Blue

Stephen Greenberg

22nd June 2013:  Blue is the hardest colour to work with – as I know from experience. In 1971 I was an assistant to an Israeli artist Shraga Weil who was commissioned to paint a ceiling in the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. My tasks ranged from sweeping the studio to mixing colours and applying gold leaf.  Shraga was born in 1918 and grew up in the afterglow of the Viennese Secession; hence his work was poised between Klimt and Chagall – with lots of gold.

My job was to take a small cartoon (A3 size) and blow it up by hand to a massive 20 metres in length, covering the whole ceiling of the Israel Lounge. It was painted in panels and eventually shipped to Washington.  One of my regular tasks was to mix the colours in batches in sufficient quantities to cover these very large areas. It wasn’t easy. Two long days were spent mired in blues that didn’t match the cartoon, and that didn’t vibrate with both depth and light.  Try as I might I couldn’t balance the azure with the cerulean. Finally I called over the ‘Meister’ who looked at my despair, smiled and added the smallest touch of black to the mixing tray, and it was perfect.

Now the history of blue is thrilling in itself – how it falls out of fashion after the Fall of Rome, thus ending a lineage that stretches back to Egypt, and then reappears in the medieval world, with the cobalt in the stained glass at Saint Dennis, which leads in turn to Giotto and then to the Renaissance.

It also nicely touches upon the life and adventures of Marco Polo, whose outward-bound journey took him through Afghanistan, and past the lapis lazuli mines of Badakshan near the source of the Oxus River.  By this time the existence of lapis lazuli had already been known for thousands of years and had already found its way to Egypt and into the making of Tutankhamun’s dazzling mask.  (Although the export cost was so high that the Egyptians soon invented their own;  the world’s first chemical blue can be seen in ceramics and on the ceilings of tombs in the Valley of the Kings.)

The mineral trail from Afghanistan also went the other way and ended up in Chinese porcelain.  This epic story takes many more turns. There were Blue Wars when the German and the French woad industries tried to outlaw indigo; eventually the British established their own indigo industry and imported it  from India. Which in turn was superseded rapidly by the synthetic substitute invented by the German chemist Von Baeyer, which was the first of a string of chemical blues.

There is a scientific explanation for how all blues work, but for me sky blue works when I think of it as a mid blue azure pigment with a grey primer that has been overlaid on a deep-space black. Blue is all about black, the violet end of the spectrum rather than the green – as Shraga Weil well knew.  And so did Yves Klein, who patented his blue as ‘International Klein Blue’, and Rothko who had his blue shimmering out of black, and Matisse who used a black line, and complimentary colours, in his blue paintings – and made the eye do all the work. Which makes his late paper cut-outs all the more amazing – because they seem to be condensing all the Mediterranean blues into one.

Today the world is full of bad blues. You see them on cars, bus-stops, road signs and fabrics, and they hurt your eyes more than any other colour.  In museums the use of blues is frequently bad.  Sometimes it’s because it feels like a cliché – medieval and religious artefacts displayed against blue; sometimes it’s because silver has been put on a blue that’s too insipid;  and sometimes it’s because the blue is too flat and doesn’t lift the artefact so much as drown it.  (Actually I think silver can look gorgeous on silver grey silk.)

Buildings can be even worse.  So few get blue right. Bad blues abound – steel structures in particular. It may be that green is a better bet for buildings – hence all those green-tiled domes on mosques.  Blue needs to be patterned with yellows, reds and blacks to really work.

As for interiors, the best blue I’ve seen, apart from Danish Blue that matches perfectly the Danish light and the climate, is Carlo Scarpa’s polished, blue Venetian plaster – which surely must have some black in it because it looks more like Parker’s blue-black Quink rather than pure blue ink.

We live in a world with massive amounts of bad, chemical blue. But for the most perfect blue, the blue that is truly divine you have to go to bluebell woods. They work so well because of the way in which each bloom is spaced (further apart than you would think), because the foliage casts shadows that are a green that is almost black, and because each bell casts its own shadow that takes the eye from azure to ultramarine. The bells shimmer under the dappled light that is filtered by the leaves even without a breeze. You couldn’t design a blue with more brilliance.

11 June 2013: The other day I overheard two twenty-somethings enthusing about Victorian museums.  It seems that what they love are the dark wooden showcases, the green baize that you draw over the glass to protect the artefacts from the light, and the labels with their copperplate handwriting.    Having spent ten years of my adult life making contemporary museums, this is a disconcerting conversation.

So the standard way the debate usually goes about old and new museums is to point out that, despite appearances to the contrary, museums are not eternal – they change and always have done, and not only in the way they look but in the stories that they tell.  Before Victorian museums there were Cabinets of Curiosities – until they were swept away.  And likewise in the second half of the twentieth century there came the great unpicking of the imperial, colonial story.  And after that came post-structuralism which toppled the single narrative and put in its place a multiplicity of stories and viewpoints.  Nothing stays the same, and museums least of all.  Added to this you may say that the Victorian showcases are leaky and never at the right height for children.

All of which is true. And yet, despite myself, I am disconcerted and so I take myself off to one of the last remaining, untouched Victorian museums.

Which is how it is that I am on the Isle of Wight in a corner of the vast estate of Osborne House, on a day when the sky is like thunder and the grass that dizzying green of early summer. This was Queen Victoria’s favourite holiday house and here, in one corner of it, she and Albert created a children’s world where the royal children could learn to cook, dig in their allotments and think, by means of a small museum that they created with their father.  It was an idyllic childhood – better by and large than what came afterwards – and long after they had gone, the museum survived, more or less untouched.

Now it sits in what looks like a Victorian Swiss chalet.  There is a black, cast-iron stove in the middle of the room, striped cotton blinds pulled down against the light, and dark wooden showcases stuffed to the gills with trays of butterflies with wings of lace and silk; stones of every kind, each with its own handwritten label, and arranged with taxonomic beauty; the jaws of a shark, gaping wildly; classical figurines; lekythoi vases; North American beads and slippers – the list goes on and on.  Outside is a green world, full of birdsong.  Inside there’s not much explanation of what you are looking at, but then back in the 19th century you wouldn’t have needed any.  A small royal child would have been on hand to show you around and tell you what you didn’t know.

Once upon a time, I think, there were lots of museums like this but then the world changed and now there are only a few and their absolute strangeness sings out.  I can see why the twenty-somethings like them. They have become historical objects in their own right, and are not so much about learning as about time travel and atmosphere.

It is not often that the past comes back to us, unmediated, unframed and unexplained, and there are parts of this museum that startle me even now – such as the Victorian habit of shooting everything that moved. But still there are things about it I like enormously.  I like their seriousness and their earnest desire to ‘think the world’.  I like the way they try to categorise the world but don’t quite manage it – next to the sections on Antiquities and Natural History is one dedicated to Souvenirs.  And I like the way that the labels are not so much captions as short stories.

‘Two brooches of Fish Bone,’ I read,  ‘carved by Mr. Reid at Cleveden, Bucks, and presented to Queen Victoria by the Duke of Westminster.’

‘Copper Ore from Burra Burra Mine, S Australia.  Presented to Queen Victoria by Capt. Charles Stewart, FRGS. The discoverer of that province and first navigator of the Murray River.’

‘Jaws of a shark caught by their Royal Highnesses, Princes Edward and George, when onboard HMS Bacchante, 1880.’

‘A favourite Bullfinch, belonging to HRH Prince Albert, brought from Wernershausen in Meiningen, September 1840, died at Buckingham Palace, June 1843.’

‘Bulgarian children’s costumes, as worn by two little boys saved at Kustendjeh by Capt. Hyde Parker, 1854.’

(Later, when I describe all this to the twenty-somethings, they say in delighted disbelief, ‘Is it true?  Isn’t it an art installation?”  ‘No,’ I say, ‘it’s absolutely true.’)

Afterwards I go out into the gardens where they are still tending the allotments that the royal children once looked after, and it occurs to me that maybe these Victorian museums are now folk art and that we should no more unpick them than we would censor a Victorian novel or paint over a Victorian sign.

Illustrations by Isabel Greenberg;  photograph of the garden at Swiss Cottage