Colour is such an important element in painting that the subject matter of this new exhibition at the National Gallery couldn’t help but intrigue. Monochrome. An examination of what happens when artists cast aside the colour spectrum and focus on the visual power of black, white, and the shades in between.
A fascinating provocation and certainly not simply a modern phenomenon; far from it. The earliest surviving works of Western art made in grisaille (painting in black, white and grey) were created in the Middle Ages. Mostly devotional works, it was considered that the austere palette would eliminate distractions and focus the mind. Very pious.
However, it would be fair to say that, for a while, artists worked in black and white mostly for their studies; preparatory works for final paintings that were to be saturated with colour. However, there is evidence that there was a market for independent monochrome works as far back as the sixteenth century when Van Eyck’s Saint Barbara, 1437, was much admired.
Indeed, it was the Renaissance that saw a big step up in the value of black and white paintings as final works in themselves. Experimentation, maybe, but there was a lot of ego involved too. The fantastic achievements of Renaissance sculptors led to much discussion and gossip at the time about which was the higher art form – sculpture or painting. As you can imagine, the painters did not respond warmly and, piqued, many responded with stunning works of trompe l’oeil – an art technique that creates the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions – believing this would prove the superiority of painting.
Van Dyck’s breath-taking The Annunciation Diptych, 1433-5, surely has to be one of the finest examples of this. I mean, it’s extraordinary. Two small paintings, each little bigger than a hand, sit side-by side on a wooden panel. Two white figures against a black background create the illusion of a sculptural group. At first glance, these images of the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel seem sculptures, their finish a near-perfect replication of exquisitely chiselled marble. It’s only when you look again, examine closer, that you realise it is a painting. This is an impressive execution of immense talent.
Does this mean that painting ‘won’ that debate? Well, who knows, but painters certainly backed themselves up!
The show then proceeds through how Neo-classical and Modern artists too were inspired to harness the power of monochrome. We’ve Picasso’s Las Meninas, 1957, and one of the remaining copies of Malevich’s mighty Black Square, 1929. But there’s no doubting that it’s Ingres’s Odalisque in Grisaille, about 1824-34, that draws the gasps here.
In the original oil painting of 1814, this decadent nude sees the concubine lounging upon amongst rich fabrics with jewels in her hair. But here, the jewels and elaborate patterns have vanished. Instead, with much of the context swept away, we are left with a stark, bold nude, which only accentuates the woman’s direct eye contact with the viewer. As a result, the image feels more eroticised, the emotions heightened.
And it’s this impact, even shock, that can come from a reduced palette, which fascinated many of the modern and contemporary artists whose works are included in this display.
The National Gallery has made no secret of the fact that it wants to include more contemporary art in its exhibitions, and that’s certainly achieved here with the likes of Bridget Riley, Gerhard Richter, Jasper Johns and Marlene Dumas on show. And it’s clear they have learnt from what went before, deliberately working with monochrome palettes to explicitly strip out extraneous detail and sharpen up what they want to be in focus, whether that be blurred photos of murdered sex workers (Richter) or the gender politics on display in stills from films (Dumas).
But the most emphatic contribution from contemporary artists to this show comes with Olafur Eliasson’s large-scale immersive light installation, Room for one colour, (1997), in the last gallery. The entire room is drenched in what seems to be a glaring orange haze – actually sodium yellow monofrequency lamps. Looking at the image I’m sure you’re thinking, much as I did, why on earth is there an orange room in a monochrome exhibition? Well, because the effect of these lamps is to suppress all other light frequencies. In layman’s terms, that means your own sight becomes reduced to shades of grey. Everyone around you and all you see is in a monochrome palette.
The effect is starting and impressive, but it’s interesting as the general consensus is that this makes visitors look unwell; far from the heightened beauty of the paintings in the preceding galleries. Maybe the Renaissance artists were right; maybe painting cannot be matched, certainly not by reality anyway!
National Gallery, London, to February 18, 2018
1 Helga Matura with her Fiancé, Gerhard Richter, 1966. Oil on canvas, 200 × 100 cm. Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf
2 The Annunciation Diptych (The Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Mary), Jan van Eyck, about 1433–5. Oil on panel, left wing 38.8 × 23.2 cm, right wing 39 × 24 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid
3 Odalisque in Grisaille, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop, about 1824-34. Oil on canvas, 83.2 × 109.2 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1938, 38.65
4 Room for one colour, Olafur Eliasson, 1997. Installation view at Moderna Museet, Stockholm 2015. Courtesy of the artist; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; neugerriemschneider, Berlin