Monochrome: Painting in Black and White

A new exhibition shows artists muting their palette, reports John Westbrooke

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Old hands like me will remember when black and white newspapers started to introduce colour, first in photos, then sometimes for text as well. Even older ones will remember when most films were black and white too.

But painting has mostly gone in the other direction: Colour has been in use for millennia as the default option. It still is; but an eye-opening exhibition at the National Gallery sets out to show why some artists over the centuries have opted out.

The subtitle “Black and White”, incidentally, is a misnomer: monochrome means painting in the tonal range of a single colour, any colour; some of the works on show are also in grisaille – shades of grey; others incorporate colour as well as monochrome elements.

It seems to go back to St Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercian order of monks. He banned colour, figures and images in stained glass, which he thought distracted the viewer from contemplating God’s pure light. Grisaille was allowed, though.

The church came to favour a restricted palette particularly for Lent, a period of mourning. One of the most striking exhibits is “Agony in the Garden” from 1538, a 14ft high indigo canvas, painted in white and depicting scenes of Christ’s passion; along with 13 other such cloths, it would have been draped over the usual decorations of a church in Genoa during Holy Week.

But artists came to produce monochrome works for their own purposes, ditching colour so they could better see how light, shade and volume would work when a full-colour version was painted. In 1437, Jan Van Eyck portrayed Saint Barbara in monochrome ink and oil on wood (though with some background colour). Was this a preliminary sketch, or the finished painting? Maybe the latter, since he signed it and sold it.

In the next century, other artists followed suit, for varying reasons. Ingres, for instance, had already painted a popular picture of an odalisque – a naked slave woman, looking over her shoulder at the viewer. He later produced several different versions, and a black and white one is on show here. Smaller than the original, and with various oriental props removed, it looks less exotic and more direct. It’s the most dramatic example of how removing colour can give you a whole new way of looking at art.

Some took on the challenge of reproducing sculpture in two dimensions; perhaps as part of a continuing debate about which art form was “better”. Van Eyck produced an Annunciation diptych in which the “statue” of Mary seems to be reflected in shiny black stone behind her, creating a 3D effect. Geeraerts’ “Children’s Game”, taken from a relief sculpture, has a similar trompe l’oeil result.

The spread of print-making brought new opportunities. An artist could sell many copies of a painting, and would sometimes make an intermediate monochrome sketch for the print-maker to etch. So here we have Jean-Siméon Chardin painting a servant girl back from the market in 1739, Bernard Lépicié etching a copy of it, and Etienne Moulinneuf doing a grisaille painting of the engraving – but making it look as if it’s in a frame behind glass that has cracked and broken. Photography and then films followed print-making, and gave artists similar inspiration.

For artists working with abstraction, black and white were no problem. Perhaps the most famous work on display is Malevich’s “Black Square”, which is just that, against a white background; but there’s also Bridget Riley’s “Horizontal Vibration”, whose black and white stripes seem to shimmer before your eyes.

And the final flourish is Olafur Eliasson’s “Room for one colour”: a full room lit by sodium-yellow light tubes creates a monochrome world of its own as all other colours become shades of yellow – and, says the artist, you can see everything more clearly than in full colour. Art doesn’t get much more immersive than leaching colour from its viewers.

Monochrome is at the National Gallery, London, until 18 February 2018. Tickets £14 weekdays, £16 weekends, cheaper if booked online.