The magic of blue

Blue is the colour of heaven, the sky, the sea, and all that we aspire to. But blue didn’t appear with any force in Western painting until the 14th century. I learnt this from watching James Fox’s programme A History of Art in Three Colours: Blue. I’ve watched the one on gold, but the one on blue made much more impact. I still have to watch the one on white.

Blue didn’t appear with any force in Western painting because no strong blue pigment was available, but then lapis lazuli was imported into Venice from Afghanistan in the 11th century. Chemists developed the laborious process to produce ultramarine, the most expensive of paints.

Giotto used it on a huge scale in painting the history of Christ’s life on the walls and ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, creating one of the two or three most important rooms in Western art. I’ve visited it twice and been greatly affected both times, but it was the first time that was most special—when I stood alone in the space on a rainy February evening. Now you are allowed to enter for only half an hour through an air tight lock. Fox argued, and I can agree, that the most impressive part of the chapel is the ceiling, which is ultramarine with gold stars and depicts heaven with the Virgin Mary and saints staring down through windows. ( I read each morning in a room that has curtains that are a copy of that ceiling minus the saints.)


Recognising the value and power of ultramarine, the Church seized control of it, allowing it to be used only to paint the clothes of the Virgin Mary.

It stayed that way until Titian, a devotee of colour, used it to paint joy and libidinousness, particularly in Bacchus and Ariadne, which hangs in the National Gallery. Nobody realised quite how powerful the colours were until the picture was restored a few decades ago, but, as Fox pointed out, half of the painting, including all of the sky and the background, is blue. And wickedly ultramarine has been used to paint the clothes not of the Virgin Mary but of the reveller at the centre of the painting, just managing to cover the top of her thigh.

Titian ariadne

Fox then jumped forward to Picasso, whose Blue Period lasted three years from 1901 to 1904. It began after Carlos Casagemas, Picasso’s best friend whom he’d travelled to Paris with, shot and killed himself. Picasso was deeply affected and in some ways took over Casagemas’s life, moving into his flat and sleeping with his girlfriend. I knew, of course, of Picasso’s blue period, but I didn’t know its origin and some of its paintings, particularly La Mort de Casagemas, which I find a remarkable painting. Although Fix didn’t say so, it’s clearly influenced by El Greco, only instead of saints and putti hovering over the dead Casagemas there are prostitutes and lovers. Picasso also painted Casagemas in his coffin. Carl Jung was fascinated by the paintings and thought that the subject matter and the colour indicated incipient schizophrenia. Blue is the colour of melancholy as well as the colour of heaven.

Picasso Mort

Picasso Coffin

The painter most associated with blue is Yves Klein, who spent years devising his own blue. It’s instantly recognisable, and he used it on models and in pottery. Fox dwelt, however, not on his blue creations but on his photograph The Leap into the Void. This is a dramatic photograph. It looks as if Klein is both trying to fly and kill himself. A cyclist doesn’t notice his leap (reminding me of how the man ploughing the field doesn’t notice Icarus’s fall in Bruegel’s painting), and a train goes by in the distance.  The photo was staged in that friends caught Klein after his leap but were then removed from the photo. The link with blue is that the leap is both a leap to heaven and a leap to death, showing both sides of blue.

  1. 1992.5112

    Working Title/Artist: Leap into the VoidDepartment: PhotographsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1960 photography by mma, Digital File DP109274.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 12_14_11

    Watching the programme made me wonder how “the Blues” got their name, and I found an explanation here: The name seems to have come from the 17th century English term “the Blue Devils” for the intense hallucinations that accompany delirium tremens. It evolved from there to mean states of depression, agitation, and being drunk. By the beginning of the 20th century Southern juke joints would be full of couples doing a dance called “the blues,” a sort of pre-coital shuffle. “Bluesmen” would supply the music. So again blue is a mixture of melancholy and joy.





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  1. Pingback: Face to face with Rembrandt | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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