A short history of the blues which won’t make you feel blue

  • What is it that makes the colour blue so special?
  • NQ reporter Freddie Bruhin-Price investigates

We are surrounded by blue. Blue is the colour of our seas and skies. When we fly in planes, when we go swimming in the ocean, we are shrouded in blue. Yet when we are immersed in the sea, its blueness seems to disappear. When we stand at the top of a hill, the blue sky seems just as far away as it did before we made our ascent. So perhaps blue is the most elusive colour in the world.

The tale of the colour blue in the world of  western art is equally one of elusiveness. Blue was hardly featured in prehistoric or stone age art and in the medieval times, few shades of blue are striking enough to stand out among  more common hues like red and brown. This was not to change until the Middle Ages when a new substance was brought to the shores of Europe. It was to be responsible for a renaissance for the colour blue in the world of art, which has continued to this day. The substance in question was lapiz lazuli.

It was not until lapiz was brought from the east to the shores of Venice that it began to be used in painting. The hard stone was processed for weeks; broken down, wrapped in gum arabic and placed in a caustic solution, creating a new colour: ultramarine.

Examples of religious art from the Middle Ages are filled with blue hues. The church began to regulate the colour and laws were passed to make it increasingly more expensive. Titian’s paintings, especially Bacchus and Ariadne, made liberal use of blue. Bacchus and Ariadne was restored in 1967 to a glory which we can only imagine is close to its original beauty. The painting is almost half blue and is breathtakingly beautiful.

The  romantic era of the late 18th and 19th centuries cemented the place of blue as a beguiling and symbolic shade in the arts. Novalis introduced the image of a blue flower as a sublime and all-encompassing object which had supreme emotional power. In some ways we could observe that the colour blue is still inextricably linked to human feeling. Although, we might say someone is yellow if they are cowardly, or that they are in a black mood. However, feeling blue is an expression which is part of the English-speaking vocabulary, especially in music. Blues, a style which arose in the early 20th century, is an entire genre named after the colour.

Blues music originated in the deep south of America among African American musicians and is seen by some historians as a natural progression from, and hybrid of, religious spirituals (which would also lead to the birth of  gospel and slave songs). There is often a sense of loss present in blues music, but also one of solace. The artist singing their song of sadness is in a process purging their negative emotion. Through singing the blues, the performer obtains a sort of catharsis. This could be a continuation of the power of blue to uplift and empower, as well as to signify negative emotion.

The use of blue as catharsis is present in the work of none other than Pablo Picasso. The colour is so important to our understanding of Picasso that the period of 1901-1904 is referred to as his ‘blue period’. This time ensued after Picasso’s best friend and confidante, Carles Casagemas, took his own life. In his 1903 painting La Vie, Picasso depicts his friend in the arms of his unrequited love, making the ‘noli me tangere’ (touch me not) gesture with his hand. The figure of the resurrected Christ also famously made this gesture in Coreggio’s Noli me Tangere (1525).

This gesture is perceived to be symbolic of the beginning of Picasso’s moving on from his loss. Following this, he went on to produce some of the most powerful, shocking and memorable art in history. Without this formative ‘blue period’, we would not have the full picture of the 20th century’s defining artist.

Arguably, music in the 20th century was also defined by the blues. As blues music evolved into rock and roll (which combined the former with other genres including folk and soul), the terminology of ‘feeling blue’ continued to be used by songwriters to evoke their melancholy. For instance, Elvis wore and sang about blue suede shoes. The Beatles – a catalyst for making rock and roll a worldwide phenomenon (and arguably inventing pop music) – used the colour in songs like Yer Blues, For You Blue, Blue Jay Way. Meanwhile, their contemporaries The Rolling Stones confirmed the enduring power of the colour in the title track of their 2016 Grammy-winning album: Blue and Lonesome.

In the 20th century’s art world, blue was of equal importance. Yves Klein patented his own shade of blue and set out to colour all manner of objects in it. Despite this, the vision and style of his idea somewhat outweighs the substance at times, arguably. What is considered more important than Klein’s art is his obsession with blue, which permeates across the art world.

Blue is a dominant colour, wherever we look. We all have a pair of blue jeans. Facebook uses blue in its logo, as did Microsoft Word and Google Docs. Look around the screen you’re reading this article on – how many blues can you see? Blue continues to be as striking and potent as ever, and it’s going nowhere.