Monochrome: Painting in Black and White review

4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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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.




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