Monochrome: Painting in black and white @ the National Gallery

A delightful and thoughtful idea: 60 or so works from the entire history of Western art, painted on glass, vellum, ceramic, silk, wood, and canvas, which are devoid of colour, and styled solely in black and white and shades of grey.

As with any themed exhibition, the assembled works help you do several things:

  1. ‘explore’ the theme and its subsidiary ideas, as laid out and guided by the curators
  2. just enjoy rare or otherwise unavailable paintings or objects for themselves, in their own right.

Thus alongside some pretty rare and recondite works, demonstrating the range of ways artists have used black and white – for technical or competitive reasons – there’s also a large number of knockout pieces by super-famous names such as van Eyck, Van Dyck, Titian, Ingres, Picasso, Malevich, Giacometti, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns and more.

Academic

I’ve read criticisms that the show is a bit academic with some pretty obscure academic bypaths, but I’m quite academic so I liked it a lot. What I mean is that the curators have used some out-of-the-way – and not premier league – works to illustrate different ways artists through history have used black and white imagery, or to explain the development of artistic techniques.

Some critics have said they should have dropped the dodgy works and stuffed the rooms with masterpieces. But that’s what I like about it. The curators have made a list of ways and techniques artists used black and white and then looked for the best ways to illustrate these ideas, techniques and media (the show includes sculpture, prints and photos as well as paintings).

In doing so they have also managed to secure the loan of some masterpieces rarely seen in the UK, for example from the Met in New York and the Hermitage in Petersburg. So the 61 pieces on display are an entertaining combination of the super-famous, the arcane and obscure and ‘rare opportunities to see’.

And it’s small. 61 pieces. At least two of these are in little sets of two or three (a painting and a print of it, a painting and a statue of it) so the actual number is closer to 50 original works.

And small is beautiful because a lot of the pieces have quite a story behind them or represent an entire historical epoch’s use of black and white. They require quite a bit of reading (or listening on the audio guide) to understand. So 50 pieces turns out to be quite enough to fill the average brain with a wealth of historical facts, and to take in quite a few stunning masterpieces.

Less is more. Quite quickly you can identify the pieces you really like and really concentrate on them. I returned at the end to look long and deep at the van Eyck diptych and the Boucher sketch, feasting my eyes, admiring every wonderful detail.

The effect of black and white

Put simply, art in black and white omits the ‘distraction’ of colour and brings out the essential shape and form of the objects depicted. It highlights the use of light and shade. And it brings out the objects’ spatial relationships. Pose and posture, light and shade, shape and impact – these are all foregrounded when colour is switched off.

It would be neat to say what art in black and white does, but this very historical, chronological approach shows that in fact art in black and white has performed a whole range of functions, in different times and places and societies.

N.B. grisaille is the French term given to works done entirely in shades of gris i.e. grey.

A history of black and white

But the history of black and white is vastly more complex than that.

The colour of Christian penitence and mortification

In medieval times Christian religion was dominant across all aspects of life and culture in a way we can’t really imagine nowadays. The first room gives three distinct and fascinating examples.

In France, on order of monks banned colour illustrations. It was decreed that stained glass and manuscript illustrations must be in monochrome, to avoid inflaming and distracting the senses from the word of God. The show includes an example of a b&w stained glass from 1320, and a contemporaneous manuscript. This severe ‘look’ became popular in the French court and inspired a fashion for secular subjects drawn without colour. And this insight, that omitting colour from a visual work makes viewers focus on the subject and/or form, rather than on distracting and colourful details, echoes down to our own day.

In a separate genre, many altarpieces, particularly smaller diptychs designed to be moved from place to place (to accompany the king or a senior churchman) were made up of outer panels which opened on hinges to reveal the scene within. The tradition grew up of doing the outer panel in black and white to suggest the world before the revelation of Jesus, before it was suffused with Christian meaning – and then you opened the diptych to reveal the Birth of Jesus in glorious colour. In a world bereft of artificially coloured objects this must have had a dazzling impact.

There are several examples, one by Hans Memling, the other The Annunciation Diptych by Jan van Eyck. God, I love the art of the Northern Renaissance. Looking closely you can see that the figures of the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary are reflected in the black background, making the images appear strongly three-dimensional. And note the way the angel’s right wing stretches out over the picture frame, moving into three dimensional space. What a god!

The Annunciation Diptych (The Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Mary), about 1433–5 by Jan van Eyck © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

The Annunciation Diptych (The Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Mary) (1433–5) by Jan van Eyck © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Yet another use for black and white is demonstrated by the biggest and most spectacular exhibit. Some churches used enormous black and white coverings to hang over their walls to hide the colour paintings during sober seasons of the year, most obviously Lent. The curators have secured an enormous wall-sized hanging from Genoa. In actual fact it isn’t strictly speaking black and white; it has a strong blue tinge and the commentary explains that this kind of fabric, made in the Italian city of Genoa, was referred to by French artists as Gênes, the French name for Genoa, from which we get our modern word ‘jeans’. But that’s not really the point – the point is the way black and white was used as a mournful, penitent colour in Christian iconography.

Preparatory sketches

Centuries later, once Europe had struggled free of the religious wars sparked by the Reformation, cultural epochs later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, we have many examples of artists using black and white oil paintings as preparatory sketches. These could be used:

  • for an artist to make sure he was happy with his composition, with the disposition of forms in space, and to clarify where and how light should fall – especially important when the commission was for a fresco or ceiling on which light would naturally fall
  • to show a patron on a small scale what they would be getting for their money
  • as a teaching aid to pupils in the Master’s workshop

After all these years I know my own taste, and know that I love sketches with a strong sense of line. Thus I returned again and again to this wonderful black and white oil sketch by François Boucher. It brings out the weight of the composition (weighted towards the bottom right, growing emptier as you head top left), flecks of white highlight the direction of the light source, burnishing details (like the rim of the shield in the bottom right).  Nothing to do with black and white, a survey of the 50 works here shows that faces are difficult. The faces in the Rembrandt painting later in the show are, well, not great, and I don’t like the Titian portrait. Here, Boucher’s sketchy suggestion of the faces seem to me spot on, as much as you need and let the creating brain complete the image.

Vulcan's Forge (Vulcan presenting Venus with Arms for Aeneas) (1756) by François Boucher © Paris, Les Arts Décoratifs / Jean Tholance

Vulcan’s Forge (Vulcan presenting Venus with Arms for Aeneas) (1756) by François Boucher © Paris, Les Arts Décoratifs / Jean Tholance

There were so many black and white oil sketches that they created a separate market, especially among artists themselves, to study the compositional style and technique of their rivals.

This thought brings us to the centrepiece of room two and maybe the most impressive work of grisaille in the exhibition – a reworking by Ingres of his famous Odalisque, but entirely in black and white.

(This is one of the precious loan works, a rare opportunity to see a painting which is normally resident in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Ingres was obsessed by this image. He made several full colour paintings of it but we know that he kept this black and white version by his side for over a decade. Important features include:

  • the way lots of the decorative elements of the finished colour painting have been stripped away, to reveal not only the shape of the woman’s body but the other key elements of the composition, namely the floor tiles and the curtains
  • the way some of it is not even finished, namely the goldeny strip beneath her flank and bottom.

Both these facts suggest that Ingres used it as a teaching aid in his studio, for his large number of pupils. And, on a purely subjective view, the more you look at her body the more you realise it is strangely out of proportion: her flank and bottom look more like a horse’s.

It is the quintessential grisaille, the work which stands as the summit of previous black and white and influences successive generations of artists.

Odalisque in Grisaille (1824-34) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

Odalisque in Grisaille (1824-34) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

Trompe l’oeil

‘Fooling the eye’. As it reached maturity Western art became interested (among thousands of other things) in the ability of flat oil paintings to fool the eye, create optical illusions, give a sense of three dimensions. You really had to look close up to be sure this wasn’t a relief, naturally shedding shadows onto incised forms. But it isn’t. It’s a two dimensional painting.

Jupiter and Ganymede (1739) by Jacob de Wit © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

Jupiter and Ganymede (1739) by Jacob de Wit © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

There’s an extraordinary little cluster of three works based on a genre painting by Chardin of a woman just back from the market with her shopping, painted in 1742. A printmaker named Bernard Lépicié made a black and white print of it – so far, so standard.

But then a painter named Etienne Moulinneuf made a black and white painting of the identical subject, based on the Lépicié print, but painted as if it had a glass cover to it, which has been smashed. It’s an extraordinary piece of trompe l’oeil, which is why it’s in this room, but also a bizarre thing to do. More like something Marcel Duchamp would have done than an eighteenth century painter.

Back from the Market (La Pourvoyeuse), about 1770 by Etienne Moulinneuf after Jean-Siméon Chardin. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California © Museum Associates / LACMA

Back from the Market (La Pourvoyeuse), about 1770 by Etienne Moulinneuf after Jean-Siméon Chardin. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California © Museum Associates / LACMA

Nearby is a little grouping based round a statue the great sculptor was commissioned to make of Christ being taken down from the cross. In the end it was never taken forward, but a pupil of Canova’s painted an awesomely realistic painting of what the sculpture would look like, complete with incredibly persuasive sense of light and shade; and next to it the curators have placed a miniature statue made by a later sculptor based on the painting, which is incredibly identical even down to the highlights and shadows.

It’s not a great work but, as explained above, it is a convincing example of an interesting historical development or issue. Because this section explains that in the 18th century there blew up quite a debate between painters and sculptors about who was best. In Italian the debate was called il paragone and this small room also includes masterpieces by Titian and Mantegna in which they strive to prove that painting was better because

  1. it could render size and weight and form and light and shadow just as well as sculpture
  2. it could render shades of colour infinitely better

Prints

A whole section is devoted to prints and print-making. A detailed oil sketch by Rembrandt is juxtaposed with a black and white print of the same subject, along with amusing gossip about how he couldn’t stop interfering with the printer’s work. There is an enormous print of Hercules by Hendrik Goltzius, and a vast pen and ink work by him depicting Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1599).

The curators were telling us something important about how artists, and Goltzius in particular, used the techniques of etching and print-making to rival oil painting for detail, but my mind’s eye glazed over a little. I noted details, such as the way the artist has included himself, lurking among the bushes to the left of Ceres (goddess of the earth). And also the mundane fact that this is an enormous image and is on rare loan from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. But you can’t get worked up about everything in an exhibition. Finding out what you do and don’t like is part of the fun.

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

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

The impact of photography

The impact of photography on traditional art is a subject which could fill hundreds of rooms in a gallery, it is so immense.

In line with the curators’ tasteful minimalism there were only a handful of works here – a pioneering photo of the sea juxtaposed with a black and white painting of the sea, to make the point about how photography began to encroach on figurative art right from its invention in the 1930s.

Nearby is a wondrous black and white oil painting of a young girl, included to indicate that it was the lucrative career of portrait painter which was the first to be undermined and then superseded by photography. The idea is that photography compelled some artists to try and capture photographic realism in their own works (before they realised it was impossible to compete and turned to other strategies).

But, like many other works in this lovely exhibition, it is not only making an art historical point, it is a quite stunning work of art in its own right.

Head of a Girl (1867) by Célestin Joseph Blanc © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Head of a Girl (1867) by Célestin Joseph Blanc © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Modern art

And then – boom! – we are in the modern epoch. The most powerful images from ‘the Modernist imperative’ include a characteristically intense grisaille portrait by Giacometti (familiar to anyone who attended the National Portrait Gallery’s recent Giacometti portrait exhibition).

And this work by Picasso. Late in life (in the 1950s when he was in his 70s) Picasso undertook an immense project to repainting his interpretations of Las Meninas, painted by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez in 1656.

As it happens I saw the world’s biggest collection of these obsessive reworkings in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona a few months ago. The more you look the more intensely powerful they seem, the more you share Picasso’s penetrating vision and ability to rework and remodel a subject.

And so this exhibition includes just one from the 44 variations, an intense close-up of the little girl at the front of the Velázquez picture, as an example of how immensely powerful a purely black and white painting can be in the modern idiom.

Las Meninas (Infanta Margarita María) 1957 by Pablo Picasso © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2017 / Photo: Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Photograph: Gasull Fotografia

Las Meninas (Infanta Margarita María) 1957 by Pablo Picasso © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2017 / Photo: Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Photograph: Gasull Fotografia

The Picasso is in a different room but chronologically sits just before other modern works by:

  • Gerhard Richter (big black and white painting based on a press photo of a murdered prostitute)
  • Vija Celmins (the night sky – black with white stars)
  • Chuck Close ( a big portrait of art dealer Joel Shapiro)

New monsters / Abstraction

And then the final room of paintings is devoted to abstract works in black and white. Completely abstract painting is often said to stem from Kazimir Malevich’s iconic black square.

Black Square (1929) by Kazimir Malevich © The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Black Square (1929) by Kazimir Malevich © The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

He made several versions. One is hanging here and the curators explain how Malevich considered himself to have arrived at a kind of reduction ad absurdum of Western painting, a kind of ‘ground zero’, reducing all painting to this one primal image – black on white. At its first exhibition in 1915, Malevich hung the square high up in the corner of the gallery, where the coloured icon should be in a Russian Orthodox home, indicating that it was a new kind of modernist icon, replacing all previous attempts at figuration. As news of it spread, it had an immense influence on the rest of 20th century art.

(A story comprehensively told in the Whitechapel gallery’s 2015 exhibition, Adventures of the Black Square)

The other works in the room were more intriguing because I didn’t know them. These included a late (untitled) work by Jasper Johns, made of two panels folded closed and painted with his trademark grey flagstone surface (the closed panels referencing the diptychs from way back in the 15th century). We also learn that Johns was at least part inspired to paint so many grey works by repeated visits to study the Ingres Odalisque earlier in the show. Also:

  • Grey Mirror by Gerhard Richter (1992)
  • an example of Cy Twombly’s ‘blackboard’ paintings from the 1970s
  • Tomlinson Court Park I by Frank Stella (1959)

 

And this work of Op Art by the great Bridget Riley:

Horizontal Vibration (1961) by Bridget Riley © Bridget Riley 2017. All rights reserved

Horizontal Vibration (1961) by Bridget Riley © Bridget Riley 2017. All rights reserved

A room devoted to proving that works in black and white can be just as powerful as coloured paintings and, in fact, have a mystique and an atmosphere all their won.

Room for one colour

The final room is a startling surprise. It is an installation by Olafur Eliasson. The ceiling of an empty room  is hung with orange sodium lights, like street lights. That’s it. But the result is dramatic: orange light drains all the colour from everyone seen in it – all the fixtures of the room and all the visitors, forcing the eye to focus on just shapes and shades of grey. There weren’t too many people in the room when I was there and they didn’t like being studied as intensely as I’d have liked to – but I take the point.

It’s a dazzling and completely unexpected climax to a show which has included all kinds of strange and wonderful works and shed light on a range of issues and ideas in art which I’d never heard of.

Some general points

Colour, actually

Actually, the exhibition wasn’t all in monochrome. Quite a few of the works here did include colour of one sort or another. The early religious grisaille glass panel included lines of yellow. The vast church wall covering was done on a blue background which came through. The Titian Mantegna are full of colour. The van Eyck diptych had a colour painting inside, and the Rembrandt – supposedly a monochrome sketch – was mostly made of shades of brown.

Now I just happen to have visited Royal West of England Academy’s annual exhibition a month or so ago, and this show has got into the habit of featuring one room containing only black and white art – paintings, drawing, photos, sculptures and so on. The walls were white and it was actually quite atmospheric to enter a room decorated intensely, but only with black or white or shades of grey.

Installation view of RWA 165

Installation view of RWA 165

Compared to that really purist experience, most of the rooms here included some elements of colour, except for the very final room, composed solely of slick, clean, modern monochromes. And this consistency (of size actually) and of black and white, made it in a way the most persuasive room, viewed solely as art – as opposed to interesting examples from art history.

Women

Having recently read Whitney Chadwick’s enormous book about women artists and feminist art theory – Women, Art and Society – I am now highly sensitised to feminist issues in art. The obvious ones are: Are there any women artists in the show? How are women portrayed in the show?

Well, I counted 61 art works in total (though some of them were ‘repeats’ as explained above). Of these only three were by women – Marlene Dumas, Bridget Riley, Vija Celmins.

As to women portrayed in the exhibition, quite a few in various formats, but as to women portrayed semi-naked and so potentially victims of the male gaze I counted eight. After a bit of thought I decided ‘semi-naked’ means you can see their boobs.

Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1599) by Hendrik Goltzius © The Trustees of The British Museum

Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1599) by Hendrik Goltzius © The Trustees of The British Museum

There were two naked men: a big powerful sketch by Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau of naked Diomedes fighting with wild horses; and Hendrik Goltzius’s engraving of the Great Hercules (1589). Apparently Goltzius was the leading Dutch engraver of the early Baroque period, although I didn’t warm at all to this image except as an example of the kind of clumpy figure illustration you get for a lot of literary classics from the 16th or 17th centuries. A contemporary criticised Goltzius’s figures for looking like a bag of walnuts. Hard to disagree. I was particularly worried by his walnutty penis (it’s a big image and his shrivelled pecker is at eye-level).

The Great Hercules (1589) by Hendrik Goltzius © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photographer: Studio Buitenhof, The Hague

The Great Hercules (1589) by Hendrik Goltzius © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photographer: Studio Buitenhof, The Hague

The video

The National Gallery has made a brief introductory video to the show, but here’s a recording of a 50-minute lecture given by the co-curators, which gives you a flavour of the art, the ideas and of them, and also an interesting insight into the world of curating, at the effort it takes to secure loans, the trials and tribulations of getting works sent to you, and the way an exhibition like this is conceived, planned and executed.

And here’s a video by the band The Monochrome Set simply because their name has ‘monochrome’ in it 🙂


Related links

Press reviews

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. Ah, you’ve persuaded me to take the time to go and see this (Degas was a definite) so thank you

    Reply
  2. omordah1

     /  May 10, 2019

    Very informative. I would have liked to have seen the black and white exhibit in person. Also I’ll be on the lookout for Women, Art and Society!

    Reply

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