In the Mood for Colours: Blue Objects

Blue, like green, has a dominant association with nature, but is perhaps more subject to varying cultural readings through time. In the age of the Roman Empire, blue was the colour of barbarians (Germans and Celts), but medieval Europe afforded it greater esteem, and blue became a majestic, royal colour. Nonetheless, the tension between impurity and majesty (spiritual and profane) is always present in the heart of the colour blue.

Whereas the Virgin Mary in her ultramarine cloak is pervaded with holiness, the blue extracted from the indigo plant has always – even in the Early Modern age – been considered the ‘devil's dye’. Although blue went through a kind of liberation in the 18th century and became the favourite colour of Western European civilization in the 19th, it still retained – together with grey – associations of the unclean sections of society: the dirty working clothes worn by Roman slaves, medieval serfs and even 19th- and 20th-century peasants. In a radical shift, the blue jeans of the 20th century made a fashion out of the colour of work. By that time, however, blue already had a glorious past in aristocratic fashion and was built into the character of military and police uniforms.

Long predating the polarised cultural history of blue in Europe was the attraction felt for the colour blue in the culture of the Middle and Far East. It was partly through the passionate collectors of oriental porcelain and engravings that this feeling spread to Europe. Oriental influences, Jewish and Christian culture, clothing of royalty and peasants, exquisite ceramic glazes and cheap dyed textiles are what have defined the ultramarine, cobalt, gentian, sky-blue and turquoise world of blue.

Blue is now the colour of Europe, and its associations range from oriental influences, to the bluebird of happiness and Twitter and the blue creatures of the Oscar-winning film Avatar. The natural and cultural, holy and profane dimensions inherent in blue have generated a palette used to adorn the objects of industrial and cultural history.

by Zsófia Frazon, ethnographer (Museum of Ethnography, Budapest)