10. The Paris Review: Periwinkle, the Color of Poison, Modernism, and Dusk
My first year of undergrad, I went to a conversation between Michael Fried and Joseph Marioni. Marioni is a monochromist painter, and much debate that evening was about “pigment suspended in medium” (paint), light, and a question I still think about all the time: when is a color a color? That evening, this question was asked in reference to green as Marioni argued that green should be a primary color as it is distinctly different from blue and yellow (unlike how orange isn’t distinctly different from red and yellow, or violet from blue and red), and constantly interrogated the point at which a color becomes the color that it is and not another color. How much yellow can you add to blue before it becomes green?
Periwinkle is a color whose exact shade is constantly subject to debate: “A subset of violet, which is a subset of purple, periwinkle denotes a precise shade that appears somewhat brighter than lavender, bluer than lilac, clearer than mauve, and dimmer than amethyst. But it’s hard to say with precision, because the purples are strange ones, polarizing, and violets are even more so.”
While purples have been around since before the common era, “periwinkle’s first known appearance in English as a color-word was in the 1920s, but it has been in the painter’s toolbox for far longer, nestled under the violet umbrella. Periwinkle is a Modernist word for a Modernist color. It’s a word that has several meanings—in addition to being a flowering plant, a periwinkle is also a type of snail, though not, confusingly, one that secretes purple liquid. It’s a nature word for a color most often found in nature. A dreamy word for a color that exists at the edges of the night.”
I wonder if Marioni would make the same argument for periwinkle as he did for green.