In Lovely Blueness: Adventures in Troubled Light

Printer-friendly version
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 absence of blue as a central colour in certain cultures at certain times and its subsequent rise in popularity and use have never been fully or convincingly explained. In ‘The Primary Colours’, Alexander Theroux writes: ‘In the Bible, although there are over four hundred references to the sky or haven, the colour blue is not once named.’ (8) In one of the earliest theories of colour, Empedocles (492-431 BC) identified four primary colours as white, black, red and yellowish-green. Blue is absent. Plato (428-347 BC) also admitted four main colours and excluded blue. Aristotle (384-322 BC) took the view that there were only two colours - black and white - and everything else was obtained by mixing these two colours. (9) Both Plato and Aristotle were uneasy about the idea of colour itself in art. Aristotle wrote in the Poetics that ‘the chalk outline of a portrait will give more pleasure than the most beautiful colours laid on confusedly’. (10) Command of line was more important in Greek art than use of colour. Indeed, the view was taken that the addition of colour could be left to the master’s assistant. Colour was interference with nature rather than depiction to it. Its use or abuse became a moral issue not only after the Reformation, but among Greek and Roman writers too. Plotinus saw colour as a way of conquering darkness 'by the pouring-in of light’ (11) Pliny took the view that with merely four colours - black, white, red and yellow - works of genius were made, but that with the introduction of more colours, including what India contributed, he wrote, ‘from the ooze of her rivers’ - meaning Indigo - ‘we are alive only to the worth of the materials and not to the genius of the artist’. (12) Later writers, however, began to extol colour in all its glory. In the ninth century Photius wrote of the mosaic-filled interior of the Palace Chapel in the church of the Virgin of Pharos: ‘It is as if one had entered heaven itself with no one barring the way from any side, and was illuminated by the beauty in all forms shining around like so many stars.’ (13) Nonethless, for both Western and Arabic writers, colour was subservient to light. Boethius said that colour was an accident. Scholars such as Averroes made light a far more important structural concept than colour, believing that the colours of art were finite while the colours of nature infinite. These theories of colour and light would lead to Goethe’s most beautiful phrase: ‘Colour is troubled light.’
‹ Back