In Lovely Blueness: Adventures in Troubled Light

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In 2004 Colm Toibin curated an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin called 'Blue' which consisted of blue objects from the collection. This is his introduction to the catalogue.

The city curves. It curves so much that we only notice it when there is a long perspective; if you turn, for example, from Holles Street into Merrion Square and then up towards Baggot Street along the Georgian Mile. Then you see the city in its clear air, the unoccluded horizon. I walk every day to the Chester Beatty Library through the old curved city from Pembroke Street along Leeson Street across St Stephen’s Green, along South King Street and Drury Street, crossing Aungier Street, and then turning right into Ship Street and right again into the yard of Dublin Castle.
Watching the turns of streetscape offers a strange, funny pleasure; the eye longs for things to curve and turn, hardly conscious of the longing. Walking the streets of Dublin brings with it an aimless, almost a nostalgic happiness, turning down side-streets, following the traces and tracks what must have been the shape of an earlier city, which is underground now, like a song whose words are lost but whose tune remains.
So it is with blue. I find that I am looking forward to wandering aimlessly in the main galleries of the Chester Beatty, not studying the history of the pieces on display or the cultures from which they emerged, but looking at the blues for their colour alone in all its stunning variety, in all its sharp beauty. I do not know then that blue has a gnarled history, that it came to the west strangely and late in the day, that it has been, in at least two of its manifestations, part of the great exotic export from the east, a wonderful and enduring aspect of the spice trade.
The slides of the collection tell one story; sometimes a shade of blue as captured by the photographer is ravishing, or the image itself is beautiful beyond belief; other times the slides offer mere hints of what lies stored in the basement, one of the greatest treasure troves in this country. I am waiting for the day when the numbers I have listed will appear in the flesh, will be brought up from the basement which they are so tenderly preserved.
They are all now on the table, some of them held in wooden boxes, specially made for them, or in beautiful bindings. Painters everywhere loved wings; the pleasure of drawing them, a symbol of the soaring and inspired imagination, the soul in flight, must have been intense. We look at studies of Islamic angels, Christian angels, Japanese birds, western birds. Some painters loved the straight lines of architecture and buildings; others the curve of calligraphy and of the human body, the human face. There is real pleasure now in putting the Chinese beside the Italian, the Japanese beside the Islamic, the Armenian beside the English.
What separated these workers in art was greater than what united them. The imagination at work is always alone; no matter how strong a tradition or sense of community. The mind making images does so singly, in moments of fierce concentration, suddenly, as though this had never been done before, as though the task of now were the only task there ever would be.

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