(ESSAY) The Opposite of Blue, by Robin Boothroyd
Robin Boothroyd reflects on oranges and the colour orange, as carriers of important meaning in his life, through an exploration of diverse subjects such as Mark Rothko, Frank O'Hara, The Godfather trilogy, etymology, Frank Ocean and colour theory.
The fruit came before the word, but the colour was always there. In the sky above the sunset, and in the flame above the fire. In saffron, marigold, carrot. In the patchwork of autumn leaves. The word, like the fruit, travelled west via Persion, Arabic. Saskrit, Spanish and French to arrive in English as orange; the tree originated in China and was brought to Europe by the Moors, who cultivated it inthe 10th century in present-day Andalusia.
The first orange tree I saw, or remember seeing, was in that region. It stood in a town square in Granada, a Moorish city named after a different fruit, where I arrived on a sunny morning in May. I was visiting some friends who'd moved nearby, and after greeting me at the airport they drove me into town. We passed García Lorca's house-museum and two giant ants climbing the observation tower at the Science Park.
On our walk back to the car we crossed Plaza de la Trinidad, a shady town square with a fountain at the centre. I looked up to find the source of the shade and saw a waxy-leaved tree bearing bright orange fruit. Oranges! The canopy was full of them, and I reached out and plucked one directly from the tree.
My friends lived 40 kilometres south of Granada, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Arriving at their village in the heat of the afternoon, I saw, was horrified to see, a pile of oranges rotting in the gutter. How could such precious gifts go to waste? Later, I watched a column of ants advancing on the one I'd taken from the square and knew it would also perish.
Do oranges represent life? Is this why I was troubled to see them spoiled? In Frank O'Hara's poem 'The "Unfinished"' , the speaker so reveres the orange (or the colour, or both) that they're haunted by the notion that the fruit is 'killed' in the making of a pomander.
he takes an orange and sticks a lot of cloves in it and then he looks at it and realizes that he's killed the orange, his favourite which came from the Malay Archipelago and was even loved in Ancient China and he quickly pulls out all the cloves, but it's too late! Orange is lying bleeding in my hand!
These lines appear in a digressionm which, the speaker proclaims, will 'more or less reveal' their nature and that 'all sorts of things' will become 'clearer if not clear' (emphasis on the original). Despite the jocular ambiguity, I believe the lines do reveal their nature. Note how they jump from the third to the first person at the moment of the fruit's 'death', as though the mask has slipped and the protagonist was the narrator all along. And they certainly demonstrate the speaker's veneration of the orange, which is further shown when they're relieved that 'Gregory has had the same / experience with oranges, and is alive'.
Perhaps oranges don't represent life, but rather mortality. In The Godfather trilogy, Vito Corleone is ambushed shortly after buying oranges, and he dies in an orange grove shortly after cutting one up. Sonny, his eldest son, drives past a billboard advertising orange juice before he's gunned down at a tollbooth, and Michael, Vito's youngest, drops an orange at the moment of his death in the final scene. Yet despite these omens, and despite being a symbol of Sicily and the Old World, Dean Tavoularis, the production designer, said that the only reason they were on set was for their colour contrast. I'm not entirely convinced, but orange certainly does stand out (traffic cones and prison uniforms are orange for the same reason).
Oranges may not represent life, but they're certainly revitalising. When I played rugby as a boy, I remember biting into cold sweet segments at half time before returning to the game refreshed. The most dramatic illustration of the orange's restorative power occurs in Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's memoir about his pioneering work as a pilot developing the first mail routes across the Sahara and the Andes. He crashes on the desert and, after exploring the territory around the plane for signs of life to no avail, his flight partner Prévot discovers 'a miraculous orange' in the wreckage. Eating the precious fruit gives Saint-Ex 'one of the greatest joys of [his] life' and the motivation to continue the fight for survival. A week later, exhausted and hallucinating, he dreams of 'a paradise of orange groves' the night before discovering the tracks of a Bedouin caravan which he and Prévot follow to safety.
Do oranges rejuvenate me because of their colour? Around the time I was playing rugby, I slept under orange bedclothes in a room whose orange curtains intensified the dawn, and it's to that room that I return when I'm feeling blue. For some, yellow is the colour of happiness (picture, for example, the acid yellow smiley), but for me, it's always been orange. If blue is the colour of melancholy and orange its opposite on the colour wheel, then orange must be delight. In the opening lines of 'The Unfinished' 'happiness has stormed off in an orange poncho without saying why, and in 'Having a Coke with You', one of O'Hara's most popular poems, the addressee is wearing an orange shirt that makes them look 'like a better happier version of Saint Sebastian.' Happiness wears orange. For Frank Ocean too, orange represents happiness. He describes the summer he fell in love as emblematic of teh colour, and sought to 'channel' it on his debut album. Orange is the opposite of blue.
As a pigment, orange is relatively young. It wasn't until the early 19th century, when cadmium and chrome orange were discovered, that artists could unleash it. The impressionists were bewitched. Inspired by recent advances in coloyr theory, and armed with the new materials, they placed orange against blue backgrounds to intensify the contrast. The painting which gave way to the movement, Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise, is dominated by a cadmium orange sun, while a chrome orange boat is rowed across the cobalt blue river in Pierre-August Renoir's The Seine at Asnières.
My favourite orange resides in one of Mark Rothko's oils, Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red). Painted in 1949, it depicts a stack of four rectangles framed by shimmering white. The overall impression is of a cerise sky above a black horizon, below which an orange mirage hovers over yellow sand. When I look at the painting, I feel as though I'm standing in Arizona at sundown with the sizzle fading on my skin. The orange area stretches across the centre of the canvas and it enthrals me. What is it about this hue? Not just the temperature, but the sensuality of it, the majesty and the splendour. The fruit came before the word, but the orange was always there.
In Rothko's painting, the orange mirage is positioned between yellow and red, even bleeding into it in some areas. Before the arrival of orange into English, the colour was clumsily known as giolureade or 'yellow-red' and the fruit is a hybrid too, between the mandarin and the pomelo. How strange that a colour as confident as orange — 'like a man, convinced of his own powers,' as Wassily Kandinsky described it — is fundamentally in two minds.
1. Oranges by Joe Brantley on flickr
2. Plaza de la Trinidad, Granada, by Ignacio Gallego on flickr.
3. Happiness wears orange: the author circa 1996, by Sarah Boothroyd.
Text: Robin Boothroyd