Masters of monochrome: Why some of history’s greatest painters turned to black and white

CNN  — 

Imagine being able to see all the colors of the spectrum one moment, and only black and white the next. You’d think that you were missing something – that the gray was just a stripped-down vision of reality.

But for centuries, painters have intentionally purged color from their art as a way of making it more nuanced and complex. From Jan Van Eyck, Rembrandt and Ingres, to Degas, Picasso and Gerhard Richter, artists have created – and recreated – images in monochrome to enhance their work.

“People think of 20th-century abstract artists as the ones who turned to black or white, but painters over the centuries who were great colorists elected to (drastically) restrict their palettes,” said Lelia Packer, co-curator of the first major exhibition to explore the subject.

Featuring around 70 paintings, many of which are on loan from institutions and private collections from around the world, “Monochrome: Painting in Black and White” at London’s National Gallery proves how much can be gained from the absence of color.

An artistic tradition

This story begins, like so many others in Western art, with the church. In the 12th century, Cistercian monks limited the amount of color used in stained glass windows to curtail sensory stimulation and encourage more meditative worship. A few centuries later, in the early Northern Renaissance, the pious would throw cloths over their vibrantly painted altarpieces during Lent.

Luckier members of the flock were able to hide their richly colored art from sight with shutters painted in grisaille – images entirely composed of gray or neutral tones. These outer panels might not have boasted the bright pigments of the artworks they concealed, but they were no less fun to look at.

One of the earliest works in the exhibition, a set of exterior oak panels for a portable altarpiece by Flemish master Hans Memling, features two grisaille images laboriously rendered to resemble chiseled stone statues. Mimicking sculptures was a clever solution to the challenge of abandoning color.

"The Annunciation Diptych (The Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Mary)," (about 1433-1435).

But it was also a practice at the heart of the heated rivalry between painters and sculptors during the Italian Renaissance, according to Packer.

“(There) was a famous debate called the paragone – a comparison between the arts,” she said. “Michelangelo and Leonardo both wrote about it. Basically, sculptors were criticizing painters for only being able to represent in two dimensions.”

Painters responded by using monochrome to show how the play of light and shadow gives volume to form. The Venetian powerhouse Titian took this idea to the extreme in the painting “Portrait of a Lady” (circa 1510–12), which shows a woman above what appears to be a bust of her own profile carved in stone.

Over the years, imitation sculptures became fashionable optical illusions used in interior design – they mimicked stone without the cost. But artists knew other ways to impress in black and white.

In fact, some painters chose to reproduce color paintings in monochrome as a way of showing off – most likely to other artists. It proved that they had the skill required to master light and shade without color. Years after completing his provocative “Grande Odalisque” (1814) – one of the most famous nude female backs of all time – the French Neo-Classical master Jean-Dominique Ingres rendered the image in black and white to demonstrate his mastery of painting gradations of shading.

“It was a way of better understanding the fall of light on a variety of surfaces,” said Packer.

Modernism in monochrome

As printmaking spread in the 16th and 17th centuries, artists understood that replicating their paintings meant reaching a wider audience. As such, painters began transforming polychromatic masterpieces into black and white as a guide for printmakers, who needed to translate the images into linear designs for the printing press.

But by the 20th century the flip side of this practice emerged when artists like Picasso, Warhol and Richter started working in black and white to imitate the mass production of mechanical printing.

Pablo Picasso, "Las Meninas (Infanta Margarita María)" (1957).

Picasso famously imitated newsprint in paintings like “Guernica” (1937). But he also restricted his palette while imitating the Spanish Old Masters in artworks like 1957’s “Las Meninas (Infanta Margarita María),” part of his abstracted 58-painting homage to the painter Diego Velásquez. Reducing the scene to black and white dramatizes it with stark contrast and dark, frenzied lines.

“He paints very swiftly,” said Packer. “He’s responding to his great predecessor and trying to outdo him. It’s about competition.”

And no exhibition on monochrome art would be complete without works by some of the 20th-century radicals like Frank Stella, who covered canvases with lines of black enamel house paint to show that they are not illusionary windows but objects, or Jasper Johns, who turned familiar symbols gray (like the American flag) to make them unfamiliar and therefore, ironically, more visible. The latter artist is represented by a 2007 collage that resembles flagstones painted on wooden shutters – an unlikely contemporary cousin to the altarpieces of centuries past.

Gerhard Richter, "Helga Matura with her Fiancé" (1966).

Yet, it is a surprising burst of bright yellow that greets visitors at the end of the exhibition. It’s a recreation of “Room for One Colour (1997), an immersive installation by the Icelandic-Danish installation artist Olafur Eliasson, who has hung mustard-yellow lights in an empty room painted white.

“Everything the light hits is transformed into shades of gray,” explained Packer. “It’s how your eye perceives the color.”

The purpose, as Eliasson explains in the show’s catalog, is to make the viewer’s eye see more than it usually does. Our eyes, he writes, “can detect more shade of gray in a black-and-white photograph than shades of color in a color image.”

Consider it a kind of superpower that artists have, apparently, been wise to for centuries.

Monochrome: Painting in Black and White” is on at the National Gallery in London until Feb. 18, 2018