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 by Anders Sune Berg)

LONDON — Monochrome: Painting in Black and White sounds a soul-sappingly dry subject for survey, and an unlikely choice for the National Gallery’s autumn schedule. Grayscale cannot be treated in the same manner as the gallery’s 2014 blockbuster Making Colour, which explored the physical properties and histories of selected pigments pivotal to painting. Criticism of this exhibition has (perhaps inevitably) featured complaints at perceived glaring omissions: Alison Cole labels the absence of Picasso’s Guernica “the elephant in the room” (despite the absolute certainty that it will never leave the Reina Sofía), and Jonathan Jones calls the show “a sum of exclusions as much as it is a display of works.”

Jan van Eyck “The Annunciation Diptych (The Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Mary)” (about 1433–5), oil on panel, left wing 38.8 × 23.2 cm, right wing 39 × 24 cm (© Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid)

Yet these criticisms demonstrate how the number of possibilities for working in grayscale are as infinite as the infinite tonalities within this segment of the color spectrum, and to mount a comprehensive show covering such is by definition an impossibility. Curators Lelia Packer and Jennifer Sliwka openly do not attempt this, instead adopting a more inventive approach by selecting art-historically off-piste examples that take the viewer through an utterly absorbing display in which there are almost as many uses for grayscale as there are exhibits — a great many of which will be new and fascinating to the average viewer.

Those who balk at the idea of looking at impenetrable medieval altarpieces sitting in the gallery’s Sainsbury wing will find new meaning in Hans Memling’s “Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors” (1478). It is presented here with its doors near closed to illustrate how grayscale versus color was used to establish a hierarchy between the religious figures depicted. And it illustrates the drama facing contemporary viewers when the normally-shut doors with monochrome scenes were opened on feast days to allow maximum impact of the fully colored interior. This point is consistently lost when museums permanently display altarpieces open. Similarly, fragments of medieval stained glass from Saint Denis, Paris, highlight an obscure grayscale method which results in a subtle yellow tint when fired. So often such displays focusing on the technical methods in applied art can appear dangerously dry to audiences, making it a brave point of inclusion here.

“Agony in the Garden” (1538) oil on indigo canvas, 440 × 335 cm, state property on deposit in the Museo Diocesano, Genova (© Courtesy of the Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo, Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per la città metropolitana di Genova e le province di Imperia, La Spezia e Savona)

Worth mentioning for its astonishing obscureness is a giant hanging indigo cloth resembling the architectural shape of one side of a chapel wall complete with arched top and doorway. On its blue surface scenes from the Agony in the Garden are highlighted in white. Manufactured in Genoa 1538, it forms a set of fourteen which function as a traveling chapel which can be assembled anywhere. Medievalists will be familiar with such portable liturgical “scene” cloths, most famously the grisaille Parement of Narbonne, too fragile to ever leave the Louvre — but perhaps none of such scale and striking appearance.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop “Odalisque in Grisaille” (ca. 1824-34), oil on canvas, 83.2 × 109.2 cm,the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1938 (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence)

Such a disparate collection, each representing a different use for grayscale, across a considerable timespan which encompasses medieval up to the contemporary will naturally be uneven despite this umbrella theme. We see “Diomedes Devoured by Horses” date unknown, by Gustave Moreau, showing both how grisaille underpainting has long been standard practice for painters, and how Moreau displayed it in unfinished state, valuing the grisaille layer for itself. This is followed in swift succession by a monochrome version of Dominique Ingres’s “Grande Odalisque” (1824–34), described by some critics as an erotic enhancement of the original, though it remains a hilarious exercise in misjudged anatomical proportion. Then there is Alberto Giacometti’s gray portrait of “Annette Seated” (1957), and Eugène Carrière’s “Maternity (Suffering)” (1896–7), in which a monochrome haze engulfs its figures as if in a sandstorm, suggesting emotional turmoil. In the same room appears a 1437 panel tentatively attributed to Jan Van Eyck, “St Barbara,” said to be the first example of a monochrome work in its own right (but this complex argument deserves an essay all to itself). Each is singularly exemplary in itself and the curators have wisely avoided trying to force them all into a narrative.

Eugène Carrière,“Maternity (Suffering)” (about 1896-7), oil on canvas, 81.3 × 65.4 cm (© Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Cymru – National Museum of Wales)

So we jump back in time for the next room which is themed around the idea of “paragone,” or technical comparison between disciplines. Van Eyck appears again with his 1433–5 “Annunciation” diptych, its grayscale figures reflected within painted black marble in illusory niches in a trompe l’oeil technical tour de force. Titian’s “Portrait of a Lady (La Schiavonia)” (1510–12) shows his sister resting her arm on a painted marble relief portrait of herself in profile, directly comparing the disciplines of painting and sculpture. Andrea Mantegna’s “Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome” (1505–6) takes the competition further in painting red marble as a full-scale frieze background behind a procession of figures — in the real world a physical impossibility for this material.

The emergence of print and photography, seismic shifts in art history, are only given thumbnail coverage with one example given per exhibit. This is a scrupulous choice, since both subjects could fill exhibitions this size several times over. Rembrandt used the emergence of print to secure his status as painter. His “Ecce Homo” print of 1634 is faithfully copied by Jan Van Vliet in 1635–6, in monochrome, with evidence of corrections by Rembrandt as quality control. Coverage on the arrival of photography in the 1830s is represented as a single image taken by Gustave le Gray of waves breaking (ca.1857), and linked here with Peder Balke’s seascape of circa1862 which veers toward self-undermining for its deliberate brevity. Opposite, Chuck Close’s 1993 painting “Joel” in his inimitable pixelated style — in which, unlike almost everything else here, the grisaille gives nothing discernibly different from his color versions — feels present simply to bridge the chronological gap to the next room which focuses on the twentieth century.

Gerhard Richter, “Grey Mirror – 765” (1992) pigment on glass, 220 x 176 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (© Gerhard Richter 2017 (12072017) photo by SMK)

This is again a carefully chosen selection of works that use grayscale as a their entire purpose and meaning. Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” (1929) is a yardstick that many can agree on, and is accompanied nearby with one of Josef Albers’s monochrome “Study for Homage to the Square” from the 1960s. Most striking are those focusing on optical illusions. Bridget Riley’s op art or Gerhard Richter’s “Gray Mirror 765’ (1992) reflects the viewer back onto its glazed, gray surface, leading up to the final installation where the exhibition comes full circle to the contemporary. “Room for One Color” (1997) by Olafur Eliasson, is a space lit by single-frequency sodium yellow light tubes, suppressing every other color in the spectrum and giving the very curious an eyeball- popping effect of physically only seeing in black and white. It is a high-impact punch of a finale that, far from simply being an Instagrammable gimmick, feels a fitting conclusion and welcome modern inclusion in such a history-heavy institution.

This is bold curating which, where most traditional narrative or survey shows are criticized for diversions from the main drive, conducts its examination entirely through diversions: at every turn is a method, technique, or usage of grayscale that will be new and refreshing for many viewers. Given the scope for including almost anything gray, there is clear discipline and precision in the choice of works which could have easily been scattershot. Monochrome is a thoroughly arresting show that appreciates the negative qualities in art in the way a picture is defined by its image as by the image’s negative space.

Monochrome: Painting in Black and White continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London) through February 18.

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Olivia McEwan

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...