National Gallery ‘Monochrome: Painting in Black and White’

French schoolchildren in fluorescent yellow raincoats flood into the National Gallery café in London and break the peace of our sweet grey morning. The two of us, dressed in long strokes of black, immediately note how apt and strange the moment is. Life imitating art, indeed.

We’ve been discussing monochromatic art, the origins and impacts of using one colour to make a statement. “Colour is implied in the word monochrome, of course, but people tend to think first of black and white. It can just as easily mean red. Or blue,” says Dr Jennifer Sliwka, the curator of the gallery’s upcoming exhibition  Monochrome: Painting in Black and White.

Sliwka has been captivated by the medium for years. “I’m obsessed with how removing colour transforms your experience of space. How much your perception is altered when an object you’re familiar with is suddenly not in colour. How do you understand things if there are no shades?” she asks.

“Some people, when you say ‘limited colour palette’, may think lesser or weaker, but actually what we found is that when you restrict or challenge artists, the stuff they come up with is just extraordinary.”


It is a centuries-old phenomenon, yet there has never been a major international exhibition on the subject. There are examples of black and white painting way back in ancient pottery but the art form really kicked off with medieval painting. “In the 12th century, the Cistercian monastic order believed colour was too distracting, so used black and white painting to allow people to focus on their texts, on their prayers,” Sliwka explains. So began the idea that black and white changes the perspective of the viewer — forcing them to look beyond colour — and, to use the exhibition strapline, see differently.

Arranged in a thematic narrative, from printing to sculpture and photography, the exhibition covers hundreds of years of art. From milky, solemn stained glass to an early example of blue denim; witty trompe l’oeil marble paintings to pieces such as Josef Alber’s Homage to the Square, 1965 (right). All explore the effects of the nuanced and radiant shades of grey and black — how they create illusions of volume, depth and transparency.


The epilogue is provided by Olafur Eliasson’s Room For One Colour, 1997, which uses monofrequency mustard yellow light to drain colour from a space. Sliwka gestures around at our brightly coloured café mates. “If these people were to walk into the room, it would look like they were wearing black and white. Like stepping into an old photograph.”

And what happens when you cancel out all that colour noise? “It brings us back to those Cistercian monks. When you’re immersed in an experience like that, you focus better. You unlock a heightened awareness of your vision.”

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By Josie Johnson

Tiled images from left: Agony in the Garden, 1538. State property on deposit in the Museo Diocesano, Genova © Courtesy of the Mibact, SABAP Genova, Imperia, La Spezia e Savona; Stained-glass panel with quarries and a female head, about 1320–4. Grisaille painted glass with silver stain. Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Gerhard Richter, Helga Matura with her Fiancé, 1966. Oil on canvas. Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf
Olafur Eliasson, Room for one colour, 1997. Installation view at Moderna Museet, Stockholm 2015 © Olafur Eliasson. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square, 1965. Private Collection © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

Author: Jigsaw

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