Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020


22nd June 2013

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 Which in turn was superseded rapidly by the synthetic substitute invented by the German chemist Von Baeyer, which was the first of a string of chemical blues.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.