Monochrome: Painting in Black and White review

4 out of 5 stars
3 out of 5 stars
(11user reviews)

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A lack of colour isn’t meant to be a good thing. Drab, dull, anaemic, pallid: none of those are positive words. But the National Gallery doesn’t care. It's pulled together over half a millennia’s worth of colourless, grey and black and white paintings for this show, and there’s nothing drab about it.

Monochrome is a complicated term. To me, it means the pure blue canvases of Yves Klein or the white reliefs of Ben Nicholson, but here it encompasses anything done in a limited palette of greys and blacks or whites and browns. Preparatory sketches, light studies, big canvases, little prints – from the fifteenth century to the present day – all in a blizzard of greys.

You’re greeted by an immense sheet from a Genoese church, Jesus and Judas rendered as ghostly pale apparitions. Some early images here use ‘grisaille’ (painting in shades of grey, definitely more than 50) to make the colours around it stand out more, or to imply solemnity.

Next you find Eugène Carrière’s foggy, tormented vision of a woman cradling her child, drenched in fearsome proto-Gerhard Richter blurriness. Ingres remixes his famous ‘Grande Odalisque’ in greyscale, condensing the iconic nude down to a flat plane of pristine white in among the ruffled dark folds of the fabric.

They sit alongside works by Picasso and Giacometti; mixing old and new is normally a catastrophe, but these are good works of modern art, they make sense here.

The rooms are themed, and not all the themes are great. The room about the overlap between painting and photography is half-arsed and superficial, despite having some great works by Peder Balke and Richter, and the room about prints is a little boring.

Amazingly, the room of modern abstract painting is actually great. Sure, it feels like it’s in the wrong museum, but Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ and Bridget Riley’s undulating stripes all belong in the same monochromatic universe as the earlier works.

And then, the most recent work of all: Olafur Eliasson’s incredible room of monochromatic strip lights, which obliterate all chromatic nuance and smear everything you see into shades of yellow. Jaundice as art. You come out blinking into the light, thankful for the colours finally streaming back into your eyes. Eliasson’s work makes the implications of the paintings that came before into a reality.

This is an adventurous, unusual and bold show by the National Gallery. So many of its recent exhibitions have been dull flops filled with sub-par art, but it's dared to try something out there, and you’ll be glad it did. Because rather than letting the art star, the whole show makes the world around you seem brighter, and somehow more alive than ever.




Users say (11)

3 out of 5 stars

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Though the exhibition is quite brief for such an interesting concept, what is there is fascinating.

I didn't enjoy the older work a great deal, but that's just down to personal preference, however the contemporary stuff, and the final installation by Olafur Eliasson, represent a different way of looking a a culturally ubiquitous concept. Gerhadt Richter's work, and that of Chuck Close, dominate the final two rooms, and invite you to think about the nature of painting itself, as well as the effect of stripping away colour: both of these artists really captured me.

Furthermore, the decision to end with the Olafur Eliasson installation was a particularly clever move on the part of the curator, as the room is lit in a way to render everything monochrome, and as a consequence forces you to reflect on what you have just seen: it is a really uncanny thing to experience.

If you can catch the show before it ends, it is worthwhile, just be aware it's fairly expensive for a comparatively small amount of content.


Stripped to monochrome, you see classic works in a new way. You are challenged by what makes an artwork great? During the renaissance period, artworks were produced in vivid rich colours for wealthy patrons as only those with money and property can afford to dress in colour and be decked in jewellery and lived in beautifully decorated home. 

These days, we simplify our wardrobe and life by dressing in black and white and decorate our flats with white walls.

The question is Does it work? Does Odalisque in Grisaille by Ingres still as captivating and mesmerizing as Grande Odalisque? You are seduced to study the painting and look at it, and somehow *forget* that you have ever seen the original. You identify the texture and nuances that might escape you before as you're distracted by colours and hues.

Wonderfully curated with Malevich Black Square, Gerhadt Richter's Helga Matura with her fiance, Picasso, Giacometti and Bridget Riley - you ought to see the rooms in another round after the last room by Olafur Eliasson - which is an installation by itself.


The concept of monochrome painting really appeals to me (being someone who loves to take photographs in b&w) but sadly this exhibit is just a little too, dare I say it, bland. Some of the work on show is incredibly impressive, expressing certain concepts and skill sets with real aplomb. It's mixed with some pretty unremarkable works that would perhaps delight an art historian but not an average gallery goer. The larger artworks and the paintings made to look like etchings/sculpture are beautiful but, before you know it, more modern artworks creep in and you find yourself staring at a black square on white canvas. With only 7 rooms, it doesn't take long to whip through the exhibit. 

The final room is probably the biggest lure to visit. A ceiling covered in yellow sodium lights kills the light spectrum for all other colours and so everybody and everything in the room becomes, yep, you've guessed it, monochrome! It's a bit tough on the eyes at first but I found it to be a truly impressive installation. Photographs won't do the room justice as a camera picks up the yellow light so it really must be seen to be experienced. 


I'm not a huge art fan but was excited when I heard about this exhibition. The highlight for me definitely has to be the last room - its truly the magic of art, everything is yellow inside but appears black and white! Very cool! Good fun to go with friends and family!


I'm not really into arts, but one of my new year's resolutions is to do more cultural activities. I'm really glad I started off this resolution with this exhibition. I really enjoyed it. Not only I came across a new way of painting, but also I learned a lot about religious arts. And it was very interesting to find out the stories behind each piece. But like everyone else has pointed out, the most exciting part was the last room by Olafur Eliasson  where you enter a yellow room and suddenly everything turns black and white! I found it really fascinating.


This exhibition opened my eyes to a way of painting that I hadn't even thought was a thing. In some of the paintings 'monochrome' was a very loose term, with just the borders being black and white. There was a nice range of paintings from religious to modern art, but it was quite a short exhibition. I enjoyed the last room, bathed in yellow light, making anything colourful appear in grey-scale, by a very weird trick of the eye. 


This exhibition really took me by surprise and captivated me from the off. Exploring monochrome in art, this exhibition shows religious art, photography and contemporary art, all of which use monochrome. I found the religious section fascinating where some pictures were a mixture of color and monochrome with descriptions of why these artistic choices were made. 

The exhibition gives a well rounded insight into the use of monochrome and the different artists thoughts behind it. My favorite part was the final part of the exhibition where you enter an orange room that uses monochrome lighting. This distorts the way you see things; your hair and lips become grey and your clothes become black essentially putting you in monochrome. I found this immersive experience really engaging and thought it was a fantastic way to end a really interesting exhibition.


I found this completely fascinating. For me, it was so interesting to consider the motivations of artists choosing to work in monochrome. Some worked without colour in order to test schemes, shadows, light etc, while others did so to bring focus to areas or an entire piece. The abstract work was the least interesting for me personally but it was obvious from earwigging that different sections had very varied appeal to different visitors. An unexpectedly thought provoking gem of an exhibition.


I'm not really an art fanatic, but I actually really enjoyed this exhibition. It was interesting to see monochrome art through the ages, and learning the reasons behind the artists choosing to paint/photograph in monochrome or sepia colours. There was a big collection of different art and the descriptions were interesting to read. My personal favourites were Etienne Moulinneuf’s 'Back from the Market' and 'Helga Matura with her Fiancé'. The 'Room For One Colour' was unexpectedly mind-boggling in how it manipulates your eyes into seeing black and white. 

The exhibition is very interesting and presents a collection of works dating from 1400s up to nowadays. I'm not an Art professional but I got myself sometimes fascinated with the art presented in the exhibition . The 'orange room' was an interesting surprise that can bring up different sensations and perceptions to the visitor.


Everything's tastefully curated and explained, but I was expecting more from this exhibition. Delving into consciousness and the nature of perception, perhaps, or insights into colour theory. The exhibition is very focused on techniques and composition, mostly painterly. Much of the art isn't very memorable.

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