Making Color, London

This interesting (if scientific) exhibit offers a workmanlike description of how colors are achieved in many art forms – with little exploration of the creative process that informs the use of color in those fields.

Displays of paintings, mineral specimens, textiles, ceramics and glass, focusing on pigments and color in art through the ages

The National Gallery, London

June 18 – Sept. 7, 2014

Ultramarine is a blue pigment derived from a semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli. During the Renaissance period, lapis lazuli was more highly prized than gold, and with good reason: its only source was in the remote province of Badhakhshan in northeast Afghanistan. (Sar-i Sang mine, north of Kabul, where miners work in treacherous conditions without training or basic safety equipment, is still the world’s largest supplier of the stone.) Lapis lazuli was imported from Asia through Venice, hence the name ultramarine, from the Latin ultra (“beyond”) and mare (“sea”). Ground to a fine powder, it produces a beautiful, intense blue, far more stable than alternative pigments such as smalt, and without the greenish tint of azurite. But no wonder it was used only sparingly by artists.

This exhibition in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing basement surveys the history of colors from the Middle Ages to the end of the 19th century. Ultramarine is the undoubted star of the show. Here you can see lapis lazuli in its natural state, or ground into various grades of pigment, or fashioned into figurines, beads and amulets (on loan from the British Museum). For a truly stunning example of its use in art, nothing in the show compares to the small panel by Orazio Gentileschi, “David Contemplating the Head of Goliath,” about 1612, on loan from a private collection. Gentileschi has actually painted directly onto a slab of lapis lazuli, the streaky blue of the sky being produced by the veins in the stone. Otherwise, to appreciate ultramarine in all its glory you need to go upstairs to the main gallery to look at paintings like the “Wilton Diptych” or Titian’s fabulous “Bacchus and Ariadne.”

After an introductory room, where among other things you can see Turner’s paintbox and palette (on loan from the Tate), the show deals in turn with the pigments used to produce the main colors of the spectrum: blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and purple. Each color is illustrated by lumps of raw material, by examples of its use in the “sister” arts, mainly textiles and ceramics, and by selected paintings from the gallery’s permanent collection. You can see the logic in having color-themed rooms, and the exhibition hangs together very well visually, but ultramarine is a hard act to follow: it’s difficult to muster equal enthusiasm for green earth, madder, cochineal or verdigris. And each room rather laboriously repeats the central theme of this show, which is the development, during the 19th century, of synthetic alternatives to traditional colors. The new pigments, Prussian blue, mauveine and so on, were permanent, and reasonably cheap to manufacture; in combination with the newly invented collapsible paint tube, which additionally made them easy to transport, they utterly transformed Western art. Without them, as Renoir pointed out, there would have been no Monet and no Cézanne (nor any Renoir, he might have added).

The final room considers the use of gold and silver in art, which is odd, since neither are colors in the strict sense, being either physically applied to the artwork, as in gold leaf, or mimicked by true colors on the palette. And whatever happened to black and white? Arguably, they have more claim to consideration than either gold and silver, yet they are nowhere mentioned in this exhibition. There are some marvelous paintings in this room, but they are not interesting for the reasons that the organizers claim they are. Ignore what the label says: the fabulous, shimmering cloak in Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo’s “Mary Magdalene” (circa 1535-40) is a virtuoso study not in silver but rather in that most variegated, and underrated, of all colors (don’t laugh): gray.

We’ve been rather spoiled in London recently by major exhibitions on two great masters of color, Veronese and Matisse. I was looking forward to a show that took a more considered look at the creative use of color. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. Here you will find nothing at all on color symbolism, and very little on color theory or color perception, apart from a short interactive demonstration at the end, which among other things will tell you — if you don’t know already — whether you are color-blind. Essentially, “Making Color” is a science lesson for the non-specialist about the materials used to make art, in which aim it succeeds in an appropriately workmanlike fashion.

Nick Marlowe

Nick studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art and History at Cambridge University. After working for thirty years in the book trade he is now a freelance writer and artist. His interests include breadmaking, touring historic battlefields, and trying to get above D4 on the flute (maybe it's time for the piccolo). He lives in Teddington, England.