Art gets the blues
A Delhi exhibition 'Prussian Blue: A Serendipitous Colour that Altered the Trajectory of Art' explores both the visibility and absence of a historic color through statements of homage and politics.
Colours are known to influence memories. They are often identified with emotions—red for anger, blue for calm, green for abundance, etc. The art show, which historian Dr Arshiya Lokhandwala has curated for the Kiran Nadar Museum of Arts, titled Prussian Blue: A Serendipitous Colour that Altered the Trajectory of Art, is a tribute to her father. “The colour has a special place in my heart. My father, a manufacturer of industrial paints, would often talk about his fondness for it. This exhibition is my homage to him,” says the Mumbai-based Lokhandwala. The exhibition has 19 participating artists who have interpreted the shade in their own way.
At the entrance of the exhibition space stands a monumental canvas from which the figure of an astronaut—bodysuit covered in a cosmic play of blue—looks down on you. Mysuru-based artist NS Harsha uses the terms “subatomic and astral journey” to mean “inner and external” journey. On the extreme right to this canvas is a textile installation—a blue chrysanthemum-like work—by Düsseldorf artist Alke Reeh, famous for combining realism and expressionism. “The object can be thought of both as a textile and an architectural element. For me, the colour blue stands for a dome—hence the particular shape. Domes represent a symbolic connection with the sky, ultimately leading to eternity. It’s also reflected in religious architecture such as mosques, temples and churches, symbolising the cosmic tent,” he says.
Another striking work is an installation by Delhi-based photographer, women’s rights activist, writer and filmmaker Sheba Chhachhi. Hers is a grim take. She uses 600 pieces of laboratory glassware—flasks, pipettes, distillation units, funnels, burettes, test tubes—to visualise the colour, which has traces of prussic acid, more commonly known as cyanide. The chemical has a gory past: Nazi scientists developed amethyst blue Zyklon B out of it, which was used in the gas chambers of Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. “Chhachhi has worked on the idea of poison for a very long time. A lot of her work is also about ecology. So her take on big pharma and their involvement with the colour brought in a different aspect to the overall show,” says Lokhandwala.
In fact, the shade has a long history. In ancient times the stone lapis lazuli, mined exclusively in Afghanistan, was ground to a coarse powder—grinding it too fine would turn it into a dull grey—and used for its bright colour, named Ultramarine Blue. It was favoured by the likes of Raphael, Botticelli, Titian and more. The Egyptians would use it to decorate their sarcophagus; some say Cleopatra used it as an eyeshadow. In Christian iconography, it was used in royal or sacred imagery. But the fact was that it was too expensive for mass usage. It cost more than gold. It is believed that Michelangelo’s The Entombment was left incomplete because he could not afford to buy the pigment. Johannes Vermeer pushed his family into debt with his extravagant use of the shade.
Finally, in 1704, a year before Isaac Newton published his first report on the seven colours of the rainbow, German dye-maker Johann Jacob Diesbach accidentally discovered Prussian Blue, or Berliner Blau. It was an instant hit in the art world. As Lokhandwala puts it, “it revolutionised the art scene”. While most artists at the exhibition experiment with their interpretation of the shade in paintings and installations, others go beyond it. Thukral and Tagra’s installation comprising tarpaulin and pesticide spray machine is a case in point. Like Chhachhi, it is a piece of activism against farmer suicides in Punjab. Amid a sea of blue works, this one is in stark yellow. It has a spray machine which spurts blue every 14 minutes—denoting a suicide.
“It is a highly political piece. They are also talking of the cycle of colour—the diametric opposite of blue perhaps is yellow. It calls for a dire change that needs to come around,” says Lokhandwala, adding, “Likewise, Mithu Sen’s gold and white work speaks of the lack of the colour blue. It throws up a conversation around something that is not visible.” It is said that most humans can perceive as many as seven million distinct hues in their lifetime. The fact that Prussian Blue has stood the test of time, speaks of its lasting effect.