It’s a sign of the working class and adored in high society. It protects from evil spirits and looks nice on a ceramic plate. It’s about time blue had its time in the spotlight. The NGV’s new show Blue: Alchemy of a Colour charts the use of the colour from Asia right across to Britain, from ancient Egypt to 19th-century Portugal, drawing cross-sections through commerce and culture.

There are two particular blue colourants here, says the show’s co-curator, Matthew Martin: indigo, which is often used in paintings, and cobalt, which is used in ceramics. “The interesting thing about the two is that they’re basically global,” says Martin. “You find them in textiles and ceramics everywhere, and yet neither of them are blue in their natural state. They both require technical knowledge to work them into the blue colour.”

It’s a story, then, of developing technologies, international trade and global cultures imitating and learning from each other. It’s fascinating to see the same shades being deployed in many cultural contexts, and meaning many different things.

The very floral Japanese kimono, for example, is only a touch over a century old and purely decorative, but the sleeve from a fifth-century Egyptian tunic is decorated with talismanic symbols designed to ward off evil seeking to enter the garment through its hems. An 18th-century illustration of a scene from a Tokyo brothel sits across the room from chaste British porcelain manufactured around the same time.

But perhaps the piece that crosses borders most is a Dutch pyramidal flower vase from the 17th century, wearing its Chinese influence plainly and clumsily at the front and centre of the show.

It’s made of earthenware and tin glaze, an imitation of Chinese porcelain. The structure is an approximation of a multi-layered Chinese pagoda, but in a completely European style, with decorative dragons that look more like eels, fake Chinese squiggles and very European little cherubs adorning the base. It’s a bizarre clash of cultures.

“It encapsulates this whole European-Asian exchange,” says Martin. “It’s a crazy composite of Chinese inspiration and European fantasies about China.”

Blue: Alchemy of a Colour runs at NGV until March 2016.

ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/blue