Monochrome review – white stripes, shocking yellow and 500 shades of grey

By Adrian Searle

National Gallery, London
This peculiar exhibition shirks black-and-white certainties in examining monochromatic art and painting, and is defined as much by who it leaves out as what it includes

Medieval manuscripts and Malevich's Black Square; a niggly grey and black Giacometti and Titian‘s Portrait of a Lady; Cy Twombly‘s scribbled writing and Ingres's La Grande Odalisque, repainted in shades of grey. Monochrome at the National Gallery is a peculiar visual and art-historical experience, beginning with an illuminated manuscript with St Catherine next to the wheel on which she was martyred – the scene drawn in delicate greys on parchment, the image completed with a disconcertingly vivid blue sky – and ending with an empty room with strong yellow lighting, by Olafur Eliasson.

Although subtitled Painting in Black and White, the exhibition is full of colourful incident. Monochromatic painting can mean any number of things. Painters have often used variations of a single colour as underpainting before applying opaque body-colour or layers of more or less translucent glazes. Monochromatic painting might emulate light on stone or the fall of drapery, black and white photography, or an old movie still. It might mean painting the entire canvas in a field of single colour, or no colour at all.

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