Seeing differently

What does Schlinder’s List have in common with a medieval illustrated manuscript of Saint Catherine? An exhibition at the National Gallery provides the answer.

For an art form that began its life in monochrome, perhaps it’s not surprising that many photographers (and some filmmakers) continue to favour black and white over colour. But why have painters, unhindered by technical limitations, chosen to restrict their colour palette? I headed to the Monochrome: painting in black and white exhibition in search of answers and hopefully to discover common ground between what has motivated photographers and painters.

From the very first exhibit – a 12th century grisaille (grey toned) stained-glass church window – it’s clear that monochrome was used for conceptual, rather than aesthetic, purposes as far back as the Middle Ages. Removing the colours of the outside world marked a space as somewhere different, a simplified meditative space in which the worshiper could carry out their devotions without the distraction of colour. By enabling a person to see differently, monochrome also encouraged them to feel and behave differently.

This idea of using monochrome to represent a different realm can be seen in another exhibit: an illustrated manuscript of St Catherine. It shows the saint painted in greys and whites, clearly set apart from her colourful surroundings. The specific use of monochrome and colour also suggest that the saint’s earthly body is less important than her spiritual faith, symbolised by the wheel of her martyrdom and the halo of her sainthood.

This idea of using monochrome and colour for emphasis or to delineate different environments has been used extensively by filmmakers – think The Wizard of OzThe Purple Rose of Cairo or Schindler’s List. In all these cases, the application or absence of colour plays an important role in the storytelling. But as for using spot colour in monochrome images, I’m not even going to go there…

The area of the exhibition where we see perhaps the strongest parallel between painters and photographers is the room that looks at how artists ‘think without colour first’. A number of preparatory sketches show that, without the distraction of colour, artists’ drawings become a series of interconnected shapes, defined by light and shade. Monochrome photography, that relies on strong shapes, tonal contrast and highlights and shadows, works on much the same principles. I was particularly struck by Albrecht Dürer’s 1521 drawing of A Woman in Netherlandish Dress seen from behind (drapery study). It reminded me of Edward Weston’s still life, Cabbage Leaf, in that both works of art seem to say ‘look how I can transform the mundane with light and shade and vision’.

Painters also used monochrome to demonstrate their talent and to replicate other mediums. Titian’s La Schiavona incorporates not only a portrait of the titular lady but also a marble relief of her. It’s Titian’s way of saying that he can not only paint but imitate sculpture too. Perhaps Célestin Joseph Blanc was saying something similar with his Head of a Girl which reproduces a photograph in paint. Today’s photographers who aspire to create painterly images with their lens are following a tradition that dates back centuries.

As the exhibition moves on to the 19th century, we find artists exploring the psychological effects of colour, using a reduced or non-naturalistic range of colours to evoke an emotional state rather than an objective reality. Picasso had a life-long interest in black and white. For him, colour was secondary in painting and, like the Cistercian monks of the 12th century who developed grisaille windows, a distraction from the hidden truths that lay within.

From these few highlights of the exhibition, it’s clear that painters have chosen to restrict their colour palette for a variety of reasons: emotional, religious, philosophical, moral, atmospheric, aesthetic.

As Lelia Packer and Jennifer Sliwka, exhibition curators explain: “Painters reduce their colour palette for many reasons, but mainly as a way of focusing the viewer’s attention on a particular subject, concept or technique. It can be very freeing – without the complexities of working in colour, you can experiment with form, texture, mark making, and symbolic meaning”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same can be said of photographers.



Monochrome: painting in black and white is at the National Gallery in London until 18 February 2018.




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