All hail the Dachtylopius coccus, an insect indigenous to Mexico that gave the world its first taste of reliable red. Before the creation of aniline dyes in 1856, this generous bug was the so-called New World’s second-most export to Spain, after gold. A recent exhibition about its use in textiles and painting at the Belles Artes gave cochineal its due.
Our first attempt to see the show was for naught; families had coiled around the Belles Artes, standing in the sun for hours to glimpse this first-ever, Mexico-produced show.
So we amused ourselves at the Museo Franz Meyer and ended up attending a few days later, joined by our hosts Claudia and Frank Cornew.
The show introduced us to the insect’s use as a dye source in textiles since prehistoric times. It feeds on a particular type of cactus that causes an enzyme reaction yielding, once crushed, a vibrant hue. (There’s still a small industry in cochineal; the topmost photos are from a farm outside Oaxaca.)
Si con grana te quieres vestir, a Oaxaca debes ir.
If you want to wear red, you have to go to Oaxaca.
Next, it was fun to chase the brushstroke pops of carmine across the gilded frames. Big names were there—Delacroix, Velasquez, Turner, even van Gogh. The painters ground the dried insect into pigment for use in their oil paintings. (I liked the look of this juicy-fat Jesus, a realistic depiction of a baby if I ever saw one.)
A few years ago, at London’s National Portrait Gallery, I ran into this fellow: William Henry Perkin. The British chemist was using coal tar to synthesize quinine when he accidentally yielded purple mauveine, or Tyrian purple, more commonly called mauve. (His eureka color matched my hair at the time.) Thus began the death of natural dyes—cochineal, indigo, woad and the like—in favor of those that could more reliably and affordably be produced in the lab.
It had me thinking about how often I see shades of red—ochre to coral, beet to bugambilia, fuchsia to crimson—in Oaxaca and D.F., some Natural Red #4, some not. It’s even used in food and cosmetics, as a recent Wired article attests. Here’s a scattershot of images celebrating the color of love, blood and fire—the yin to indigo’s yang—to get us through this gray winter.
Heck, why not a few more. We can never have too much Mexican rojo, no?