It's All Black And White At The National Gallery

Monochrome, The National Gallery ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 75 months ago

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It's All Black And White At The National Gallery Monochrome, The National Gallery 4
Step into the yellow light and turn monochrome. © Olafur Eliasson. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

This National Gallery exhibition examines the role of black and white, and all the shades of grey in between, in works by Old Masters all the way through to the present.

A series of scenes from the tale of the prodigal son are painted in black and white, but the all-important scene of his return and reunion with his father is in colour in the centre. It's a great use of monochrome to draw our attention to where the artist wants us to look.

Beautiful paintings were often created in grayscale. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

It's impressive to see all the techniques that utilised a monochrome palette, including work by Rembrandt. Elsewhere, figures on the outer doors of an altarpiece are created in monochrome so when it was closed it resembled a couple of classical sculptures on the wall.

By keeping his figures greyed out, Tiepolo was able to use gold leaf to make the sky behind them sizzle into action, and Bernardino Nocchi used his grayscale painting as a guide for the beautiful sculpture he created based on it. Having both placed side by side here shows how faithful his final product is to the original.

A diptych of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin. © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid

The beautiful Old Masters are only half of the show; we then segue into more modern works. Picasso recreates Velazquez's Las Meninas in his signature Cubist style, while a grey Giacometti portrait shows his sitter almost receding into her grey background.

We then venture into the more abstract with horizontal lines by Bridget Riley and one of Kazimir Malevich's famous black squares — a work widely heralded as it was the zenith of Malevich's work to take the subject right down to the bare minimum of what's needed to represent it.

Abstract works get a look in too, such as this Bridget Riley. © Bridget Riley 2017. All rights reserved

The final room by Olafur Eliasson is a great touch as it's not black and white at all, but is in fact bathed in yellow light. But look at yourself or fellow visitors and you'll see that we've all become black and white ourselves as the light washes out all colours except those on the monochrome scale. It's fitting end to an enlightening show.

We didn't think a show about two colours could be so fascinating but the diversity in techniques and the level of the works on display made us look again at the important role of monochrome in art history.

© Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Monochrome: Painting in Black and White at The National Gallery until 18 February 2018. Tickets from £14 for adults.

Last Updated 17 November 2017