Monochrome. Painting in Black and White. National Gallery (30 October 2017 – 18 February 2018)
Painting using predominantly black-and-white pigments has long held a fascination for artists, yet there has never been a major exhibition on the subject. This show explores the tradition of painting in black and white from its beginnings in the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and into the 21st century
One of the stars of the show will be a loan from the Hermitage, a superb ‘drawing’ in pen and ink on prepared canvas measuring 228 x 170 cm (!), created between 1604 and 1606 by Dutch Mannerist artist Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617).
Firstly, that technique: the canvas was covered with a very even layer of white oil primer which was then polished to a sheen before the drawing was made on it in pen and brown ink, a dense network of thousands of hatched and parallel lines creating texture and light. Everything in the picture – the naked bodies, the folds of drapery, the tongues of fire and clouds of transparent smoke, the leaves fluttering in the breeze, the jewellery that sparkles in the rich hairstyle and the landscape melting in the haze – everything has been created, with the maximum sense of illusion and reality, using just that play of pen lines.
Goltzius was an engraver as well as a painter and indeed today it is his prints that are often most famous. Around 1600, however, at the height of his fame, he gave up engraving forever in order to turn to painting. One reason may have been increasing paralysis in his right hand, depriving him of the strength to incise perfect lines in the copper plate.
Nonetheless, in the self-portrait that he included in the picture – the man in 17th-century attire looking out at the viewer – he holds out the chisels and burins of the engraver.
Secondly, the subject: the subject, Without Ceres and Bacchus Venus is Chilled, comes from a saying meaning that food (Ceres) and wine (Bacchus) help the progress of love (Venus). The gloriously sinuous bodies of the gods exude gentle eroticism, with Bacchus holding up a bunch of grapes above his head as he looks at Venus (more grapes lie in the foreground and are pressed sensuously to the lips and nose of the little faun to right). Ceres has a cornucopia of fruits and grains visible on her lap.
Thirdly, the history: this drawing on canvas has a glorious history: it was created for Holy Roman Emperor – and celebrated patron of the arts – Rudolf II. It then passed through the collections of some of the most famous collectors in history: Queen Christina of Sweden, Cardinal Mazarin and the Paris collector Pierre Crozat. It was acquired by Catherine the Great for her Hermitage in 1772 with the Crozat collection.
The exhibition is being organised by the National Gallery in collaboration with Stiftung Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf.