The National Gallery’s summer exhibition Making Colour guides the audience through the spectrum of materials used throughout history to create artists’ pigment—from blues, through reds and oranges, to purples. Each room focuses on a specific colour and the multiple materials used to make it over time, from early earth pigments, through lakes (dyes made into pigment) to the new artificial coal tar derived pigments created around the time of the Impressionists. The function of the works on show seems to be to illustrate different pigments and demonstrate how various materials have faded with time and with exposure to light. The work presented, while beautiful, is therefore scattershot, as the exhibition’s focus is mainly demonstrative—a showcase for the work of the National Gallery’s scientific team whose world-leading work on colour conservation has reshaped the way we are able to see works of historical importance. It is a lesson in scientific art history rather than colour as conceptualized by artists.
There are hints about how external pressures and ideologies have shaped what colours were used— such as the well-worn story of the depiction of the virgin Mary in blue because of the expense of lapis lazuli, as in the dazzling painting of The Virgin Mary by Sassoferrato (1640-50)—but less in the actual exhibition about how and why we see colour at all. The video made to accompany the exhibition, however, beautifully links the show’s focus on colour as material to a consideration of how it is perceived. In doing so, it suggests that with colour’s subjective and shifting nature, our critical faculties are required.
Less than two hours by train from London, at Turner Contemporary in Margate, two concurrent exhibitions explore these other ideas of colour in a surprisingly cohesive way for two such distinct artists. The works on show in Mondrian and Colour and Spencer Finch: The skies can’t keep their secret rely on colour’s less precise elements—namely, its subjective interpretation and perception—and as such take up where the National Gallery’s exhibition leaves off. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries' fascination with the concept of colour arguably gave rise to the biggest shift that painting has ever seen: the move to abstraction. Mondrian and Finch prove to be logical stepping-stones on colour in visual art’s journey.
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Molen (Mill); The Red Mill, 1911, Oil on canvas, 150 cm x 86 cm.; Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Netherlands © 2014 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International USA
Mondrian and Colour is not the show one would expect. The first two rooms are all figurative works ranging from landscapes to portraits, which become increasingly vibrant moving through time. Goethe’s and the theosophist’s influence on Mondrian’s colour palette intensified it, showing how, in Mondrian’s own words, he “forsook natural colour for pure colour.” This shift, like the Impressionists before him, demonstrates that perceptual colour is a strange concept and "representation" of colour is anything but simple matching. His almost alarmingly vivid work The Red Mill (1911) stands out when making the mental leap between his landscapes and grids. The painting is composed of almost entirely blue and red and we get the sense that it depicts both a windmill and pure colour as an idea. In the final room of the exhibition, with clear Cubist influence, Mondrian finally condenses his landscapes into blocks of bright hues, and his grids begin to develop—in his words: “a new way to express the beauty of nature.”
Spencer Finch is an obvious choice to accompany this unusual exhibition of Mondrian’s work. His sculptures, photographs, and paintings often take a seemingly simple or everyday perceptual experience and render it utterly transcendent by revealing its complexity, particularly in regard to colour and quality of light. Walking into the room, we are greeted by the large sculpture Passing Cloud (After Constable) (2014), which hovers in the center. Constructed from photographic filters held in place on fishing wire with clothes pegs, it floats, is translucent, and yet seems to hold onto mass, taking up space but hardly being present at all. No artificial light shines on the cloud. The transient light passing through the giant window above affects the artificial cloud’s presence in the room, making it both glow and contain shadows.
Spencer Finch, Passing Cloud (After Constable) / Thank You, fog, 2014 / 2009, Light fixtures, filters, monofilaments and clothes pins / 60 x Archival Inkjet Photographs; © Photo Stephen White; Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery/Galerie Nordenhake Berlin/Stockholm
Finch’s works often deal with vision and how to represent it—a central idea in visual art—capturing fleeting senses and experiences. In Thank You Fog (2009), a series of photographs of dense trees in fog, Finch directly addresses the sense that in looking your eyes can trick you. The imagery, a dark forest, fades in and out of the pictures as you move along them, recalling the process of images developing in a darkroom. Blacks give way to greys and then greens. The more you look, the more you see. These subtle and elegant expressions of the phenomenon of light as witnessed everyday are shown to be sublime, and for Finch, sight is the miracle celebrated by visual art.
These exhibitions seen together neatly elucidate the link between the stuff of pigment, the light reflected from it, and our brain’s subsequent interpretation of that light on the retina. For the sense of seeing ideas in art form and develop, it’s well worth the journey to Margate.
[Image on top: Sassoferrato, The Virgin in Prayer, 1640-50, Oil on canvas, 73 x 57.7 cm.; CourtesyThe National Gallery, London]