Monochrome – Painting in Black and White – Van Eyck to Gerhard Richter
This Friday I set off with India and Maggie to see the exhibition at the National Gallery.
It is a must!
The title might not excite most, but any painter will know how alluring this subject can be. Ironic that the Colour exhibition held in the same rooms only 3 years did not include black and white as colours.
For us as painters we often limit ourselves to tonal paintings, often just using umbre or black and white as an exercise. The exhibition analyses the many reasons for which artists might reduce their colour palate, and the effects and consequences.
At London Fine Art Studios we encourage students to draw in charcoal first, so that they can understand the importance of values (light and dark) in creating form. From charcoal we move onto oils, but remain within this reduced colour palette. In this way we can learn how to create form and a likeness through values (light and dark / black and white), without the added complication of colour. This stage of painting is known as grisaille which comes from the French gris meaning grey. A grisailles can be painted in an earth tone, or in black & white. Having been to the amazing Zorn exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris I have been using a limited palette, reducing my colours to red, ochre, black and white. Having seem this exhibition I might go further still and take out the red and ochre.
Still-life two cups. I reduced the subject to 3 colours, took out the handles and the pattern. I wanted the light and paint quality to be the focus.
Can the light and dark and the paint quality be as arresting as colour?
The exhibition tells the story of black and white painting from Van Eyck to Richter, from scared spaces to Jasper Johns and an immersive Danish piece.
The wall panels are very clear as is the exhibition lay out, which has the rooms themed and follow a rough chronology which naturally goes with the development of the themes.
There are many reasons for which artists and those commissioning them used monochrome painting in religious paintings, as a form of simplification to allow for prayer and meditation, in monastic spaces to clear out the clutter and opulence of everyday life, and to quieten and focus the mind.
Monochrome painting was also balanced alongside colour paintings, as framing device and for story-telling emphasising different aspects of a story.
The Nativity scene is here painted by Petrus Christus in exquisite colour, in contrast to the Old testament surround which frames the nativity. The stories from the Old Testament are painted as if they are carved sculptures surrounding the living Nativity.
This distinction between the Holy Family and the Saints is again shown in Hans Memling’s The Donne Triptych. The outside panels of Saint Christopher and St Anthony Abbot, are painted on oak in monochrome, as if they were sculpted figurines. We open the triptych up to the rich oil colours and Holy Family, no longer portrayed in a sculpted niche but within an intricate interior with views to a detailed and peaceful landscape.
Agony in the Garden is a wonderful painting over 4meters tall on indigo cloth/ canvas painted with white. We are more used to painting tone on white cloth or canvas. This effect is very powerful, like a daguerreotype. The indigo cloth here is what the Geonese often used. The French called the Geonese Les Genes, hence the word Jeans!
In reducing colour we manage to make the image more ethereal.
Studies in Light and shade.
If I had been asked before going to the exhibition why artists worked in monochrome, my answer would have been all about technique and methodology. Artists often used grisailles or monochrome as a stepping stone in the process to work out the composition in terms of values and the fall of light. This could be done on the final surface, canvas, or as a separate preparatory work on linen, wood panel or paper.
Beccafumi’s study of Saint Matthew painted with tempera and emulsion on card is more alive and painterly than the final piece which was painted in full colour for Pisa Cathedral. As these works prove, colour can be a wonderful addition, but in no way is it a necessity.
When we think of Boucher we think of his form and his delicious sense of colour. In this painting Vulcan’s Forge it is all design and value patterns. The design of rhythms, composition and patterns. He would often give this subject to his students as it offers so many design possibilities. The commission was ultimately for a tapestry. Boucher painted the grisailles, the he painted it in full colour for the tapestry weavers.
Many of the grisailles sketches were collected by artists; to us painters it is obvious why we find the purification and simplification of a subject more interesting.
The following room takes it to another level, showing how artists use painting in grisailles or monochrome independently of the final painting, as artworks in their own right.
Ingres’s painting of the Odalisque in Grisailles is a sumptuous work. It would make a wonderful spot-the-difference for both children and adults. Not only spot-the-difference but why the difference? The most intriguing aspect of this painting is that he painted it 10 years after the original Grand Odalisque which now hangs in the Louvre. Here he rethinks the composition, stripping away the colour, the background, the objects, reducing the painting to its most essential. And of course its most essential is always the values and shapes, not the colour and detail. This is an essential lesson for any student, and indeed it was in his workshop when he died, for Ingres had many students passing through his studios and he must have used this painting as a learning tool.
Jan Van Eyck’s Saint Barbara has always remained a mystery. Was this just an underpainting? But the frame is contemporary. Is this the first monochrome painted as an image in its own right, and not as a learning tool or preparatory sketch?
Maternity Eugene Carriere. One could not have a monochrome exhibition and not include a work of Eugene Carriere. I always use him as an example in our studios. I love the reduction and simplification of his works to values, and harmonious tonality. Testament to his skill and genius is the fact that Rodin had quite few of his paintings at his home; they were great friends and admirers of each others work, often collaborating together.
There is so much more to say about this room and the other works, I’ll deliberately skim past the Picasso’s insult to Velazquez and Giacometti’s proof that he should have kept to sculpture.
The next room discusses the debate of Paragone, (italian for comparison) which was the Renaissance debate amongst artist as to which was the greatest art form; sculpture or painting. Even Pliny the Elder used the term color lapidum (stone-coloured) or grisailles painting. The use of paint to describe sculpture relief is not new!
I have always loved Titian’s paintings and in this portrait of La Schiavone he clearly settles the Paragone debate, displaying the difference between the painted portrait of the lady and the painted sculptural relief. It is evident to us which side of the debate he was on.
Monochrome painting was even used as a tool for sculptors. Canova commissioned Nocchi to paint a monochrome relief of his Deposition. This was for him to see how the composition would work and the fall of light, before the work on the big marble relief began. The grisailles painting would have a dual purpose; for the sculptor Canova as a visual tool and for the clients to help them see the final painting. Sadly the final piece was never realised.
Monochrome paintings were also produced for etchers and print makers to copy. As with Rembrandt’s Ecce Homo, his painting marks are less painterly but more descriptive for a printmaker. Artists knew the advantage of having prints, in order to promote and disseminate their works. Jan van Vliet’s etching is very true to the original. It is interesting that Rembrandt despite being such a master etcher, also uses other artist to reproduce his works.
Chardin painted Back from the market on several occasions, as it was so popular. It was also translated into an engraving by Lepicie and then ingeniously parodied by Etienne Moulinneuf in an oil on canvas. Moulinneuf painted the trompe l’oeil as if it were an engraving with the glass broken, including the indentation of the paper from the press. This highlights his virtuosity with paint while breaking our simple understanding of the visual illusion. I had to go up close to the painting to understand the extent of its illusions. It really is a clever piece of artifice.
The rooms are themed to explain artists reasons for using monochrome, which also happens to be more or less chronological. In the next room the impact of film and photography is felt. There is a beautifully broad and energetic landscape the Tempest by Peder Balke, which he painted for himself. His usual works were larger with a tonal use of colour.
The energy of this painting must surely owe to the results of new photographic techniques, as with Gustave Le Gray’s wonderful Great Wave.
At the studios Chris Gray loves monochrome (in his art not his life). He is also our etching tutor..is there an coincidence to their names?
Celestine Blance’s painting carries on the irony. Can our name dictate our style? Her portrait of the Head of a girl is so soft and silent. Is its peace amplified by the lack of colour? It is also so like my daughter’s likeness. Are artists here responding to photography with black and white paintings? Despite what the label next to the painting suggests, the image does not have a stiffness like an early photograph, but a beautiful stillness.
The penultimate room looks at abstraction in black and white. It does make sense that in the distillation and reduction of colour, we will also get the distillation and reduction of subject matter into abstraction. Malevich claimed he was the first true abstract artist. This painting of the Black Square is powerful and proves the abstract debate with a perfect distillation and balance.
There are many great abstract paintings in this room, and within the context of this exhibition, they somehow have more to say. I love the way Bridget Riley, Cy Twombly’s and Elsworth Kelly’s paintings express such varying moods from each other with the same pigments within the same decade.
I urge you to go and see the show. You will learn so much about why artist worked in monochrome, the beauty and power of monochrome, the infinite possibilities of simplicity.
I won’t go into too much detail about the last room, but for me it perfectly continues the dialogue of monochromatic art in a playful and exploratory way, just what art needs!