Questions in a World of Blue pt.1

Bat020 asked:

In answering this question, I want to contextualise the political aesthetics of blue, so to speak. This won’t even touch anything like a fully-considered genealogy of the aesthetic usage of blue, but constitutes what I would consider to be a paradigmatic ‘sampling’.

Nu bleu, Souvenir de Biskra, Henri Matisse, 1907 The early years of the Twentieth Century saw the rise of die Brücke and the Fauves, movements in Germany and France which have been labelled ‘Expressionist’ by art historians. Although distinct they both made strong use of colour and primitivist forms in a painterly and flattened style, rejecting classical realist representation as well as the tendency of Impressionists to continue modelling realist representations in a merely pointillized or diffuse form, adapting the techniques of divisionism. In 1907 the Fauvist leader Henri Matisse painted his controversial Blue Nude which served as a valediction to the intense but short-lived era of Fauvism before turning to Protocubism and the shattered forms of four-dimensional perspective.

In Germany, however, on the heels of these developments rode der Blauer Reiter, a group of artists who, like die Brücke, are classed as Expressionist. In 1909 in Munich a society called the New Artists’ Alliance (Neue Künstlervereinigung) was formed by a number of artists including Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Münter, Kubin and Marc. These were to be the principle contributors to the Blauer Reiter exhibitions. Initially Kandinsky had sought to lead the New Artist Alliance in a spiritual direction emphasising the expression of inner realities and desires, but meeting with resistance from other members, Kandinsky and Marc splintered from the alliance to form a new group explicitly committed to the shared vision of art as spiritual thoroughfare. Der Turm der blauen Pferde, Franz Marc, 1913The ‘rider’ motif in the name ‘Blue Rider’ had much to do with Kandinsky’s attraction to the figure of the medieval knight. One might imagine such a knight thundering forth across Marc’s ‘bridge to the spiritual world’; however it is the hue of the rider which intrigues us here, and Marc’s own 1913 work The Tower of Blue Horses holds the same intrigue.

From a purely formalist perspective one may say that the creation of a blue figure–especially any figure not usually so coloured when found in nature–in painting is already (somewhat) of a departure from the conventions of classical figural painting in that blue is considered to be a ground colour, in contrast to red which is clearly a figure colour. The naturalistic convention of reserving blue for backgrounds derives both from the evolved processes of depth perception in the human ocular system itself, which account for and reads the bluer, ‘cooler’ and more ‘faded’ visual scenery as being further away, and the real atmospheric effects of an Earth-bound environment, in which Rayleigh scattering tends to cause the naked daytime sky to be blue in colour. Objects within the naturalistic conventions of depicting pictorial depth (or illusory space) which are intended to be seen as closer to the picture plane are therefore typically not only sharper in definition and delineation but markedly less blue. Any accumulation of blue tends to recede from the picture plane, seeking the hindmost location to appear as a background, be it as a line of hills, a daytime sky or its reflection, the sea. For a figure to be a blue figure was, and to some extent still is, against this context of convention, immediately an invocation of the uncanny (the umheimliche, the ‘not-at-home’ or other-worldy), since the proximity of its form in the composition of pictorial depth is in a relationship of tension with its colour. The sensitive, aesthetic eye is confronted with a paradoxical torsion or ‘short-circuit’ in the very figure-ground opposition (which normally distributes depth and proximity to the elements of a composition). Image of a blue rose downloaded from a wallpaper siteJust as the diminution of angels and fairies in the classical pictorial arts functioned to short-circuit the process of perspective and foreshortening to create a distanciation of proximate forms in an uncanny effect (and thereby allegorising the presence of ‘the spiritual’), so too does the ‘enblueing’ of foreground figures, which can be found in expressionism, surrealism and avant-garde movements of the early 20th century function to de-familiarise their forms, and within the space, hiatus or pause of this distanciation, signify transcendence and unnaturalness.

In the period between the inception and the demise of German Romanticism, the colour blue held also special significance for German artists, poets and writers. The Blue Flower, for example (Blaue Blume) represented both inspiration and sehnsucht, a deep yearning for the transcendent and inaccessible. The paradigmatic case of this use of the blue flower imagery occurs in Henry of Ofterdingen by Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) (1772-1801)1.

Towards the end of his short life, Novalis […] turned towards the novel, which the early German Romantics conceived as the poetic genre that could encompass all the other genres. He wrote two ‘prose romances’, Die Lehrlinge zu Sais (The Disciples at Sais) and Heinrich von Ofterdingen, both of which remained unfinished at his death. Like Ludwig Tieck’s Franz Sternbald’s Wanderings, Heinrich von Ofterdingen is the story of an artist, in this case the historical ‘minnesinger’ or courtly poet who was active in the twelfth or thirteenth century. Novalis imagines the Middle Ages as a period of unity prior to the divisions inaugurated by the ‘age of reason’. The story of Heinrich’s quest for artistic and personal fulfilment is also an allegory of Novalis’ own spiritual life. Heinrich von Ofterdingen has been described as the representative novel of early German Romanticism, and in the image of the ‘blue flower’ it provided this movement with one of its enduring motifs. Heinrich’s quest to locate the blue flower which he sees in a dream typifies the Romantic condition of yearning (Sehnsucht) for an unobtainable ideal. The idea of a secret symbolism of flowers is also to be found in the work of Philipp Otto Runge […]. The unfinished novel, which was largely composed in 1799, was first published by Friedrich Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck in the first volume of their edition of Novalis’ Schriften (Berlin, 1802). The following excerpt, which forms the opening section of the book, is taken from the anonymous translation, Henry of Ofterdingen: A Romance, Cambridge: John Owen, 1842, pp. 23-6.

The parents had already retired to rest; the old clock ticked monotonously from the wall; the windows rattled with the whistling wind, and the chamber was dimly lighted by the flickering glimmer of the moon. The young man lay restless on his bed, thinking of the stranger and his talcs. ‘It is not the treasures,’ said he to himself, ‘that have awakened in me such unutterable longings. Far from me is all avarice; but I long to behold the blue flower. It is constantly in my mind, and I can think and compose of nothing else. I have never been in such a mood. It seems as if I had hitherto been dreaming, or slumbering into another world; for in the world, in which hitherto I have lived, who would trouble himself about a flower? I never have heard of such a strange passion for a flower here. I wonder, too, whence the stranger comes? None of our people have ever seen his like; still I know not why I should be so fascinated by his conversation. Others have listened to it, but none are moved by it as I am. Would that I could explain my feelings in words! I am often full of rapture, and it is only when the blue flower is out of my mind, that this deep, heart-felt longing overwhelms me. But no one can comprehend this but myself. I might think myself mad, were not my perception and reasonings so clear; and this state of mind appears to have brought with it superior knowledge on all subjects. I have heard, that in ancient times beasts, and trees, and rocks conversed with men. As I gaze upon them, they appear every moment about to speak to me; and I can almost tell by their looks what they would say. There must yet be many words unknown to me. If I knew more, I could comprehend better. Formerly I loved to dance, now I think rather to the music.’

The young man gradually lost himself in his sweet fancies, and fell asleep. Then he dreamed of regions far distant, and unknown to him. He crossed the sea with wonderful case; saw many strange monsters; lived with all sorts of men, now in war, now in wild tumult, and now in peaceful cottages. Then he fell into captivity and degrading want. His feelings had never been so excited. His life was an unending tissue of the brightest colors. Then came death, a return again to life; he loved, loved intensely, and was separated from the object of his passion. At length towards the break of day his soul became calmer, and the images his fancy formed grew clearer, and more lasting. He dreamed that he was walking alone in a dark forest, where the light broke only at intervals through the green net-work of the trees. He soon came to a passage through some rocks, which led to the top of a neighboring hill, and to ascend which he was obliged to scramble over the mossy stones, which some stream in former times had torn down. The higher he climbed, the more was the forest lit up, until at last he came to a small meadow situated on the declivity of the mountain. Behind the meadow rose a lofty cliff, at whose foot an opening was visible, which seemed to be the beginning of a path hewn in the rock. The path guided him gently along, and ended in a wide expanse, from which at a distance a clear light shone towards him. On entering this expanse, he beheld a mighty beam of light, which, like the stream from a fountain, rose to the overhanging clouds, and spread out into innumerable sparks, which gathered themselves below into a great basin. The beam shone like burnished gold; not the least noise was audible; a holy silence reigned around the splendid spectacle. He approached the basin, which trembled and undulated with ever-varying colors. The sides of the cave were coated with the golden liquid, which was cool to the touch, and which cast from the walls a weak, blue light. He dipped his hand in the basin and bedewed his lips. He felt as if a spiritual breath had pierced through him, and he was sensibly strengthened and refreshed. A resistless desire to bathe himself made him undress and step into the basin. Then a cloud tinged with the glow of evening appeared to surround him; feelings as from Heaven flowed into his soul; thoughts innumerable and full of rapture strove to mingle together within him; new imaginings, such as never before had struck his fancy, arose before him, which, flowing into each other, became visible beings about him. Each wave of the lovely element pressed to him like a soft bosom. The flood seemed like a solution of the elements of beauty, which constantly became embodied in the forms of charming maidens around him. Intoxicated with rapture, yet conscious of every impression, he swam gently down the glittering stream. A sweeter slumber now overcame him. He dreamed of many strange events, and a new vision appeared to him. He dreamed that he was sitting on the soft turf by the margin of a fountain, whose waters flowed into the air, and seemed to vanish in it. Dark blue rocks with various colored veins rose in the distance. The daylight around him was milder and clearer than usual; the sky was of a sombre blue, and free from clouds. But what most attracted his notice, was a tall, light-blue flower, which stood nearest the fountain, and touched it with its broad, glossy leaves. Around it grew numberless flowers of varied hue, filling the air with the richest perfume. But he saw the blue flower alone, and gazed long upon it with inexpressible tenderness. He at length was about to approach it, when it began to move, and change its form. The leaves increased their beauty, adorning the growing stem. The flower bended towards him, and revealed among its leaves a blue, outspread collar, within which hovered a tender face. His delightful astonishment was increasing with this singular change, when suddenly his mother’s voice awoke him, and he found himself in his parents’ room, already gilded by the morning sun. He was too happy to be angry at the sudden disturbance of his sleep. He bade his mother a kind good morning, and returned her hearty embrace.

From here to some of its appearances today there has clearly a fascinating journey in the appearance of the blue flower. Consider some of the most recent uses:

  • the blue flower used in Batman Begins as a token of Wayne’s resolve and commitment–and later as the source of a panic-inducing hallucinogen in Ra’s al Ghul’s plot to purge Gotham;
  • the substance ‘D’ in the 2006 adaptation of Phillip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly;
  • the blue rose as the one element of FBI Agent Chester ‘Chet’ Desmond’s surrealistically ‘coded’ briefing which he refused to speak about in David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me and as that element the search for which resulted in his disappearance;

Today, no longer does the blue flower stand simply for that pining for ‘full’ or integrated presence or a metaphysical fusion with a beatific ‘nature’ which author and theologian C.S.Lewis wrote about. Between its Romantic use as a literary and artistic trope and today’s use perhaps it endured only as the blue rosette, in largely ceremonial and completely disregarded contexts. No doubt there has been some cross-fertilisation in the modern usage with the Ancient Greek mythology of the lotus-eaters, and we should recall that a particularly iconic species of the lotus, Nymphaea caerulea, produces some intensely blue specimens that were perhaps well known to the Greeks in antiquity. Such a knowledge might have cemented in Western history an association of blue flowers with that sickness of the human soul known as acedia, in an ambiguous pharmacological relationship wherein the full depth of human sadness contemplating its own alienation is only ever detained, confined, and ultimately magnified by some medicinal Nepenthe, resulting in a state of apathy that yearns for more of itself, for the freedom of a complete arataxia. The desire to arrest all excitations, passions and disturbances (and thus rid oneself of the passivity of the soul) becomes itself a new and distorted all-governing passion, resulting only in an exacerbated passivity alerted to the minutest excitations, condemned to an ever-gnawing sense of its own sensitivity. The psychology of narcotic addiction here finds its moral precedent. Irrespective of this speculative continuity, already by 1934 Hergé would, in one of his characteristic fits of Orientalism, transplant the blue lotus (a North African species) into a Chinese setting for his Tintin story Le Lotus bleu. In this way he melded various orientalist motifs–opium dens, poison-tipped darts, shadowy cabals–to produce what can be regarded as an early but paradigmatic example of the toxicological mystique that characterises the appearance of the Blue Flower in modern literature and cinema.

In its recent cinematic manifestations the Blue Flower has become the symbol of a radical evil, a dark spirituality and sinister shadow-play. When it arises as a thematic in today’s literature and cinema the Romantic vision of the blue flower is a warped, creepy and most likely psychotic vision, the vision of a hyper-reactionary villain, a serial killer morbidly obsessed with the ‘beautiful’ death of high school girls or with the mass extermination of ‘degenerate’ populations in the pursuit of some underlying aesthetic, order or rhythm. What to make of this transformation of the Blue Flower, having gone from being a motif of inspiration and spirituality for the Romantic movement, through the revocation of meaning in mere adornment and dusty regalia, to undergoing today an inverted resurrection of meaning as contaminant and propagator of mass ‘hysteria’, madness and death?

Already in 1925 Walter Benjamin wrote on the intransitive historicity of the theme of the Blaue Blume, its having passed beyond the horizon of any stable significance: “[n]o one really dreams any longer of the Blue Flower. Whoever awakes as Heinrich von Ofterdingen today must have overslept.” Benjamin witnessed here the inaccessibility of the very reference to what had been already inaccessible. Dragging any rigidity of designation along with it, the ‘good’ Blue Flower of the Romantics disappeared into an absolutely external night, an oblivion, beyond the reach even of dreams. The meaning of Novalis’ Blue Flower–an aristocratic yearning for the integration of the human being into the ‘natural world’, in conversation with animals, plants and stone–has been foreclosed. When the Blaue Blume appears now, in an age that is not only beginning to understood its own historicity but is also beginning–through the natural sciences–to witness the very ‘unnaturalness’ of nature itself in its contingency, chaos, under-determination and non-unification, the bloom is a rootless perigone–an empty husk, a pure image–and can stand only for a dangerous falsity, if not a sickening toxicity, of any vision of harmonious integration and order.

There are several interesting discussions to be had about the aesthetic uses of the colour blue, its role within European Romanticism, and the wider place of romantic and aesthetic philosophies in relation to the art, texts and debates between idealism and materialism which were to follow its demise. It is also worth considering the political resurrection of certain romantic themes and aspirations in modern conservatism, which will help in turning to the question which sparked this discussion, which can be adumbrated: can blue be dissociated from its conventional and contextual European aesthetic, and to what extent has the American attempt to do so succeeded? Rather than preserving the radical impetus at the heart of the democratic project, which has lost its way in an ongoing crisis of representation, has the use of blue in the United States not tended to intoxicate the figure of the American Left, condemning it to an over-spiritualised, psychologised evanescence, effectively conceding any claim to historical revolutionary legacy to Republican hands? What can we learn from this, and what can it tell us about supine ‘blue Labour’ and disingenuous ‘red Tory’ parliamentary politics in today’s UK?

In the next instalment: Färbt die blaue Blume rot!–The Politics of Blue and Red in Europe and the US


[1] The following excerpt is taken from Harrison, Wood and Gaiger, Art In Theory 1648-1815, VIB13, pp.976-8

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