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.

A-Maya-zing! The Maya Exhibition in Liverpool

I recently paid a visit to the World Museum in Liverpool to see the exhibition ‘Mayas: Revelation of an endless time.’ I had never visited this museum before and was impressed by what I saw. It looked to be a modern, airy and well-designed museum and not just in the special exhibition areas. The foyer was impressive with a huge skeleton of a Pterodactyl hanging from above!

The World Museum is the only museum in the UK to host this exhibition which is part of the ‘2015 Year of Mexico in the United Kingdom’ and ‘Year of the United Kingdom in Mexico.’ The artefacts have been assembled from the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) in Mexico. A great bonus about this exhibition is one that it is FREE! Which is astonishing when you see the sheer amount of artefacts on display. Another bonus is that you are allowed to take photographs as long as you turn the flash off on the camera that you use. Which is great news for many visitors especially those of us who write blogs!

Head of Pakal Late Classic Period (AD 600-900)
Head of Pakal
Late Classic Period
(AD 600-900)

The exhibition is displayed in a chronological fashion, with a few information panels throughout but what is really clever is that the curators let the incredible artefacts speak for themselves through displaying the smaller ones in a series of glass cabinets and the larger stone sculptures on plinths. I was astounded at the size of the exhibition as when you first walk into the room it appears to be smaller than you think, but it is cleverly laid out so that it is Tardis like and swings round to the right and goes further and further back.

Before I visited the museum, I did not know a lot about the Maya civilisation apart from some general knowledge facts but I learnt so much from the exhibition about the Maya. One of the first things I learnt was that the Maya civilisation lasted a very long time from 3000BC till 1617 (when 90% of the population had been wiped out from disease and slaughter brought by the Spanish Conquisition). Today though, there are more than six million Maya people still living in Maya areas.

Jade Necklace and Bar-Shaped Jade Pendants  Late Classic Period (AD600-900)
Jade Necklace and Bar-Shaped Jade Pendants
Late Classic Period

As stated previously, the exhibition is arranged chronologically into Pre classic (300BC-AD250), Classic (AD250-900) and Post Classic (AD900-AD1550) periods. At the centre of Maya civilisations were huge stone cities with pyramids that contained temples and palaces of the royal courts). These stone cities were the epicentre of Maya culture, a culture that was very advanced and had developed its own calendar and writing system. Maya cities were also very organised civilisations in that they housed administrative, military, religious and arts and crafts centres.

Funerary Mask from Dzibanche Late Classic Period (AD 600-900)
Funerary Mask from Dzibanche
Late Classic Period
(AD 600-900)

The Maya peoples were very in touch with the natural world and this was shown in the exhibition in the animal artefacts displayed. The Maya also grew Maize which they held as a sacred crop and cocoa which they also believed to be very important. They believed that animals were sacred beings who possessed souls. Certain animals such as jaguars, snakes and owls were worshipped as they were believed to be closer to the gods (as some had special abilities such as being able to fly). There even built a temple called the Temple of the Owl in Dzibanche, Quintana Roo, Mexico. In the exhibition there were many artefacts that displayed such beliefs as the one below:

Head of a Pelican  Late Classic Period (AD 600-900)
Head of a Pelican
Late Classic Period (AD 600-900)

The Maya undertook regular religious rituals as they believed that the gods needed to be sated with blood from animals and humans as blood was seen as the ‘life source.’ So sacrifices were essential for the continued survival of gods and the universe.

Before conducting a sacrifice they would firstly partake of a cleansing ceremony where they would not sleep and abstain from relations. After this, the rituals could begin which included: prayers, incense, singing, dancing, feasts of food and drink followed by human or animal sacrifice.

One of the strangest artefacts on display was a blood letting tool that the Mayas used to pierce either their tongue or in the case of men their genitals to drain blood to offer to the gods. Apart from this sharp stick on display they also had clay sculptures of men injuring themselves in this way with a look of pure agony on their faces!

Human Figurines Late Classic Period (AD 600-900)
Human Figurines
Late Classic Period
(AD 600-900)

Another important part of the exhibition is the amount of Jade on display which was truly astonishing! Jade was used by the Maya in jewellery and for adornment on breastplates etc. Both women and men wore jewellery and as well as necklaces, earrings, bracelets, anklets, hair adornments and decorated breastplates they also created funerary masks out of jade and ear plugs. Jade was one of the main materials used for adornment although they did use obsidian, gold, turquoise, silver and other materials depending on the time period. The Maya could certainly be said to like their bling, they could even be said to be one of the first civilisations that invented a type of grill or tooth adornment as they decorated their teeth by drilling holes through the centre of the top teeth and inserted jade, turquoise and iron pyrites through the holes!

Overall, this exhibition was fascinating. I learnt so much about the Maya and since purchasing this fascinating book from the gift shop, plan to keep on learning lots more. If you are near to or able to visit Liverpool this Summer then I would highly recommend you take time out to visit this excellent FREE exhibition which is on till 18th October 2015.

‘Pride’ in History

The most heinous of the seven deadly sins is supposedly that of Pride. It is apparent in the lives of people throughout time. There are many ways in which it presents itself; a General too proud to think that he could be defeated; a king who thought that only God could remove him from office; those who claimed a ship was built so well it was unsinkable…

There are many stories we could tell from history to illustrate the ‘sin’ of pride, but I shall look at a topic which is still a fairly controversial today, that of the Parthenon marbles.

Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum

Why so controversial?

The Parthenon Marbles (also known as the Elgin Marbles) are a collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Greece, which were collected between 1801 and 1805 by Lord Elgin. Elgin himself fully funded the excavation and transportation of these marble sculptures. He planned initially to have them installed into his mansion in Scotland. The British aristocracy had developed a great admiration of the Classical world and many sought to visit the sites of the ancient world and collect artefacts. It was arrogantly believed that the sculptures’ “spiritual” home was that of the modern British Empire, as basis of the Empire was seen to be that of the great classical civilization of Athens.

At Elgin’s expense, the Marbles were put on display at a public exhibition at Old Park Lane, in Piccadilly in London. Was Elgin using this as a showcase, to associate the ancient Athenian Civilisation to the British Empire?

The expeditions to Greece had bankrupted Elgin so in 1816, the Marbles were sold to the British Government and put on display in the British Museum. Ironically, Elgin’s pride would become his downfall.

Parthenon Marble Horse Head

It is true, that Elgin had gained permission to excavate, but this was when Athens was under Ottoman Rule.

When Greece became independent in 1832, there was the idea of the Parthenon as being central to the heritage and of Modern Greek identity. The Greeks started to see the Marbles as rightfully belonging in their homeland of Athens, and this is still a passionate belief by many Greeks today.

It may be argued that, at the time of the excavation, the Marbles were saved from deterioration during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but this argument is not really relevant for today. It was probably the ideas of greatness, inflated by pride, which played a more significant role in the excavation of the Marbles than any thoughts of preservation. Today, despite Greece now having the capability to look after the Marbles, and a purpose-built museum for their reclamation, there has been a solid refusal to return the Marbles.

The story of the acquisition of the Marbles, the pride and passion of Lord Elgin and other aristocrats who acquired ancient artefacts, and the continuing debates of where they should be housed has diverted attention from the true meaning of the works. The Marbles have become a symbol of politically motivated pride and politics, rather than appreciated for their beauty and contribution to the history of art and humanity.

Stranger than Fiction

After a successful London run at The Science Museum, conceptual artist and photographer Joan Fontcuberta’s Stranger than Fiction exhibition moved north to The National Media Museum in Bradford where we visited on a cold and wet December day. I had already researched online and seen some videos and read a bit of background information before going to this exhibition but despite doing this I was still surprised at how much was revealed. I knew that the exhibits we were going to see had been created and were not real though pretended to be so. The National Media Museum is split over several floors and this exhibition was also split up into two galleries (Galleries One and Two) over two floors. We visited in reverse order, seeing Gallery Two before Gallery One. Gallery Two featured two displays, Sirens (2000) and Karelia, Miracles & Co (2002). Unfortunately you could not take photos so the images I provide here are not from the actual exhibition.

Sirens (2000)

Out of the entire exhibition, my favourite area was most certainly Sirens (2000). Sirens was mostly comprised of a series of large photographs of fossils of Hydropithecus alpinus (human skeletons with a fish tail or mermaids). Hydropithecus alpinus (a form of sea cow) was said to be discovered by Father Jean Fontana (a play on the artist’s name) in 1947 in the foothills of the French Alps. These creatures or ‘mer-people’ were presented in the exhibition as verified by anthropo-palaentologists to be a link between the evolution of the sea and land animals. The site where they were found were stated as being a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Fontcuberta had so convincingly portrayed these discoveries, the large photographs were stunning and the way that they appeared to cling quite precariously to the side of eroded cliffs or appear to be discovered on the seabed was very cleverly portrayed and extremely playful. Some of the photos had stories attached to them about their discoveries and the lives that they might have lived Cerro de san vincente was a photo of a Hydropithecus and child and was accompanied by a description saying that they may both have died as a result of childbirth. The photo of The Bes rock shelter with two adult Hydropithecus skeletons had a description from Fontana’s diary stating that these were “…the Bes lovers, petrified and together for all eternity.” This brought to mind the evocative Cave of Swimmers scene in The English Patient where they discovered ancient cave paintings to people swimming in what became a desert. The Beaujeau skeleton was said to feature evidence of bone-making techniques and suggested that the hydropitheque had tools and perhaps had murdered the individual found.

Scientific archaeological techniques were presented as having analysed the age, sex and teeth of the hydropitheque where possible and had discovered that some had dietary deficiencies. The first skeleton discovered was from the Saint Benoit Waterfall preserved in the limestone and discovered due to erosion of the rock. The description accompanying this states that: “This landscape represents prehistoric life in its infancy where our ancestors used natural shelters as frail protection against the raging elements.” The language used here ans in other places of the exhibition was very poetic.

Aside from the huge photos in Sirens, there were two glass cabinets, one had a resin cast of a Font Chaude hydropitheque skeleton which looked remarkably realistic on the way that it was created it brought to mind many fossil casts that I have previously seen in museums and on television. I think this was because instead of creating a tail-fin out of bone he had printed an imprint of the tail on the rock which is just how you would see fossilised fish remains. A glass cabinet of curiosities relating to the finds was used to further anchor the exhibit to reality. In the cabinet amongst other items was a mocked up but very realistic looking and faux aged copy of National Geologic magazine (obviously based on National Geographic) with the seabed hydropitheque remains on the front cover. There were also Fontana’s pencil sketches of the hydropithecus skeletons, his rosary bead and wooden crucifixes. These cabinets of evidence further made the exhibit seem to appear be a real archaeological find or at least make people wonder if it was.

There was something incredibly haunting and poetic about Sirens that really resonated with me I think it was the combination of the huge glossy photos and the attempts to anchor these into a form of reality which was playful and created an inventive story that I really enjoyed. I think that Fontcuberta was trying to play with our idea of photography as representing the complete and utter truth, this is so pervasive in our culture and can be seen in the increasing reliance of photo and video identity to prevent and identify criminals but also in fashion photography where models are routinely airbrushed but we often forget this, hence the rise of depression, self harm and eating disorders in Western society.

The increasing availability of camera technology also increases the extent that people can create their own truth and fiction. The predominance of selfies and image adjusted photos  that people create and then use to represent as pictures of themselves which are not real but are presented as being so online. Therefore, Sirens was ahead of its time in this respect. I think it resonates even more today than it did fourteen years ago.

It seemed liked Fontcuberta was also making a statement about authority in society and that it was a monk who had first discovered this species was perhaps making a statement about religion and that a monk could be perceived as being the authoritative truth as a man of god and that these remains should not therefore be questioned. If he was making a comment on this then it was interesting that Sirens led into the next exhibition which had much to say about religion.

Karelia Miracles & Co (2002)

Wooden Cross in Demark

 Karelia Miracles & Co (2002) was a investigation by Fontane who went undercover as a novice monk to expose the fraudulent miracles that were said to be performed at a monastery. Karelia (an area between Finland and Russia) was said to be the location of the interdenominational Valhamonde Monastery where monks learned to perform miracles. Fontane was dressed as an Eastern Orthodox Priest though the exhibition seemed to be commenting on this and Catholic religion.

A video displaying short films of Fontane performing miracles was very comedic, my favourite clip was of him smoking in front of a tomb with an effigy of a man on top and when he inhaled the cigarette the smoke exhaled from the effigy! There was also a clip of him performing a speech which could not be heard or translated but was orated at a plinth very expressively with his hands bringing to mind dictators speeches and the accompanying subtitles at the end said although we couldn’t translate what was said it was a very important speech (or words to that effect). Again, in a different way this part of the exhibition was playful, with Fontacuberta making commentary on what he saw as  the fraudulence of religion and its beliefs and perhaps people who steadfastly stick to these and take everything that is presented to them as the gospel of truth without question. He looked at the absurdity of this belief through pencil sketches of the Karelian Tarot of Sound Advice which displayed cards such as: 1. Avoid at all costs being decapitated and 4. Do not take part in the fratricidal disputes of trolls. He then presented a selection of photos of ‘miracles’ most performed by Munkki Juhani (the undercover monk) which began with a photo of him teaching a group of Laponian meerkats to read and getting more and more bizarre and absurd including such miracles as The miracle of the flesh where an image of Che Guevara (confused with Jesus Christ) appears in a leg of Iberian ham. Apparently, “…depending on the sort of acorns the pig was fed this can also reveal the face of Adolf Hitler and, even more rarely, Osama Bin Laden…”

Other photos displayed showed the monk in a block of solid ice The miracle of cryonisation, or on fire on a boat in The Miracle of will ow the wisp and even walking on water and dolphin surfing! Two glass cabinets of other items from the investigation were displayed on top of aged stone tables that looked very catherdral-esque. One cabinet contained items such as a Mirror (Juhaney Grey) with a description beside it stating: ”…curiously it is an ordinary mirror that reflects what you put in front.” The other cabinet contained small photos from the investigation of journalist Joan Fontuberta from: Demystifiers without borders which is obviously a play on doctors without borders. The interesting objects in the second cabinet were relics consisting of what looked like small bird bones and a ring and also in a small box what was stated as being carcasses of Insects and arachnids from the third plague of Egypt.

This part of the exhibition was playful and the most comedic part of Stranger than Fiction I feel that it gave the idea of being able to discover who Fontcuberta is in terms of his sense of humour and felt like the most revealing part of the exhibition in that sense.

Fauna (1987)

Gallery One exhibited other parts of the Fontcuberta exhibition. The first exhibition was Fauna (1987) which I have to admit I myself and my accompanying visitor had strong reactions to. This part of the exhibition was completely different to what I was expecting. I was expecting to see lots of images of photo-shopped animals or creatures like a kind of photo bestiary. There were photos and descriptions of the animals, however there was also quite a lot of taxidermy of bits of different creatures stuck together! The visitor I went to the exhibition with had to leave the room as they instantly felt nauseous and I must admit I couldn’t spend as long as I had planned to in this part of the exhibition as I too started to feel ill. I do wonder if this was part of the intention of Fontcuberta for people to have a strong reaction to Fauna as no other visitors seemed to linger in this part of the exhibition and hurried through. My instant reaction was revulsion and disgust and it was incredibly grotesque. The parts I did manage to make notes of were that the narrative of Fauna which was that it was all the work of Professor of Tetraology (abnormal development in animals) Peter Ameisenhaufen (1895-1955) who catalogued and investigated all of these strange creatures but who disappeared mysteriously in the Scottish Highlands in 1955. I did wonder if Fontcuberta was making a commentary on this by inventing a sort of punishment for this Professor, was it that the same or a different strange animal(s) came for him in the lonely wilds of Scotland in revenge? He made it sound very ominous as to how and why this man had disappeared and does make you think how did this created narrative for this man actually end? Thank goodness the rest of the exhibition reverted back to photography again!

Herbarium (1984)

Aster Tataricus

Herbarium (1984) was the first set of photos you encounter and is comprised of a number of black and white botanical looking photos each said to represent a specimen of exotic plants. In actual fact the photos are comprised of a series of objects put together to represent a flower such as a rubber hose and pieces of plastic. These images were described as being influenced by the work of Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932) a botanical photographer who specialised in detailed clos-ups of plants. I found this part of the exhibition fairly interesting as I love botanical illustrations. Again, Fontcuberta was displaying his playful and inventive nature here by trying to disguise the flowers as being real and not invented. You could not tell if the plant was real or not in a number of the photos which showed how successful his endeavour was in challenging the nature of truth.

Orogenesis (2002)

Orogenesis (2002) was a beautiful series of computer generated mountain-scapes that were created by using a program called Terragen which was originally created for geographers and surveyors that created maps of three dimensional landscapes. This series of mountain images were beautiful and were split into colour images and black and white ones. They did bring to mind Lord of the Rings landscapes with their powerful rocky mountains and sheer valleys which looked even more stark in black and white. Some of the images used paintings as their inspiration such as Orogenesis: Turner which was a stunning photo of what looked like a Bronte-esque Wuthering Heights moor-like terrain except it was covered in a dusting of bright red heather instead of purple heather and was inspired by William Turner’s The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons (1835). Fontcuberta also used paintings by Gainsborough and Cezanne to influence the images created in Orogenesis.

Constellations (1993)

Constellations (1993), was the last part of the exhibition and consisted of several photos that were starkly black with white dots on said to represent the night sky. Several of the images though did look like bird deposits on a car windscreen! After reading about this exhibition I found out that Fontcuberta actually did use his car windscreen to create these images with dust, deceased insects and other debris, some of which may have been bird-related to create these images. I am not sure how well these images did actually represent the night sky but it was an interesting experiment nonetheless.


In summary, I would say that the Stranger than Fiction exhibition was a mixed bag. I really enjoyed the Sirens exhibit which I thought was inventive in its narrative and beautiful in the imagery created. The Karelia Miracles & Co exhibit was also playful and very satirical take on authority and religion. Both of these exhibits I would happily go to see again. I also thought that Orogenesis was beautiful and creative and would go to see this again. Constellations and Herbarium were less interesting to me personally but I wouldn’t mind going to see these again if I was going to another exhibition. Fauna however, though it was a creative narrative and I liked the story behind it, especially the mysterious disappearance of the Professor, I was repulsed by the grotesque taxidermy and feel it went too far as the narrative could have been retained through photo-shopped images instead. I do know that this exhibition has been acclaimed internationally and this is just my personal reaction and is no reflection on the artist or his work. I felt that by including the taxidermy this may have  possibly been the deliberate intention of the artist to create strong reactions amongst visitors. Overall I would go to visit Stranger than Fiction again and especially recommend Sirens, Karelia Miracles & Co and Orogenesis.

Sherlock Holmes and Scotland Yard

It may be well known for anyone who has read  the Sherlock Holmes stories that he is no fan of Scotland Yard. Indeed, he viewed their methods as quite basic, and saw himself as necessary to solve the case. However, after the Sherlock Holmes novels, Scotland Yard was seen as having a more prestigious form of policeman the more modern ‘detective’, which was a much more specialised role. Although, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories may not have been entirely responsible for the change in attitude towards the Scotland Yard (The infamous unsolved Jack the Ripper case being another around this time), it certainly helped to fuel the public perception and fascination with modern crime, and crime fiction.

The late nineteenth century brought about great changes in the nature of policing, and Sherlock, in a sense captured this. For a start detection of crime, rather than prevention was seen to be an increasingly important part of policing. The idea of the policeman as the ‘bobby on the beat’, the main role of which was that of patrolling the streets, was challenged at this time by the much more sophisticated detective. One of the ways in which the detectives would distinguish themselves was by the use of advanced technologies and techniques at this time, one such being the Bertillon system for identifying criminals. The Bertillon system was originally created in France by Alphonse Bertillon (whom Holmes thought highly of). The system used different measurements taken from people that were seen to be constant such as length of the left foot. Sherlock becomes a master of using emerging technologies, and even surpasses the police and their application of them.

The mention of the typewriter, fingerprint and footprint detection were really revolutionary. By showing how modern technology and forensics are used to solve crime, Doyle presents in Holmes a man of science. A man for the modern age of modern policing, by which logic and science is seen as progress and the vision for the modern emerging 20th century.

Holmes, despite his initial contempt for Scotland Yard, is ironically a product of his time insomuch as he is seen as embracing the modern idea of detective work, albeit with new techniques and seemingly showing the way of progress in crime fighting. Indeed, Holmes’ use of techniques such as fingerprint identification pre-date the use by Scotland Yard themselves!

 French Poster Demonstrating the different measurements the Bertillon System uses:



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