Anish Kapoor's "blackest black" pigment isn’t totally safe, and neither was the color that killed Napoleon.
News outlets big and small are abuzz over Anish Kapoor’s effective monopolization of Vantablack, the nanotubular substance developed by Surrey NanoSystems that absorbs 99.96% of visible light. It’s the darkest substance known to man, and now only one man is allowed to use it for art. Vantablack might be today’s hot color topic, but it’s not the first color to cause a public stir. From International Klein Blue, to a green that supposedly killed Napoleon, to controversial colors used to make the food we eat more appealing, artificial colors have and will continue to be controversial.
Unlike some artists in history who have attempted to prevent others from using their signature colors, Kapoor hasn’t (yet) made any egotistic claims about his use of Vantablack. In 1960, Yves Klein developed International Klein Blue, a rich Ultramarine used in the artist’s signature monochrome paintings. Klein worked with chemist Edouard Adam to develop the intensely-pigmented color, and while he never officially patented the it, he did lay unofficial claim to the blue sky as an artwork of his own making. In 1961, Klein spoke of a hatred for birds flying across “his blue sky,” his “greatest and most beautiful work.”
International Klein Blue is a paint, unlike Vantablack, which is grown from microscopic carbon nanotubules and can be applied to surfaces. A variation, Vantablack S-VIS, can be sprayed onto surfaces. The experimental new material has, in theory, a huge potential for artistic applications, however, according to Surrey NanoSystem’s FAQ page, “Vantablack is generally not suitable for use in art due to the way in which it’s made.”
It’s also potentially dangerous. Vantablack’s nanotubules can come loose and irritate the eyes and respiratory system. The original version could only be used on substances with a melting point higher than 1022° F, implying that it would melt generally anything less heat resistant. The substance has a “specific target organ toxicity—single exposure,” which means, according to the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, that it can cause “non-lethal, but reversible or irreversible damage to specific organs after contact.” All these warnings are already attached to the substance, and it hasn’t even been fully tested.
As far as its creators know, Vantablack isn’t a carcinogen, like some sought-after colors in history. It’s said that Napoleon died of cancer caused by Scheele’s Green, a pigment developed in the late 1700s by chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele. A once-popular household pigment, its chemical name was copper arsenate. When the pigment was exposed to water or humidity, it could release arsenic into the air. A wallpaper covering Napoleon’s home—including his bathroom—apparently contained patterns in Scheele's Green, and some think the high levels of arsenic found in Napoleon’s hair is proof that it was the color that killed him, or at the very least facilitated his fatal stomach cancer.
Arsenic poisoning causes lots of not-so-fun symptoms. In 1839, four children from the same London family died after suffering sore throats and respiratory afflictions. Their bedroom had recently been redone, the walls covered in green wallpaper. In 1858, a three-year-old ate a piece of wallpaper flaked off from the wall of his home, dying not long after. And, there’s an anecdote of a Birmingham couple who re-did two of their rooms in green wallpaper. They, and their pet parrot, immediately got sick, the couple complaining of inflamed eyes, sore throats, and headaches that went away when they left their home.
Green wallpaper was hugely in vogue in the 19th century, and even after stories like these began to snowball, wallpaper manufacturers denied the negative effects of Scheele’s Green, fearing their businesses would shutter.
Unlike arsenic, however, the public and painters alike, especially in America, had no aversion to deadly lead paint until recently. From Colonial times until the early 20th century, white lead was the most popular type of white pigment due to its high saturation and covering power. In 1910, the National Lead Company created the term “white-leaders” to describe “a man who believes in and uses pure white lead as a paint pigment.” Marketers shamelessly promoted lead pigment as the best white paint option, despite the fact that lead had been used as a literal poison, to homicidal effect, as early as ancient Egyptian times.
Some of the most famous artists in history are said to have died from lead poisoning from their paints, perhaps explaining the phenomenon of “painter’s madness.” In 2010, Scientists discovered high levels of lead in Caravaggio’s bones, concluding lead poisoning contributed to his death. It’s thought that lead in paint pigments (and in wine) contributed to Michelangelo’s gout. Testimonial evidence suggests that Francisco Goya applied white lead, Naples yellow, litharge, and extract of Saturn—all pigments containing primarily lead—to his canvases using his fingers, leading to lead poisoning.
Today, artificial colors continue to negatively affect our health. In 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) published a report called "Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks." It details the carcinogenic potential of food colors like Citrus Red 2, a pigment used to color the peels of oranges, which caused bladder tumors in mice and rats; or Yellow 6, which caused adrenal tumors in animals.
It’s easy to scapegoat Kapoor as keeping the substance away from other artists, but really, his studio is acting as a sort of secondary science lab, where Vantablack’s artistic potential can be explored by a team with the resources to do so properly. Given the deadly history of artificial colors, it’s probably a good idea to let Vantablack be tested by a small group of people before it’s available for public use. Kapoor Studios’ work with the substance will hopefully make it accessible, safely, to artists around the globe someday soon. Haters—that red in your face could kill.