Japan Exhibition at WYPW

It’s no secret that I have a passion for Japan and Japanese culture. I am lucky in that nearby to me, there is an excellent art facility called the West Yorkshire Print Workshop (WYPW). They run courses throughout the various aspects of printmaking and also have gallery space where they show different exhibitions throughout the year. This summer they have an exhibition on Japan. So I absolutely had to go and see this and I was so glad that I did. (I apologise for the quality of some of the images).

The artists responded to the theme in various different ways. Some of the artwork produced was going back into the traditional legends, myths and fables as seen in this wonderful print above.

Some of the artwork was pared back, beautifully simple but arresting all the same. The colours evoked a feeling of peace and serenity. Japan has an affinity and respect for the natural world this is tied in with Shintoism and could be seen in the response that some artists chose to represent this natural world with prints of water, trees and animals.

It is hard to choose a favourite print but if I had to it would be the one of the lone businessman with the briefcase walking through a Tokyo street. I loved how in just one simple scene, this evokes exactly the background scene of Japan that is often portrayed in the Japanese fiction that I’ve read. Here we see an essence of busyness and modernity presented by the figure of the businessman with the suitcase which is then juxtaposed within the setting of the street itself with the traditional older shops and older lighting. It is a fusion of the old and the new that incapsulates perfectly what I imagine represents Japan.

Another part of the exhibition displayed a series of tenugui which are thin cotton Japanese hand towels. They also serve a variety of other functions and are used as headbands, decorations or as souvenirs and this is because they are also extremely decorative. Tenugui in particular are a great symbol of the importance of the design aesthetic in Japan, in that what we might take for granted as a plain tea towel to dry dishes with, they see as having a multipurpose function. The tenugui also highlights the importance in Japanese design of something functional that is also aesthetically pleasing.

Overall, this was a very interesting exhibition and it’s only on until September, so if you’re in the area, I would recommend that you visit. Details can be found at WYPW website.

Violet – A Rich History

Violet is an interesting colour that takes on many different meanings depending on the time and place. The western world associates the colour with Royalty and privilege. Also, in China, the colour violet is seen as the colour of harmony within the universe, as it is a mix of the yin and yang colours of blue and red. In any case it is a vibrant striking colour that has very important meanings throughout the world.

Violet as a Royal Colour

Perhaps one of the greatest associations with violet, comes from that of royalty. The image of a kings crown, with its purple fabric may come to mind. Indeed, many pieces of Jewellery and Watches use a purple inlay, to indicate a luxurious product, but where does this association come from?

Purple was once fairly commonplace, in fact it was the first colour that people used! This can be seen from cave paintings that employ the readily available manganese metal. The use of purple continued amongst many people, however at the beginnings of the Roman Empire there was a law created that banned the wearing of the colour purple for everyone except the Emperor. It was this that created the idea of violet being a colour of exclusivity. This continued to be used in purple velvets often worn by European Kings and Queens.

Violet is also one of the deepest and most impactful colours, especially when combined with its complementary yellows and oranges, this was used to great effect by the 19th century painter Vincent van Gogh.

Painting of the Imperial State Crown of Queen Victoria
Painting of the Imperial State Crown of Queen Victoria

Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom

Vincent Van Gogh’s famous paintings The Starry Night and Vincent’s bedroom in Arles are examples whereby the colour Violet is used to compliment the rich yellow tones in the picture. The latter painting’s violet wall colour is much more noticeable now it has been restored, as mentioned in the mainstream media.

Vincent van Gogh - The Starry Night
Vincent van Gogh – The Starry Night, 1889
Vincent van Gogh – Vincent’s bedroom in Arles, 1889

The colour violet is one that has many different meanings whether it be a symbol of extravagance or an colour to give a bold, dramatic impact to a painting. In any case it is not easily forgotten. Please comment if you know of any other associations with the colour violet that you have.

The Power of Blue: A History

The colour blue has many connotations. This can be that of  blue-sky, as in the phrase of “blue-sky thinking,” meaning a visionary. It can also refer to someone who is “feeling blue”, meaning a person who is experiencing sadness, which is  linked to “the blues” style of music. Also, the pigment of blue has a rich and fascinating history, and is used in many great works of art.

Originally, the only source of blue pigment came from the lapis lazuli mineral which was found from only a specific area of Afghanistan. As a result it was a highly expensive colour that was preserved for only the most wealthy and extravagant pieces of art work. One of the most recognisable uses of lapis lazuli comes from the funeral mask of Tutankhamun. With its striking blue and gold lines, the symbolism of a majestic, powerful ruler is not lost. It is perhaps one of the images that comes to mind when one thinks of ancient Egypt.

A lesser known use of lapis lazuli comes from this Mughal Empire (who ruled over India) sculpture of an elephant, which is quite a vivid piece, and is actually one of the rare surviving examples of Mughal art. It shows how resilient the bright blue colour from lapis lazuli is as it remains unfaded for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Lapis Lazuli Elephant Sculpture

There was also a great demand for the use of lapis lazuli in paintings. The pigment ultramarine comes from lapis lazuli. This was quite extensively used in the renaissance period. Two paintings that really make great examples of the use of it come from the artist Johannes Vermeer.

The first is Girl with a Pearl Earring. The headscarf that the woman is wearing gives a brilliant contrast to the brown clothing worn elsewhere. The second is The Milkmaid which shows a maid pouring a jug of milk, with a blue fabric wrapped around her as well as a blue cloth on the table, which is useful for directing the focus of the viewer.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer


The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer
The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

Both of these paintings use blue to great effect and enhance the impact of the image. Blue is employed to create a memorable lasting impression in the viewers mind, especially as it is contrasted with the other drab colours. You can find the girl with the pearl earring on display at the Mauritshuis museum. Whereas The Milkmaid is found in Rijksmuseum, both of which are located in the Netherlands.

The use of lapis lazuli as a pigment waned later on in time as there were cheaper synthetic productions of blue. These were made from combining the minerals jasper with chalcedony, which created a much more ready supply of the blue pigment.

The colour blue is often employed in a bold way, whether that be a vivid use in painting,sculpture or even in a more abstract sense describing emotions, in any case it leaves a lasting impression. Let us know if you have any examples of the way in which blue is used throughout history in the comments below.

“Yellow” in History

Yellow is a bit of an paradox. On the one hand, it is often seen as the colour of warmth, the colour that is most associated with the sun. It is a colour of the leaves changing with the seasons, a colour of autumn. The other side is a colour of danger, with warning signs often employing the use of it. It is also associated with negative traits such as with the slang term “yellow-bellied” meaning coward. With all these different associations it may be interesting to look at cases in history where it has been used.

Yellow for good: Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh

It may be taken for granted nowadays with an extensive array of colours available for even the amateur artist. However, it was not always the case, with many colours being unavailable or a lot more expensive. It was thanks to chemists of the 19th century that discovered the colour Chromium Yellow, as well as other newer pigments that gave new creative possibilities for the artist. Chromium Yellow, was a key colour in the painting of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Sunflowers. The painting shows a great use of the colour and gives the picture quite a striking warm feel to it. The sunflowers appear to have a warm glow to them that evokes in the viewer a great impression of the flowers. In a perhaps unlikely pairing it appears the new technology of the time gave new tools for artistic expression and made this painting, amongst others, possible.

Van Gogh created quite a few different paintings of sunflowers, one of the most famous (shown below) can be seen in the National Gallery in London.

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888
Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers, 1888

Yellow for bad: “Yellow” Fever

Yellow is also seen in a bad way. This is especially true in the case of “Yellow” Fever. A virus with a survival rate of only 50%! Thankfully, now, there is a vaccination that people can have, but it was not always so.The prevalence of Yellow Fever comes from the time where there was an emerging contact of European people with indigenous people in tropical places of the Americas. It was mainly European who experienced the lethal effects of the disease as indigenous people had a natural resistance to this disease, and would only experience relatively minor symptoms of it. It was a considerable problem for many settlements and outbreaks would happen for several years, a notable example being the outbreaks in Buenos Aires in Argentina. Outbreaks being in 1852, 1858, 1870 and 1871.
Often the problem of the disease worsened over time; as the area became more developed the disease often became more prolific as de-forestation would impact the environment by reducing the natural predators of the disease-harbouring mosquitos.
It would not be until 1937, when Max Theiler would develop a vaccination for yellow fever which would prevent the disease from being caught by many people.

Juan Manuel Blanes. Episode of Yellow Fever, 1871

Final Thoughts

Yellow has both good and bad connotations in history. It would be interesting to hear what you most associate the colour yellow with. If you know of any historical associations with yellow, please let us know in the comments below.