The National Gallery, this Autumn goes monochrome on a journey through a world of shadow and light. With more than fifty painted objects created over 700 years, Monochrome: Painting in Black and White is a radical new look at what happens when artists cast aside the colour spectrum and focus on the visual power of black, white and everything in between.
“Artists choose to use black and white for aesthetic, emotional and sometimes for moral reasons” – Dr. Gabriele Finaldi
Paintings and drawings by Old Masters such as Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres appear alongside works by some of the most exciting contemporary artists working today including Gerhard Richter, Chuck Close, and Bridget Riley. Olafur Eliasson‘s immersive light installation Room for one colour (1997) brings a suitably mind-altering coda to the exhibition.
With major loans from around the world, and works from the National Gallery’s Collection, Monochrome reveals fresh insights into the use of colour as a choice rather than a necessity.
As Lelia Packer and Jennifer Sliwka, curators of Monochrome: Painting in Black and White, explain, “Painters reduce their colour palette for many reasons, but mainly as a way of focusing the viewer’s attention on a particular subject, concept or technique. It can be very freeing – without the complexities of working in colour, you can experiment with form, texture, mark making, and symbolic meaning.”
Monochrome: Painting in Black and White guides visitors through five rooms, each addressing a different aspect of painting in black, white and grey, also known as grisaille:
The earliest surviving works of Western art made in grisaille were created in the Middle Ages for devotional purposes, to eliminate distractions, and focus the mind. As colour pervades daily life, black and white can signal a shift to an otherworldly or spiritual context.
For some, colour was the forbidden fruit and prohibited by religious orders practicing a form of aesthetic asceticism. Grisaille stained glass, for example, was created by Cistercian monks in the 12th century as an alternative to vibrant church windows, with its translucent greyish panels sometimes painted with images in black and yellow. Light and elegant in appearance, grisaille glass such as this window panel made for the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis, Paris (1320-4, Victoria and Albert Museum, London) gained popularity outside the order and eventually became de rigueur in many French churches.
From the 15th century, onward artists made drawings in black and white to work through challenges posed by their subjects and compositions. Eliminating colour allows artists to concentrate on the way light and shadow fall across the surface of a figure, object or scene before committing to a full-colour canvas. The beautiful Drapery Study (possibly study for Saint Matthew and an Angel, (about 1477, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) attributed to Domenico Ghirlandaio is a template work which an artist could re-use in multiple finished colour paintings. This particular motif, for example, re-appeared in a frescoed vault in San Gimignano, Italy.
Increasingly, paintings in grisaille were made as independent works of art, complete unto themselves. This section explores the inspiration and desire for such paintings, prized for their demonstration of artistic skill, for the insights they provide into the artist’s craft, and for their profound consideration of a particular subject.
Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation Diptych (1433-35, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) is an outstanding example of grisaille oil painting, likely intended for private devotion. Figures painted in white tones on black backgrounds convincingly resemble sculptures standing within stone niches. The fictive carved frames have been painted to appear inscribed – a hallmark of van Eyck’s compositions – and cleverly interact with the actual wood mouldings framing each panel.
For centuries artists have challenged themselves to mimic the appearance of stone sculpture in painting, and in a world without electric light, many eyes were likely fooled. In Northern Europe, a taste for illusionistic decorative elements – such as decorative wall painting and sculpted stucco – may have helped give rise to stunning works of trompe l’oeil painted on panel or canvas. Jacob de Wit excelled at this practice and his Jupiter and Ganymede (1739, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull) could easily be mistaken for a three-dimensional wall relief.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, painters developed ingenious ways to compete with new developments in printmaking. An exceptionally rare grisaille work by Hendrik Goltzius, Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1606, the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) for example, dazzled viewers who could not fathom how it was made, as it very much looks like a print but was painted with a brush on canvas.
Similarly, the invention of photography in 1839, and that of a film much later, prompted painters to imitate the effects of these media, in order to respond to, or compete with their particular qualities. Gerhard Richter employed a press photograph of a prostitute who had been brutally murdered as the foundation of his painting Helga Matura with Her Fiancé (1966, Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf). The grey palette –for Richter, ‘the ideal colour for indifference’– removes any sentimentality about Helga’s murder. By deliberately blurring the photograph, the artist makes the viewer aware that this is an altered image, contrasting with the crispness and apparent objectivity of the original.
Abstract and installation artists have always been drawn to black and white. When artists have ready access to every possible hue, the absence of colour can be all the more shocking or thought-provoking. In 1916, Kiev-born artist Kazimir Malevich unleashed his revolutionary work, Black Square (1929, the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) – an eponymous black square floating within a white painted frame –and declared it to be the beginning of a new kind of non-representational art. Works by Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella and Cy Twombly all exemplify the use of minimal colour for maximum impact.
Artists intrigued by colour theory and the psychological effects of colour (or its absence) manipulate light, space, and hue to trigger a particular response from the viewer. In this way, Olafur Eliasson brings the exhibition to a close with his large-scale, immersive light installation, Room for one colour (1997). Eliasson quietly obliterates colour vision in a room illuminated with yellow mono-frequency lamps, suppressing all other light frequencies and transporting visitors to a monochrome world.
Image: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop Odalisque in Grisaille, about 1824-34 Oil on canvas, 83.2 × 109.2 cm © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence
Monochrome: Painting in Black and White National Gallery Open to public: 30 October 2017 Daily 10am–6pm (last admission 5 pm) Fridays 10am–9pm (last admission 8.15pm)