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Monochrome at the National Gallery

27 October 2017

38.65One of my rules when blogging about current exhibitions is to try to avoid saying the same thing as every other critic. I prefer to write before I see other reviews: easier said than done, particularly when the review in The Times appears the very morning (Thursday) I’m invited for the “press view” (the National Gallery PR team observes a strict hierarchy of previews in which money and influence play their inevitable role: they are after all how museums survive today). The difficulty is exacerbated when the topic is outside my specific expertise (but the exhibition is so broad I doubt any single person could claim otherwise) – but I try to write (or at least sketch) my pieces without reference to the press release, and ideally to form some sort of idea of what “should” be in the exhibition before I’m prejudiced by what’s actually there. That may be terribly unfair, but it’s the best way to avoid the ruts and furrows ploughed by the other third-tier hacks who are just one up from NG members (Friday).

Imagine therefore (perhaps it’s one of your nightmares) sitting down to an art history exam paper, and the question is:

Curate an exhibition called Monochrome. List a dozen items you would include, state why, and write an introductory essay (1 hour).

What you would come up with is likely to say more about you than about the subject. The variety of answers however gives you a clue as to just how enormous this topic could be. And I guarantee that none of you will have included a great many of the delightful, fascinating and instructive choices made by the curators of the present show. Nor are many of you likely to have assembled and curated your imaginary exhibition with the intelligence and humour they have brought to a show that is sure to be a success in visitor numbers (the primary metric in today’s hard-headed museum world) and at the least a talking point for all of us.

Divided into seven sections, covering seven centuries, some might even see a parallel with the V&A’s over-ambitious Opera exhibition: of that (the less said the better) I can only comment (as Schopenhauer noted) that the medium is usually unendurable since it depends on getting everything right, which happens very rarely. Opera has some interesting exhibits, but the density of those is too low.

Monochrome’s sprawling ambition is sure to include something to annoy everyone, but it has throughout plenty oTitianf plums. That might not be the mot juste – the plum after all, with its luscious deep colour, is the antithesis to the exhibition’s thesis, as we realize when we pass through the door into the third room where we encounter just that colour in Titian’s La Schiavona (National Gallery; left), whose lower right corner alone includes her invitation to this show. I can’t help a puerile observation that “plum” too is the meaning of one of the curator’s names, in a spectacular example of nominative incongruity.

But to go back to our undergraduates, what might they have suggested (it’s a safe bet that Titian would not be among them)? I gather there’s a television programme which even I don’t watch in which contestants have to guess not the answer to a question, but the answer least likely to have already been given by a group of (presumably South London bus-riding) viewers. I put down Whistler’s mother (it’s reproduced in the catalogue, but presumably couldn’t be borrowed: that its absence does not undermine the exhibition makes you realise that it is broad enough to rest on many other shoulders, and perhaps shifting some precious objects wasn’t so strictly necessary as it might be in a monographic show). Bridget Riley (yes). Yves Klein (no). I knew that people of a certain age would probably be thinking of living sculptures in Watteau, brought to life in Peter Greenaway’s films (the Pygmalion legend would surely have made an appearance); but they’ve become tacky with the pavement outside the Gallery (no). But the trendy equivalent for today’s youth must surely be Malevich’s Black Square (yes). Incidentally, it’s not square, at least not in the version shown here; and I ran out of patience trying to find out from the catalogue whether this is the same version as the one Tate Modern showed in 2014.

I also thought there might be more physics. If Malevich isn’t black enough (I checked my Russian dictionary to confirm that Malevich is close to the word for painter or dauber, and found the illustrative example “the devil is not so black as he is painted”), surely we would get examples of Vantablack, whether just as a scientific sample to illustrate its stated capacity to absorb 99.96% of incident light, or in some realization by Anish Kapoor, reported last year as having the exclusive right to paint with it? But this seems not to have made it. Perhaps this is the meaning of “exclusive right”. Or maybe it’s there, but I just didn’t see it.

We do get a physics lesson, in the form of the last room, which I felt belonged more to the Science Museum than the National Gallery. It’s witty in its way, but if you’re old enough to remember sodium street lamps the effect is very familiar. I can’t help but comment that this so-called exhibition of “painting in black and white” starts and finishes in yellow.

Indeed the curators confess that they use the terms “monochrome” and “black and white” or “greyscale” interchangeably: but they are not. Black, white and grey are all devoid of colour (at least in theory); a room illuminated with light of a single frequency is monochrome. But whatever the technicalities, as you walk round this exhibition you are constantly aware of colour trying to creep in. The caption to the Barocci sketch, for example, describes it as in “grey monochrome”, but then goes on immediately to discuss its “warm brown hues”. The British Museum’s Sine Cerere et Libero friget Venus (cat. 22) is described in the NG catalogue (where Latin however is abolished) as “chalk, ink and oil on paper”, while the BM description is “black chalk, pen in black, brush and oils in brown, grey, white, yellow and pink” [sic].

While the exhibition is beautifully designed and presented (as we have come to expect at the National Gallery), once again it is let down by the use of LED spotlighting. The whole point of the Ingres Odalisque (above, at the top of this post) is surely the delicate pink of the drapery which disappears into a mess in the harshness of this set-up. (Incidentally the Metropolitan Museum now claim that the work is exclusively autograph: “since the early 1980s there has been agreement that the work is solely by Ingres”, while the catalogue and captions here still argue for studio assistance. Is this a conscious downgrading? The Met also say that the work is unfinished, while this (I think) is not discussed in the NG catalogue.)

Needless to say the catalogue is reproduced in full colour throughout. And again it’s excellent value, although the absence of full critical apparatus as noted above is the sacrifice commerce exacts. Alternate chapters are contributed by the two curators, largely seamlessly (they evidently share a common view of the scope of the exhibition far narrower than my group of imaginary dreamers). There is some duplication – as for example on p. 71 where the concept of “dead colouring” is mentioned, and it is said that it can be traced back to 17th century Netherlands. On p. 81 the other curator comes to the same concept (without referring back), this time identifying the source as the 1604 Schilderboek. In fact (for what it’s worth) I think it goes back at least to 16th century Italy, with Lomazzo’s treatise (“…che pajono corpi senza il lucido della trasparenza, e sua vivacità…”), which Haydocke (1588) translates as “dead colours”.

My undergraduates would probably have thought about monochrome in the context of visual response to low lighting conditions (they can get plenty of practice in National Gallery exhibitions, although it would be unfair to mention the Giacometti on press day). They’d probably have listed lots of nocturnal views (more than just the Barocci). But the whole idea of modelli (which is explored in some depth) surely overlaps with the realisation of the inchoate and the power of the imagination, themes which aren’t really explored here at all fully. And while I’d promised myself (on the don’t-do-what-other-reviewers-inevitably-will) not to mention a popular BDSM novel/film, I can’t resist alluding to Diderot’s far more obscene story about the président de Brosses with his explanation for the power of the sketch.

The undergraduates will also have alluded to the old disegno v colore debate. I doubt if I alone will have been puzzled by where the lines in the sand are drawn around the exhibition’s scope. Drawing is excluded – the subject is after all “painting in black and white”: yet Goltzius’s wonderful, if bizarre, drawing in pen and ink over chalk (cat. 46) is included. If the argument is that the support is prepared canvas which in one sense makes it a painting, then why are works on paper allowed? Unless of course anything that takes your fancy and is interesting enough…

But for me the intellectual thesis of an exhibition on painting in monochrome would surely be based around a schema in which colour is on the horizontal axis (running from black and white to full colour), while drawing/painting is on the vertical axis (running from graphic lines to fully modelled surfaces). So drawing (bottom left) is excluded, as is full colour painting (top right). (I suppose bottom right would include paintings by Piet Mondrian…but that is certainly a different story.) But top left should include surfaces modelled in a single hue in any two dimensional medium. For me that includes media like mezzotint, whose raison d’être is the exploration of light and shade.

Oddly however (apart from a passing allusion on p. 155) the exhibition ignores mezzotint, but has quite a lot about reproductive line engraving. We also have the trompe-l’œil by Étienne Moulinneuf (incidentally, p. 151, there is no doubt about his date of birth – 30 December 1706, in Marseille – since the 1969 article on his father) which seemed to attract a good deal of interest at the press view. Of course the whole point of this is that it only makes sense because of the tinge of green he is able to capture to depict the broken glass. This genre (which the catalogue might leave you thinking was Moulinneuf’s alone) was very popular at the time, if somewhat forgotten now; in one dictionary “verre cassé” is a synonym for a trompe l’œil painting. Moulinneuf certainly didn’t invent it; I think that title goes to Gaspard Gresly, who applied the same treatment to Dupin’s print after Watteau of Les Enfants de Silène.

My fictional students might also have recollected ways in which clever cross-hatching in monochrome drawings can create the illusion of colours – whatever you may think of the origins of the drawing known as the Bella Principessa (and I do not suggest it should have been borrowed), the scientific analysis demonstrated the trick remarkably.

When you remove hue from painting, one looks for other ways to engage the senses. Curiously the word “haptic” occurs in Olafur Eliasson’s essay but not elsewhere (or if it did, I missed it): yet this is precisely what I felt was missing in, for example, the trompe-l’œil section. Patrick Baty’s recent Anatomy of Colour whets your appetite for more on the texture of oil paint. But what about pastel? How wonderful it would have been to discover Liotard’s lost–

pastel d’un bas relief de platre pendu sur une tapisserie de damas bleu, representant des enfants qui jouent avec une chevre, cizeaux pendus, et une fiolle avec une huile suptile.

Pillement Blauerhof 18Indeed many of Liotard’s trompe-l’œil and cameos which have survived would have brought the question of texture to the fore. Pastel and oil paint of the same hue are really quite different. Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s pastel of Canova’s studio would have been absolutely relevant (if too hazardous to move). But so too would have been the blue scenes (left) and winter landscapes of Pillement, or the so-called grisaille pastels developed by the Irish school (Frye, Healy – the Castletown Hunt below – etc.) and perfected by Joseph Wright (seventeenth-century plumbago portraits might also be mentioned). The development of other forms of soft black chalk (Citoyen Coiffier‘s crayon noir-de-velours, Conté crayon etc.) all converge with mezzotint in a chapter explored in Noir, the recent exhibition at the Getty which this show avoids more or less entirely.

Healy Castletown hunt

Monochrome will get people talking. It will show people many things they don’t know, and show some they do in a different light. It is perhaps too much to ask for a tighter focus, but if I had to sacrifice something it would be the last three rooms. There is an unmistakable twentieth-century creep appearing inexorably at the National Gallery which I hope can be resisted. Leave that to Tate.

Postscript (30 October)

My attention has been drawn to the exhibition Gray is the color: an exhibition of grisaille painting, XIIIth-XXth centuries held at the Rice Museum, Houston, October 1973 – January 1974, curated by Patrice Marandel. It is referred to in the bibliography of the present exhibition, although I had not seen it when I wrote the piece above: I would probably have noted (in assessing the ingenuity of the choices) that it includes a closer selection of objects than my imaginary undergraduates might have chosen. (The catalogue is available to consult online at, although you do have to register to do so.) It’s not just that some twenty artists are present in both exhibitions, but it too starts with stained glass, proceeds to illuminated manuscripts and even embraces the verre-cassé pictures I mention above (albeit with different examples). Curious.


From → Art history

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