Is your red the same as my red? This mildly irritating question has become one of the cornerstones of pop philosophy, infinitely repeated to pique our common sense. Most of us accept that the question is unanswerable since colours are perceptions rather than physical qualities in objects. It’s generally believed that this world-view only took shape in the West in the 17th century, when new technologies such as the telescope led philosophers such as René Descartes to question the reliability of our senses and the physicist Isaac Newton to define colours as optical manifestations of colourless light rays. Yet, seeing ‘Monochrome: Painting in Black and White’, the latest survey exhibition at the National Gallery, London, it becomes apparent that artists had been treating colour with suspicion centuries earlier.
As the first of its kind to examine Western painting purely on the basis of tonality, the exhibition presents a 700-year span of 59 works, mostly in ink, oil and tempera, that abstain from using colour. While the artists were varied in their reasoning for choosing monochrome, the works are connected by the peculiarly introspective atmosphere that they create. Where colour pushes us into our senses, black and white, it seems, pulls us into our heads.
As early as the 10th century, the Catholic Church was suspicious of colour’s sensuality. During Lent, a period of sorrowful self-reflection, church interiors were purged of all vibrancy: polychrome decorations were covered in white cloths and the bright colours of liturgical vestments were replaced with modest greys. An unattributed indigo linen cloth displayed at the entrance of the exhibition reflects this tradition. Made in 1538 as part of a set of hangings to cover the interior walls of the Benedictine Church of San Nicolò del Boschetto in Genoa during Lent, it represents Christ’s premonition of his death for the sins of mankind, otherwise known as the Agony in the Garden.
In the central arch, an anguished Christ throws his hands before an angel. Scenes on the lower left and right symbolize the wrongdoings that both cause and justify his despair: on the left, the damned corpse of the disciple Judas who betrayed him hangs from a tree; on the right, the haloed disciple Peter who denied him repents on a knoll. Faced with the challenge of symbolically connecting three biblical moments in one image, the artist has painted the composition exclusively in white. Where a colour version would isolate the scenes into narrative episodes, monochrome blurs them in a way that encourages inner identification. While praying in front of the painting, viewers might replay the scenes in their heads, relating their misdeeds to Christ’s spiritual agony, their fears to Judas’s unholy death and their remorse to Peter’s repentance. Where colour is rooted in specifics, monochrome veers into the abstract.
By avoiding colour, the cloth painting invites viewers to think about the Passion on an intellectual level. In other words, it muffles the senses to sharpen the mind. Were the image rendered with opulent pigments, it might run the risk of overexciting the senses into zealous object worship, otherwise known as idolatry. Even now in a non-religious context, colourful images continue to hold us spellbound. The flashy adverts, glittering Instagram feeds and sensationalist newspaper images that bombard us daily are forever conflating the physical with the fantastical. Recently, our newsfeeds were flooded by a debate over the British passport’s change from burgundy to blue after Brexit, which ignited new levels of fanaticism. The right-wing, pro-Brexit British politician Nigel Farage greeted the new colour as a ‘real, tangible victory’, as if it were a relic carrying numinous significance. Even with the march of the Reformation, science and philosophy, we are still tricked into seeing symbolically.
Some of the most compelling works in ‘Monochrome’ tease out the mysteries of why we look at objects in this way. Strangely, by shutting off colour, they open up illusions that make us think less about what we see and more about how we see.
Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation Diptych (c.1433–35) represents one of the deepest puzzles in Christianity. Two small panels present pale-yellow sculptures of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Although the figures are, in fact, paintings, idiosyncrasies suggest otherwise: subtle plays of light and shade simulate the translucent surface and solid volume of alabaster; gleaming reflections create the illusion that they have been carved in the round; and a convincingly imitated stone frame set in a marble block encases them, fully supporting their three-dimensionality. As we look at these trompe l’oeil paintings, one mirage gradually gives way to another: a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, hovers impossibly above the Virgin’s head as if frozen in animation. Following the lines of the angel’s pointed finger and the Virgin’s upward gaze, it appears to bring forth a miracle of sculptures coming to life.
Meanwhile, in another room, a similar miracle is taking place. A black and white painting of a nude blushes before our eyes. Known as Odalisque en Grisaille (Odalisque in Greyscale, c.1824–34) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and his workshop, and based on an earlier colour version by the artist that famously hangs in the Louvre, Paris, the painting depicts a naked woman reclining on her side, turning to meet our gaze. The sensuous curves of her body, at once sleepy and willing, are mostly modelled in bluish shades of white and grey. But these cool tonalities are interrupted by hints of light pink that appear to intensify the longer we look at them. As we focus on her turning ear, twisting neck and arching back, her body emanates life. It’s as if our eyes are literally turning her on.
The voice of logic swiftly snaps us out of our visual daze. The ethereal sculptures are structurally impossible. The naked woman’s blush is pigment on a surface. Having toyed with our senses, the Annunciation Diptych and the Odalisque en Grisaille ultimately throw them into question.
Through their visual tricks, the works present monochrome figures on the cusp of becoming flesh. In both cases, this state of becoming compliments the provocative quality of the subject matter. As a representation of an intangible mystery, the diptych holds us back from fully witnessing the Virgin’s conception of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Similarly, as an archetypal erotic fantasy, the Odalisque tantalizes us as if to say, ‘You can look, but not touch.’ Tricks of this kind reverberate throughout the exhibition; from Kazimir Malevich’s throbbing Black Square (1929) – that refuses to be as definite as its name suggests as it expands, contracts and realigns in the mind’s eye – to Bridget Riley’s vertiginous Horizontal Vibration (1961), that transforms narrow lines of black and white paint into dizzying optical performances; from Gerhard Richter’s Helga Matura with her Fiancé (1966) that dissolves a newspaper snapshot of a murder victim into an out-of-focus painting, to Olafur Eliasson’s Room for One Colour (1997) that saturates the eye with orange light to trigger polychrome hallucinations. By pushing monochrome images to their limit, these works prove that artists can also be scientists and philosophers, unravelling the process through which we colour seeing with meaning.
‘Monochrome: Painting in Black and White’ is on view at the National Gallery, London, until 18 February 2018.
Main image: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop, Odalisque en Grisaille (Odalisque in Greyscale), c.1824-34, oil on canvas, 83 x 109 cm. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence