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Monochrome: Painting in Black and White

The National Gallery exhibits a vast range of works undertaken in black and white.

To take the use of colour as the subject of an exhibition is bold. In 2014, The National Gallery hosted an exhibition entitled ‘Making Colour’ that took attendees through a variety of themed rooms, exploring the use of particular colours like cobalt and lapus lazuli. In this exhibition ‘Monochrome: Painting in Black and White’ the ends of the colour spectrum dominate the Sainsbury Wing.

Though the importance of these colours may not immediately strike the viewer as ripe for exploration, over the course of these rooms the apparent simplicity is revealed to be surprisingly slippery; the curators prove here that not only it is surprisingly varied, but that it speaks to the concerns fundamental to making anything.  Whilst the artists collected here are certainly eclectic, moving from Durer and Breughel to Giacometti and Riley and covering a wide range of subjects, the unifying theme of the expressiveness of black and white links these works together in new ways. Moreover, black, white and grey are revealed as central to the very inception of painting and human expression.

The exhibition opens on two rooms on the subjects of sacred paintings and studies in light and shadow. There are two images particularly that stand out: Gustave Moreau’s ‘Diomedes devoured by his horses’ and Van Eyck’s ‘Saint Barbara’. Both paintings mix painted canvas with portions left unfinished. Whilst Moreau’s painting was still displayed by the painter with these patches left ‘unfinished’ – the unpainted canvas still exposed as patches of brighter white – the Van Eyck is a little more difficult to pin down, with scholars in disagreement about whether the painting was supposed to be left unpainted. Irregardless, this exquisite drawing is clearly a work of immense skill. In these two early examples, black and white is not simply what happens when an artist chooses not to introduce colour, but what happens when they expose the very foundations of the painting’s make up.

Detail from Jan van Eyck, Saint Barbara, 1437 Silverpoint, india ink and oil on panel, 31 x 18 cm. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp © [url=‐Art]‐Art[/url] in Flanders vzw, photo Hugo Maertens.

This is an exhibition deeply involved in the history of painting. The objects that have been collected cover a period over 700 years; the curators have clearly sought to explore a variety of aspects of art history, exposing dialogues across varying artistic media and amongst paintings themselves.  The ‘Monochrome painting and sculpture’ room explores the historical relationship between painting and sculpture, specifically the replication of sculptural reliefs by painters. Throughout these examples, the paintings attempt to exactly capture the look and shape of a carved relief: in the case of Jacob de Wit’s extraordinary ‘Jupiter and Ganymede’, the play of white and grey renders the painting almost indistinguishable from a three-dimensional carving.

There are several images that are either in dialogue with others on display, or with other well-known paintings. There is for example a black and white version of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s ‘Odalisque’ rendered in so-called ‘grisaille’ from between 1824-34. In this version, Ingres has simplified the background and the use of white makes the woman’s lounging body appear luminescent. Though painting in grisaille is often thought to be for engravers in the future, the intended aim of this image is still unclear. Picasso’s version of the Infanta Margarita Maria from Velasquez’s ‘Las Meninas’, rendered in thick lines of black, white and grey, explores the possibility of representation and form, as well as playing with the familiarity with the image more generally.  In both examples, the artists are involved in conversation with other paintings; by circumventing the complexities of colour, they forefront the play of light and shape at work in each brushstroke.

The exhibition also includes a range of more contemporary work, similarly included for the conversations they create. A highlight is the inclusion of two pieces that explore the effects of photography on painting. The first is ‘Helga Matura with her fiancé’, Gerhard Richter’s enormous reproduction of a newspaper image of a murdered woman sitting on the lap of a man. Richter is famous for his reproductions of newspaper images, rendered in bleeding blacks, greys and whites that make the image appear blurry and shaky, as if seen through frosted glass. The artist plays with the easy recognition of infamous images by asking what happens when they are made into works of art. Chuck Close similarly transforms a photograph into a painting: the curators exhibit the original photograph of the sitter next to the large-scale version. On the canvas, Close has rendered each pixel visible, made up minute patterns: like earlier paintings both Richter and Close expose the processes of making at heart in each painting.

The final room is an installation by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Eliasson is probably best known for his popular The weather project installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in 2003 and often works with light and temperature to create immersive works that transforms your experience of colour. By using yellow monofrequency tubes, Room For One Colour (1998) totally transforms your experience of light so that the entire room and its contents appear monochrome.

The strength of this exhibition lies in its variety, and the dialogues it seeks to introduce across several hundred years of painting.  Like many of the exhibitions at the National Gallery, it does not patronise its viewer, but instead asks them to make connections across the history of painting to suggest new and innovative dialogues.
Monochrome: Painting in Black and White is at the National Gallery until 18 February. Tickets from £10.