Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Red is the colour of sex – and the colour of money when it comes to selling art

(I wonder if the same is true of botanical art?)

by writing in The Guardian newspaper 12 June 2013.

Red stirs the blood and it seems the more red a painting flaunts, the higher the price it will fetch.

Sotheby's London Summer Auction Preview
The colour of money: Sotheby's is selling Mondrian's Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue. Photograph: Piero Cruciatti/Barcroft Media
Sex sells. It's the oldest commercial truth. So perhaps we should not be surprised that, according to Sotheby's art expert Philip Hook, the colour red also sells. Plugging the upcoming sale at Sotheby's of Mondrian's painting Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, he told reporters that the more red a painting flaunts, the higher the price it is likely to fetch.

For red is the colour of sex. That is true in life as well as art – red dresses are generally considered sexy, cities have red-light districts, we enhance the sensuality of lips with red lipstick. It is also the colour of violence, anger and communism – of all that stirs the blood. Red blood, obviously. In Caravaggio's painting Judith Beheading Holofernes, red is both gory and sensual. A red curtain stresses that the killing is going on in a bedroom where Holofernes expected a totally different outcome from his drunken meeting with a young woman. As she saws through his throat, the red stuff of life spurts out.

It is because sex is the primary meaning of red in art that Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who became a follower of Christ, is portrayed in red robes – she's a scarlet woman. In his painting Noli Me Tangere Titian gives her red hair to emphasise the ruddiness of desire.

Degas demonstrates his sensual use of the colour red in Combing the Hair. Photograph: Dea Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images
Modern artists at the start of the 20th century embraced the sensuality of red in a spirit of joyous paganism. The Dance by Matisse exists in two versions, but the pink-skinned dancers owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York have never got people going as much as his red-fleshed pagans who cavort in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Yet arguably the most sensual use of colour in modern art is in the late works of Degas. In his riveting picture Combing the Hair in London's National Gallery, Degas dreams of a feminine world enflamed by red, a fleshly paradise.

So it's entirely plausible that red sells art. In the end, in an auction house as much as a clothes shop, it's the secret electricity of lust that drives consumer desire. The association of red and sex was even known in ancient Pompeii. In a house there known as the Villa of the Mysteries, respectable Romans got up to who knows what in front of a fresco of a flagellation scene set against a vibrant wall of crimson. When the abstract painter Mark Rothko visited Pompeii he was entranced by this painting. Back in New York, he put the mysterious reds of Pompeii into his new paintings. When I see these red-rich paintings in Tate Modern, I find them, for all their existential gloom, incredibly sexy. I'd pay anything for them.
Jonathan Jones is the author of The Loves of the Artists (Simon and Schuster).

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