Colour in the 1920s: Cinema and its Intermedial Contexts

Project Details


The 1920s was a decade when debates about colour were intense concerning its cultural, scientific, philosophical and educational significance. 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.
This project aims to investigate the major spheres of colour expression in commercial and experimental motion pictures of the 1920s. Taking cinema as the galvanizing focus, it 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. To reflect this diversity of colour expression the project team will consult a wide range of archives and libraries, and engage with and inform current film restoration projects as a major strand of the work programme. The team consists of Prof Street, Dr Yumibe and two post-doctoral researchers.
The project will research and reflect on the consequences of intermedial exchange in the colour field. 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 impact of such discourses around colour will form a major strand of the project, working across disciplinary fields and media to form a broad, historical framework.
The 1920s was a decade of increased international cooperation, between European film industries and between Europe and the USA, and these exchanges were crucial to the invention, innovation and diffusion of colour products. Many new processes were demonstrated including Multicolor (USA), Sirus (Netherlands) and Natural Colour (Britain). These innovations led to a variety of co-productions and technical collaborations, such as the Italian-produced Cirano di Bergerac (1923) stenciled in France by Pathé. The internationalism of colour necessitates the consultation of archival collections in Europe and the USA. 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. The project’s outputs will inform current and future restoration projects (at, for example, the British Film Institute, George Eastman House, and the Netherlands EYE Film Institute) by mapping colour activity in the 1920s in order to better understand how colour was manufactured, consumed and theorised.
Changes in the aesthetics of colour application will be studied, as well as the impact of technological shifts towards the end of the decade. In motion pictures colour experimentation was characterized by a multifarious, hybrid aesthetic in which techniques from the earlier silent period were intermingled with new processes. The Glorious Adventure (1922), the first British colour feature film, negotiated the technical strengths and deficiencies of Prizma, a new colour process, while at the same time displayed hybridized colour from traditions of applied methods: hand-painting, stencilling, tinting and toning. Claude Friese-Greene’s travelogue The Open Road (1925–6), recently restored by the British Film Institute, was similarly marked by the need to construct aesthetic choices around technical constraints. The hybridized culture of colour influenced the early development of Technicolor when the Handschiegl process, which adapted chromolithographic techniques to motion pictures, was used in conjunction with tinting, toning and two-colour Technicolor in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). After this period of hybridization, colour design changed dramatically, the reasons for which have yet to be understood fully. Colour application in films diminished, in part due to the introduction of sound, which led to profound technological and stylistic shifts in the cinema. Though diminished, colour still provided a vibrant component to early sound films. Informed by long-standing debates on the interrelationship between colour and music, the project’s intermedial focus will facilitate the first thorough investigation of the relationship between early sound films and colour practices.
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. By producing new research that integrates these various practices of colour expression, the 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.
Effective start/end date1/10/121/10/15


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