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The richness of life without colour: Monochrome at the National Gallery

Room for one colour

The National Gallery’s Monochrome: Painting in Black and White exhibition is a well-made appreciation of art beyond colour that goes to the heart of the Western artistic tradition  

Predictably, the National Gallery’s Monochrome exhibition is a series of contrasts – or at least begins as such. Given the subject matter, the art adheres to the binary preconceptions of black and white, night and day, good and evil. However, by the end of this exhibition, both quickly and slowly, the visitor finds all the nuance, detail and skill artists place meaningfully outside the colour spectrum.

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For Medieval artists working under the Christian yoke, the schisms between colour and monochrome were clear. Colour was the feast, the celebration; monochrome the inner-meditations, the wilderness and mourning. The curation points to “heightened solemnity” and outside the Donne Triptych (1478) by Hans Memling, we see St Christopher and Abbot Anthony keeping a mournful sentry over the jubilant, illuminated Virgin & Child within. This is art, skilled and weighted but not definitive of its age. It is there for contrast but that does not make it unimportant.

The Parable of the Prodigal son

Frans Francken II The Parable of the Prodigal Son, 1633 Oil on panel, 61 × 86 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski

Frans Francken II’s Parable of the Prodigal Son (1633) shows this reflective power. The misdemeanours of the wastrel frame a technicolour humble homecoming. The detail and intricacy in Francken’s shadings are continued throughout. It is compelling to look within these frames and see how well shadow is caught between canvas and paint, with no cheering colour support. There is an initial rawness but this isn’t the dodgy acoustic set for fans only, it is the graft and DNA of these artistic visions, rightly getting the appreciation it warrants. There is something earned here, something the artists have hard-won, allowing them, you feel, to smile proudly behind their work.

Maternity Suffering

Eugène Carrière, Maternity (Suffering), about 1896-7, © Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Cymru – National Museum of Wales

In two pieces in particular that sense of artistic capture triumphs. The third room focuses on ‘grisaille’ works: paintings made in grey as alternative studies to colour. Jean-Augustine-Dominique Ingres’ ethereal Odalisque in Grisaille (1824-34) shows beauty caught in a cool and very still half-light. There is something sterile here – colour waits offstage – but in the brushwork and use of paint to trace the shadow and the light there is a compelling warmth and shine to the subject, rendered in grey because of, not in spite of, her beauty.

The other piece which more than justifies the monochrome medium is Hendrik Goltzius’ Without Ceres & Bacchus, Venus would Freeze (1606). It is a huge rendering of light and florid blushes in monochrome. Glotzius’ original pen-painting method, cross-hatching and light embellishment, brings together a humming, fecund tapestry in which Ceres, Bacchus and Venus fulfil the divine duties of revelry that seem to so naturally inspire artists. Indeed, Glotzius himself is present in the background, holding up his pens as if to excuse his presence with the pretence of work.

Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze

Hendrick Goltzius, Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze, 1606, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg © The State Hermitage Museum, 2017 / Photo: Vladimir Terebenin

There are other works that populate the monochrome hinterland, showing its heritage and proving this is not just the art without colour; these are not prototypes. A whole room is dedicated to the relationship between sculpture and painting, featuring post-Renaissance portraits of classical nudes, Roman triumphs and tragedies. While they show a society imagining itself against Classical posterity, they also credit artistic skill and the latitude of monochrome: Jacob de Wit’s Jupiter & Ganymede (1739) hides such depth of shadow behind the subject eagle’s wings it could lift off the canvas. The piece originally would have adorned a Baroque ceiling, deliberately implying sculpture rather than painting.

The “heightened solemnity” returns in the elegiac Maternity Suffering by Eugène Carrière. The soft blur of tones capture a tender warmth at once with a deeper lament. Painted around 1896, Carrière would know well the power of photography to document an industrial world and the costly conflicts inflicted on so many. This painting poignantly takes up the emotional mantle from the unyielding lens.


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop, Odalisque in Grisaille, about 1824-34, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1938, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

Modernity takes a cue, arriving properly at the exhibition’s end – recoiling from the gaudy and delineating in monochrome. Surprisingly though, the importance of photography feels underplayed. The penultimate display is dedicated to the medium but fails to demonstrate a working relationship between photography and painting. Notably, Marlene Dumas’ unremarkable, although appropriately titled The Image as Burden (1993) fails to make a case for monochrome or painting; it remembers a black and white film we are told – but that is not enough. Gerhard Richters’ Helga Martura (1966) is perhaps the exception as an apt homage to painting’s ability to expand photographic horizons. The tragedy of the subject, a prostitute who was subsequently murdered, and the soft lines are reminiscent of Carrière’s work.

The weakness of the exhibition’s examination of photography is emphasised by its strong close. The abstract attractions of monochrome appear in Richter’s Grey Mirror painting (1991), that re-imagines the room in flatter tones, while Bridget Riley’s Horizontal Vibration (1961) shows the power of shape afforded by monochrome colours. Kazimir Malevich’s iconic Black Square (version 4, 1929) epitomises the rawness of black and white, although the importance of colour to the Suprematism movement that the piece anchors is not referenced.

However, the appearance of the likes of Malevich and Twombly show how the monochrome alternative transcends a schism framed in religious art to render the divide that underpins Western culture: that between Traditionalism and Modernism. The more historical art here holds lament and reflection but a slow dawn creeps through the exhibition, which by the advent of abstract art sees monochrome as one of the sharpest tools in the artist’s hand. As shown by the diversity of the art here, that is in a large part down to the creativity necessitated by the lack of colour – equally, these pieces require boldness and confidence.

Overall though, what this exhibition shows most is the fecundity of the monochrome landscape. Not only are there vivid imaginings inside the non-colour spectrum but vivid re-imaginings as well. Walking into the final room this is clear. It is given over to Olafur Eliasson’s Room For One Colour (1997), a conceptual piece lighting everything in monochrome and making viewers appear in a strange sepia netherworld. It reveals the boundlessness of this palate and grants us the freedom to wake anew to its possibility; ­­as children to a snow-blanketed world. ­­

Glint Card

A Glint card inside the monochrome Room for One Colour

Eliasson’s piece is an enchanted leveller. The chance to experience an absence of colour in reality is twinned with wonder of the monochrome world. This juxtaposition is celebrated in the experience: there’s perhaps a poetic justice that those visiting, almost without exception, take photos of a light they can usually only capture with a filter. To bathe the senses in such a delicate margin of tones is an experience not without emotion. It’s no epiphany, rather the new-old ways of seeing. These spaces makes the alternative mediums of monochrome stay with you; as good art should.

Monochrome: Painting in black and white is on at the National Gallery until February 18th 2018 

Top image: Olafur Eliasson, Room for one colour, 1997. Installation view at Moderna Museet, Stockholm 2015. Courtesy of the artist; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; neugerriemschneider, Berlin © Olafur Eliasson. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

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