st Monochrome : Painting in Black and White - Zak R. Dimitrov

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© Zak R. Dimitrov 2021

Monochrome : Painting in Black and White

The Monochrome : Painting in Black and White exhibition at The National Gallery claims to offer a “journey through a world of shadow and light with artists including Rembrandt, Ingres, Picasso, Richter, and Eliasson”. From the press release it can be concluded that it includes a broad selection of artists whose practice varies from Rembrandt’s Old Master style of painting true-to-life portraits through to Picasso and his groundbreaking Cubism style that illustrates the sitter from different perspectives and points of view on a single plane. The exhibition examines a certain way of seeing the world and it poses various questions. Why have artists chosen to paint in black and white, or a single colour, rather than a pallet of colours through the past 700 years, including painters whose main oeuvre is known to be in sumptuous colour, such as van Eyck and Richter? I would also be curious to see whether it makes any references to photography since the medium was predominantly monochrome for almost three decades after its invention in the 1830s and has also become the ultimate “accurate” way of seeing ever since.
Jacob de Wit’s Jupiter and Ganymede presents a painting, or rather a drawing, of a relief. The most striking fact about it is that it is an art work either depicting, documenting or trying to imitate another art work in an entirely different medium. This resembles something very common in the art world, from deliberate forgery with the purpose of creating fakes for monetary incentive to photographing paintings for catalogues in order to either archive them or digitise them for a different type of media. It is interesting that up until the invention of electric lighting such fictive reliefs used to be mistaken for real carvings. When seeing the image on paper, the viewer will most likely do a double take as the instinctive human reaction is to believe that it is true to what it depicts. However, after a moment or two, it becomes clear that it is in fact drawing on paper depicting a stone carving, also known as Trompe-l’œil – a visual technique whose aim is to bring the qualities of three-dimensionality onto the two-dimensional piece of paper. It is achieved by various tricks of light and shade as well as texture imitation. The exhibition catalogue notes that a major advantage to this style was that Trompe-l’œil paintings were far more affordable than the sculptures they imitated. The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Romeby Andrea Mategna sets the grey stone figures against a painted representation of coloured, albeit monochrome coppery orange, marble, thereby combining stone materials that sculptures themselves could not. This proves that painting’s major strength is not in accurately depicting the world, but being an outlet for imagination by presenting scenes and objects that could not be observed in the world the way they are in painting. Most works of art that present this technique here remind me of Guy Bourdin’s black and white photographs of textures from the 1950s  – his extraordinary images are printed on paper while at the same time depict bricks, paint, and other surfaces thus creating a visually interesting dichotomy.
In his Portrait of a Lady Titian, mainly famous for his colour works such as The Rape of Europaand The Assumption of the Virgin, portrays the sitter twice: once in colour as a printed portrait and once in monochrome as a sculptural relief. Critics of painting used to claim that it is intrinsically myopic as it only shows a single view of a figure and this was Titian’s way of dispersing this myth. Four centuries later, Picasso will go even further by depicting a single face on a single plane from multiple focal points.
Gerhard Richter’s grey paintings from the 1970s express the artist’s desire to depict nothing and not provoke any associations. Markedly different from his colourful abstractions finished only a few years before his grey period, the monochrome paintings are fairly small in scale and depict neither abstract shapes nor pictorial figures. It has been seen as a reaffirmation of artistic purity (Tate Gallery label, April 2007) and the epitome of non-statement.
The inclusion of Chuck Close coincides with the recent Me Too movement which saw many public figures accused of sexual harassment, including Close. I probably spent the most time gazing at his larger-than-life hyper-detailed portrait, up close and from afar, marveling at his doodles arranged in a carefully constructed grid that form a whole much bigger than the sum of its parts. It does make me think, however, of whether it is possible or not to separate the artist and their work from their personal life and the difficulty of looking at an art work with purely objective eyes, judging it by its merit rather than whether the creator was a misogynist, like Picasso, and whether the fact that he was allegedly a terrible human being contributed to his artistic talent and the depiction of his subjects.
Ellsworth Kelly and his large monochromatic canvases is an appropriate inclusion as the word monochrome does not necessarily mean black, white and grey. Monochrome means a single colour – no gradients and no blending, but the power of a single hue, which, in this case, is largely amplified by the size of his canvases as well as their recognisable shapes. Kelly takes two of the key ingredients in art, shape and colour, and combines them in a simplistic, yet beautifully effective way while simultaneously emphasizing the flatness of the canvass as a carrier of paint. A selection of his photographs were recently auctioned at Sotheby’s London and it is remarkable comparing them to his painting if the viewer looks at the photographs as sketches or drawings to his paintings. The shapes are all visible there, however, they are in a classic photographic format, i.e. rectangle, whereas his canvases not only depict shapes but are shapes themselves, thus eliciting the question of portraying versus being.
The exhibition ends with Olafur Eliasson, who is prominent for his light installations. Back in 2010 he filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with the basking glory of the sun. Albeit artificial, consisting of light installation emitting warmth, the museum’s visitors behaved as if they were on the beach on a sunny summer day. They brought their families and rugs and sunbathed within the closed doors of the Tate. In Monochrome Eliasson has presented a similar installation. He uses the same golden yellow colour, however this time he had filled the whole room with yellow light thus obliterating any other colour. The most bizarre experience to me was not the colour itself but the fact that when you close your eyes, instead of seeing a black abyss as we are all used to, it was indigo, sometimes dark violet. I found spending more time with my eyes closed than open just to experience this alternative reality.
As Adrian Searle has shrewdly observed, a perplexing omission in the show is Yves Klein and his electrifying blue and Roger Ryman’s “entire career devoted to whiteness”. I was even more bemused to find Richter and his grey paintings of nothing included, while the godfather of depicting nothing – Malevich – not present. The absence of the Black Square was palpable as personally I would have thought it would be a centerpiece to an exhibition of this sort due to its cultural significance and the fact that it revolutionised painting by freeing it from the shackles of pictorial accuracy and the prevalence of subject matter – it boldly claimed that painting could show nothing and claim to be everything at the same time. The curators have omitted photography, which makes the exhibition lack substance even though it is a very good selection of paintings and drawings. A juxtaposition between the two mediums would have been exhilarating as they have plenty in common and just as much sets them apart. As Vilem Flusser put it in his seminal book Towards a Philosophy of Photography, “Black and white photographs are more concrete and in this sense more true – they reveal their theoretical origin more clearly and vice versa. The more “genuine” the colours of a photograph become, the more untruthful they are, the more they conceal about their theoretical origin.”.  In conclusion, the exhibition lived up to most of my expectations as it presented some fenomenal masterpieces bound by the theme of colour, or lack thereof. However, as with most, if not all, exhibitions, there is a plethora of bold and interesting potential curatorial decisions that could have been made but were put aside.
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