Japan, Summer kimono, Yukata, detail, Meiji period (1868–1912), Japan; cotton, natural indigo; painted resist dyeing (tsutsugaki yuzen). Purchased with funds donated by the Hon. Michael Watt QC and Cecilie Hall, 2013 (2013.696).

MELBOURNE.- Blue: Alchemy of a Colour explores the meaning and history of the colour blue through highly detailed textiles, ceramics, and exquisite works on paper from the 7th century to the present in a new exhibition at NGV International

One of the most highly prized and sought-after of the colour spectrum, its rarity and the laborious process often used to extract and create the colour, secured its place in some of the finest works of art. Its incorporation was laiden with meaning – from signifying prestige in the Chinese court, to symbolising the infinity of the Hindu god Vishnu – blue in all its guises, from Prussian to cobalt and indigo it has long been a powerful hue in art. 

For the exhibition the walls, ceiling and floors of the Rio Tinto Gallery of Asian Art have been painted in three shades of blue, and display more than 70 works selected from the holdings of private lenders and the NGV Collection. Works highlighting the beauty of the colour include Japanese indigo dyed garments, a lustrous indigo Burmese jacket, an eighteenth century English cotton bodice, detailed Japanese woodblock prints and exquisite examples of cobalt blue and white Chinese and European ceramics. 

Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV, said, ‘Blue explores one of the most beguiling colours in art history. Drawing on some of the finest works from the NGV’s Asian Art Collection the exhibition will trace the trade of the colour blue within Asia and across the world, and delve into the exchange of motifs and designs on these intricately detailed ceramics, works on paper and textiles’. 

Both globally and historically, the two most important blue pigments, cobalt blue and indigo, and their origins are investigated in the exhibition: 

• Indigo blue, sourced from plant species found across the world, is used as a textile dye and paint pigment. Intricately patterned and expertly crafted indigo textiles from Egypt, Japan, China, Central Asia, India, Indonesia and Italy are on display. 

• The mineral cobalt, which has historically significant sources in Persia, Saxony and China, is crushed into a blue pigment used in ceramic decoration. Cobalt has been influenced by various cultural exchanges, which have resulted in blue and white wares coveted across the globe. 

• Prussian blue, synthesised in 1724, was one of the first artificially made blue pigments. The dark blue was widely used in Japanese woodblock prints from the 1820s, to replace the paler hues of dayflower blue. A woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige, one of the first Japanese artists to use Prussian Blue in a landscape series, will be displayed in the exhibition. 

• Ultramarine blue is derived from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, and is consequently very expensive, but prized for its vivid colour and general stability. Several paintings in the exhibition depict the Hindu god Vishnu, the god of preservation, and his avatars Krishna and Rama as sky blue figures in this blue. Like the sky or the sea, Vishnu is believed to be infinite. 

One notable piece in the exhibition is a blue and white Delft jar from the Netherlands, which not only exemplifies the exchange of ideas through trade, but also the interchange of cultural and artistic practices across continents in the 17th century.The large jar is European in design but incorporates a decorative blue and white Chinese motif and landscape scene. Inspired by a Japanese copy of a Chinese vase the earthenware vase was glazed in white to evoke the look of porcelain, then decorated in the highly coveted cobalt blue. 

Intriguingly, the now famous blue and white Chinese porcelain was first popular in Persia in the 12th century, and Persia’s cobalt blue pigment was used by Chinese potters making the wares for export. The blue and white palette became popular in China by the 14th century and an early example of blue and white Chinese imperial porcelain is included in the exhibition. 

Indigo dye is used across Asia where it is commonly grown and many examples are displayed in the exhibition. The Dong people of Burma beat indigo dyed cotton to impart a lustrous finish which signifies wealth and in Central Asia, the age and marital status of Turkmen women indicated the colour of their embroidered mantles, with indigo blue the appropriate colour for young, married women. 

Blue: Alchemy of a Colour showcases the richness of the NGV collection through one of the world’s most intriguing colours. From ultramarine, one of the most expensive blue pigments, derived from a semi-precious stone, to Prussian blue, which was an accidental discovery, Blue showcases the history and formation of the colour through 13 centuries of artwork, textiles and decorative arts. 

Blue: Alchemy of a Colour is on display at NGV International from 6 November 2015 to 20 March 2016. Open 10am-5pm daily. Free entry.


Persian, Tile, 13th century –14th century, Kashan, Iran; earthenware, underglaze cobalt blue, lustre glaze. Felton Bequest, 1906 (601-D2)

Tiles in the shape of stars and hexagons were manufactured in large quantities to decorate interior and exterior surfaces of religious and secular buildings throughout Persia. This example, made during the Il Khanid period, is decorated with metallic lustre glaze. Lustre ware originated in ninth-century Iraq, and spread to Europe via Egypt, Iran and Spain. The fact that the tile’s floral decoration and calligraphy recall both Persian textiles and luxury manuscripts suggests that common visual sources were employed by artisans working in different media. The calligraphic border reflects the importance of script in Islamic art, whether used as ornament, as talisman or to communicate the word of God.


Chinese, Dish, Ming dynasty, early 15th century, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. China; porcelain, underglaze cobalt blue Felton Bequest, 1946 (558-D4)

Ming blue-and-white porcelain of the first half of the fifteenth century shows a perfect balance between ornamental design – here a scrolling floral meander and wave border – and the space it occupies. The uneven, slightly blurred character of the underglaze cobalt decoration is caused by tiny bubbles in the thick glaze that distort the outlines. Wares of this type were avidly sought in the Islamic world; such Ming porcelains inspired the design of ceramics produced at Iznik in Ottoman Anatolia.


Chinese, Dish, Qing dynasty, mid 18th century–late 19th century, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China; porcelain, underglaze cobalt blue (bleu de Hue ware) Gift of Zorica McCarthy, 2010 (2010.350)

From the middle of the eighteenth to the end of the nineteenth century, the Vietnamese court and aristocracy commissioned Chinese porcelain wares decorated in Vietnamese designs in underglaze cobalt blue. This style of Chinese porcelain is known as bleu de Hue and was produced in varying qualities. This example of bleu de Hue ware was probably produced in the late eighteenth century at the secondary porcelain workshops in Jiangxi province. The motif of a scholar at his desk is typical of the subjects taken from Sino-Vietnamese literature, history and geography adorning bleu de Hue wares.


Persian, Dish, Seljuk dynasty, late 11th century-early 12th century, Iran; earthenware (Lakabi ware). Felton Bequest, 1950 (994-D4)

The term lakabi, or laqabi, from the Persian word la’ābī (enamel), is a type of ware produced in Egypt, Syria and Iran on which the decoration is partly incised, the lines of the pattern preventing the coloured glazes, incuding a cobalt blue, from running into each other. Mainly large plates or dishes survive, and this example depicts an enthroned sovereign or dancer accompanied by two musicians and two animals. It reveals Iranian and Chinese influences, particularly in the long-sleeved robe worn by the main figure – a style also seen in Tang dynasty Chinese ceramic figures of Central Asian dancers.


Vietnamese, Dish, 15th century–16th century, northern Vietnam; stoneware, underglaze cobalt blue. Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of The Thomas William Lasham Fund, Governor, 1998 (1998.241).

The earliest kiln-fired, glazed Vietnamese ceramics were produced in North Vietnam around the first century BCE. Vietnam was subject to Chinese rule in the north until 938 and the ceramic traditions of China have greatly influenced Vietnamese ceramics, particularly in the production of cobalt blue underglaze stonewares, as seen in this example. This type of ware, decorated with locally mined cobalt, was traded throughout Southeast Asia in large numbers. 


Turkish, Plate, late 16th century, Iznik, Turkey; earthenware (Iznik ware). Purchased, 1968 (1532-D5)

The fifteenth to seventeenth centuries were the heyday of ceramic production at Iznik in North Western Turkey, the chief production centre for ceramic vessels and tiles in the Ottoman Empire. The rise of the Iznik ceramic industry was stimulated by court taste for imported blue-andwhite Chinese porcelains; imitations of these vessels in an earthenware body decorated with cobalt oxide blue sourced from Iran represent the earliest phase of Iznik production. The blue-and-white palette was eventually enriched by turquoise blue, purple, a range of greens and a characteristic tomato red. The stylised wave and rock border of this plate derives from Ming ceramic decoration.


Chinese, Tripod dish, 700–750 CE, China; earthenware (Sancai ware).  Gift of H. W. Kent, 1938 (3689-D3).

This Tang dynasty (618–907) three-footed offering plate or dish is decorated with sancai (three-colour) lead glazes. The term actually covers a palette that could include more than three colours, and in this example cobalt oxide blue glaze, a mineral pigment introduced into Chinese ceramics at this time, has been added to the standard three colours of brown, cream and green. Cobalt would later be used in blue-and-white underglaze decoration, beginning in the Yuan dynasty. The cobalt blue was probably imported from sources in Iran, reflecting the cosmoplitanism of Tang period China.


Italy, Florence (manufacturer); Giunta di TUGIO (workshop of, Pharmacy jar from Santa Maria Nuova, c. 1430, earthenware (maiolica). Felton Bequest, 1936 (3649-D3).

The Italian maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware) industry developed in response to the popularity of ceramics imported from Spain, where a rich ceramic tradition originally developed under Islamic rule. The decoration of this handled jar produced for the pharmacy of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence shows the continuing influence of the Hispano-Moresque pottery tradition. The underglaze blue decoration of oak leaves and rampant hound is executed in cobalt oxide most likely obtained from North Africa or the Eastern Mediterranean, where it would have arrived via overland trade routes from Iran.



Chinese, Pouring bowl, Yi 匜, 14th century, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China; porcelain, underglaze cobalt blue.  Felton Bequest, 1962 (429-D5)

The earliest Chinese blue-and-white porcelains known are temple vases inscribed 1351. These display a competence indicating that the underglaze-painting technique was well established by that time, probably originating in the second quarter of the fourteenth century. Cobalt ore (named Huihui qing, 回回青, ‘Islamic blue’) was imported from Iran and ground into a pigment which was painted directly onto the porcelain body. The piece was then glazed and fired. Blue-and-white wares such as this pouring bowl appealed to the Mongol Yuan rulers and were used in temples and occasionally in burials within China. Large quantities were exported to Western Asia.


Chinese, Plum blossom vase, Ming Dynasty, Hongzhi period (c. 1500), Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China; porcelain, underglaze cobalt blue Gift of J. T. Hackett, 1924 (2600–D3)

This vase from the mid Ming period, with Chinese-sourced cobalt underglaze blue-and-white decoration, is a classic early Ming form (meiping, or plum vase). A tendency to conservatism in the Chinese ceramic industries frequently saw earlier styles reproduced in later reigns. Financial difficulties had led the Hongzhi Emperor to order the cessation of offical production of porcelain at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen. This vase is a rare example of the sporadic production from this reign. The figure of a robed scholar with attendant in a cloud-wrapped landscape encircling the body of the vase is a composition which found great favour among Western copyists.


The Netherlands, Delft (manufacturer), Jar, 1660–80; earthenware, underglaze cobalt blue. Felton Bequest, 1939 (4550-D3)

The decoration of this blue-and-white delftware jar is inspired by mid-seventeenth century Chinese porcelain. A rolling landscape inhabited by robed figures is broken on either side by rocky crags, with areas left white to represent mist. The decoration is not, however, a direct copy of a Chinese original; the Dutch artist has absorbed the Chinese style and produced an original, European composition. The relationship between the Dutch ceramic and any Asian prototype is further complicated by the fact that many of these Dutch earthenware imitations of Chinese-style blue-and-white porcelain are not based directly on Chinese models, but on Japanese copies of Chinese porcelains.


Japanese, Jar, Tsubo 壺, 18th century, Japan; porcelain, underglaze cobalt blue (Imari ware). Felton Bequest, 1968 (1537-D5).

Porcelain was first produced in Japan in the early seventeenth century at kilns in the vicinity of Arita on Kyushu island. Underglaze blue wares such as this jar were made initially, the decorations of which combined elements of various Chinese wares previously imported to Japan. Japanese blue-and-white wares soon developed a distinctive style characterised by freely painted forms, graded ink washes and open spaces in the composition. They were exported to Europe in large numbers from 1657, following the collapse of the Ming dynasty and the disruption to the production of porcelain at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen.


Korean, Dragon jar, Joseon dynasty, 18th century, Korea; porcelain, underglaze cobalt blue.  Purchased, NGV Foundation, NGV Supporters of Asian Art and the Lillian Ernestine Lobb Bequest, 2007 (2007.540).

Porcelain jars decorated with dragons painted in cobalt blue were popular in Korea from the seventeenth to nineteenth century. Many were used as flower vases in official court ceremonies. Korea only had access to inferior cobalt sources and was forced to import the mineral from China, making it very costly. It has been suggested that this contributed to the very spare use of cobalt blue decoration typical of Joseon dynasty porcelain.



Chinese, Formal court robe, Chaofu or Chaopao, mid 19th century, China; silk, fur, silk and metallic thread, gilt; slit tapestry weave (kesi). Bequest of Dr G.E. Morrison, 1921 (2037-D3)

In China the word qing is used to denote green, blue, black and shades in between these colours. As one of the five basic colours used to visualise world order (red, white, blue/green, yellow and black), blue is associated with a compass direction (east), a season (spring), an element (wood) and a constellation (green dragon), and is associated in general with plants, springtime, youth and immortality. The emperor wore a blue court garment at annual ceremonies associated with the heavens and crops, and indigo blue was the most common ground colour of Manchu clothing during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). 


Worcester porcelain , Worcester (manufacturer, English, c. 1751–1862), Plate, c. 1770; porcelain (soft-paste), underglaze cobalt blue Felton Bequest, 1938 (3800D-D3).

The dragon motif adorning this English plate derives from a Chinese original intended for the domestic market, where the dragon was an imperial emblem. This pattern was produced over a surprisingly long period at the Worcester factory, and versions were also produced at a number of other English factories. Executed in cobalt blue imported from Saxony, the high degree of stylisation of the dragon suggests that the painter is no longer able to distinguish individual elements of the design: the eyes seem confused with nostrils and the cloud motifs in the background have morphed into strange earlike appendages.


Chinese, Tea bowl, Qing dynasty, Daoguang period (1821–1850), Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China; porcelain, underglaze cobalt blue Bequest of Dr G. E. Morrison, 1921 (2051-D3).

The five-clawed dragon was a motif associated with the Chinese emperor. By the Qing dynasty, robes embroidered with the five-clawed dragon became an important part of the emperor’s regalia. Because of its auspicious associations, the dragon frequently appeared on objects intended for use at the imperial court. By the sixteenth century, dragons were freely used as motifs on objects intended for public consumption, provided the dragon had only four claws – the five-clawed version was reserved for court use. The dragons on the exterior of this tea bowl sport with a flaming pearl, a Buddhist emblem of wisdom.


De Grieksche A Pottery (Adriaen Kocx)  – The Greek A Pottery , Delft (manufacturer Dutch 1687–1701), Pyramidal flower vase, c. 1690, earthenware (tin-glazed), underglaze cobalt blue. Purchased, NGV Women’s Association, 2014 (2014.288.a-g).

The great demand for Chinese porcelain in seventeenthcentury Europe saw a ceramic industry rise in the Dutch city of Delft dedicated to producing imitations of these wares in white, tin-glazed earthenware decorated with underglaze cobalt blue imported from Saxony. At first these ceramics, known as Delftware, imitated Chinese imports closely, but gradually the Dutch artists began to modify and embellish Chinese designs, often adding European elements, resulting in objects reflecting Western fantasies about China. This flower vase combining Chinese-inspired motifs with European Baroque imagery represents one of the most extravagant ornamental forms produced in delftware.


Bakhta (Indian, active c. 1760 – c. 1810), Maharana Ari Singh II in durbar, 1765 Udaipur, Rajasthan, India; opaque watercolour and gold paint on paper Felton Bequest, 1980 (AS183-1980).

This painting of a meeting, or durbar, in the Udaipur palace shows blue-and-white tiles on the wall behind the Maharana. They appear to be Dutch tiles made at Delft, although the artist has taken liberties with the designs and depicted Hindu deities and Indian scenes among recognisably Dutch motifs. The tiles probably reached Udaipur in the early eighteenth century with a Dutch embassy en route to the Mughal court, or were shipped from Surat, where the Dutch had a trading post until 1744. Small areas of blue-and-white Chinese and Dutch tiles remain in situ in the palace.


Indian, A prince smoking on a terrace, 18th century, Rajasthan, India; opaque watercolour and gold paint on paper Felton Bequest, 1980 (AS59-1980).

The luxury goods shown here, displayed on the terrace before the reclining Mughal prince include gold vessels embellished with gems alongside blue-and-white porcelain wares. The ceramics feature various forms, such as covered jars, lobed bowls, cups and saucers and dishes decorated in finely drawn floral designs. While the forms and designs appear Chinese, by the eighteenth century the Mughal court and allied Rajput kingdoms in India were receiving ceramics in this style from Persia and Europe, as well from China, in exchange for Indian textiles, spices, indigo and opium. Similar eighteenth-century Chinese porcelain wares are displayed below.


The Netherlands, Delft (manufacturer), Tile, mid 18th century–late 18th century; earthenware, underglaze cobalt blue. Gift of Mrs D. Cockburn, 1972 (D31-1972).


The NetherlandsDelft (manufacturer), Tile, 18th century; earthenware, underglaze cobalt blue. Gift of Mrs D. Cockburn, 1972 (D147-1972).


The NetherlandsDelft (manufacturer), Tile, 18th century; earthenware, underglaze cobalt blue. Gift of Mrs Dorothy Kelly, 1984 (D9-1984).

Tiles like these, with their thick white tin glaze decorated in cobalt blue, were one of the most ubiquitous products of the Delft potteries throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were used in Dutch interiors to decorate fireplaces and walls, especially in kitchens, where they provided an easily cleaned ornamental surface. The tiles were also exported in large numbers, both throughout Europe and across the globe, via the Dutch maritime empire. 


The NetherlandsDelft (manufacturer), Tile, 18th century; earthenware, underglaze cobalt blue. Gift of Mrs D. Cockburn, 1972 (D149-1972).


Chinese, Covered jar, Ming dynasty, Tianqi period (1621–27), Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China; porcelain, underglaze cobalt blue Gift of John H. Connell, 1936 (3618.a-b-D3).


Chinese, Vase, Ming dynasty, Wanli period (1573–1620), Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China; porcelain, underglaze cobalt blue (Kraak export ware). Bequest of Howard Spensley, 1939 (4265-D3).

Kraak ware is a name given to a type of blue-and-white porcelain produced at Jingdezhen between 1550 and 1650 characterised by a pattern of panelled decorations in underglaze cobalt blue, either on the rim of plates or on the sides of hollow wares. The name Kraak derives from the Latin word for a large trading ship. This class of wares was widely exported to Europe, the Americas and sites throughout Asia. Examples have also been found in elite tombs in Jiangxi Province in China. The shape of this Kraak bottle probably derives from a metal form from Western Asia.


Chinese, Vase, Qing dynasty, Kangxi period (1662–1722), Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China; porcelain, underglaze cobalt blue. Anonymous gift, 1980 (AS5-1980).

By the Kangxi period, cobalt-decorated blue-and-white wares were the most ubiquitous class of Chinese porcelain and exported in great quantities to Europe, where they were highly desired luxury objects. The form of this Kangxi vase is not Chinese in origin but ultimately derives from a Middle Eastern metal form, reminding us that Iran and the Middle East had been the first great export market for Chinese porcelain, as well as the origin of the taste for blue-and-white decoration; a palette that, even as late as the early Ming period, was considered vulgar by some Han Chinese connoisseurs. 


Egypt, Tunic sleeve fragment with decorated insert, 5th century–7th century CE, linen, wool. Felton Bequest, 1964 (1306-D5).

Indigo was imported from India into the Mediterranean basin via overland trade routes from ancient times. This woven decoration from the sleeve of a tunic was produced in Byzantine-period Egypt. A province of the Eastern Roman Empire, Egypt at this time supported a large textile industry which produced for export cheaper imitations of luxury textiles manufactured in other parts of the Mediterranean. The hunting scenes in this sleeve fragment are woven in purple-coloured thread, achieved by overdying indigo blue with red. This was done in imitation of the costly Tyrian purple dye extracted from the murex shellfish.


Japan, Summer kimono, Yukata, Meiji period (1868–1912), Japan; cotton, natural indigo; painted resist dyeing (tsutsugaki yuzen). Purchased with funds donated by the Hon. Michael Watt QC and Cecilie Hall, 2013 (2013.696).

Yukata are lightweight cotton summer kimonos featuring lively and popular Japanese designs. This Iwas created using a traditional Japanese tsutsugaki yuzen resist-dyeing technique, where a glutinous mix of rice flour and water is applied to the cotton fabric using a tool similar to a cake icing bag, with narrow nozzle. The kimono features more than ten different types of flowers, including hydrangeas, clematises, chrysanthemums, wisteria, irises, peonies, plum blossoms, lilies, bush clovers and bell flowers.

Traditionally yukata were mostly made of indigo-dyed cotton with large floral patterns suitable for younger women, and dark blue worn by older women.


Katsukawa SHUNCHŌ (Japanese active c. 1780–1801), The courtesan Fujiwara of the house of Tsuruya of Kyo-machi, Itchome, ShinYoshiwara, Shin-Yoshiwara, Kyo-machi, Itchome, Tsuruya, Fujiwara, c. 1800, Edo (Tokyo), Japan; colour woodblock. Felton Bequest, 1909 (431.2-2)

The delicate blue in this print indicates a naturally sourced colourant, possibly aigami sourced from the Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis), which was light and humidity sensitive. In contrast, synthetic Prussian blue developed in Germany in 1709 and widely used in Japanese prints from the 1820s, was bright and lightfast.


Utagawa HIROSHIGE (Japanese 1797–1858) Karuizawa from the Sixty-nine stations of the Kiso Highway (Kisokaidō Rokujūkyūtsugi) series 1835–42, 1835–38, Edo (Tokyo), Japan; colour woodblock. Felton Bequest, 1910 (527-2).

Karuizawa was a rest station on the Kiso Highway section of the Nakasendo Trail, a route through the mountains linking the former capital of Japan, Kyoto, and Edo. During the Edo period (1603–1868), the busy Kiso Highway was used by feudal lords and their servants, samurai, government officials, pilgrims, merchants, farmers and, occasionally, the shogun (military commander) himself, who would always travel with a large entourage. The travellers depicted in this print wear kasuri garments, the customary clothing of the rural worker which is dyed indigo and patterned with a resist technique. Hiroshige was one of the first Japanese artists to adopt the new synthetic pigment known as Prussian blue, seen in this print, partly because it provided for realistic depictions of water, sea and sky.


Japanese, Cape, Kappa, late Edo period-early Meiji period, late 19th century, Japan; cotton, natural indigo, waxed paper, bone; weft ikat (yoko gasuri) Purchased, 2005 (2005.506).

This style of cape is adapted from those worn by Portuguese missionaries in sixteenth-century Japan, and was commonly worn by rural travellers. It is a reversible garment, constructed from two different kasuri fabrics with a layer of waxed paper in between, making the garment wind and water resistant. The fabrics in this garment are woven using the weft ikat technique and dyed indigo blue; the intense, dark blue of the kappa requiring up to ten successive immersions in the dye bath followed by oxidisation of the cloth in the open air after each immersion.


Meifu Li people, Woman’s skirt, 20th century, Dongfang county, Hainan Island, China; cotton, natural dyes; warp ikat. Purchased, 2006 (2006.270).

Hainan Island, off the coast of south China, was originally populated by the Li people who belong to the Tai Kadai/ Daic language group of mainland Southeast Asia and south China. The Li grow cotton, hemp and dye plants, particularly indigo, for textile production. Indigo-dyed textiles are decorated with warp ikat (ranjie) producing a white pattern on the blue ground. Women speaking various Kadai languages across the island produced different styles of skirt cloths; this one can be attributed to a Meifu Li woman from the western part of Hainan Island, in Dongfang county.


Woman’s mantle, Chyrpy, early 20th century–mid 20th century, Afghanistan; silk, cotton, natural indigo dye, synthetic dyes; embroidery, resist woodblock printing Purchased with funds donated by Vivien Knowles, 2010 (2010.91).

The chyrpy is a distinctive embroidered coat with long vestigial sleeves worn by Central Asian Turkmen women as a shawl or mantle. The colour of the ground fabric indicates the wearer’s age and marital status. Young, unmarried women wear a dark blue chyrpy, middle-aged or married women wear yellow and women over sixty wear white. The lining is block-printed with mud or flour to resist indigo dye, resulting in a white pattern on a blue ground which may be overdyed in madder. Block printing was traditionally done by men (chitagars) with three or four apprentices, in Bukhara.


Ainu people, Robe, Attush, 19th century, Hokkaido, Japan; elm bark fibre (thread), cotton, natural indigo dye; appliqué, embroidery. Gift of David Bardas in memory of Sandra Bardas OAM through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2011 (2011.339).

The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan and mainly live in the northern islands of Hokkaido, the Kuriles and southern Sakhalin. They practise animism and ancestor worship and observe rituals intended to please kamui (spirits) inherent in nature, placate the ancestors and ward off demons and other malevolent forces. Ainu garments included robes, known as attush, made from elm bark fibre cloth and decorated with appliquéd indigo-dyed cotton imported from China or Honshu embellished with chain stitch embroidery. The decorations were placed around the openings of the garment and on the vulnerable upper back area to prevent evil spirits from entering the body.


Indonesian, Man’s cloth, Hanggi, 20th century, Kodi, west Sumba, Indonesia; cotton, dyes; warp ikat. Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by Michael Abbott, Founder Benefactor, 1984 (AS36-1984).

On Sumba the skills and knowledge associated with traditional dyeing were part of occult knowledge known as moro (blueness), only possessed by a few female specialists. Moro also incorporated herbal medicines, poisons, fertility potions and drugs used to induce abortions. Expertise in these skills and in dyeing overlapped in the process of indigo dyeing which, on Sumba, is also linked to theories of human conception and the growth of the foetus within the womb. Kodi is an important centre for weaving in west Sumba where only indigo-dyed textiles are acceptable for the most important ritual and ceremonial occasions.


Indian, Krishna slaying the horse demon, Keshi, c. 1640, Gujarat, India; opaque watercolour and silver paint on wasli paper. Felton Bequest, 1976 (AS25-1976)

The painting of Krishna slaying the horse demon predates the advent of synthetic ultramarine (1826) and Prussian blue (1724). The blue colourant has been identified as indigo after examination under infrared and ultraviolet light.


Indian, A page from a series of the Sur Sagar, c. 1730 Udaipur, Rajasthan, India; opaque watercolour and gold paint on wasli paper. Felton Bequest, 1980 (AS112-1980).

Sur Sagar (Sur’s Ocean [of Poetry]) written by Sur Das (1483–1573), explores devotional love and longing for the blue god Krishna, eighth avatar of Vishnu, through the trials of Krishna’s relationship with his beloved Radha. The longing (viraha) of the heroine (nayika) for her lover is eloquently evoked in this painting in which she is seen three times, her isolation emphasised by the pair of deer who linger in the foreground. The monsoon season, also associated with love and yearning, is indicated by a stormy blue sky rendered in indigo. The messenger’s jacket is painted in azurite blue.


Indian, Hanuman, servant of Rama, late 19th century, Calcutta, India; watercolour, ink and silver paint over charcoal on paper (Kalighat school). Purchased, 1961 (929-5).

The monkey warrior Hanuman was a popular subject of Kalighat paintings, inexpensive pilgrimage souvenirs made in large numbers in the second half of the nineteenth century and sold at the Kali temple near the ghats in Calcutta. As an ally of Vishnu’s seventh avatar Rama, Hanuman is appropriately coloured blue. By the mid nineteenth century patuas (painters) had access to inexpensive, commercially produced synthetic pigments and prepared paints, including ultramarine, which has been identified as the blue colourant in several Kalighat paintings of Hanuman. However, many painters continued to use traditional pigments such as indigo, the blue colourant in this painting.


Indian, Harihara, late 19th century, Calcutta, India; watercolour, ink and silver paint over charcoal on paper (Kalighat school). Purchased, 1953 (3036A-4).

Harihara is a composite deity combining the forms of the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu, each shown with their customary attributes. Shiva appears on the right side of the figure and Vishnu, coloured blue, on the left. Together they allude to life’s endless cycle of creation and destruction, personified in Vishnu and Shiva respectively. In Kalighat paintings images of Vishnu and his incarnations were coloured in a range of blues derived from a variety of sources, including natural pigments such as nilmoni flowers, aparajita berries and indigo, and the synthetic blue pigments ultramarine (synthesised 1826) and Prussian blue (synthesised 1724).


Shouldercloth or headcloth, Kain batik tulisan Arab, 20th century, north Java, Indonesia; cotton, dye; batik Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by Michael Abbott, Founder Benefactor, 1984 (AS20-1984).

Ceremonial batiks of north coast Javanese Muslim communities decorated with calligraphic designs based on Arabic script are named tulisan Arab or kaligrafi Arab. The writing on them is often illegible, partly because the person waxing the designs may have been illiterate in Arabic, and partly because the design needs only evoke the word of the prophet Mohammed and the Islamic scriptures to confer talsimanic properties. The blue-and-white palette also had protective power. Kaligrafi batiks were used as hangings over bridal thrones and marriage beds, coverings for the Koran or as garments for the upper body, such as headcloths and jackets for warriors.


Japanese, Rag kimono, Noragi ranru, 1900–50, Japan; cotton, indigo; resist dyeing (kasuri), quilting, saschiko stitching Purchased, 2005 (2005.508)

The use of cotton was widespread in Japan by the middle of the Edo period (1615–1868), as the feudal government encouraged frugality and attempted through sumptuary laws to ban the wearing of silk clothes by merchants and commoners. Indigo dye also became widely used at this time, and indigo blue cotton garments signified the working-class status of the wearer. This rag kimono, a style commonly worn by impoverished rural workers, combines many different types of resist-dyed (kasuri) fabrics from old garments held together with sashiko stitching, a quilting technique in running stitch used to impart warmth and strength to garments.


Indonesian, Man’s cloth, Hinggi, 20th century, east Sumba, Indonesia; cotton, dye; warp ikat. Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by Michael Abbott, Founder Benefactor, 1984 (AS37-1984).

The composition of confronting paired animal motifs on this cloth is derived from European coins and medallions and has been applied to imported motifs, such as rampant crowned lions, as well as local Indonesian imagery, including prawns and stags.


Indonesian, Man’s cloth, Hinggi kombu, c. 1890, east Sumba, Indonesia; cotton, natural dyes; warp ikat. Bequest of Rose Mulock-Houwer MBE, 2007 (2007.692).

The colour and patterns of Sumbanese textiles were once indicators of social rank, Sumbanese cloths incorporating red dye from kombu (morinda citrifolia) traditionally reserved for nobility and indigo blue cloths worn by commoners. Animals associated with the ruling Sumbanese class (maramba) are chickens or cocks (animals of ritual sacrifice), deer with spreading antlers (a symbol of royalty) and prawns who shed their shells in a process of renewal (symbolic of a ruler’s powers). The Sumbanese believe a person is able to acquire the special powers and qualities of certain creatures when textiles displaying such motifs are worn.


Javanese, Woman’s waistcloth or skirtcloth, Selendang prada, 20th century, north Java, Indonesia; cotton, dye, gold leaf; batik tulis Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by Michael Abbott, Founder Benefactor, 1984 (AS17-1984)

The blue pattern of this cloth, created with indigo dye and hand-drawn batik (wax resist), has been completely covered in gold leaf, raising the prestige of the textile and making it suitable for ceremonial use. Cloths thus embellished are known as batik prada and used in Javanese bridal costumes or as hangings in a bridal chamber. The colour blue in batik production did not necessarily have a symbolic connotation; however, in Javanese society colours may relate to the age of the wearer, or may have cosmological significance – with blue/ black associated with north and death.


Ngada people, Woman’s ceremonial skirtcloth, Lawo butu, 20th century, Central Flores, Indonesia; cotton, natural indigo dye,shells, glass beads; warp ikat, appliqué. Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by Michael Abbott, Founder Benefactor, 1984 (AS31-1984).

Indigo is the main colourant of cotton textiles in the Ngada region of west-central Flores. These textiles are usually patterned with warp ikat motifs and one class of highstatus, ceremonially significant cloth is embellished with brightly coloured beads. This type of textile, known as lawo butu, is made as a clan heirloom and worn only by mature Ngada women belonging to the nobility at certain festivals. The tubular skirtcloth, which is dyed and woven by women and beaded by men, is fastened over the shoulders to form a long garment displaying the beaded decoration down the centre front.