The striking monumentality of NS Harsha’s promethean of an artwork, Andhar Bahar (2023), is hard to miss when one visits Kiran Nadar Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Prussian Blue. In the artist’s characterful employment of black and blue colours, we are presented with a transcendental image of an astronaut floating in the vastness of a canvas that is marked by bold brush strokes. The spectacle is otherworldly enough to be felt in equal parts as the gnawing of anxious hands lost in the limbo of space, and the sedate, repetitive calmness of thick impasto that cocoons the floating figure. For Harsha, however, it is not a moment of trepidation. By deliberately inverting space and space, he invites the viewer to look inward, tracing an astral and subatomic journey of thought and action that runs parallel to the infinitude of our universe. His richly painted blue cosmos lures and awes the viewer with an ease that can only be Kantian in its sublimity; that is to say, there is a boundlessness that enriches our imagination to comprehend, ironically, the incomprehensible.1 Blue, for Harsha, becomes not just the medium, but to tweak Marshall McLuhan, the very message.
Why has the colour blue had such a profound impact on artists?
Experiencing Andhar Bahar is not only sensorial, but rather definitive when we look at the painting as a larger metaphor for show; that Prussian blue has been ‘a serendipitous colour that altered the trajectory of art,’ to quote its larger title (amusingly, it is also rather difficult to consciously ignore the show’s message, given the dramatic blue lighting that greets the visitor in every corner of the gallery). Harsha’s cosmic world is blue, for it starkly presents a pigmented reality that has revolutionised art and art making. Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala’s informative curatorial essay is quick to note the explosive impact of a colour which essentially resulted from a mistake – when German alchemists Jacob Diesbach and Johann Konrad Dippel used contaminated potash to make cochineal red, resulting in the creation of a deep hue of blue – and brings into view a survey of nineteen contemporary artists that have engaged, uniquely and dramatically, with the affordable and stable pigment. It is a testament to its inexpensive and reliable nature that Prussian blue profoundly affected artists from around the world: whether they may be from the Edo period in Japan like Hokusai (a slightly underwhelming Anju Dodiya that responds to Hokusai’s imagery, Sea-wind of the Night (2023) also features in the exhibition), or modern abstractionists like Wassily Kandinsky.2 Here is a whistle-stop tour of the exhibition.
Prussian Blue’s display begins with suspending us in a cogitative mood, where the expansiveness of Harsha’s disquietude is met with a sobering absorption of dots, dashes, and marks as we look towards Waqas Khan’s practice. Khan’s series of works transport us to a sea of tranquillity where blue truly stands out as the warmest colour, his canvases being meditative as well as dramatic, engulfing the viewer in a mesmerising shade of blue that hypnotically rivets us to the floor. The pigment crests like a majestic wave over our senses, while his miniscule entanglements with a rapidograph ink pen articulate what Paul Cezanne described best as ‘little sensations,’ uniquely shaping a larger perspective by minute interventions and a bit-by-bit regard to our surroundings.3I couldn’t help but imagine Khan enjoying an intimate conversation with the canvas, marking the surface in an order that looms over the infinite of the cosmos. There is an otherworldly rigour which translates into a special, calligraphic language when we begin tracing each dot and dash. Most explicitly, it reminded me of Neerja Kothari’s investigations with the absurd, where her process fragments a line to its smallest bit, ‘marking’ larger existential questions as she emphasises on the seemingly futile yet wholly important attempt to quantify the unquantifiable.
Waqas Khan’s transcendental cartography finds anchoring points of fixity when we turn our attention to Desmond Lazaro’s large body of works that further an introspective understanding of Prussian blue. Examining the alchemical tradition of associating pigments with heavenly bodies, Lazaro reinvents the miniature idiom to chart out astrophysics and cosmology as sciences that validate physical phenomena with imagery. Through a series of drawings and paintings that subconsciously reach out to Hilma af Klint, the artist meditates on questions that seek to understand our humane and human connection with the stars. Lazaro is playful in interpreting what the eye sees by visualising abstract maths and traditional physics together and guides his divine enquiry with multiple hues of blue. In its immensely mystical association, Prussian blue becomes the key for Lazaro’s map of (be)longings.
The reflective soon transforms into the technical: the show introduces formal associations that artists have had with Prussian blue, marking a subtle yet important change from the spiritual to the literal. Astha Butail’s two-part installation, In the Self of Mind (2023), explores the contentious relationship of the mind and the Self. By placing 189 frames on the ceiling – frames threaded in seven different shades of Prussian blue – that reflect their image onto mirrors kept on the floor, Butail creates an allegory of the mind literally peering into examining the Self, as the viewer bends over the mirrors to catch the reflection of all the frames. It is an abstraction of thought, an almost Sisyphian endeavour where we seek to control what, and how much, we know about ourselves. An infinitude is visible in the mirrors where different shades of blue allude to a myriad of moods. Alke Reeh’s Sewed Ceiling (2023) meticulously articulates pigmented textiles in folds, bundles, and threaded geometric forms that open itself to the viewer as a flower in bloom, or here, an inverted dome. Reeh’s formal enquiry with the potentialities of space – of understanding an inside/outside binary – grounds his artwork in geometric structures of thought and architecture. The dome for the artist becomes that vessel of pigmented imagination which pays tribute to the boundlessness of the natural world (the oceans, the cosmos) and the spiritual world (Zeus, Jupiter, Krishna, Prophet Muhammad). One is not far in remembering the splendid Timurid-styled Mosques that are adorned with blue tiles. Reeh’s Ceiling is our modern-day muqarna, the vaulted honeycomb structure that became archetypal of Islamic architecture, presenting itself as a hypnotic gateway to infinite grace and divinity, looking up to the stars.
Such formal considerations with material and technique further resonate with Parul Gupta and Sumakshi Singh’s visual practice; the former, in mediating the exposure of UV lighting over the chemical application of Prussian blue, seeks to experience multiple opacities and layerings of the same colour, while the latter plays with light as a subject as well as medium, utilising an environment which is not only visualised on the cyanotype prints but that which is an active participant in their making. The interventions are taut and academic, yet innovative and considered, opening up three-dimensional possibilities for a two-dimensional print.
That such formal considerations with the pigment invigorated art making in South Asia seemed only logical; the extent to which it indelibly transformed the artist’s perception of the pigment, however, became something very few could foresee. The exhibition stands at its remarkable best when we are made aware of practices that have reinterpreted and re-examined the very meaning of the colour. Prussian blue is no longer simply (arguably) the first modern and entirely synthetic pigment, but a tender feeling that evokes nostalgia, warmth – even loss. I was pleasantly impressed with Subodh Gupta’s series of paintings My Village (2023); his expressive oil paintings being a fresh breath of air from his usual sculptural pieces involving utensils. The painterly manner in which the artist plays with the colour blue, challenging its static nature as a mere pigment and washing the canvas in a deluge of violent strokes becomes playfully mystic. His utensils are filled to the brim with nostalgia: a bucket of water to bathe with, a kettle to drink tea from, and yet, their contorted bodies tell a different tale of violent desires, of struggles, of a contrasting reality of consumption of poverty, of excess and lacking. In a similar vein, Shambhavi’s painterly and sculptural installation Bhurukuwaa (Bhor ka Dularaa) (2014-2023) raises her eyes to the stars; charting a rural topography that rises and goes to sleep under a Prussian blue sky, her sculptural pieces repurpose farming implements while her paintings present a sedate, meditative view of the starry sky. Her artistic intervention does account for volatility – in one of her sculptures, what seems like a murmuration of birds, upon close examination reveals itself as a clawed-out attack of sickles; in another instance, one of her paintings carry a faint impression of a thumb, a signatorial nod to land deeds and mortgage papers that leave millions of farmers in the clutches of despair and death.
This nostalgic violence is profoundly implicated in Vivan Sundaram’s painting The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: Tilted View (Death in Kasauli) (1976) where his formalist hand veers towards an experimental abstraction: there is a haunt-ology of Prussian blue, which faintly portrays his mother, a snowed-in mountain house, and a ghostly spectre of loss that is remarked by an atmosphere of gestural brushstrokes. Such a spectral loss is made soul-stirring in Atul Dodiya’s series of paintings; Untitled (2023), a mournful remembrance of his recently deceased brother, allows Dodiya to embellish on the canvas twelve poignant portraits that are eerily reminiscent of his earliest works – with a startling potential for destabilising our consciousness, these wailing portraits are not simply grieving, but as Ranjit Hoskote writes, they are a reminder of ‘the artist’s fear of darkness and of being deprived of sight; on the other… seized by his rapturous delight in the visible.’4 For Dodiya, it is not with his portraits that we seek to empathise a loss, but what Vinda Karandikar’s poem calls ‘In the deeps of eyes’ where life(lessness) looks back. Such a deprivation of sight is literally manifested in Mithu Sen’s series of works Tritanopia (blindness of Blue) (2023) that seek to challenge an acute understanding of what we take for granted – is the colour blue, blue because we have seen it as blue? By centering on a particular colour-blindness that convolutes the recognition of yellow and blue colours, Sen creates paradoxical assertions with images that are devoid of blue, deviating from an objective reality which we have become all-too comfortable with. It is certainly more conceptual than perceptual, and with her characteristic un-ness of rejection and removal, the viewer is not only forced to not omit, but try finding the colour blue.
The most razor-sharp responses however came from artists whose visuality responded to Prussian blue’s composition of cyanide anions to remark on toxicity and decay; the pigment not only evoking a sense of warmth and compassion but in commensurate value standing out dangerously like a red (blue) flag. Ranbir Kaleka’s single channel video How far…? (2023) sets about a brooding, eerily realistic and near-dystopian atmosphere, complete with the sounds of wailing widows and lamenting mothers. It is a sensorial performance of reckoning with decay and death that has resulted from conflicts, feuds, poverty, and the climate crisis. Kaleka’s visuality is awash with a sobering, sombre shade of blue that is transcendental of the human experience – much like that of Picasso’s Blue Period. This war of attrition that we play with nature, testing its resilience takes centrality in Prajakta Potnis’ installation Attrition (2020) and lightbox Capsule 2 (2023). The lightbox simulates a constructed landscape shot in a temperature-controlled environment of a refrigerator, visualising a deserted terrain in a hostile environment. Potnis’ presentation evokes the tension that our public and private spaces inhabit when issues of ecology and sustainability are at the fore. It is with Attrition that her challenge to (im)permanence gains significant insight – for the installation, every few seconds several water droplets fall on a laundry soap, disintegrating it over a period of time and leaving in its wake a residue of chemical odour and detergent. It is a clinical flotsam, constantly in conflict with artificial intervention representing a tipping point of no return, where the blue is nothing but the coldness of an impending, hostile world: what happens when the detergent completely washes away?
Sheba Chhachi’s grandiloquent installation Ajab Karkhana (Strange Manufactory) (2023), and Anita Dube’s series of installations Thinking through Prussian Blue (2023) stand informatively impressive: these are series of works that repurpose everyday objects that employ Prussian blue (UV lamps and embroidered textile, in case of Dube’s works, and laboratory glassware and beakers, for Chhachi) to critically emphasise on their every-day presence in our lives, slowly wrapping their toxic tentacles around our throats. The prussic toxicity that the opioid crisis introduced to the world, and the shadows of societal decay, inform both these artworks and their presentation. It is however with Thukral and Tagra’s immense spectacle of Aftermath (2023), an installation consisting of tarpaulin, spray machines, drawings on paper, and a video documentation, that this evil hydra rears its multiple heads in front of us. By simulating a hazmat-sealed environment, three canisters spray Prussian blue over a series of drawings which starkly depict the despairing livelihoods of farmers who face ruination due to indiscriminate utilisation of chemical pesticides. The cans spray the pigment over forty-minute intervals, symbolising the chilling statistic by Oxfam which states that a farming fatality occurs every forty-minutes in the country. There is irreparable loss, a bold spectacle of scale and medicinal and chemical trauma, and at the centre of all this, the seemingly innocent face of Prussian blue, masquerading over the deathly presence of Prussic acid.
Prussian Blue, as befitting a museum production, remarkably achieves what it sets out to do – that through a discourse of nineteen artists, we find ourselves better suited to understand the multifaceted reality of a synthetic pigment – educatively, sensorially, visually, and keenly enough to even trace the elusive blue pigment ‘smalt’ that Rembrandt used. The museum’s tableau-like presentation provides a canopy for each to stand out on its own, without disengaging with the larger context (or at least, to a large extent. Anju Dodiya and Vivan Sundaram’s placement feel slightly disjointed, which proposes an interesting question in itself: is the show moreover a blockbuster because of the celebrity stardom of these artists?).
Notwithstanding such minute icks, it only feels complete to close this essay by coming to the very beginning of the show – a full circle – where the viewer is made aware of Shilpa Gupta’s 100 Hand drawn Maps of India (2008/2019) and Untitled (Holy water from Mecca, River Ganga, River Jordan and Golden Temple) (2001/2023). The hand-drawn maps are carbon paper impressions of what viewers have realised about the ‘image’ of the nation; it is a terse tug-of-war between informal perceptions and an official identity. These maps, layered over one another, repeatedly ebb and flow into each other, steadying a dissolution where Prussian blue slowly fades into the background, as if cheekily challenging what we know and what we don’t. This is most perfectly realised in the Untitled photographic print, where nondescript photographs of ‘religious’ water bodies are placed alongside each other. They are an undifferentiated mass of universality; their blue, calmly flowing from one corner to another. It is perhaps all too clear to hear their religions call out, ‘you have the whole world to conquer!’; while the stillness of the waters quietly whisper, ‘but first, let us have a cup of tea.’
‘Prussian Blue: A Serendipitous Colour that Altered the Trajectory of Art’ is on view at KNMA, Noida, India, till December 10, 2023.
Title image: Anju Dodiya, Sea-wind of the Night I & II, 2023. Charcoal and watercolour on fabric stretched on padded board.
All images are courtesy of the author.
- Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Macmillan, 1951.
- That the art movement he co-founded with Franz Marc is called Der Blaue Reiter or ‘The Blue Rider’ is not by an arbitrary whim, but because of an intensely spiritual understanding of the pigment that was seen as pure and supernatural (for more, see his 1912 book Concerning the Spiritual in Art).
- Schjeldahl, Peter. “My Struggle With Cezanne,” in The New Yorker, 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/06/28/my-struggle-with-cezanne-peter-schjeldahl
- Hoskote, Ranjit. “Atul Dodiya: The Encyclopaedist’s Desire For The World,” in Atul Dodiya, 15. Vadehra Art Gallery and Prestel, 2014.