Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect phone number for the Textile Museum. The correct number is 202-667-0441.
A Color With Many Shades of Meaning
From the Menial to the Magnificent, Blue Plays a Primary Role in Our World and Our Perceptions

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 20, 2008

"B lue," the exhibition at the Textile Museum, begins with jeans -- a pair of 19th-century Levi's found in 1997 in a California barnyard. They show their age. The man who wore them wore them hard.

They didn't come with belt loops. He held his pants up with suspenders. There's a hole in a back pocket, probably worn through by the metal tools he carried, and the pocket is riveted, a feature given up (because rivets scratch the furniture) when Levi's went genteel. This pair is not genteel. Everything about them -- especially the color -- says tough, dirty work.

That's still one of blue's messages. Long before blue denim was youthified and sexified and nuanced to a fare-thee-well, blue was the color of toil, worn by the lower orders.

"Blue was formerly the distinctive colour for the dress of servants, tradesmen, etc.," says the Oxford English Dictionary; "also of paupers." In France blue-collar workers still wear blue cotton coats.

But there's more to blue than that. It's the spaciest of colors. Lipstick, blood and stop signs quickly concentrate attention. Blue, instead, diffuses it. Airy as the sky, extensive as the sea, it sets the mind afloat.

You can't imagine a blue stop sign.

The "Blue" show is not a blockbuster. The Textile Museum, in its quiet S Street mansion, isn't into blockbusters. Its mood is rather sweet, miniature, old-fashioned: The brash new Newseum could swallow the little Textile Museum at a gulp. The fragments of old fabrics from India and Egypt, the Japanese kimono, the Mao jacket from China and the works of fabric art displayed in the exhibit don't begin to exhaust blueness. Its real theme is indigo. But the show's reflections on blueness are enough to invite your thoughts to riff.

The color has no edges. Blue's meaning, like the sea's, is fluid. Blue reaches around opposites. In Britain, for example, it isn't just the color for storekeepers and servants. It's also for the toffs. The blue-blooded aristocrats who play at antique games at Eton and at Harrow, at Oxford and Cambridge, do so in their blues.

If blue clothing were not cheap, paupers wouldn't wear it. The color, one imagines, ought to carry with it notions of impoverishment, but in the Renaissance, blue ranked with gold and silver as the costliest of all.

The blue robes of the Virgin in Jan van Eyck's "The Annunciation" at the National Gallery of Art, or the blue cape on her shoulders in Sandro Botticelli's "The Virgin Adoring the Child" at the same museum, are not only there to make the viewer think of heaven. They also evoke cash -- the blue pigments the painters used could cost vast amounts. Cheap blues often faded, but the costliest ultramarines did not. Ultramarine means beyond the sea, which is where the color came from. Derived from lapis lazuli brought all the way from Badakhshan (in what is now Afghanistan), the best grades of the color were exceptionally expensive. Andrea del Sarto's 1515 contract for "Madonna of the Harpies" was typically specific: The blue paint for the Virgin's robe must be worth at least five gold florins per ounce.

Blue is down and dirty, too. But blue is also high. While the blueness of the Virgin's dress signifies perfection, the same color when worn in "Devil in a Blue Dress," or by Monica Lewinsky, does not mean that at all.

Blue movies are obscene. Bluenoses and bluestockings are particularly aware of this, and fiercely disapprove.

Blue stands for fidelity. No wonder brides equip themselves, to counter something borrowed, and owned but temporarily, with something else that's blue.

When people scream blue murder they do so very noisily, though the strict laws of the Puritans, which preserved the Sabbath's quiet from singing and from dancing, are also colored blue.

Blues can be the top -- the best wins the blue ribbon, blue chips make you rich -- but they can also be the pits. Have you ever had the blues?

What we know as the 12-bar blues accompanied by guitar turns out to be pretty much an early 20th-century development, but the word -- with its suggestions of melancholia and moping -- is considerably older. More than 200 years ago, the great actor David Garrick wrote that he had been "troubled with ye Blews."

It's a lowdown dirty feeling, as more than one song tells us. But the cure for its despondency comes in the same color -- when the bluebird of happiness comes winging through blue skies.

* * *

Lots of artists loved the color, for a variety of reasons.

Franz Marc, the German painter who helped to found the group known as the Blue Rider, looked upon the color as "spiritual and serious" (adding that if you mixed it with a touch of red, "then you augment the blue to an unbearable mourning"). Piet Mondrian in Holland, who joined the Dutch Theosophical Society in 1909, agreed with the theosophists that deep blue represented high spirituality or pure religious feeling. Going even further, the theorist Johannes Itten, who taught color at the Bauhaus, correlated shapes with both ideas and hues: He thought the square was red (and represented matter), that the triangle was yellow (and represented thought) and that the clear blue of the circle stood for spirit in eternal motion. (Paul Klee, his fellow teacher at that German art school, who wasn't at all sure of such correspondences, mischievously suggested that the circle represented the yolk of a fresh egg.)

"Blue Period" Picassos stress the color's gloominess. The three figures who appear barefoot on the beach in his 1903 "The Tragedy" at the National Gallery don't explain their sorrow, but the viewer has no doubt that all three have the blues.

Colors are not static. That's a curious thing about them. Warm ones, red especially, appear to approach you, while cooler blues, instead, seem to pull into the distance as if opening deep space.

No 20th-century painter dug more deeply into blue -- or maybe one should say floated through it as intensely -- than the French artist Yves Klein (1928-1962). "Long live the immaterial!" was one of his pronouncements. Part painter, part performer, part minimalist, part mystic, Klein (who, by the way, was also a judo black belt, and a seeker of Zen emptiness) sought to lead our spirits out of this material world and deep into the spiritual freedom of the void.

For this astounding mission, his chief weapon was blue.

And not just any blue, but a deep synthetic hue, which he used as a dry powder with a special resin binder "to protect each grain of pigment from any alteration," and whose recipe he patented as IKB (International Klein Blue).

In the last years of his too-short life, he used that vivid color practically exclusively -- as if he could exist as that single color miraculously infused through the infinity of the all.

"I will defend color," Klein wrote, "and I will deliver it, and I will lead it to final triumph!"

Mission impossible, no doubt. Still, for anyone who stands -- patiently and gullibly -- in front of a Klein monochrome, it's not all that far-fetched. Soon one starts to feel oneself -- hey, give it half a chance -- flowing without effort through the deep blue of blue space.

His blueness was the key to that immaterial journeying. Red or brown or yellow would not have done at all.

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