‘Monochrome’, National Gallery

Seen from the corner of our eye, we experience a momentary shock. It looks for all the world like one of the pictures in this show has been vandalised – the glass is angrily shattered. We approach at once, only to discover we’ve fallen for a particularly odd trompe l’oeil, a rather stunning piece of 18th century proto Conceptual art. This picture by Étienne Moulinneuf is, in point of fact, a painting of an etching of a painting. The three pictures in question are here for comparison – Chardin’s 1739 canvas (in full colour) ‘Back from the Market’, is turned into an engraving for popular mass market sale, before Moulinneuf repaints the engraved version as a slightly punky visual illusion, playing on reality and reproduction. We didn’t expect to see something quite so sassy in a room full of 18th century pictures, but the curators of ‘Monochrome’ at the National Gallery have certainly pulled out all the stops to ensure this show is an exciting and unexpected journey through the backwoods world of black and white art history.

Some of the pictures here, like this Moulinneuf, are true artistic curios, exhibited alongside original source material for direct comparison. Thus we also have a marble Canova sculpture exhibited beside a hyper real monochrome Bernardo Nocchi painting of the same piece, apparently commissioned by the sculptor himself. At a time when there was much discussion of the so called paragone, or the philosophical comparison between painting and sculpture, it seems Canova was keen to see how his sculpture would ‘translate’ into painting. In a world where such things can be achieved so easily via simple photography, we must doff our caps at Nochi’s painterly efforts, and Canova’s desire to understand his own artwork.

Ingres’ monochrome Odalisque meanwhile, which features heavily on the posters for this show, is another beautiful but strangely mysterious painting. At first we assumed it was a sketch for his famous full colour Louvre Odalisque – but apparently not. This picture post-dates the colour version by a decade. It’s a smaller version of the piece, with some of the extraneous decorative elements removed to give a purer composition, and appears to be an end in itself – like a strange dreamlike after-image.

The exhibition dwells, too, in some detail upon the relationship between painting and printmaking. We’re encouraged to consider the challenges inherent in turning fluidly painted colour artworks into impactful tonal engravings. A 1632 Van Dyck, seen here in all its colourful glory, is reworked, by the artist, into a smaller grisaille tonal painting which clarifies the overall values and serves as a guide for the eventual print. It’s fascinating. The printing press isn’t always the destination for these endeavours, either: master engraver Goltzius deals with frustration at the size limitations forced upon him by the practicalities of printing plates by unleashing his cross hatching technique on a giant ‘pen painting’, a large sepia pen and ink drawing. It’s a stunning virtuoso piece of calculated draughtsmanship which has to be seen to be believed.

This is admittedly a rather fragmented exhibition, a vaguely chronological survey with a random Picasso thrown in halfway to keep us on our toes. Yet this whistle stop expedition through unrelated artistic modes has a spirit of levity, refreshing in a show of mostly antique pictures. Where else could you hope to see illuminated medieval manuscripts and a Gerhard Richter painting in the same place? The exhibition closes with a bang, too, by sending us out through a room-sized Olafur Eliasson installation in which special single frequency bulbs endow us with monochrome perception. As well as being immediately headache-inducing, this reduced range of vision heightens our perception in weird and unsettling ways – we suddenly notice all sorts of disturbing patterns and blotches on our skin. Though it’s a fun way to end the show, we’re just as pleased and relieved to emerge back into a reassuringly colourful world. After our holiday in monochrome, the rest of the National Gallery has a renewed sense of vibrant opulence.

Monochrome: Painting in Black and White
National Gallery London – til February 18th
£14 weekdays / £16 weekends

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