Friday, June 20, 2014

Making Colour @ National Gallery, London

I may not be the best person to judge the worth of an exhibition called Making Colour, just opened at the National Gallery. I have a lot of preconceptions about colour in painting, particularly, the way that colour should and shouldn’t be discussed in the description and analysis of painting. I am also always skeptical of the National Gallery’s reorganization of its own paintings into a special exhibition that then costs anything between £8-£15 to enter. And an exhibition such as Making Colour seems to be summer filler, in between Veronese and Rembrandt whose late works are on display in the Autumn. So take what I have to say with all precaution.
Sassoferrato, The Virgin in Prayer, 1640-50
Making Colour is really just that: an exhibition about the way that artists in the late medieval, through the Renaissance and into early modernism, made colour.  Blue, green, yellow, red, purple, gold and silver are each given a room in the downstairs five galleries. There is all sorts of interesting information on how colour pigments were made, the search for stable colours, the introduction of manufactured colours in the nineteenth century, how to make gold leaf, and Queen Victoria’s penchant for purple. If you don't know a lot about colour, the exhibition will help to see painting through this lens in a new light. It encourages viewers to look at the very technical aspects of colour manipulation on the artist’s palette and the canvas.

Michael Pacher, The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints, 1475
My disappointment in the exhibition came because it was about nothing other than the technical aspects of making colour. There was no mention of the political value of lapis lazuli, for example. The patron’s struggle for recognition, his flaunted wealth through the use and amount of blue; the association of blue with capitalism, with ownership, with power and the competition between painted blue and the great expanses of nature – the sky, the sea. None of this was even hinted at in the room devoted to blue. There was discussion of the development of certain colours, but only from a technical perspective, namely to find stable pigments. None of the factors other than the technical that influenced colour, its fabrication, its thematic and formal uses were mentioned. For example, the historical demands, economic demands that drove the pursuit for colour were overlooked. Similarly, there was very little discussion of gums, resins, lacquers, tempera and oil, and how the mixing of colour with these substances was so key to the development and use of certain colours and dyes at certain historical moments.
Edgar Degas, Combing the Hair, 1896

The other thing about the exhibition that I found a little gratuitous was that the paintings were all hung as mere illustration of who used what colour and when. The aesthetic value of the paintings was completely erased in preference for a focus on the fact that blue, green, red and so on, were used to depict a given object or scene. I say this and yet, there were a few exceptions to this, but I wonder if my noticing of the aesthetic or painterly techniques was because for some of those on display, it’s impossible not to see them as much more than the sum of the colours used. For example, to look at Botticelli and not see magnificence and exquisiteness would be so contrary to instinct that I can’t imagine it happening. His Saint Francis of Assisi with Angels, c. 1475-80 is on exhibition in Making Colour, and it reminded me that sometimes the National Gallery’s showcasing of its own paintings out of their aesthetic or historical context can bring lovely surprises. If this painting has been on display at the National Gallery, I have never seen it, so the fact that it is included in Making Colour was a redeeming feature of the exhibition.

No comments: