin Colour: An Anthropological Approach

Discussion: 20 mins


16:40 – 18:45 BST | 17:40 – 19:45 CET | 11:40 – 13:45 EST

Panel 2: Gender & Sexuality / Geographies of Colour

·Dominique Grisard (Basel) – The English Rose: ‘Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Pink’

·Dominic Janes (Keele) – The Colourful Appearance of Male Homosexuality in Interwar Britain

·Kirsty Dootson (Cambridge) – ‘Could a Woman Have Done That?': Madame Yevonde’s Colour Photography and the Gender of Labour in Interwar Britain

Discussion: 20 mins

·Diana Lange & Benjamin van der Linde (Hamburg/Hanseatic Business Archive Foundation) – How Colours Became Functional: The Meaning of Colours in European and Asian Maps, 17th to 20th Centuries


Discussion: 20 mins



14:00 – 15:30 BST | 15:00 – 16:30 CET | 9:00 – 10:30 EST

Panel 4: Material Culture & Economy of Colour

·Sabine Doran (Penn State) – The Culture of Yellow

·Charlotte Ribeyrol (Sorbonne) – Chromotope: Thinking the Victorian Chromatic Turn

·Reggie Blaszczyk (Leeds) – The Colours of Capitalism: The Rise of Corporate Colour Consultants in Mid-Century America

Discussion: 30 mins


16:00 – 18:00 BST | 17:00 – 19:00 CET | 11:00 – 13:00 EST

Panel 5: Political Representations of Colour

·Michael Rossi (Chicago) – Colour Blindness, Statecraft, and Anthropometry in the American Civil War

·Gregory Bridgman (Cambridge) – The Invention of Colour Vision in Late 19th Century British Anthropology

Discussion: 20 mins

·Udo Grasshoff (Leipzig) – Tar-Based Dyestuffs in the 19th Century: Transnational History of a Chemical Miracle

·Maroś Krivy (Estonia Academy of Arts) – The Colours of Socialism

Discussion: 20 mins


18:30 – 20:00 BST | 19:30 – 21:00 CET | 13:30 – 15:00 EST

Keynote Lecture (public event)

·Richard Dyer (KCL & University of St Andrews) – Why Call Pink People White?



14:00 – 16:00 BST | 15:00 – 17:00 CET | 9:00 – 11:00 EST 

Panel 6: Cultural Representations of Colour

·Jessica Durgan (Bemidji) – Colourful Transformations: The Visual Arts and Race in the Victorian Novel

·Gaia Giuliani (Coimbra) – Constructions of Colour in Postcolonial Italy

Discussion: 20 mins

·M.S. Simpson (UPenn) – Polychrome and Monochrome in early 20th-Century Persian Painting

·Natasha Eaton (UCL) – The Magneticism of Colour: Heat, Atmosphere and Camouflage in India

Discussion: 20 mins


16:20 – 18:20 BST | 17:20 – 19:20 CET | 11:20 – 13:20 EST

Panel 7: Colour and Visual Culture

·Laura Kalba (Smith College) – Gold Is the New [ ]: Materiality, Value, and Colour in Victorian Avant-Garde Art

·Ralph Whyte (Columbia) – Separating and Hybridizing Colour and Music c.1900: Alexander Wallace Rimington’s Color Music

Discussion: 20 mins

·Sarah Street (Bristol) – Artificial Light, Colours, and Film in Postwar Britain

·Carolyn Kane (Ryerson) – Electrographic Colour and the Formation of Contemporary Urban Surround

Discussion: 20 mins


18:40 – 19:30 BST | 19:40 – 20:30 CET | 13:40 – 14:30 EST


Concluding Remarks: Allegra Fryxell (Cambridge)



If you would like to register for this conference, please email < colour conference at gmail dot com >


Contact Info: 

Dr. Hanno Balz
Lecturer in Modern German and European History

University of Cambridge
Trinity Hall, Room D3
Trinity Ln, Cambridge CB2 1TJ
United Kingdom

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