It’s the color of your cheeks when you’re blushing; it’s the color of love, sex and desire. Incidentally, it’s also the color of fever, anger, rage and insanity—it’s the color red; it is a color with a dozen names and even more associations. Whether for you personally it signals alarm, passion, or something otherwise, there is a great body of research that supports the powerful emotive agency of the color red. And coincidentally we are rapidly approaching the season during which red plays a central role.
Perhaps some of the most poignant examples of the transformative faculties of red lie in the late work of artist Vincent Van Gogh. In The Night Café, 1888, the painter employs the color red as a vehicle to illustrate his philosophies on the emotional substance of color. In The Night Café, red is used as a ferocious ocular signal, the intent of which is to jar the viewer into an altered state. In a letter the artist penned to his sister Wilhelmina and brother Theo, he states, “In my picture of The Night Café I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red . . . the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime.” Through the dozen or so shades of red in the painting, the artist articulates a feverish and sordid, mise-en-scène in which the viewer becomes the subject. This discomfort and intensity is made possible only because of our innate, intense and emotional response to the color.
Despite some of our more fear or anxiety based responses to red, there is also a tenderness and sensuality to this primary shade. Our collective captivation with red lipstick has waned very little since the turn of the century. Red lipstick acts upon our deepest desires, and mimics the plumpness and flushed bloom of arousal. Maybe this is why we can’t escape being seduced by the crimson-lipped beauty in the corner, or why figures like Marilyn Monroe have maintained such widespread appeal. Because in the end, when a beautiful woman is wearing red lipstick, we don’t stand a chance.
This time of year red lends itself to all things holiday. It’s the color of your favorite cashmere sweater and the shade of your wool stocking, hanging so delicately on the mantle. For some, it connotes excitement and joy, for others stress, anxiety, and fear. If there is one thing to be said about the color red it’s that, irrespective of the nature of the feeling, it makes you feel something. It reminds us that often our response to color is emotional, rather than rational. It arouses us from dormant states and forces us to observe. It reminds us that often the first woman we notice in the room is wearing red lipstick and, it reminds us that while we can rationalize many things in all of our humanness there are some responses that are purely emotional. In a world too often colored with caustic niceties, business casual and a billion shades of taupe, say something primary, carnal and meaningful—say it with red.
Ashley Brown is a writer living in New York.
Adam Levett is a photographer living in Toronto.