‘Making Colour’ at the National Gallery promises to make us « travel through the story of colour ». I did, wondering around National Gallery colour-themed rooms, with paintings and artefacts displayed on black walls and captions’ titles in the colour of rooms. In a well-displayed and good-size exhibition, the National Gallery delivers on its promise of an artistic and scientific voyage of discovery, spanning from the early Renaissance paintings to the Impressionists.
A lot has been written on colour theory – Klee wrote about it at length. In the past, I wondered if artists truly used the theory of complementary colours in their practice. At the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam however, I learnt how Van Gogh was seeking optical effects by placing specific colours next to each other. Van Gogh read about chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul’s colour theory in the handbook ‘Grammaire des arts du dessin, architecture, sculpture, peinture’ by Charles Blanc. Van Gogh then strived for opposing colours in the colour wheel (blue-orange, purple-yellow and red-green), which reinforce each other if they are placed next to each other (read more on the museum blog).
Coming back to the National Gallery, I excitedly entered the Blue room. From my early arty years, which started with Italian Renaissance, I was captivated by lapis lazuli. I understood lapis lazuli was special, relatively widely used in Renaissance paintings despite its high cost. When I travelled to Chile, my only souvenir was a lapis lazuli pendant. Accordingly, the Blue room was particularly fascinating to me. Did you know that natural ultramarine emanates from lapis lazuli from Afghanistan? Smalt and azurite had flaws. Longer-lasting Prussian blue was (re)discovered in the 18th century before French ultramarine in the 19th century.
Making Colour at National Gallery makes you an expert on metals & mining, the extraction of colours and their preservation. It felt amusing and unusual to focus on a specific colour looking at paintings, most from the National Gallery’s permanent collection. I asked myself why such a show had not been organised before in the UK. On my latest visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the MFA had a stand in front of Zurbarán’s Saint Francis explaining and demonstrating the colours and pigments used by artists, rewarding visitors’ interest in colours. Making Colour at the National Gallery runs until 7 September 2014 and I will make a repeat visit.