Succumbing to the blues

Statistics are often the tool of the manipulative and the weak, but polls reveal that most people’s favourite colour is blue, consistently chosen by over half of those questioned. It is also the colour with the most diverse, and attractive, names to describe its hues. There is cobalt, azure, aquamarine, Catalina blue, royal blue, Prussian blue, midnight blue, powder blue, turquoise (surely the most garish shade of all), and even baby blue. As the colour of the sky and sea, it is the very shade of life itself, for we live on a blue planet. At the same time, blue possesses negative connotations, since we talk of experiencing the blues and we can find ourselves between the Devil and deep blue sea. This melancholic spin of blue is thought to come from an early modern expression to have “the blue devil”, which in turn is a corruption of “baleful devil”. To be beset by sadness. In Kieślowski’s trilogy of films, Blue (1993), arguably the finest of the three movies, the eponymous colour stands for artistic and personal freedom and, in particular, appears as inspiration when the protagonist is finishing a composition. The musical associations are deep-seated; the blues is a musical genre. Rimbaud made blue the audial vowel in his Voyelles, linking it to the biblical trumpet blast piercing across time and space. A friend at university who was a synesthete told me that the songs of the Beatles were defiantly blue.

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Courtesy of Michael D Beckwith, Flickr

Blue has a special place in Christian art for it is the colour associated with the Blessed Virgin. I always think of the stunning barrel ceiling of my local cathedral, Carlisle, shown above, and dating from the fourteenth century. The luxuriant blue roof is enhanced by the complementary sandstone surround. If the Renaissance had a colour, it would be blue. The blues used in Renaissance paintings can still shock us by their rampant vibrancy. When Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1523) was last restored in 1968, it whipped up a fierce controversy since many could not accept that the artist had favoured such bright blues; the general public preferred to believe that the more subdued hues of the discolouration of the varnish reflected the artist’s taste. Yet Michelangelo, who visited Titian’s studio in 1546, complained afterwards that the latter’s use of colour was excessive. The blueish hue that was the most prized during this period, often only reserved for the clothing of Our Lady, was ultramarine, which was made from crushed lapis lazuli sourced from a specific mine in Afghanistan and this pigment was considerably more expensive than gold by weight.

ImageI have much affection for a painting that is attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, the Litta Madonna, above. We can see the startling ultramarine in both Mary’s cloak as well as in the sky glimpsed through the windows, a use that emphasizes that this woman is the most natural of all creatures, since she conforms completely to the divine will. The most striking thing about this image is the Christ child. The painting focuses entirely on His human nature. This is a naked, greedy, and needy infant. Yet there is one significant hint of the divinity of the suckling baby: its eyes are not concentrated on feeding neither are they closed. They are looking to us, for whom the creator has become vulnerable, exposed, and, above all, human. Blue is crucial in achieving the painting’s supreme effect on the viewer: reassurance.

Since this particular colour was so expensive to obtain, it was inevitable that cheaper alternatives were sought, and there was a 500-year quest to obtain a satisfying shade of blue. One source was in the use of woad, which produced a lighter (when used in dye) though not unattractive version of blue (below), a plant that was also used in colouring the faces of Celtic warriors.

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The quest to locate blue pigments was to have profound effects on art, particularly during the nineteenth century. We need only think of some of the night scenes of Van Gogh to appreciate how much the availability of new blues influenced artists. The iconic Japanese woodblock known as the Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai (c. 1830) has featured in countless posters and the woodblock uses new pigments of blue. My personal favourite use of blue in a coloured block is in Hasui Kawase’s  Night Moon at Hommonji Temple, executed in the late 1940s, below. I have an original of this woodblock scene hanging in my bedroom. Hasui, generally reckoned to be the most accomplished woodblock artist of the twentieth century, magisterially and almost effortlessly uses a range of blues which eclipse the Moon in the nocturnal setting. There is something faintly eerie, while at the same time intensely pacifying, about this nightscape.

ImageThe new sources of blue led to institutions such as the armed forces adopting it because of its greater availability and cheaper cost; the American army adopted it in contrast to the red livery of British soldiers during the struggle for independence and a dark indigo was used in police uniforms in the UK until the 1990s. Never has a search for a colour had such greater impact on art and clothing.

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Today’s cufflinks are made out of sterling silver with fired blue enamel. They are unmarked, but look like they might have been made during the 1960s. The silver has oxidized to a dark matte silver that underscores the enamelling beautifully. The enamel is subtle yet stunning: the mid-blue possesses turquoiseish hints while being bordered by a narrow band of a dark, purple-blue. The texture of the enamel, which isn’t shiny as some enamel can be, completes the effect. I am rather infatuated with this pair and calmed by its soothing blues. Above all, they remind me of the person with whom I am in love and for whom I first wore this pair in Vancouver in December 2012.

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