How did I happen to enter this blue period? Toward the end of 1955, I exhibited at the Colette Allendy Gallery a score of monochromatic surfaces, all of different colors, green, red, yellow, violet, blue, orange. That was the beginning, or at least the first public showing, of this style. I was attempting to show color, and I realized at the opening of the exhibition that the public, enslaved by visual habit, when presented with all those surfaces of different colors on the walls, reassembled them as components of polychromatic decoration. The public could not enter into the contemplation of the color of a single painting at a time, and that was very disappointing to me, because I precisely and categorically refuse to create on one surface even the interplay of two colors.
In my judgment two colors juxtaposed on one canvas compel the observer to see the spectacle of this juxtaposition of two colors, or of their perfect accord, but prevent him from entering into the sensitivity, the dominance, the purpose of the picture. This is a situation of the psyche, of the senses, of the emotions, which perpetuates a sort of reign of cruelty (laughter), and one can no longer plunge into the sensibility of pure color, relieved from all outside contamination.
Some will no doubt protest that my development has taken place very rapidly, in barely four years, and that nothing can occur in such a short time … I reply that, although indeed I did begin to exhibit my painting only in 1954 in Paris, I had already been working for a long time in that style, since 1946. This prolonged wait demonstrates precisely what I had been prepared to wait for. I had waited for something to become stable within me before I could reveal or verify what it was. The few friends of that time who encouraged me are aware of it; I had begun monochromatic painting, in addition to the everyday activities of painting which were influenced by my parents, both of them artists, because it seemed that while working color kept winking at me. It enchanted me, besides, because in front of any painting, figurative or non-figurative I felt more and more that the lines and all their consequences, the contours, the forms, the perspectives, the compositions, became exactly like the bars on the window of a prison. Far away, amidst color, dwelt life and liberty. And in front of the picture I felt imprisoned, and I believe it is because of that same feeling of imprisonment that van Gogh exclaimed, ‘I long to be freed from I know not what horrible cage!’
The painter of the future will be a colorist of a kind never seen before, and that will occur in the next generation. And without doubt it is through color that I have little by little become acquainted with the Immaterial. The outward influences which have impelled me to pursue this monochromatic path as far as the immateriality of today, are multiple: the reading of the Journal of Delacroix, that champion of color, whose work lies at the source of contemporary lyric painting; then a study of the position of Delacroix in relation to Ingres, champion of an academic art which fostered line and all its consequences, which in my opinion have brought today’s art to the crisis of form, as in the beautiful and grandiose but dramatic adventure of Malevich or Mondrian’s insoluble problem of spatial organization, which has encouraged the polychrome architecture from which our contemporary urban developments suffer so atrociously; finally, and above all, I received a profound shock when I discovered in the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi frescoes which are scrupulously monochromatic, uniform and blue, which I believe may be attributed to Giotto (but which might be by one of his pupils, or else by some follower of Cimabue or even one of the artists of the school of Siena, though the blue of which I speak is just of the same character and the same quality as the blue in the skies of Giotto which may be admired in the same basilica on the floor above). Were one to acknowledge that Giotto may have had only the figurative intention of showing a clear, cloudless sky, that intention is nevertheless definitely monochromatic.
I unhappily did not have the pleasure of discovering the writings of Gaston Bachelard till very late, only last year in the month of April 1958. To the question which is often asked me – why did you choose blue? – I will reply by borrowing yet again from Gaston Bachelard that marvelous passage concerning blue from his book Air and Dreams. This is primarily a Mallarmean document in which the poet, living in ‘contented world-weariness amidst oblivious tarns’, suffers from the irony of blueness. He perceives an excessively hostile blueness which strives with an indefatigable hand to Till the gaping blue holes wickedly made by birds’. In the realm of the blue air more than anywhere else one feels that the world is accessible to the most unlimited reverie. It is then that a reverie assumes true depth. The blue sky yawns beneath the dreams, the dream escapes from the two-dimensional image; soon in a paradoxical way the airborne dream exists only in depth, while the two other dimensions, in which picturesque and painted reverie are entertained, lose all visionary interest. The world is thus on the far side of an unsilvered mirror, there is an imaginary beyond, a beyond pure and insubstantial, and that is the dwelling place of Bachelard’s beautiful phrase: ‘First there is nothing, next there is a depth of nothingness, then a profundity of blue.’ . . .
Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colors are not. They are pre-psychological expanses, red, for example, presupposing a site radiating heat. All colors arouse specific associative ideas, psychologically material or tangible, while blue suggests at most the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract.
The present text is extracted from the transcript of a lecture delivered in 1959 at the Sorbonne in Paris.