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Art & artists

Blue, blue, electric blue

— December 2014

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

Associated media

Blue - the colour of sky and water - has had a dominant role in art for centuries. (Image not in book).

The colour of the sky and of lapis lazuli - blue has always been important in art

Blue Mythologies: Reflections on a Colour by Carol Mavor

 ‘Blue Mythologies’ arrived the same day as I happened to be visiting the cyanotype installation by Walead Beshty in the Curve at the Barbican. Beshty’s show was a huge, floor-to-ceiling installation following the long curved gallery at the Barbican. It is a daily cyanotype record of everyday objects and images in his studio throughout a single year, revealed through the unique blue lens of the cyanotype process. The show, for me, was a serendipitous introduction to this book.

As Carol Mavor demonstrates so beautifully in her publication, the reading of everyday artefacts through the blue veil of the cyanotype is couched in the paradox of the colour itself. The cyanotype uses the same process as a blueprint and is created by exposing a sheet of photosensitized paper to the sun, using either objects or a negative laid on the paper to produce the image.

For Mavor, blue is a wonderfully ambivalent word/colour in our eye, a colour that runs the gamut of feelings from dark to light. It is not surprising that she nods appreciatively in the direction of writer Rebecca Solnit and her ‘Field Guide to Getting Lost’ or ‘Wanderlust’, as there is something similar in the way they both embrace poetic and evocative reverie through their subjects, and invite the reader to join them on their meandering journeys. No doubt for some readers, this approach could be frustrating – but not for me. The other looming, blue-tinted, shadow behind Mavor’s book is that of the philosopher Roland Barthes (1915–80), whose seminal work, Mythologies, provides an inspirational template of sorts.

Blue Mythologies is a beautifully produced book,  with references from a wide variety of cultural sources and media. They are carefully chosen and intensely personal with well-chosen illustrations. Inevitably, perhaps, film features strongly and Mavor is unafraid to wander ‘off piste’ in search of her thoughts in ways that we can experience through film. The reader has to suspend some expectations with this process in order to allow the book to ‘work’ on or with them. We will all have our own set of blue references to bring to the project and these flood our thoughts like a blue watercolour wash as we read along with Mavor. I like this.

Mavor spends comparatively little time on the historical, cultural or scientific facts of blue, at least in any systematic way, and there are already plenty of books that deal with these aspects. For her, the metaphor, the mythology is itself the real fact of blue. She wants to reveal the paradoxes of the colour, but not as contradictions. It would be easy to describe the book as a stream of consciousness, and while there are moments where she follows a thought almost unknowingly, we know we will always be brought back to blueness. This makes for a good read.

One highlight, that embodies the book, is the image from Giotto’s Last Judgement, where the gorgeous lapis lazuli-derived blue pigment, representing the heavenly sky, is pulled back like a curtain by the angels, to reveal a red jewelled chamber, which just cannot compete with that blue sky. And for Carol Mavor herself, the visual touchstone for her lovely book is the 1925 painting by Joan Miro,  This is the Colour of My Dreams, words written underneath a little patch of blue. As true for Mavor as it was Miro.

Blue Mythologies: Reflections on a Colour  by Carol Mavor is published by Reaktion. 208pp.,  £22.00. ISBN 9781780230832


Howard Hollands
Middlesex University, UK.
Art historian, artist and teacher

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