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Nifty shades of grey
December 2017 / January 2018

"Room for one colour", 1997, Olafur Eliasson. Installation view at Moderna Museet, Stockholm 2015 (Courtesy of the artist; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; neugerriemschneider, Berlin. © Olafur Eliasson. Photo: Anders Sune Berg)

The point of the National Gallery’s latest exhibition, Monochrome, is to prove that there’s nothing black and white about it. The show (which runs until February 18) looks at why, over the past 700 years, painters with an infinite spectrum of colours to pick from have chosen to use a drastically reduced palette. And it throws up a great variety of answers, from technical and religious reasons to commercial and aesthetic ones. The 50 well-chosen exhibits, from Medieval stained glass and a Dürer drawing to paintings by Picasso and Cy Twombly, walk the viewer through them.

Several of the themes are present in the Donne Triptych, c.1478, by the German-born Flemish painter Hans Memling. The work is usually displayed with its two side panels open to show the central image of the Virgin and Child flanked by John the Baptist and John the Evangelist — the name-saints of the donor Sir John Donne. In the exhibition, however, the wings are three-quarters closed to show the paintings on the back of the panels; St Christopher and St Anthony Abbot realised in black and white as illusionistic statues in painted niches.

During Lent the panels were closed to conceal the bright colours within and present suitably penitential and ascetic greys to the worshippers. They were opened again at Easter to show the Virgin in all her colourful glory: the big reveal must have been extraordinary, as though a light had suddenly been turned on in a dark room. Informed worshippers would also recognise the panels as a nod to the Renaissance debate about the relative merits of painting versus sculpture. Here, Memling says, is why painting is superior; it can not only show the real and heavenly worlds in all their colour and detail but can imitate sculpture itself and mimic its three-dimensionality.

Grisaille, or greyscale, pictures were initially painted as tonal guides for finished works in which the artist worked out mass and the fall of light. A taste for them as independent works soon developed though. Three grisailles by Peter Bruegel the Elder from the 1560s survive; all show religious scenes because the lack of distracting colour was thought to be a better aid to contemplation. The 17th-century Dutchman Adriaen van de Venne was the first painter to specialise in grisaille, calling his pictures grawtjes or “little grey ones”. As befits his time and nationality he made his name with genre scenes such as A Procession of Revelling Cripples and Beggars, 1635.
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