Monochrome at the National Gallery


de Wit, Jacob, 1695-1754; Jupiter and Ganymede
Jupiter and Gannymede by Jacob de Wit (1695-1754). This oval canvas was painted as the centrepiece of a ceiling to represent a state in relief. It is so compelling that even a distance of a few feet your eyes demand that this must be a three-dimensional object. This is a superb example of monochrome as a means of representing sculpture.

In today’s colour saturated world, there is danger of believing that being monochrome is somehow synonymous with dull or boring. If you were ever inclined to such a view, this exhibition, Monochrome, Painting in Black and White, at the National Gallery will set you straight and convince you that monochrome images of the quality represented here strip away the distraction of colour and get to the essence of visual representation. Everything is clearer, the play of light and shadow more distinct, the volume of the figures and objects represented more compelling. It is a fascinating exhibition, full of beautiful images of the very highest quality. If you can, go!

Samson and Delilah by Adriaen van der Werff (1659-1722). Although it has the look of a study, this was painted as an independent image using the monochrome palette to highlight in particular the play of light and shadow on skin and fabric.

The exhibition traces the history of monochrome images from the medieval period to the present day around a number of overarching themes. These include: the use of monochrome to make particular sacred points, most evidently in the medieval period; the use of monochrome as a preparatory device in the development of painting and sculpture, specifically to understand the fall of light and shadow; the use of monochrome  as a trompe l’oeil device, for representing sculpture, prints and photographs; and the use of monochrome for achieving abstract optical effects. It is constantly thought provoking.

Horizontal Vibration by Bridget Riley (b 1931). Riley has devoted much of her artistic life to understand the optical impact of stripes, triangles, circles and squares. The is consistently restricted her palette and worked extensively in black and white.

The final room of the exhibition is an installation ‘Room for one colour’ by the Danish-Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, in which an empty room is saturated with a strong yellow light. The impact the light is to reduce everything in the room, including the people, to a yellow monochrome and to instantly demonstrate how this forces you to see differently and to observe things which are simply lost in polychromatic vision. It reinforces the lesson from the rest of the exhibition in the best possible way.

Room in one colour by Olafur Eliasson (b1967)