BERLIN — Purple is intense like no other color. It is opaque, disturbing and seductive. It is also the color of 2014.
So says the Pantone Color Institute, which has named “Radiant Orchid” this year’s preeminent hue. Red and blue combine to make it: hot and cold, fire and water, the male and female elements intertwined.
The Pantone Color Institute developed a color system — which now has 1,677 shades — and sets the trends and colors in our life. Radiant Orchid, a provoking shade with no equivalent, is number 18-3224. Last year’s color was 17-5641, known to the rest of us as Emerald.
In Chinese art, the color purple represents the harmony of the universe because it is a combination of red and blue (yin and yang, respectively).
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe thought the color was very distinct. He considered it cold and agitated, without any happiness. Purple prompted him to find a quiet place to rest. For him, purple and lilac are associated with death and decay, but also resurrection and liberation.
The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, co-founder of the artist group "Der Blaue Reiter" (The Blue Raider), absolutely refused to use the color. He saw something morbid, extinguished and sad in it.
By complete contrast, Gustav Klimt reveled in it. The Austrian painter dipped his girlfriend, Emilie Flöge, straight into a sea of purple swirls and flowers in his 1902 portrait of her. Alive and free, this beautiful woman stands with one hand on her hip, as an enigmatic figure of the Wiemar Bohème in a purple dress without a corset.
Portrait of Emilie Flöge via Vienna Museum
Lilac was established as the color of the women’s rights movement at the end of the 19th century. English suffragettes made it the emblematic shade of their struggle for the female vote.
“Purple song” became a gay anthem during the Weimar Republic, when they could sing out their love for the first time in public.
“Viola” is the Latin word for violet, yet “violentia” means violence. In ancient times, purple was the color of monarchs and rulers: Roman senators showed their majesty wearing a purple strip on their togas. Kings and emperors draped themselves in vestments for which millions of rock snails, who produce the dye for producing the elusive “Tyrian purple,” were killed. It took some 12,000 snails to extract just 1.5 grams of the pure dye, which was barely enough for one toga.
A toga picta from a wall painting in the François Tomb at Vulci c. 350 BC. Photo: Oneonta
In 1464, Pope Paul II introduced the purple robes that cardinals wear. According to the Evangelists Mark and John, it was the color of the sheet in which the Roman soldiers folded Jesus Christ before his crucifixion, in order to mock him as king of the world.
In both the Protestant and Catholic churches, it is not only the liturgical color of Advent, but also used during Lent. During these festivals of reflection, it represents inwardness and melancholy, as well as penitence, transition and transformation. During Confession, Catholic priests wear a purple stole.
Probably the most famous pop culture reference to the color is Prince’s song “Purple Rain.” According to his bandmate, Lisa Coleman, the song symbolizes “a new beginning. Purple, the sky at dawn; rain, the cleansing factor.”
Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple doesn’t deal just with racism, but breaks with traditional gender roles. Like the color, made of blue and red, the novel suggests that male and female stereotypes aren’t so straightforward.
It’s often associated with the LGBT community, especially worn on Spirit Day, which commemorates those bullied because of their sexual orientation.
Most children view the color as a happy one, with some television characters such as Barney and Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies being popular with younger audiences.
As a color of transcendence, purple can remind us definitely of ourselves but also that which goes beyond us.