by Ruby Reding


CN: Seasonal Affective Disorder



  1. adjective:  of a colour intermediate between green and violet, as of the sky or sea on a sunny day.
  2. informal (of a person or mood) melancholy, sad, or depressed.
  3. noun: blue colour or pigment.
  4. literary the blue The sky or sea, or the unknown.


And so I fell in love with a colour – in this case, the colour blue – as if falling under a spell, a spell I forgot to stay under and get out from under, in turns. — Maggie Nelson


‘Blue’ is often used as an abstract trope for a ‘sad’ or depressed state – one that seems to reduce seriously unpleasant emotions to a monosyllabic and childish word – ‘you’re feeling blue?’

Yet the colour is also an essential part of good weather. ‘The sky is grey! I’m so sad I can’t show you the real city!’ my friend says, drawing on our mutual membership of the Blue Sky Appreciation Club.

When I arrived in Munich in September last year, the sky was heavy and thick with low, grey clouds. The temperature induced constant shakes and painful pink hands. It was the tail end of summer but felt like an early winter. Members of the public were walking around with bare legs and flip-flops, which permeated a sad atmosphere of denial.

With a lack of light and white-grey sky, I was feeling the effect of the absence of colour. Perhaps there is something to be said about the power of art as means for remedying the annual winter blues. Seasons and artworks are both ‘affective’ in one way or another; both encapsulate coloured hues in every shade. Can an artwork play the role of sunlight?

“Can an artwork play the role of sunlight?”


Cy Twombly’s work as an experience of the ‘sublime’ has made me ask questions like this. His Lepanto paintings were on display at the Museum Brandhorst in Munich last year. They draw the deep-blue-unknownness of the sea and the sky into the exhibition space. The paintings allude to the 1571 naval battle in the Gulf of Patras. In true Twombly style they cite The Battle of Lepanto by Juan Luna, as he adopts the red punctures in the blue of Luna’s painting. Here I was worlds away from the paintings source, facing a different kind of battle.


Cy Twombly, Lepanto VII; Acrylic, wax crayon and graphite on canvas, Museum Brandhorst, Cy Twombly Foundation

It wasn’t until the experience of these paintings in the museum that I felt the otherworldly ‘affective’ power of art. I had seen them on screen and in small book form and had been largely indifferent to them in the past. Not wanting to fit a traditional museum-worshipping mould, I have been slightly resistant to arguments for the PHYSICAL PRESENCE of art. John Berger speaks ‘truth’ when he suggests that museums are inaccessible and new art should be on bedroom cork boards.

Standing about three metres tall, the Lepanto paintings loom over the viewer; the thickness of the paint on the canvas has an almost messianic presence. Stare at the blues for too long and you may drift off into a subconscious tranquility. There is Bondi blue; Egyptian blue; Yves Klein blue; Viridian; periwinkle, sapphire, to name a few. There are gestural lines that resemble boats on the sea, or an eye opening and closing with the viewer. The ‘gesture’ is more than anything the body’s mark. In connecting one body to another, the blue offers to break the boundary between work and viewer; to also break through the isolating blues.

Cy Twombly, Lepanto painting; Acrylic, wax crayon and graphite on canvas, Museum Brandhorst, Cy Twombly Foundation

I had never been alone in such a huge gallery before – it was only me and the security guard. Functioning on almost no sleep and suffering from a lack of Blue Sky meant these paintings seemed to repair me in a way that I couldn’t quite grasp. Tired eyes became less straining and more relaxed and engulfed. Paintings are often thought to create a separation between work and viewer, but here was me feeling partially formed by the paint. The experience of the sublime – the only response to art that Kant allowed to be assigned emotion – felt inextricably connected to that of really needing some visual Vitamin D in winter.

Winter blues are characterised by repetition and patterns, and Twombly’s gestural marks engage in similar fluctuation. The lines are not chronological, but cyclical. Language is repeated and repeated. The paintings are curated in the museum as on a curved wall, so that the colours fill and reflect on the entire space. As the winter blues represent ebbs and flows in mood between seasons, so Twombly’s painterly gestures run in waves, moving up and down, from light to dark.

The phonetics of ‘blue’ contain an atmosphere too. The ‘ooo’ can be drawn out and sleepy – can be melancholic or relaxed. Joni Mitchell’s up and down ‘Blu-u-oo-e’ resonates in the paintings. ‘Songs are like tattoos’, she says, and perhaps paintings are too. There is a harmonic quality to the paintings, a pharmakon-like visual and verbal affect.

Image from Broad City

In an episode of Broad City recently, Ilana suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder and goes for regular breaks during her waitressing job to get a dose of light from an SAD lamp. As her friend reflects the lamp on some kitchen foil to increase the power of the light, the extremity of Ilana’s reaction becomes increasingly surreal and dramatic. The episode has an important narrative about depression but is also brilliant in showing the comic effect of needing light. There is a hilariously despairing quality to the human need for a sunny day, exemplified by me when I cried in the gallery in Munich, As my face burned red with tears the security guard looked at me funny. The paintings served to me the quality of a double rainbow, as appreciated in the Yosemitebear Mountain Double Rainbow 1-8-10 Youtube video.

Of course Twombly is no James Turrell – his work is not inducing in us the powerful affects of intense light. Yet the Presence of Paint gave me an important remedy – made me recalibrate my associations with the word ‘blue’, as both colour and mood.

What can blue do for you?


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