Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Prussian Blue: A Serendipitous Colour that Altered the Trajectory of Art is a survey exhibition of nineteen artists exploring their engagement with the colour Prussian Blue. This invitation is extended to the artist to explore, investigate, and engage with the colour in their own unique and individual manner. Although Prussian Blue is widely used in the artist’s colour palette its uniqueness is relatively unknown, nor is its link between art and science that truly transformed the course of art forever. Curated by  Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala, the exhibition includes the artworks of artists; Anita Dube, Anju Dodiya, Alke Reeh, Astha Butail, Atul Dodiya, Desmond Lazaro, Mithu Sen, N S Harsha, Sheba Chhachhi, Shilpa Gupta, Subodh Gupta, Parul Gupta, Prajakta Potnis, Ranbir Kaleka, Sumakshi Singh, Shambhavi, Thukral & Tagra , Vivan Sundaram, Waqas Khan. 

Blue has historically always been a colour of great magnitude, symbolizing serenity, stability, inspiration, and wisdom. As a colour blue has been prominently visible since the third millennium BC in ancient Egypt produced by grinding down lapis lazuli mined from the mountains of Afghanistan, and used in jewelry, painting and on the sarcophagi. Its lengthy grinding and washing process makes the natural pigment valuable—roughly ten times more highly priced than the stone it comes from and as expensive as gold. This prohibitive pricing and shortage of the material resulted in blue becoming a color of privilege in which the preciousness of the pigment was reserved for sacred subjects, such as the robes of religious figures, depictions of the Virgin Mary and other votive images commissioned paintings for the nobility during the Renaissance. There is an interesting story that suggests that Michelangelo couldn’t afford ultramarine (another name for lapis lazuli) for his painting The Entombment, leaving it unfinished as the result of his failure to procure the prized pigment. In a similar manner as the west, ground lapis lazuli was also used to adorn the Indian miniature paintings as color held an extreme significance, both in terms of visual representation and symbolic meaning, sometimes, however making way for cheaper substitute such as indigo and azurite due to its exorbitant costs.

Hence it was by accident in a Berlin laboratory (then a center for alchemy) in 1704 that changed the course of art forever. Two German alchemists, Jacob Diesbach and Johann Konrad Dippel chemists rushed to create a batch of cochineal red (made from bugs) accidentally used potash contaminated by (the iron in) animal blood that turned the concoction a deep blue – henceforth known as Prussian blue or Berliner Blau, due to its geographic origins and because the Prussian army dyed its soldiers’ jackets with the colour. This new blue pigment was not only affordable but also stable (colourfast) and became an instant sensation. Previously using fast fading vegetable dyes or indigo for blue, Japanese artists found the new pigment revolutionary. Japanese woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai used it to create his iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa, as well as other prints in his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series, in 1830, used the new Prussian blue, in combination with the traditional indigo, to great effect.

Many artists turned to Prussian blue to convey deeper emotions including Pablo Picasso whose work between 1901 and 1904 called his “Blue Period“ that Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art specialist Allegra Bettini adds ‘cast[s] a melancholy shade on his works.’ Prussian Blue revolutionized an art industry starved of a stable blue pigment to rival the prohibitively expensive ultramarine. The world’s first synthetic pigment was thus born. The exhibition features works across a range of media, including, painting, sculpture, video, and installation art. For example, the Cyanotypes experiments Interplay #139 by Parul Gupta, or Sea-wind of the Night 1 a painting by Anju Dodiya on fabric which draws on the Japanese woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa or the majestic painting by N S Harsha, Andhar Bahaar of an astronaut looming in deep space or Mithu Sen’s Tritanopia (blindness of Blue) that contains no blue to name a few, allow us to contemplate a deeper understanding of colour and its significance.

15th September, 2023 Visual Art | Paintings