Chromatic Modernity Wins the Katherine Singer Kovács Book Award!

A big congratulations to Sarah Street and Joshua Yumibe, whose book Chromatic Modernity: Color, Cinema, and Media of the 1920s was awarded The Katherine Singer Kovács Book Award. This beautifully written and illustrated book tells a fascinating story of technological and intermedial development. It’s particularly disappointing that we couldn’t celebrate in person—we even had a reception planned! Cubed cheese! But Sarah and Josh were kind enough to discuss some images from their book.

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Image 1: The ciné-dance-hall of the Café Aubette in Strasbourg (1928; restored 2006). Photograph by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.

One of the first cinematic spaces that caught our attention and helped us conceptualize what we came to call the “chromatic modernity of the 1920s” was the Café Aubette in Strasbourg, which had been redecorated in 1928 by Dutch artist and theorist Theo van Doesburg, with the assistance of German-French poet and abstract artist Hans Arp and Swiss painter and sculptor Sophie Taeuber-Arp. In keeping with the influential De Stijl movement’s geometry of primary colors, the café’s “ciné-dance-hall” featured walls and a ceiling mounted with largely rectangular shapes in green, red, blue, black, cream, yellow, and gray. It was the space’s play of color, modernist design, film, and dance that led us to explore how cinema was a crucial site of experimentation and chromatic exchange.

Image 2: Ballet mécanique (Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, France, 1924). Courtesy of the EYE Filmmuseum, Netherlands.

So much can be, and has been, said about this film, for good reason. It is one of the hallmarks of avant-garde cinema of the 1920s, bringing together various threads of Art Deco, Dada, Cinéma pur, and Absolute Film aesthetics. It is also a film that in its later circulation was experienced by most in monochrome, as its vibrant hand-tinted sequences were duplicated over time primarily in black and white. Fortunately, EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands has preserved a pristine nitrate version of Ballet mécanique, with its color sequences intact.The revelatory hues of this particular print are another early case in our research that jolted our thinking about color during the era.

Image 3: Le home moderne (Pathé Cinema, France, 1929). Courtesy of the Gaumont Pathé́ Archives. 

Our interest in color and cinema is not limited only to modernist spaces and avant-garde works but also encompasses the vital exchange across various modes of cultural production in the 1920s, from the high to the low and back again. Such symbiotic relations are visible in the color design of the 1929 Pathé-Cinéma film Le home moderne, which also adorns the cover of our book. This short nonfiction film, from the Pathé-Revue cine-magazine series, is colored using the Pathéchrome stencil system. In Art Deco style it advertises the use of Leroy paints and wallpapers in domestic décors to illustrate, according to an intertitle, “a perfect harmony of style and color between furniture and wallpaper.” This short advertising film brings together these various chromatic currents, while also drawing attention to the way in which new forms of consumption were reshaping not just the modern home but also the modern woman.

Image 4: The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, U.S., 1925).

 Films of the 1920s often displayed a remarkable hybridity of color techniques within them. The Phantom of the Opera, for instance, combined various color styles and techniques, including tinting throughout most of the film; toning; Handschiegl; and Technicolor’s first subtractive two-color process, Technicolor No. 2, used for the dazzling Bal Masqué de l’Opera sequence and other scenes that are now lost. Beyond technical hybridity, the film also calls attention to cinema’s growing influence across various fields of cultural production. It was the focus of a tie-up marketing campaign beginning in 1925 that coined a new hue after the film, “Phantom red,” which was used to promote a range of consumer products, ranging from lipstick, clothes, and hats to even milkshakes and ice cream. 

Image 5: Prizmacolor in The Glorious Adventure (James Stuart Blackton, UK, 1922). Courtesy of the BFI National Archive.

While the rise of Technicolor is well-known, during the 1920s it was not clear that this would be the dominant color process that subsequently became a household name. When The Glorious Adventure, a British historical drama shot with the Prizma process, was first shown at the Royal Opera House, London, it was accompanied by a special score that attempted to match the live musical accompaniment to the mood of the film’s varied and vibrant colors. Prizma also experimented with music in a series of films about famous composers and pieces of music in an exploration of the close affinities between color and music that attracted both popular and experimental filmmakers in the 1920s.

Image 6: Tinted Polyvision scene at the conclusion of Napoléon (Abel Gance, France, 1927).

Color inspired technical experimentation across both media boundaries and national boundaries. In many ways Napoléon, which premiered at the Théâtre de l’Opera in Paris in April 1927, represented the apotheosis of French cinema’s technical ambitions, complete with expressive tinting and toning, and two stunning ‘Polyvision’ sequences in which three projectors simultaneously exhibited reels side by side on adjacent screens to create an expansive, wide-screen image. At the film’s conclusion, this technique is used to create an homage to the French tricolor: the images of the triptych in their most climactic moment are juxtaposed in blue, white, and red, creating a dynamic spectacle that still today, through recent restorations, allows audiences to marvel again at its cinematic bravura.


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