The National Gallery presents a world of dark and light in its exhibition entitled Monochrome: Painting in Black and White. The exhibition explores how artists have used the power of black and white with more than fifty painted objects created over 700 years.
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 contemporary artists including Gerhard Richter, Chuck Close and Bridget Riley.
The exhibition takes visitors through five rooms which explore how artists have used painting in black, white and grey, also known as grisaille for a variety of reasons.
The earliest surviving works of Western art made in grisaille were created in the Middle Ages, often for devotional purposes. For many religious orders, simplicity and austerity was favoured and paintings in black and white took on a profound spiritual element. The first room is dominated by the large Agony in the Garden painted in 1538.
For centuries, artists have made drawings in black and white to find ways of how light and shade worked in particular compositions before committing to a full colour painting. From the Middle Ages, paintings in grisaille began to be produced as independent works of art. Generally these type of paintings were prized for the skill of the artist and their use as devotional pieces. The exhibition shows one of the most outstanding examples of grisaille oil painting with Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation Diptych (1433-35) . The Figures painted in white tones on black backgrounds resemble sculptures standing within stone niches. Other highlights in this section include works by Pablo Picasso, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Alberto Giacometti and Jan Brueghel the Elder.
Other artists produced paintings that provided decorative 3D illusions that took on the appearance of stone sculpture. Jacob de Wit excelled at this type of painting 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 began to respond to the new developments in printmaking with works that looked like a print but was actually a painting. The exhibition shows one of the finest examples of this type of painting with the exceptionally rare grisaille work by Hendrik Goltzius, Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1606) .
The invention of photography in the 19th century led to painters imitating some of the qualities of the media. 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).
Perhaps the purest form of Black and White paintings has been undertaken by Abstract and Installation artists. In 1916, Russian artist Kazimir Malevich took this to its ultimate with his revolutionary work, Black Square (1929) . A black square floating within a white-painted frame was declared to be a new kind of non-representational art. Other artists in the exhibition who have been attracted to this type of abstraction include Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly and Bridget Riley.
At the end of the exhibition, Olafur Eliasson’s large-scale, immersive light installation, Room for one colour (1997) suppresses all other light frequencies and allows visitors to enter a monochrome world.
This unusual and interesting exhibition offers the opportunity to explore an artistic world full of black, white and grey. The works on display illustrate the great strength of working with a limited palette enabling artists to experiment with the various forms, textures, light and shade. This explains why many artists create black and white drawings before committing to a full colour painting. Perhaps more surprising is that religious orders from the Middle Ages onwards saw the lack of colour as somehow more sacred. However it is probably within Abstraction that Black and White find its purest expression.
Video Review available here
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
For more information, visit the National Gallery website here
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