Winter Blues

Blue is all around us: it is the colour of the sky and the sea. But the colour blue appears throughout history as more than just a physiological phenomenon of light; it is a symbol, a state of being and thinking – a vehicle through which to express the depths of human emotion. 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ruminations on the psychological nature of colour and its link to emotion in Theory of Colours was one of the earliest philosophical texts on the subject. He wrote of blue:

‘As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it.

This color has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful — but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose…

…we love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.

Blue gives us an impression of cold, and thus, again, reminds us of shade. We have before spoken of its affinity with black.’
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours, 1810, p. 310-11)

Nineteenth century writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau contemplated the colour blue in his writings, which moved between a documentation of the world and his ruminations on the abstract and metaphysical. He wrote in his journal on the 25 May 1851: 

‘We love to see any part of the earth tinged with blue, cerulean, the color of the sky, the celestial color.’
(Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, 1837–1861, 2009, p. 109)

Similarly, in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, her reflection on the unknown, Rebecca Solnit writes about ‘the blue of distance’ and its connection to desire: 

‘The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue…

The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go…

The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel.’
(Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2005, p. 29, 39)

In Bluets, Maggie Nelson writes a meditation on the colour blue; a love letter to the colour, which stands in for heartbreak and grief. In 240 ‘propositions’, which pose more questions than provide answers, Nelson offers a poetic reflection on art, philosophy, literature and emotion. She writes: 

‘And so I fell in love with a colour—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.’
(Maggie Nelson, Bluets, 2009, p. 1)

‘Having the blues’ is commonly understood to refer to feelings of sadness, melancholy, longing, misery, loss or depression. Artists, writers and musicians have long been fascinated with capturing the blues, through paint, poetry, prose and song. And it is through these mediums that the expression has entered common usage.

This usage of the term ‘blues’ is understood to have come into common use in the eighteenth century, although the use of the word ‘blue’ in the context of sadness can be traced to the late 1300s, and was first recorded in Chaucer’s Complaint of Mars (c. 1385): ‘Wyth teres blewe and with a wounded herte’, which translates to ‘With tears blue and with a wounded heart’. Writer Washington Irving is credited with having first used the term ‘the blues’ in 1807, in his periodical Salmagundi, as a synonym for melancholy: ‘He conducted his harangue with a sigh, and I saw he was still under the influence of a whole legion of the blues.’ His usage was a shortening of the phrase ‘the blue devils’, a phrase which may have been derived from Britain in the 1600s, when the term referred to the comedown that accompanied alcohol withdrawal. The American playwright Tennessee Williams, who suffered from drug and alcohol dependency, referred to his periods of low spirits and depression as his ‘blue devils’. 

The genre of blues music was originated by African Americans in the United States of America at the end of the nineteenth century. Blues music grew out of racial discrimination and slavery in America and often took a narrative form, expressing struggles, misery and oppression. Ma Rainey, known as the ‘Mother of the Blues’, was one of the earliest and most popular singers of the blues in the 1920s. She sang:

‘If I could break these chains : and let my worried heart go free
Well it’s too late now : the blues have made a slave of me’
(Ma Rainey, Slave to the Blues, 1925)

In her famous song Lady sings the blues, Billie Holiday croons: 

‘She’s got them bad
She feels so sad
Wants the world to know
Just what the blues is all about...
The blues ain’t nothing but a pain in your heart’

(Billie Holiday, Lady sings the blues, 1956)

Likewise, in Blue Joni Mitchell sings of heartbreak and loss:

Songs are like tattoos
You know I’ve been to sea before
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away
Hey Blue
And there is a song for you

Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin
An empty space to fill in
Well there’re so many sinking
Now you’ve got to keep thinking
You can make it thru these waves
Acid, booze, and ass
Needles, guns, and grass
Lots of laughs
Lots of laughs
Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go well
I don’t think so, but I’m
Gonna take a look around it though Blue
I love you
Here is a shell for you
Inside you’ll hear a sigh
A foggy lullaby
There is your song from me’

(Joni Mitchell, Blue, 1970)

Pablo Picasso’s first significant body of work is known as his Blue Period. Characterised by cold sombre colours – melancholy blues, greys and sickly greens – and gloomy subject matter – beggars, prostitutes and alcoholics – these paintings were inspired by his experience of poverty and tragedy, and the suicide of his close friend, painter Carlos Casagemas. Picasso later explained his use of blue to communicate his pain and depression: ‘Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions’.

Blue has fascinated and entranced artists for centuries. Henri Matisse was quoted as saying that ‘a certain blue penetrates your soul’, and Wassily Kandinsky expressed that ‘the power of profound meaning is found in blue.’ In this spirit, Winter Blues brings together paintings by a group of artists who are drawn to the expressiveness of the colour blue, in an aesthetically and emotionally blue exhibition. 

As the days get shorter and the temperature drops, many of us are prone to a phenomenon called Seasonal Affective Disorder (the aptly anagrammed SAD), also known as the winter blues. The approach of winter inspired this investigation into the colour blue and its relationship to ‘the blues’. As a result, Winter Blues is an exhibition exploring the emotional depths of the colour blue. 

– Laura Couttie, 2018

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