MAY 2006 – NO. 6
The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost.
In the 15th century, European painters began to paint the blue of distance. Earlier artists had not been much concerned with the faraway in their art. Sometimes a solid wall of gold backed up the saints and patrons; sometimes the space curved around as though the earth were indeed a sphere but we were on its inside. Painters became more concerned with verisimilitude, with a rendition of the world as it appeared to the human eye, and in those days when the art of perspective was just arriving, they seized upon the blue of distance as another means of giving depth and dimension to their work.
Often the band of blue toward the horizon seems exaggerated: it extends too far forward, it is too abrupt a change in color, it is too blue, as though as they were exulting in the phenomenon by overdoing it. Below the sky, above the putative subject of the painting, in the spaces before the horizon, they would paint a small blue world — blue sheep, blue shepherd, blue houses, blue hills, blue road, blue cart.
You see it again and again, the blue expanse that begins at the level of Christ crucified in Solario's 1503 painting; that extends beyond the ruins before which a beautiful Virgin admires her sleeping son, laid in a robe of brighter blue, in a painting from the studio of Raphael; see it in Niccolo Dell'Abate's painting of 1571 showing a blue town and blue sky behind a classical grouping of what looks like Graces incongruously, nonchalantly pulling Moses from some rushes in a lush river whose color seems to comes from the background, like leaching dye. It's there in both Italian and northern paintings. In Hans Memling's triptych of the Resurrection circa 1490, the toes and robe hem of a levitating figure are ascending out of the frame, daringly cropped like a figure in a photograph though there are no photographs of miracles. Below, a group of brown-haired figures looks upwards, their hands raised in prayer and astonishment. Just above their heads is the near shore of a lake. The lake is blue and beyond it are blue hills, as though there were three realms: the heaven whose sunset colors the floating figure is entering, the many-colored earth below, and the faraway blue realm that is neither, not part of this Christian duality. The effect is even more pronounced in Joachim Patenier's famous painting of Saint Jerome in the wilderness, made about 30 years later. Jerome crouches in a ragged-roofed hovel before a pile of deep gray rocks, and behind him much of the world is blue, blue river, blue rocks, blue hills, as though he were in exile not from civilization, but from this particular celestial shade. However, like one of the figures in Memling's painting, Jerome is clad in a soft blue, as are so many Virgin Marys, as though they were clad in the faraway, as though some part of this ambiguous faraway had moved forward.
In his 1474 portrait of Ginevra de'Benici, Leonardo painted just a narrow band of blue trees and blue horizon at the back, behind the brownish trees that frame the pale stern woman whose bodice laces up with a lace the same blue, but he loved atmospheric effects. He wrote that when painting buildings, "to make one appear more distant than another, you should represent the air as rather dense. Therefore make the first building … of its own color; the next most distant make less outlined a more blue; that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more with blue." The painters seemed to have become smitten with the blue of distance, and when you look at these paintings you can imagine a world where you could walk through an expanse of green grass, brown trees trunks, of whitewashed houses, and then at some point arrive in the blue country: grass, tress, houses become blue, and perhaps if you look down at yourself, you too would be blue as the Hindu god Krishna.
This world was realized in the cyanotypes, or blue photographs, of the 19th century — cyan means blue, though I always though the term referred to the cyanide with which the prints were made. Cyanotypes were cheap and easy to make, and so some amateurs chose to work in cyanotype altogether. Some professional photographers used the medium to make preliminary prints, treated so that they would fade and vanish in a few weeks' time: these vanishing prints were made as samples from which to order permanent images in other tones. In the cyanotypes you arrive in this world where darkness and light are blue and white, where bridges and people and apples are blue as lakes, as though everything were seen through the melancholy atmosphere that here is cyanide. The color persisted in postcards through the middle of the 20th century: I own some of blue palaces and blue glaciers, blue monuments and blue train stations.
There is an album of oval photographs made sometime in the late 19th century by a man named Henry Bosse. All the pictures are of the upper Mississippi River, and they are all cyanotype blue. At first they seem to portray an enchanted realm, the river once upon a time, but Bosse was working with the engineers who were strangling and straightening the river, turning it from a meandering wild thing with islands and eddies and marshy edges into something narrower and faster-flowing, a dredged, banked stream for the rapid flow of commerce. They made wing dams — outcroppings that trapped sediment and erased the natural edges of the river, dredged it and locked it — but Bosse's pictures are more beautiful than documentation and engineering require, each one a cameo of blue, blue all the way to the foreground of blue railroad yards and blue bridges under construction. But in this world we actually live in, distance ceases to be distance and to be blue when we arrive in it. The far becomes the near and they are not the same place.
Reprinted from A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit © Rebecca Solnit. Published by arrangement with the Penguin Group.
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