Nifty shades of grey

A new exhibition at the National Gallery displays an extraordinary range of monochrome works

Michael Prodger

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.

“Back from the Market (La Pourvoyeuse)”, c.1770, by Etienne Moulinneuf: A trompe l’oeil painting of a print after a Chardin genre painting, complete with broken glass (© Museum Associates / LACMA)

The burgeoning print culture, meanwhile, meant that some works were painted in monochrome specifically to help the engravers. A highly-skilled c.1770 trompe l’oeil by Etienne Moulinneuf playfully shows just how enmeshed the monochrome and print-making had become. It is a painting of a print after a painting, Chardin’s Back from the Market (La Pourvoyeuse). The illusion is taken to extremes by the “print” being shown behind painted broken glass — Moulinneuf’s signature trick — as if the frame had fallen from the wall.

A modern descendant of Moulinneuf is the American Chuck Close. His 1993 portrait of the artist Joel Shapiro is composed of hand-painted grey pixels. It is a big picture and step close and the pixels dissolve into so many wobbly abstract squares, step back and they turn, like newspaper photographic dots, into Shapiro’s face. Gerhard Richter’s 1966 double portrait showing a Hamburg prostitute, Helga Matura, and her boyfriend, who later murdered her, is an unsettling variation on the theme. Richter painted the portrait as slightly out of focus, as though the magazine photograph on which he based it had been badly printed; it makes the figures all the more ghostly.

Although black and white are the dominant tones, the exhibition ends with Olafur Eliasson’s Room for One Colour, 1997. There is not a painting involved but rather it is an empty space illuminated in sodium yellow light which suppresses all other colours. It means that the visitors themselves turn black and white and become the subject of the work.

Of course the most famous monochrome in the history of art is present too, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square of 1913. Malevich announced his picture as representing the end of painting; it was no such thing. As this exhibition shows, his simple black square on a white background couldn’t even kill off the colourful genre of monochrome painting, let alone painting itself.

Life drawing is another form with a venerable history and it is the subject of the Royal Academy’s winter exhibition From Life. Since its foundation the life room has been at the heart of the Academy’s training; students first drew from casts of classical sculptures and only later, when proficient, from the live model. The show examines how the role of the life class has changed in the 250 years since the RA was established in 1768 (next year is its 250th anniversary) and includes both works from its historical collection and from modern academicians such as Antony Gormley and Gillian Wearing.

Johann Zoffany’s 1771 painting of the gathered male founder academicians grouped round a naked model (women were not allowed into the life class as students until 1893, the one exception being Laura Herford, who was admitted by accident in 1860 after submitting drawings bearing only her initials) shows what the life class once was. Yinka Shonibare, the artist of the giant ship in a bottle that stood on the Trafalgar Square fourth plinth in 2010, shows what it can now represent.

His work involves 3D scans of two classical sculptures which, courtesy of virtual reality software, will be “inserted” into a painting by the early academician Gavin Hamilton. The headset-wearing viewer will be able to enter the painting and walk round the statues. If conceptions of the human body have changed immeasurably over the past two and a half centuries so too have ways of representing it.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"