“A brief history of the art and culture of a colour”
Blue – From Goethe to Mccreedy
A brief history of the
art and culture of a colour
by Elena Süllwald
“Blue has a strange and near-unspeakable effect on the eye,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe writes in his colour system from 1810, “it is an energy as a colour. It stands alone on the negative side and is the equivalent of an enticing nothing in its highest purity.”1
To this day, the colour blue has remained an indefinable but ever-present cultural element that we find in our language, in fashion, in music and especially in art. For many years, it has been the most popular colour in the Western world according to colour-psychology studies. 40% of men and 36% of women say that blue is their favourite colour.
If we set out on the art and culture-historical tracks of the colour, however, we will find that blue had to wait for a long time for its success. Only from the early middle ages can we find the first evidence that the colour blue plays any role at all in art and society. In classical antiquity, the colours white, red and black were predominant. They were consi- dered the symbolic basic colour triad. White was associated with purity and innocence. Red was the colour of the blood shed by and for Christ, and the love of God. Black stood for asceticism, repentance and mourning.3 Blue, however, led a hidden existence and had no meaning in liturgy or art. It was second-best or peripheral as a colour, not least because blue pigment is so complex to produce.
In the 12th century, the iconographic status of the colour blue and thus also its use in art changed. This intense change can easily be observed in the way the Virgin Mary was il- lustrated. Mary always used to be wrapped in dark colours, such as grey or dark green, as an expression of her deep mourning. Starting in the first half of the 12th century, we find her more and more often wearing blue garments: a blue cloak, blue dress and, rarely, entirely in blue. Over time, the colour became one of her fixed attributes and thereby an immense social improvement.4 Blue, the colour of the sky, was able to not only emphasise the uniqueness of the Mother of God, but also her role as a mediator between heaven and earth, God and man.
Blue now became fashionable in glass pain- ting as well. The famous “blue of St. Denis” quickly through the French cathedrals. Soon, mundane rulers followed this trend. Even though red remained the unchallenged colour of emperors and popes, more and more kings were dressing up in blue in the 13th century, characterising the term of royal blue. This new valuation of blue as an aristocratic colour was concurrent with the progress of the manufacturing process of blue pigment and the specialisation of the dyers’ craft.
The most important source for blue paint was woad, which grew in many areas of Europe. It is a crucifer that contains indican in its leaves – a colourless compound that produces blue pigment when fermented and oxidised.5 Pro- ducing the paint was a difficult and dirty, but also high-revenue, business. Soon, however, woad was replaced on the market by the in- digo plant from India. Indigo had been known in Europe for a while, but the import of the bright pigment was forbidden initially, due to fears of losing woad trade. In the 16th centu- ry, indigo was officially imported to Europe by the Dutch, where it won out over woad with its high concentration of indican.
In art, the true counterpart of the splendid crimson wasn’t the pigment produced from indigo, but the intensely bright ultramarine blue – produced from lapis lazuli, the stone of the Pharaohs. For millennia, the deeply blue semi-precious stone has been mined on the Hindu Cush. The most expensive blue ever was only used very sparingly and as the topmost layer by many painters.7 One famous example is Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s altar of Gent, which was created around 1432. On it, St. Mary’s cloak is painted with a thin layer of ultramarine on top of a layer of more cost- efficient blue pigment. To avoid ruin, many painters had the ultramarine provided by their clients. This was also true of Michelangelo, when he decorated the Sistine Chapel with frescoes in 1508: he painted the blues of the sky with expensive ultramarine, the costs of which according to written sources were paid for by Pope Julius II.8 At that time, ultramari- ne cost more than gold. As a beautiful colour, the colour of St. Mary and of kings, it had become a rival to Imperial red.
The replacement of reds in clothes, art and everyday life becomes finally evident in the 18th century, when the colour blue became the symbol of an epoch in the literature of enlightenment and Romanticism: from the blue-yellow coat of Werther, described by Goethe in his 1774 novel “Die Leiden des jungen Werther”, to Novalis’ “Heinrich von Ofterdingen” from 1800, who goes in search of the blue flower that he saw in his dream. The Romance blue stands for a melancholy yearning, opposites revoked and a striving for the eternal. These symbols, no longer religious but anthropocentric and psychologic, were including in the works of artists such as Phillip Otto Runge as well. German chemist Adolf Baeyer was able to produce indigo syn- thetically and thus more cost-effectively for the first time in 1868.9 The pallet of different blues had now become unlimited, and their availability was no longer restricted. Having no limits remains a property that is still assi- gned to blue today. Blues always seem to be the farthest away. Other colours turn slightly blue, too, the farther distant they are in an image composition.
Around 1900, the Romance view became established according to which colour was mostly a matter of direct perception, rather than a judgement of reason. Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc based their work on this. They founded the artists’ group “Der blaue Reiter” in 1911. The group’s name “the blue rider” was derived from a painting by Kandinsky in which a blue rider canters through an autumnal landscape. He writes: “The tendency of blue to deepen is so large that it becomes more intense in the lower shades and has a stronger internal characte- ristic effect. The deeper the blue, the more it calls man into the unending, raises a yearning in him for the pure and finally the supernatu- ral.”10
In researching the supernatural aura of the colour blue, no artist went as far as Yves Klein did. Born in Nice in 1928, Klein conquered the international art scene in the mid-1950s, he focused on the colour blue early on, looking for an autonomous blue that corresponded to the human measure, a blue, “that [was able] to unify heaven and earth and to dissolve the flat horizon”.11 In autumn 1956, he developed “IKB” (International Klein Blue): a pure all-penetrating ultramarine that adhered to the surface with a liquid solution only and could be evenly applied without showing the traces of the brush. His “blue monochromes”, still symbolic for monochrome painting, always also represent association and approximation to the sea and the sky to Klein, those visible areas of our world that are most abstract to grasp. “What is blue? Blue is the invisible turning visible. Blue has no dimensions. It ‘is’ outside of the dimensions that the other colours belong to.”
From its beginnings as an unassuming colour, blue has become a magic formula through the ages, a sensory experience that entices, calms, that makes us dream and creates inner clarity. “Today, we have an interesting relationship with this colour. Our time, which depends on the forms of the past like no other, has brought forth a type of painting that is independent in its coloration,”13 writes art critic Karl Scheffler in 1901. Looking at
a painting by Conor Mccreedy today, more than a hundred years later, this opinion of the central importance of the colour in painting seems to be confirmed again. Mccreedy’s painting plays only with the nuances of a single colour: his very own “Mccreedyblue”. He pulls the onlookers into the blue colour space and transfers the autonomous colour from the monochrome to an abstract neo Expressionism.
It is particularly the ambiguity of the colour blue – according to Goethe, its “unspeakable effect” –, that manifests in the symbol of the Ocean in Mccreedy’s work. His pictures reflect the blue ocean, mysteriously moved by the stars, just as indomitable, powerful and rough as it is calm and constant.