Good Art is … Blue Alchemy

There are sublime sensory stories told in cobalt blue and indigo by generations of Asian and European artists and artisans. The NGV has curated these story threads from their collection into a small exhibition where contemplation rather than awe is allowed.


Tampan Ceremonial Cloth Sumatra – the boat motif represents the journey through life

Extraction of plant indigo for dye is an ancient human art dating back to at least 2000 BCE and has also linked east to west through the weft and warp of millennia of trade and social exchange. Blue has also been (I suspect) embedded culturally and psychologically in most of us.

While my catholic schoolgirl brain goes straight to the religious symbolism of the lapis lazuli mantle of a Renaissance Madonna, the essay for the Blue exhibition by Carol Cains and Matthew Martin reminds me that Vishnu is blue, as are his avatars or incarnations. In China blue is associated with a compass direction (east), a season (spring), an element (wood) and a constellation (green dragon), and the colour generally signifies the natural world, springtime, youth and immortality.


Javanese batik cloth – the calligraphic Arabic writing is often artistic only as textile artisans would have been illiterate in producing Arabic text

I was particularly interested in the various cloths from Indonesia and Timor-Leste. These examples show the varied techniques of dying and cloth weaving found throughout the archipelago. Because direct dying with indigo is difficult – resist dying of thread for weaving (Ikat) or wax resist on cloth to allow contrasting patterns on the dyed cloth (batik) are two of the common methods seen and still in use in Indonesia and its neighbouring islands.


Sumba – woven Ikat cloth – the confronting paired animals is derived from European influences


In Indonesia the cloth and its production can have great societal meaning. In Sumba the traditional dyeing techniques were part of occult knowledge known as moro (blueness) and were only possessed by a few female specialists. The indigo-dyed ulos sibolang, woven near Lake Toba in North Sumatra, is probably one of the oldest Batak textile styles.


Two of the exquisite pieces on display show the complete artistry and use of this simple dye. The Japanese Summer Kimono has the most superb display of botanically precise flowers while the Burmese jacket from the Dong people shows the ultimate technique in spinning blue into coppery brown through an intensive process of calendaring where the dyed cloth is sized and then beaten with a wooden mallet or polished with a stone or shell



The exquisite use of cobalt in ceramics is also on display. From its early emergence in China in the Tang Dynasty (618–907) to its mimicry in Europe in earthenware once the blue and white porcelain of the Ming Dynasty in particular travelled to Europe in the 16th Century.

The transition of the beautiful white and blue pottery through Delft ware and other ceramics until porcelain techniques were learned in Europe provide another fascinating journey in technical and artistic transfer from East to West.


8 thoughts on “Good Art is … Blue Alchemy

    • I went back and found a little bit more about the kimono – it was made sometime in the late 19th/early 20th century so it would be from about the time of your cloth. The resist method used was glutinous rice that was applied through a nozzle like putting icing on a cake before dyeing. There are 10 different flowers on the kimono. So beautiful – I would wear it around the house all day. Thanks for coming by Caitlin – hope it is getting warmer there for you now.


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