Those who, like me, went to the see the Blue: Alchemy of a Colour exhibition on opening morning might have been asked to share the floor with a Bollywood dancer. She had been hired to model in some promotional shots for the National Gallery of Victoria, posing and preening like a lovely but leafless tree against sacred tapestries: you couldn’t resist being moved by her attempts to outdo their grandiosity. The Li people, members of a south Chinese Daic language group that have inhabited Hainan Island since the Neolithic Age, have one of their late 19th century ceremonial dragon covers (long bei) employed as a backdrop. It’s a swirling, spectral orgy of dragons (heads, claws, and scales appear out of nowhere, as if presaging the fractured forms of modern painting housed upstairs) chasing a pair of lordly phoenixes. Six lesser birds nestled in blooms allow their song to descend on the scene—sadly, their audience doesn’t seem to be paying attention. You can’t stare at it for long without wanting to faint from gluts of dizzy delight.
Blue: Alchemy of a Colour features over sixty works drawn primarily from the Gallery’s collections (and three private archives) comprising ceramics, textiles, woodblock prints and paintings from Persia, China, Japan, India, Central Asia, South East Asia and Europe. “For this show we’ve brought together works incorporating indigo-dyed textiles and cobalt-decorated ceramics,” Matthew Martin, curator of Decorative Arts and Antiquities, tells me. “As the title suggests, it’s alchemy because they’re both materials that are not blue in their natural states. Cobalt is a powdery silver mineral, and indigo is derived from a plant.” Carol Cains, the exhibition’s co-curator who specialises in Asian Art, adds: “When you extract the dye it’s initially colourless, and the blue only appears when you lift the cloth from the dye bath and it oxidises. It’s a rather magical process.”
Indigo was used in Europe in the form of the woad plant before their artists realised that Indian indigo was a more concentrated hue. It was once in higher demand than spices. “Then, of course, the Europeans wanted to control the production themselves so they set up indigo plantations in British India, the West Indies, and the Americas to supersede the indigo trade,” Ms Cains says. Blue does, however, hold exclusive and entrenched hallowed value in Hindu traditions. The most familiar deity, Krishna, is the eighth avatar of the Supreme God Vishnu (who dispenses his patronage from the cosmic ocean) and commonly governs creation, preservation and moral binaries. There is a remarkable watercolour painting from around 1730 that “explores devotional love and longing” between Krishna and his beloved, Radha. The heroine is depicted three times behind the foreground: darkening a doorway, standing atop a tower, and sheltering inside a den, where two peacocks seem to have found themselves stranded on the roof. The stormy blue sky is rendered in indigo; the messenger, perhaps presenting Radha with a damp love letter, dons a jacket filled with azurite.
The Japanese were hardly touched by such intimacies: their artists depicted, instead, some forty years later, carnal lust in a brothel scene at sunrise. In a 1772 woodblock print from the Edo period (1603-1868) a prostitute emerges from behind an indigo mosquito net (indigo is believed to be a natural insecticide) to make her tea; behind her, a colleague smokes her pipe. At the right squint, one might be able to discern the lady’s wealthy client in slumber. European worthies of the same era shunned the populist disgrace of indigo: they were, in fact, proud and rich enough to commission blue art derived from semi-precious stones. “Indigo blue was fairly cheap and widely used, but the blues derived from lapis lazuli were incredibly expensive,” Ms Cains says. Ultramarine, which is made from grinding the lapis stone into powder, isn’t represented in the exhibition: it was favoured by European masters in their oil paintings. Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) owes her blue turban to pulverised lapis stone.
Other Dutchmen strained toward the same standards of glamour in ceramics, with disconcerting effects: there is a monstrously ugly flower vase (c.1690) in the exhibition that casts an unholy, phallic shadow. The contraption resembles a mutant pagoda tower with ferocious reptilian heads for eaves. “Each of these layers is a separate section. You can fill each reservoir with water, then insert exotic flowers into each nozzle to create this extraordinary pyramid of blooms,” Mr Martin says. “Europeans at this time had not mastered the technology of porcelain production—that only happened in the 18th century. The Dutch imported Chinese and Japanese porcelain into Europe in huge quantities, and mimicked the blue-and-white designs with tin glazes, but the individual motifs are purely European design.” The vignettes that adorn its hexagonal base confirm as much: their figures are plump, winged and naked. On the uppermost layer are barely discernible Chinese characters. “They’re just squiggles that make no sense,” I’m told.
Blue-and-white porcelain was first made during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), following the celadon porcelains of the Song dynasty (a pale green colour that apes glassy jade). The Persians adored using cobalt in their ceramics, but lacked the porcelain-making prowess of their Eastern brothers—the Persians pined for their secrets. “They were going to the Chinese kilns and ordering porcelains but decorating it with cobalt. The whole Chinese blue-and-white tradition actually seems to have begun catering to Persian tastes, not Chinese,” Mr Martin says. “And it’s interesting if you consider that the Yuan dynasty is actually Mongolian in origin, and at the same time in Persia it’s a Mongol dynasty ruling as well.” Islamic blue art between these two kingdoms—a trade, in fact, between cousin dynasties—eventually made its way to Europe via Spain, which, in turn, ignited the Italian ceramic industry. A corpulent pharmacy jar (c.1430) from the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, Florence, which might have held herbal remedies, is on display. It’s the most princely use of cobalt in the exhibition, standing proud of the surface. A heraldic dog entwined in leafy ornament makes lively philosophical trouble: it looks menacing, but dogs, I’m told by Mr Martin, traditionally have associations with healing. “Their saliva was thought to be antiseptic in a pre-penicillin age,” he says. Puppies are now gifted to sulking children.
The exhibition features a number of robes that flattered a man’s ego and impugned a woman’s age. A chaofu from the Mongol Qing dynasty (1644-1912) lined with blue silk and metallic thread—denoting regeneration, seasonal shifts, crops and fertility—distinguishes it from the preceding Chinese Ming dynasty, which favoured red as the imperial colour. A slinky five-clawed imperial dragon watches over a sublime binge of swastikas, coiling clouds, and bats ablaze with red light. The robe, which features a brushy trim of unidentified fur, is ludicrously ample. “In a lot of the imperial portraits you see the emperor seated on the throne, and his head looks quite small because the robe is enormous,” Ms Cains tells me. A chyrpy worn by Central Asian Turkmen women features narrow, vestigial sleeves: the collar, lined with tulip chains, sits around the face. Young, unmarried women wore dark blue, middle-aged or married women wore yellow, and women over sixty wore white. “They also had black ones—maybe that’s for old, unmarried women,” Ms Cains laughs. Hanging with the mantle is a robe of the Ainu people from Japan, who, like the Persians, practiced animism. It is constructed from elm bark fibre chewed by the local women, made soft enough to weave. Natural indigo is embroidered at the garment’s entry points (and around the wearer’s orifices) in thorny juts that are said to ward off evil.
If a woman wasn’t entitled to fancy dress by birth or marriage, she might have ennobled herself through employment. An exquisite 1765 watercolour artwork from Udaipur, Rajasthan boasts two serene Indian Nautch dancers entertaining the Maharana, marked by a halo, and his men (possibly chiefs or landowners). The ceremony, or durbur, takes place in an open courtyard decorated with blue-and-white Dutch tiles from Delft. “The tiles probably reached Udaipur in the early 18th century by the Dutch coming through to the Mughal court to visit the emperor,” Ms Cains says. “The whole open courtyard was covered up in the 19th century, but most of the tiles and the coloured glass are still in situ in the palace.” The Maharana, like modern Japan’s imperial family, claimed his descent from the sun: a giant curtain featuring a gold sun of volcanic brilliance dominates the lower half of the work. If you look left of the balcony, you can see that the artist has insinuated himself into his own work, and into history. His vocation was a patrilineal trade. With his scroll and brush in hand, he leers at the passing dancers, who were trained at a very young age and, Ms Cains tells me, “were only employable until they were about twenty.” Little seems to have changed in the modelling industry.
Blue: Anatomy of a Colour is on display at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne until March 2016.