THIS AUTUMN the National Gallery will exhibit Monochrome: Painting in Black and White. The collection of more than 50 painted objects explores the use of shadow and light, over the past 700 years, analysing what happens without colour and the compelling use of black and white.
The exhibition, showing paintings and drawing, unites works of the old masters such as Jan van Eyck and Rembrandt with contemporary artists including Gerhard Richter and Chuck Close. The major, worldwide loans allow Monochrome to give an insight into the use and choice of colour, or lack of it. Each of the five rooms shows the viewer a different aspect of grisaille – black, white and grey painting.
Curators of Monochrome, Leila Packer and Jennifer Sliwka remark, “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.” Devoid of colour, artists can focus greatly on form and texture within the work.
Jacob de Wit, Jupiter and Ganymede, 1739, Oil on canvas, 36.9 × 55.5 cm © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums
Some of the earliest Western artworks in grisaille date back to the Middle Ages, for the purpose of focusing the mind and for spiritual connection. For some religious orders avoiding colour was a form of self-discipline, in the 12th century French Cistercian monks created grey stained-glass windows, with images painted in black and yellow.
From the 15th century, artists used black and white to simplify challenges when drawing their desired subject. The lack of colour allowed the artist to focus solely on light and shade, these studies could even act as a reusable template.
The question for many artists was how to replicate stone sculptures on canvas. Highly decorative and illustrative art, including wall paintings and sculpted stucco, popular in the 15th and 16th century, Northern Europe brought attention to works such as Jupiter and Ganymede by Jacob de Wit, 1739. With the development of printmaking, to fascinate audiences’ artists paintings would often replicate a printed work. The later development of film and photography, beginning in 1839, prompted artists to recreate the effects of this media to respond or challenge specific elements created in the photograph.
In time, grisaille developed from a tool used to assist the painting, into a complete and independent work. As the pieces were inspired, so well considered and demonstrative of the artists skill they became highly demanded.
Hendrik Goltzius, Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze, 1599. Chalk, ink and oil on paper, 43.5 × 32.1 cm. The British Museum, London © The Trustees of The British Museum
Colour used by an artist as well as light and space can manipulate viewer reactions and emotions. In abstractions and installations, an absence of colour can often be more thought-provoking.
Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery explains, “Artists choose to use black and white for aesthetic, emotional and sometimes even for moral reasons. The historical continuity and diversity of monochrome from the Middle Ages to today demonstrate how crucial a theme it is in western art.”
by Pierra George-Robertson
Front Page 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
Book tickets for Monochrome: Painting in Black and White
Admission is charged. Members and under 12s free
The exhibition will be open from October 30, 2017 until February 18, 2018
The collection will be displayed in the Sainsbury Wing of The National Gallery, London WC2N 5DN
The exhibition is organised by the National Gallery in collaboration with Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf and is supported by Howard and Roberta Ahmanson and other donors