Swallowed Sight

“Horizontal Vibration” (detail), by Bridget Riley
Horizontal Vibration (detail), by Bridget Riley, 1961 © Bridget Riley 2017. All rights reserved

This article first appeared in The TLS, 28 November 2017

Monochrome exhibition at the National Gallery

For the neurologist Oliver Sacks the word ‘monochrome’ changed its meaning when a new patient, Mr I, a sixty-five year old artist, described a uniquely alarming condition. Immediately after a car crash the painter found that colour had vanished from his life. This was not the fairly common confusion of red and green originally called colour blindness but a complete absence of any colour at all, not only from his everyday vision but unconjurable in memory or dreams or imagination. When he reentered his studio his work, once known for its bright resonance, appeared muddy and unintelligible.

He could not bear to see in a mirror his own face which had become, like that of his wife, a ‘rat-coloured mask’. Food looked repulsive, even rice appearing dirty and a tomato as black as the sun he now saw rise each morning.

Over a long period, as Sacks relates (NYRB, Nov 19th 1987) Mr I learned to cope, first by painting his own studio grey and concentrating on sculpture and drawing. He also became a night person feeling acceptable and accepting in towns after dusk where by moonlight and in sodium lit streets and cafés a greyish spectrum obtained. Here strangers, though still appearing ‘as if moulded in lead’, seemed less grim.

This was not as Sacks might initially have supposed like living in a black and white movie. In that almost cosy prospect the grades from dark to light would have been consistent with the mind’s conjecture as endorsed, perhaps reinforced, by the advent of photography. For Mr I the grey scale was scrambled according to some inconsistent and always indecipherable code.

Monochrome in art is however rather a sophistication than a simplification of the visible world. An analogue can be found in music, relevant in the case of Mr I who painfully discovered his enjoyment of music much depleted as it now lacked some of the triggers of pleasure that came from varied sonorities and timbres.

For the majority of orchestral composers the piano is a drawing instrument and it is common practise to work on the (appropriately black and white) keyboard before developing material into a full instrumental score. As a coloured painting can eventually be translated into an engraving or lithograph so a symphonic work may likewise be reconceived for the piano as with those many transcriptions of symphonies made before the era of the gramophone. For the artist drawing in monochrome is similarly a foundation discipline and in the lives of many painters remains a large part of their activity. It is also the very oldest form of such expression since most cave art is perforce limited to single earth pigments handled with cunning to convey mass and implied movement. Though Paleolithic art cannot feature physically in an exhibition of portative works it might usefully have added to the background in the catalogue to provide a longer dialogue of time.

The subtitle of the exhibition ‘Painting in Black and White’, as well as being not quite truthful since there is much ochre and oxblood and even blue on show, sets its own trap. The concentration on painting tells only half the story and even that half half told without the representation of other, especially Asian, cultures.

Yet there are fine things to see notably by Mantegna, Tiepolo and Degas who once said of his works when making a series of monotypes that if he had another life he would ‘do the whole thing again in black and white’. Also there are intriguing things by minor artists such as the trompe l’oeil panel imitating a plaster bas relief by Jacob de Wit which trumped this eye every time I passed. But missed tricks abound, the most scandalous being the lack of any mention on the walls or in the catalogue of that miracle of atmospheric monochrome in the National Gallery’s own collection, Leonardo’s Virgin and Child with St Anne, a variant of which was exhibited in Florence in 1501, attracting great crowds. The gallery’s superb and mysterious version once hung in the Royal Academy Schools as a daunting exemplar for students. Visitors should surely be urged to make a pilgrimage of a few yards to see it, if only as an antidote to horrors like the clumsy Gustave Moreau of Diomedes devoured by huge ill-drawn horses, or the dreary blackboards of Cy Twombly.

The most coherent part of the show is the introductory demonstration of grisaille (the trade name for black and white painting) as a devotional device. This could be appropriate in a polyptych for identifying events before the advent of Christ or, more frequently, supplying hinged shutters that during Lent served to hide the coloured scenes of panel below. The fine Memling example from the gallery’s collection is here well (and teasingly) displayed. In similarly meaningful contexts the virtuosity of black and white painting could also be used to invoke architectural surrounds. Such variation in handling of a grey scale involves high skill in the choice of pigments to echo other materials in their relative starkness or cool sobriety.

As anyone who has had to select via samples and charts a suitable white for a room or house frontage will know there is a profusion of whites to choose from. There is also more than one black. My own paint table includes tubes of Lamp Black and Mars Black as well as Ivory Black, Rembrandt’s favourite, the name of which comes from the paradox of being made from charred ivory. One of the richest blacks in the show can be seen in Van Eyck’s elegant diptych which imitates polished stone as a background with the witty inclusion of faint black reflections of the figures. There may also be wit at work with this most virtuosic of artists in the use of burnt ivory to contrast with the almost ivorine whites of the Virgin and the angel Gabriel.

The variety of pigments that can be brought into play when painting in apparent monochrome is hardly discussed. It would have been intriguing to have seen (reminding one of Persil’s hundred year old claim to be ‘whiter than white’) the new absolute black that has caused controversy amongst artists since Anish Kapoor claimed exclusive rights to its use. This Vantablack was recently developed in the UK to help disguise satellites and is said to somehow swallow sight. The Vanta in the name stands for vertically aligned carbon nanotube arrays. Even a sample swatch could have shed some Miltonic light on the debate.

Persil’s boast is unlikely to have derived from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis

Who seeks her true love in her naked bed
teaching the sheets a whiter hue than white

but Ingres, in what, by virtue of its pin-up role in advertisements, is the star item in the show, takes on the challenge in his own inventive way, making a symphony in grey of his famous Odalisque. Although the accompanying text confidently claims that it is ‘the only version entirely painted in shades of grey’ it is evident that Ingres cunningly cheated by allowing a flesh tone of pale apricot serve not to colour the lower half of the figure but to migrate quietly to the sheet below. This can be clearly seen, even on the cover of the catalogue.

A nearby Giacometti, somewhat gloomily hung, might have invited more explanation in that his etiolated figures were painted in a studio in which every surface was covered in white from the plaster he used in his sculpture which accounts for the flurries of white and pale grey which so often only stop short of eating away the sitter altogether.

Arriving at twentieth century abstraction, where Albers (who knew about such things) takes the strain, it is Malevich’s iconic Black Square that inevitably holds court (at last the word iconic is appropriate since Malevich always hung Black Square in his room at the traditional place for a holy ikon). But wait a minute, the square is not a square. It is a quadrangle but not one of its corners is actually rectangular and the top of the alleged square is way out of true. No textual mention is made of this, nor explanation given. Surely by the time he created this last version in 1929 for a solo exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow Malevich owned a ruler and had access to a set square. Could some undertext be present fourteen years after the first version (whose surface was by then starting to crack)? Perhaps he knew the time was already almost out of joint.

A rather casual selection of more recent abstract work, oddly featuring none of the near all black or all white paintings once fashionable in America does not, however, end the show. It is redeemed at the last moment by a brilliant coup de theatre, a room devised by Olafur Eliasson which contains no paintings at all. We find ourselves in a space fiercely lit by intense sodium light in which we become the suddenly grey exhibits. A woman next to me who minutes ago was gaily dressed and sported a rainbow scarf looks down on her newly leaden outfit with alarm as with ashen hands she fingers the scarf now drained of all colour. It is not a room in which to linger long. Even such a partial inkling of the world as experienced by Mr I is lesson enough.