What is art when it is denied the colours of the spectrum to give it life? The answer is plenty, as this thoroughly absorbing examination of art in monochrome demonstrates.
It’s an ingenious angle to take, encouraging a lateral appreciation of art, with almost as many disparate uses of monochrome as there are exhibits.
There are few exhibitions in which one theme will take you through more than half a millennia of art: here we travel from the Medieval, where artists like Van Eyck used monochrome to signify a hierarchy of figures within religious scenes, through to the optical tricks of Gerhard Richter and Bridget Riley, via Russian Constructivism in the form of Kazimir Malevich’s iconic Black Square.
Such is the richness of purposes for black and white that often single examples act as a thumbnail for whole movements, for example the impact printmaking in the 16th century, here represented by Rembrandt’s Ecce Homo, shown in print and then copied in paint, or a section on photography’s entrance in the 1830s, again represented by two works comparing seascapes in photography and paint. One can’t argue with this curatorial efficiency; there is zero filler going on here.
An especial treat is Olafur Eliasson’s 1997 light installation, Room For One Colour in which orange lights suppress every other colour in the spectrum, giving the truly eyeball-wobbling illusion of seeing only black and white. It’s a welcome contemporary inclusion in such a traditional institution as the National and finishes an exhibition that illuminates the significance of negative values in art.