I cycled over Amstel bridge on a Saturday evening laden with goods. I had a whole batch of homemade almond flour, coconut blossom sugar, ginger and almond rusks, a litre of Islay malt whiskey, and the heaviest package of all, my collection of oil paints. My parents had arrived in Amsterdam to visit, and my mother had very kindly relinquished some of her precious suitcase space for me. When I moved to Amsterdam nearly a year ago now, I could not bring my oil paints with me for a host of boring reasons. I’ve now been reunited with them.
I’ve been sitting on the floor in my apartment, bathed in heavenly soft European sun, with paints in hand. I’m becoming familiar once again with old friends. I was struck afresh by the magnetism of Ultramarine blue. Its the first paint I picked up, and its the one I continuously return to. I have used this, or a slightly darker and more dramatic hue, Prussian Blue, in almost all paintings I’ve done. As my work has become more abstract over time, I’ve relied on the depth, the richness and, critically, the complex moods of ultramarine more. Yet, its not just the hue that draws me, its the history of the pigment too.
Ultramarine is an oil colour pigment that originates from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, or deep blue metamorphic rock. It is thought that Lapis was first mined as early as 7th century BC from mines in the Badakshan province in the northeastern mountainous region of Afghanistan. Lapis was prized above all else in the Indus Valley Civilisation (3300 - 1900 BC), which is also known as the birthplace of agricultural farming methods and a turning point in the history of humankind. Northeast Afghanistan and Pakistan are still the main source of Lapis today. The rock deposits in this region dwarf any other region in the world where lapis has been discovered, namely Russia and in the Andes in Chile.
In Colour: A Natural History, Victoria Finlay explains that Lapis was first exported to Europe via the Silk route trading patterns at the end of the Middle Ages. Lapis is a lush, mercurial shade of blue, laced with shards and flecks of gold. It is captivating - it sucks the viewer into a richly textured, multi-dimensional, and opulent world of mystery and pleasure. When it was introduced to the houses of the wealthy and noble in Europe it caused a sensation. Imagine seeing a shade of blue - wildly different to any you’ve yet known - for the first time?
Lapis was ground into powder and made into ultramarine from about the thirteenth century. It was an obsession of Baroque giant Johannes Vermeer. Who can forget the ultramarine silk turban in the Girl with a Pearl Earring? In one of the most famous paintings in Western art history, the ordinary Dutch servant girl who posed for Vermeer is adorned in the colour of exoticism and opulence. She is an ultramarine enigma, and has left a trace of intrigue across the ages. Many notable Renaissance and Baroque painters considered ultramarine a sacred colour, to be reserved for the clothing of virgin Mary, or other divine figures, only.
At the time Lapis was introduced in Europe, blue hue (made from the natural dyes of woad and indigo) was considered a middle-class and unremarkable colour. The colours of the noble courts of Europe and their emblems were dominated by purples, black, red and ivory/cream. Reflecting enduring class prejudices, peasants clothing was often dyed blue, and blue was believed to be the colour of mourning. This negative perception of blue may be traced back to the Romans, who considered blue to be the colour of insanity and melancholy.
Ultramarine required a lengthy and costly process of refinement, and Lapis was a rare commodity sourced a great distance from Europe. As a result, ultramarine cost more than any other pigment to produce. It’s symbolic value certainly transected with it's economic value. It became the luxury colour of royal households. By association, other blue hues were reconfigured in popular imagination. Ultramarine revolutionised the symbolism and perceived value of all blues in European culture.
Always one to rage ahead of fashion trends, King Louis IX of France (1214 - 1270), became the first ‘blue influencer’. He dramatically revamped his wardrobe to include all things blue (including a fetching blue tint to his wigs). He was quickly copied by other nobles across France, and before long, even the coat of arms of the kings of France was given a blue make-over. It was designed in an azure hue, with golden fleur-de-lis (given the need to incessantly reproduce this coat of arms, and ultramarine’s exorbitant cost, it’s likely Louis and his cronies settled for azure as a penny-wise alternative). Paintings of mythical icons soon also received a make-over. Everyone from King Arthur to Jesus has since been depicted in shades of blue.
Fast-forward to the 1820s. France, the blue nation (now firmly ensconced in blue hues - the chosen colour of democracy, liberty and state officialdom), gives birth to an artificial ultramarine pigment. This was a monumental moment in the history of not just blue, but fine art. Blue was the colour de jour for impressionist painters. Artificial ultramarine pigment allowed for them to happily and liberally slap it about on canvas, creating new ways of seeing, and feeling, through paint. In addition to ultramarine, the likes of Monet, Manet, Renoir and Van Gough revolutionised art through using Cobalt blue, a toxic blue pigment produced in France from 1807 onwards. Van Gough was particularly taken by cobalt blue, and its postulated that he may have suffered from toxicity poisoning due to his frequent use of it. His blue passions were most complex.
So many artists have contributed an overture to blue. I could go on and on here - about Matisse’s obsession with blue as a penetration of the soul, or Picasso’s Blue Period, when he basically only used blues and greens, but there is one artist who really took blue seriously: Wassily Kadinsky (1866 - 1944). This Russian painter and art theorist is considered to have created the first recognised purely abstract works. He was a leading figure in the Der Blaue Reiter (‘The Blue Rider’) artists group founded in Germany in 1911.
The artistic approaches of the émigré artists within the group varied markedly, yet, they shared one powerful common desire: to express spiritual truths through their art. They dabbled with cubism, fauvism and Rayonist ideas, and they catapulted modern art towards abstraction. Notably, Kadinsky and friends believed that colour could be used in a painting autonomously. In his 1910 treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kadinsky held that colour could be applied as an end and visual narrative in itself; there was no need to paint an object or scene, colour expressed meaning and mood capable of reaching a level of spirituality. This had immediate international impact and his works from this time are transcendent through just about every subsequent turn of modernist art.
Concerning the Spiritual in Art is a persuasive and moving read. Kandinsky speaks of blue as having an intrinsic and “profound meaning”, first in its “physical movements of retreat from the spectator”, and secondly “of turning upon its own centre.” Like his predecessors in the Renaissance, he saw blue as something divine: “The inclination of blue to depth is so strong that its inner appeal is stronger when its shade is deeper … The ultimate feeling it creates is one of rest.”
Kandinsky sees this as a “supernatural rest” that is distinct from the “earthy contentment of green” and the opacity of “earthy yellow”. It would follow then that one is uplifted by yellow, must transport through the earthy contentment of green (which he argues is an inert form of contentment), and eventually arrive at the supernatural, transcendent rest of blue. What strikes me most about Kadinsky’s meditation on blue is how he sees the colour progression in a tonal range towards black as something of splendour and sanctitude.
The conventions in perceptions of white as representing purity and positivity are age-old and evident across cultures. There are deeply problematic effects and interpretations of the symbolic value of white, especially when transecting with skin colour. This pattern of influence includes class and beauty prejudices, racism, Orientalist discrimination, and the salve-trade. Basically, its been interpreted as: the whiter the better, the darker the more evil/barbaric. How base.
But in Kadinsky’s treatise he sees black and blue as having a spatial relationship with white and yellow. All four balance on a dual sided spectrum and black dances with blue. Blue is the ultimate divine colour, and yellow, matched with white on the other end, is ‘earthy’ and limited. To Kadinsky, when black and blue merge the magnetic effects of blue are at their most profound: “When [blue] sinks almost to black, it echoes a grief that is hardly human”. The emotional currency of blackest blue is almost beyond our full comprehension. It becomes so pregnant with the truth of raw human experience that it extends towards the reaches of eternity.