Monochrome: Painting in Black and White exhibition at the National Gallery review ****

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Monochrome: Painting in Black and White

National Gallery, 22nd November 2017

For as long as there has been Western art there has been black and white painting. Used in preparation for works in colour, to heighten the impact of light on a subject, to “imitate” other art forms such as sculpture and photography, or simply for its own aesthetic power, it seems like many of the big names in the canon have given monochrome painting, or something close to it, a whirl.

That’s pretty much all I learnt from this exhibition. No matter. There are more than enough wonderful paintings on display to paper over the fact that the thin premise is stretched beyond breaking point. And I don’t care about the “omissions” that the criterati always start bouncing up and down about whenever these thematic overviews are constructed. Of course I would be bloody ecstatic if Guernica was included, or a bunch of Goya’s “black paintings” had filled a room here, (mind you they have way more colour in them than you might think), but I think I get why they are not there. I also get why there are no drawings, the clue is in the exhibition title. Though they have smuggled in van Eyck’s sketch of St Barbara – fair dos though its van Eyck. Oh, and a piece of stained glass. And a manuscript. Hmm this pedantry thing is contagious.  Let’s just work with what we have instead of having a pop at the curators for stuff that plainly they had no chance of borrowing.

So what stood out for me. Well the Hans Memling altarpiece, the Donne Triptych from 1478, is a stunner. Shown partially closed so that we can see through to the intense colours of the Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors, with the saints Christopher and Anthony painted in grisaille on the outside panels looking like stone statues. Memling’s figures always look a bit “softer” to me than say van Eyck from a few decades prior, and the compositions more straightforward. I was also taken with the charming Nativity from another Netherlandish master, Petrus Christus (from around 1450) which was ostensibly included to show off the way grisaille was originally used in the margins of devotional paintings, here to create a frame from an architectural arch with some Old Testament action portrayed

in the same room I was also drawn to a couple of drapery studies from two of the finest Renaissance draughtsmen, Ghirlandaio (this from about 1472) and Albrecht Durer, a spooky women seen from behind from 1521. I know these are just bits of cloth but I can get very excited about cloth in Renaissance pictures and the monochrome heightens the contrast between light and shade.

In the next room most people seemed drawn to Ingres’s Odalisque in Grisaille, a monochrome version of his colour painting of the same nude lady subject. Her skin does have a strange waxy quality here but I am always a little uncomfortable in the presence of nudes (pictorially I mean, in real life I would be mortified). There are plenty of other stunners on show in this room led by the Jan van Eyck St Barbara from 1437, executed in silverpoint and touched up with ink and some oil in the background. Apparently the first deliberate monochrome work in Western art, it is not clear if this was what he intended, but it is amazing to see the detail of its creation close up.

Opposite this is a Maternity from the end of the C19 by Eugene Carriere, a Symbolist, which is striking for its ghostly representation of a serene, but somehow pained, mother and daughter, which echoes a classic Madonna and child. Next door to this is Picasso’s Infanta Margarita Maria from 1957, the little weeble princess from Las Meninas, here rendered in partially cubist fashion. Apparently he rendered all the characters from Velazquez’s meta masterpiece in all manner of ways, but this shows why PP is the man when it comes to monochrome and captures the essence of the brattish Infanta. I don’t know if she was a brat but she always looks pretty Veruca Salt, high maintenance to me.

As if that wasn’t enough there is also one of those scratchy, black and white oils from Giacometti, here of wife Annette from 1957, where he seems to obsessively paw at the paint to capture the spirit of the sitter. Colour never really played a part in Giacometti’s work so no surprise he is here.

The next room has a whole bunch of paintings intended to mimic sculpture including a Titian and a Tiepolo for those inclined to that sort of thing (I am not). The Mantegna is worth a good peek, with all its different stone colours, and dramatic movement, but it is quite busy. No surprise then that I was drawn to the Jan van Eyck Annunciation diptych from 1433-35. These amazing grisaille figures, unlike the Memling, were inside the diptych panels and were meant to emulate the small devotional panels made in prior periods from ivory. You could touch them. I mean don’t touch them. That will get you into a lot of trouble but they are perfect. The bottom of the plinths sit on the wooden frames, the niches recede into inky blackness, the drapes are incredible, the fingers so elegant yet the lady grasps her bible quite firmly, they both seem to have the best curling tongs ever made for hair, the shadow cast by the angels wings is properly fuzzy and the gravity defying stone dove makes me snigger every time. I say every time. I mean the one time I stood in front of this for an inordinately long time in the Thyssen-Bornemisza where it is housed along with some other Northern Renaissance gems. The Prado done the road has more than its fair share of Netherlandish wonders, best of all van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, worth getting on a plane to Madrid all by itself, but the T-B, gets close if you like this sort of thing. And the T-B is great if you want a whizz through Western art, with its half an Ark approach (one of everything).

Next door to this van Eyck is the equally extraordinary Head of A Woman (1520) from that egotist Durer again. It is a drawing, but what a drawing. Hair parted in the middle, eyes closed but not in devotion, head tilted back, round face, sort of chin dimple, light on the forehead, this is a very particular pose and a very particular model. Shiny, like metal. No sign at all of his preparation. He real was a clever fellow.

In the next room the curators have, unsurprisingly, snuck in a Rembrandt from the NG vaults, Ecce Homo, which is the height of drama. The oil from 1770 by Etienne Moulinneuf takes a famous painting by Chardin, La Pourvoiese, which was turned into a best selling print, and then creates the illusion of broken glass on top. It has to be seen to be believed, is a fine addition to the long line of deconstructed art works and the curators are pleased as punch with the inclusion, but the joke wears off pretty quickly. Nothing else to detain me in that room, you may feel differently, that is your prerogative, so on to the next room, where the influence of the camera is writ large.

I got on very well with Norwegian Peder Balke’s landscapes and seascapes. They are the height of romanticism and a teeny weeny bit melodramatic but they stir the soul, no doubt about that. Who doesn’t like wind and waves, and his tiny little Tempest from 1862, looks like it was painted “plein air”, in fact with plenty of air. I imagine the salt in the old fella’s beard and the wind knocking over his easel.

The Image as Burden (1993) from Marlene Dumas, who is new to me, is very striking as is Vija Celmins Night Sky no 3 (1991) inspired by Jasper Johns. Yet the eye is drawn in this room to Chuck Close’s gigantic portrait of American sculptor Joel Shapiro. Close was no mean photographer and his early oils used cropped portraits as the source for hyper realist, monochrome likenesses that show every wrinkle and blemish on the skin and every detail of the sitter’s features. This one however dates from 1993. By now Close was paralysed and had to attach the brush to his arm. He therefore uses a myriad of ovals within squares in different tones to build up the portrait. From afar it is like a pixellated but still very graphic and exact likeness. Close up it dissolves into near abstraction

We are then treated to the master of the “photo as painting” in Gerhard Richter. with his Helga Matura with her Fiance, which amazingly was painted in 1966. Here Richter takes his trademark photo, this time from Quick magazine, as the source. Ms Matura was a prostitute who was brutally murdered, and was the subject of salacious press attention. Richter’s blurring technique and the grey palette, “the ideal colour for indifference”, is intended to create an emotional distance from the subjects and the event. It works. I still curse the fact that  missed the Richter retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2011.

On to the final, (well not quite final), room. Monochromatism, in its purest black and white form, has an obvious attraction for artists drawn to abstraction so there was much to choose from here. Pride of place, predictably, goes to a Malevich Black Square (1929) which, i didn’t know until now, was originally hung high up in a corner to echo Russian icon paintings. Swivelling round you take in a Black and White Bar I from Elsworth Kelly rendered in entirely flat paint, an Op Art classic Horizontal Vibration (1961) from, guess who, Bridget Riley, one of those ropey “closed door” grey tortoiseshell numbers from Jasper Johns, one of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square, 1965, a slightly dull Frank Stella, Tomlinson School Park I, 1959, one of Cy Twombly squiggly diptych from 1970, which, annoyingly, I was somewhat taken with, and a beautiful sheet of painted grey glass from our friend Gerhard Richter called Grey Mirror (1992, where does he think these titles up from).

Like I say this room is about as minimally abstracted as it gets. Mind you the final room has nothing in it. Except you bathed in yellow sodium light, so that you gradually turn grey as all the colour drains away. This is the court jester Olafur Eliasson playing tricks with you in his Room for One Colour from 1997. He was the chap he put that great big misty sun in the Tate and I saw another installation based on rippling water in Belgium somewhere that blew me away. The man is a marvel, (well the man, his studio and all his collaborators), who twists the basic elements, air, water, light, temperature, fire (well maybe not fire, yet), and then messes about with them using a hefty dose of technology to upset with the perception buttons in our heads. Sometimes daft, usually playful, and always, from the sound of them, beautiful, his large scale installations probably take ages to create and cost a bomb, but create delight. We need more delight.

So a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition even if its purpose is a bit tenuous. Perhaps best of all was the fact that the exhibition was not crowded so you can breathe and, most importantly, look. Some of the NG “Old Master” blockbusters in the bowels of the Sainsbury wing are so preposterously stuffed with punters at all times of the day and evening that, frankly, there is little point going. Not so here. You get to see a who’s who of Western art giants, with their technique exposed.

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