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Seeing Things in Black and White

With ‘Monochrome: Painting in Black and White,’ the National Gallery explores what happens when artists cast aside the colour spectrum

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Text by Rab Messina

There’s Olafur Eliasson’s Room for One Colour light installation. Paintings and drawings by Old Masters such as Rembrandt, Jan van Eyck and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Works by contemporary artists such as Gerhard Richter, Chuck Close and Bridget Riley.

The common denominator? They’re part of the National Gallery’s exploration of what happens when artists choose to leave the colour spectrum behind and explore the beauty of grey —and black, and white. That’s the main focus of Monochrome: Painting in Black and White.

“Painters reduce their colour palette for many reasons, but mainly as a way of focusing the viewer’s attention on a particular subject, concept or technique,” explain Lelia Packer and Jennifer Sliwka, the exhibition’s curators. “It can be very freeing: without the complexities of working in colour, you can experiment with form, texture, mark making and symbolic meaning.”

Indeed: in the Middle Ages, devotional stained glass eliminated colour to focus the mind and point to an otherworldly context —colour was seen as the forbidden fruit. Other artists used these chromatic challenges to examine the behaviour of light and shadow —that’s the case of Domenico Ghirlandaio’s 1477 Drapery Study. Gerhard Richter took to grey to signal society’s indifference to the murder of a prostitute in 1966’s Helga Matura with Her Fiancé.

And then there’s Eliasson’s installation, which trick the senses, plays with light frequencies and entraps the visitor in a monochrome world —finally, a rest from the distractions of the real one.

Monochrome is on display until February 18

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Alberto Giacometti Annette Seated, 1957 Oil on canvas, 100.9 × 61.5 cm Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by ACS and DACS, London 2017. Photo: bpk / Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf / Walter Klein
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Albrecht Dürer Head of a Woman, 1520 Brush drawing with black and grey bodycolour heightened with white on paper, 32.4 × 22.8 cm The British Museum, London © The Trustees of The British Museum
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Bernard Lépicié after Jean-Siméon Chardin Back from the Market (La Pourvoyeuse), 1742 Etching and engraving, 37.5 × 25.9 cm The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. Given by the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum, with the aid of a contribution from the National Fund and from E.E. Baron, August 1940. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
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Bridget Riley Horizontal Vibration, 1961 Emulsion on board, 44.5 × 141 cm Private Collection, Nottingham © Bridget Riley 2017. All rights reserved
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Célestin Joseph Blanc Head of a Girl, 1867 Oil on panel, 26.7 × 21.6 cm © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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Chuck Close Joel, 1993 Oil on canvas, 259.1 × 231.4 cm Courtesy Pace Gallery © Chuck Close, courtesy Pace Gallery. Photograph by Bill Jacobson, courtesy Pace Gallery
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Domenico Ghirlandaio or workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio Drapery Study (possibly study for Saint Matthew and an Angel), about 1477 Brown and black wash heightened with white on brown linen, 26.2 x 17.1 cm © Kupferstichkabinett. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Photo: Jörg P. Anders
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Pablo Picasso Las Meninas (Infanta Margarita María), 21 August 1957 Oil on canvas, 100 x 81 cm Museu Picasso de Barcelona © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2017 / Photo: Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Photograph, Gasull Fotografia
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Gerhard Richter Helga Matura with her Fiancé, 1966 Oil on canvas, 200 × 100 cm Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf © Gerhard Richter 2017 (0182). Photo: Museum Kunstpalast - ARTOTHEK
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Olafur Eliasson Room for one colour, 1997. Installation view at Moderna Museet, Stockholm 2015 © Olafur Eliasson. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
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