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Neither colour nor black-and white. . .  

12 January 2018

Nicholas Cranfield sees what great artists can achieve in monochrome


© Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid

A trompe-l’oeil effect is used in Jan Van Eyck’s Annunciation Diptych, c.1433-35, as if Gabriel and the Virgin Mary were really statues

A trompe-l’oeil effect is used in Jan Van Eyck’s Annunciation Diptych, c.1433-35, as if Gabriel and the Virgin Mary were really statues

FOR last year’s 80th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica, the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid charted Picasso’s path to painting his mural. The most striking and famous monochrome image of the 20th century, and the pity and terror underlying it, took centre stage.

In another concurrent exhibition, the museum celebrated the life of the Brazilian Marxist and Trotskyist thinker Mário Pedrosa (1900-81). At the end of the 1950s, when he was the highly respected international chair of the UNESCO association of art critics (AICA) (yours truly is a member, since you ask), he had appraised the artist and caricaturist Millôr Fernandes.

A work that Millôr painted in homage to Picasso in 1981 was included. In One Minute before (Guernica um minuto antes) we see daily life in the village moments before the attack, as if the clock had been turned back, and glimpse the threatening Stuka bombers through the window. But what we first notice is the explosion of colour.

Absence of colour does not always mean black and white either, but I was reassured to learn that this exhibition had been planned around the National Gallery 2014 “Making Colour” and not in response to a now notorious blog and film. At the opening party, I gave up counting the different shades.

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) seems to have been worried by a fear of what distracts the true believer from responding in faith to the divine, and, around 1134, insisted that all Cistercian monasteries should eschew the diversions of colour. This openly challenged artists to find alternative ways to decorate religious spaces.

This provides the starting-point for the exhibition, which covers some seven centuries and, after the invention of photography, goes downhill to end in the harsh glare of yellow monofrequency lamps (Olafur Eliasson’s sterile Room for one colour) after a penultimate gallery, triumphant with Bridget Riley, Cy Twombly, and Gerhard Richter.

© Courtesy of the Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo, Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per la città metropolitana di Genova e le province di Imperia, La Spezia e SavonaPainted in oil on indigo canvas, this Agony in the Garden, 1538, is one of a series of Lenten church hangings from Genoa. It is state property on deposit in the Diocesan Museum in Genoa    

Grisaille painting is a term more recent than the technique that already in the 13th century included painted glass (we see quarries from the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris depicting a virgin saint) and book illumination, as well as works on canvas, cloth, and board.

The first astounding object is one of 14 hangings devised in 1538 for a makeshift Lenten chapel in a Genoese church. Nearly four-and-a-half metres high, it includes scenes from the Garden of Gethsemane and the suicide of Judas. It is painted in oil on the indigo-dyed blue cloth for which the port was famous; jeans as we know them, after all, come from Gênes.

Travellers familiar with Italy, Sicily, and Spain may have come across the tradition where, during Passiontide and Holy Week, the whole chancel may be closed off, and not just the sacred images veiled. In Huesca Cathedral in Aragon there is a similar screen painting, of a Madonna and Child, and the Director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, told me that when he was at the Prado the museum conserved a whole sequence from a church in Toledo.

Stone-coloured images (color lapidum, as it was known) might suggest the ethereal and could be deliberately set off against colour. In the large altarpiece by Petrus Christus of about 1450, a seemingly conventional nativity scene, as in the vision reported by St Bridget, is “framed” in a faux stone arch with sculptural scenes from the Old Testament which prefigure the coming of the Christ.

Jan van Eyck, in his diptych of the Annunciation of about 1435/40, paints Gabriel and the Virgin as if they are really statues standing in front of a black stone wall. The fluttering dove defies the sculptor’s chisel, as all we see is paint. This treasure from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Madrid and his 1437 St Barbara set the scene for later trompe-l’oeil paintings.

Many, from Mantegna onwards, deliberately copied stone carving so realistically that it is almost impossible not to see 3D relief in, for instance, The Children’s Game by Geeraerts, or in the Bernardino Nocchi Deposition of 1800, which is shown next to the Canova original.

Other artists used single-colour painted sketches for later engravings. Van Dyck’s Rinaldo and Armida (1634) is set alongside a black-and-white preparatory oil sketch for a posthumously printed engraving, and Rembrandt’s Ecce Homo of the same year became a successful engraving.

Again and again, I was reminded that monochrome is anything but dull. It just challenges us to a different way of seeing.


“Monochrome: Painting in Black and White” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 18 February. Phone 020 7747 2885.


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