Visiting this exhibition at the National Gallery yesterday, I have to admit that I was disappointed. I left not quite sure what the purpose of the exhibition was. On one hand it seemed to be emphasising the technical and cultural place of painting in black and white within the history of art, and on another, considering the power of monochrome to deliver impact.
The first three rooms of the exhibition explained the use of monochrome in religious imaginary of the Renaissance to show the material world in comparison to the richly jewelled colours of the spiritual scenes. We were shown how monochrome paintings were used for studies to explore tonal balances and modelling, how monochrome paint was used to draft out a large work and to under-paint the tonal areas. Multicoloured paintings would also be copied in monochrome which was then used as the basis for creating an etching for the mass distribution of an image.
Some of the most striking paintings were those produced to refute the idea that sculpture offered more to the viewer than painting by allowing observation from all sides and enhanced and changing modelling with light. This debate had resulted in paintings which were so indistinguishable from carved relief that you really wanted to reach out and stroke them to break the illusion.
This was all fairly interesting but very dry and there were only a couple of paintings in this section of the exhibition which really made my heart beat faster, firstly a Rembrandt, ‘Ecco Homo’ 1635, actually a grisaille study for an etching. Rembrandt’s blobs of clay faces are masterful in their minimal, effortless evocation of character and the resulting etching had smoothed them out to idealised blandness. The other work was an enormous painting by Giandomenico Tiepolo, almost 3m by 2m, painted on a gold ground, the fourth of the images here. The effect of the gold in the sky and the gold under-painting was to make the work glow with an inner warmth. To stand before it felt like standing in sunlight pouring through a stained glass window. It had the most astonishing physical presence. I know that copper is used as a support for this kind of glowing effect, but I can’t imagine the cost of a gold ground applied over this areas of six panels, never mind the technical difficulties. I have used gold tissue in printmaking as chine colle under ink and that is very effective, if by it’s nature not very gold. I must try gold ink or gouache as an under layer. I had little success with gold leaf when I tried it as it floats off the plate or doesn’t hold the ink.
The next three rooms really puzzled me. These showed modern (well, mostly 20th century) monochrome works but I felt that many of them had been chosen almost randomly just because they happened not to use colour, not because they were using monochrome as a statement or to achieve a particular effect. There were paintings by Richter and Close which were reproductions of monochrome photographs, but I didn’t feel that the fact that they were monochrome added particular significance. It felt more that the curators were saying, ‘Look, monochrome painting can be as worthy as painting in colour’. I think it would have been much more powerful to have included a monochrome painting by Rothko, say, where the colour, or lack of it, has an emotional charge. Similarly, the works included by Twomby, Kelly and Johns felt like they had just pulled out any old thing in black and white. The one work which I felt really made a point through its monochrome palette was one of Vija Celmin’s ‘Night Sky’ etchings (this illustration is actually a drawing in the series). The black background creates an emptiness that the tiny white stars emphasise rather than fill and although her works are quite small (A3ish) they generate a much greater space. This is not just dependant on the subject, she achieves this when drawing waves or deserts, all in monochrome. The lack of colour is another component in her act of paring an image down to create vastness within it.
That was my problem with the modern works; they happened to be black and white, but did it matter that they were? For one or two, yes, for instance Malevich’s ‘Black Square’, but for the most part, no. I think that they could have chosen much better.
I also felt that the exhibition confined itself too narrowly. It is called ‘Monochrome: Painting in Black and White’ but included quite a few etchings and one light installation. Only a couple of works had been made within the last 50 years. I think that, with profit, they could have included some of the amazing monochrome works being created now, especially drawings such as those by Julie Mehrethu or Anita Taylor, after all, the curators had already strayed beyond painting. Given that they included a room filled with orange light, the definition of monochrome could have been pushed beyond black and white. I do see however, that a red on red painting would have pushed the predominantly grey works back, and the orange room was navigated as you left the exhibition.
It was a good exhibition, and I am glad I went, but I think it could have been so much better.