Red Ochre Nice
Standing on top of Mont Boron, the tallest hill in Nice, I looked out over the red sun-baked roofs that sprawl over the land into the horizon, cut off by yellow sand from a sea of blue forever. “It’s like a playing card. Red roofs against a blue sea,” Cézanne wrote of L’Estaque to his friend the painter Camille Pissarro in an 1876 letter. This is where artists came to escape the gloomy grey of Paris. Here, colors are the primary concern for the minds’ eye; red, yellow, blue, making up a timeless trinity.
There are three color receptors in the human eye called, trachomas, which respond to the three primary colors red, blue and yellow, and we see any mixture of these colors. When light from the sun hits an object, it reflects some light waves and absorbs the rest; the color your eye sees is the reflected color. The beach reflects yellow but absorbs blue and red. Blue wavelengths are absorbed the least by the deep ocean water, and are instead scattered and reflected back to the observer’s eye. The roofs look red, when counterintuitively they absorb every color except red. Looking out over Nice is like being able to see color at a microscopic level, as if each roof is an atom of color differentiating in size, as opposed to overall smooth tones of color the human eye sees by blending dots of blue, red and yellow together.
Individual impressionist painter Georges-Pierre Seurat painted this impression on canvas in a style called Chromoluminarism— the separation of colors into individual dots—and Pointillism, when dots of colors form an image. My decision to begin by painting the roofs on the first map as if they were small points was influenced by impressionist painters and their paintings of the French Rivera. However, my impression of Nice was also influenced by French Rivera painter, Yves Klein and his international Klein blue series. Upon examining Klein’s Winged Victory of Samothrace in The Musée d'art moderne et d'art contemporain, I felt like I was drowning in the coastal waters off Nice.
“Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colours are not. They are pre-psychological expanses; red, for example, presupposing a site radiating heat. All colours arouse specific associative ideas, psychologically material or tangible, while blue suggests at most the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract.”
-Yves Klein said at a lecture at the Sorbonne in 1959.
With this in mind, the third map is Nice as a woman’s body; different parts of the city make up her being. However, her wings are blue. Klein attributes blue to nature, yet the sky and the sea are every color except for blue, which is instead what they reflect. Blue does not exist in any part of nature that appears to be blue. Blue is as fleeting in nature as are wings. The wings of the Victory of Samothrace are mythos and unnatural on humans. Her womanly body, which I painted red ochre, is in contrast with her mythological wings. Many years ago, prehistoric peoples in Nice would paint their bodies with red ochre. Evidence of human habitation in Nice dates back 380,000 years ago to a prehistoric settlement called Terra Amata. Traces of prehistoric settlement were excavated by archaeologist Henry de Lumley in 1966. Terra Amata is the site of the earliest evidence of man-made human habitations іn Europe. Signs of ashes indicated that that the inhabitants domesticated fire. Terra Amata is the earliest evidence of architecture by Homo erectus, before Homo sapiens. Interestingly, there were traces of red ochre paint on the excavation site.
I try and imagine what Homo Erectus saw when they stood on top of Mount Boron where I stood. How did Homo Erectus see the colors that I see? Even today humans see color differently from one another. The Himba tribe break the color spectrum into different sections in their language, allowing them to distinguish between shades of orange that we instead see as indistinguishable. In turn, they are baffled trying to distinguish blue from green. Even French Impressionist painter Monet changed his palate from pastel florals to darker browns after his color perception changed due to the cataracts on his eyes. The second map, therefore, I created for Homo erectus. The layers of paint chip away like current construction does in Nice. Today, builders dig out the mountains surrounding Nice to build bigger and better construction. The soil naturally erodes as well revealing new earth underneath. So if Homo Erectus returned to Nice today, they could utilize the map for their own benefit; the map orientation would suffice their point of view and would thus read in reverse from our north south orientation. They see the land at the bottom of the map and the ocean spanning away from them at the top. Paint chipping away on the map reveals buildings that they would encounter; buildings that replace the original terrain they once knew.
The map above depicts the buildings in Nice (built between 1624 and 1900) that I found to be currently painted with a red ochre pigments. Also, the map does not directly reference early settlers on the land; instead, it documents the buildings that had a red ochre façade or roof built during this time span. The red ochre paint is traditional in Italian architecture. Somehow red ochre went from being used to paint bodies to painting the city Nice. She is never the same Nice but carries her past with her. The style of painting in the other map aboce references time as a dimension. A soil particle in Nice existed at a point in space in the past and as the world moves through space and time, the piece of soil trails a legacy of color in a past path. Whether you are a Homo erectus, an impressionist painter, or a visitor in Nice today, color stimulates your intellect and your emotion by reflecting what it is not.