Tucked away on either side of Beinecke’s lobby are two glass cases with ostensibly unrelated 19th and 20th century books, literary manuscripts, sheet music, photographs, regalia and industrial manuals. The exhibits from afar looked like a tumultuous sea, and I felt like the rather shipwrecked observer.
Exploring the cultural history of the color blue, the spring exhibition “Blue,” in the Beinecke library attempts to bind a diverse collection of exhibits in a single hue.
The exhibit includes an interesting experiment to evaluate the relationship of fugitive pigments to light exposure. Such cyanotype photographs fade when exposed to light, and through this ‘color monitoring,’ the curators of Blue hope to understand more fully the process of color regeneration. The cyanotypes include photographs of Alaska, Washington, Wisconsin and California, the 1901 Paris World’s Fair, American utopian communities and western railroads. Photographs by Anne Brigman, Irene Hood, Charles Flectcher Lummis and Peter Newell were on display.
But the pieces on display in Blue will intrigue even those with little to no interest in the scientific nature of the color. Prominently featured in glass casing is Langston Hughes’s blue enamel cigarette case, along with a hand-colored 19th century family photograph. These artifacts, while interesting on their own, made it even more difficult to decipher the exhibit’s overall theme, as they seemed to lack a common thread. I oscillated between feeling like the shipwrecked observer and an investigator of a colorful Sherlock crime scene.
The exhibit began to take on some semblance of a direction with a section called, “Poetry of a Blue Mood.” There, poems evoking the sadness often associated with the color came to the fore. One conspicuous piece of white paper flaunted the blue emotion: “If you saw my eyes today, the flowing tears would melt your heart, I’d never again be gay, I’m so blue I’m blue black, since my dear love went away.”
The section further developed this theme with a display Sigmund Freud’s Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. In the spirit of uncovering the blueness of the human psyche, the book was turned to the chapter, ‘Mourning and melancholia,’ pushing me to mull over the snow and my rumbling 3 p.m. stomach.
A more obvious interpretation of blue is found in illustrations of insects and butterflies from prints from E.A. Seguy’s Volumes of Insects and Butterflies, 1920s. This section showcased unexpected motifs in hues of electric blue, such as ostrich feathers and caterpillar wings. A combination of extravagance and elegance, these illustrations managed successfully to leave me lost in thoughts about the royal shade. The flamboyant display of blue, too, was a welcoming relief after a tour through “Mourning and melancholia.”
“Blue Beyond The Blues” showcased the musical genre of the blues and depicted the transformation of the association of the blues from traditional African-American folk music to experimental jazz, popular folk music and unconventional rock and roll. Ethel Waters, “Queen of the Blues,” a popular performer celebrated for her “indigo tones,” was featured prominently, with her photos, sheet music, printed ephemera, clippings and autobiography, “His Eye on the Sparrow.” Despite regressing back to a non-literal interpretation of the color blue, the larger themes of this section remain accessible to viewers.
The exhibit, on the whole, does not describe any one unifying theme that explains the concept of the color blue. Instead, Blue gives space to the observers to invest themselves in the work and create connections that would not have been perceived had blue not been the basis of categorization. Walking through the exhibit was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster ride, at once delightful and melancholic. I might not have walked out more knowledgeable about the truths behind the color blue, but I certainly felt tangled up in blue, tripping over its interminable threads (or maybe I was just slipping in the snow).