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Review Occult science: colour's alchemy makes a feast of sensations: Making Colour National Gallery, London ?????

June 18, 2014

Jonathan Jones

The National Gallery has done the impossible. It has created an exhibition that is a clear, unpretentious, informative and hugely enjoyable introduction to one of the most baffling topics in art. Making Colour is a magical summer cocktail of art and science that sets great paintings alongside glistening minerals to reveal the stuff of which colour is made - stuff with marvellous medieval names redolent of alchemy, such as cinnabar, lapis lazuli and realgar.

Watch out for the realgar - it's poisonous, a notorious source of arsenic. In the Renaissance and baroque ages it was also about the only known source of pure orange pigment. When the Dutch painter Rachel Ruysch wanted to include pure orange petals in her painting Flowers in a Vase in about 1685, she resorted to realgar. Titian and other lovers of colour risked it, too. This and other extreme measures were worth it for those sexy reds, those forest greens and most of all those crystalline blues.

For this exhibition reveals how incredibly difficult it is to reproduce anything like the colours of nature in a painting, and how art has striven to find means to mirror life's chromatic plenitude. Where it gets complicated - and what makes colour such a difficult theme to understand - is that colour is an illusion. We concoct it in our minds from light's different wavelengths.

The exhibition shows how Newton's revelation of the spectrum within "white" light transformed thinking about colour. From the 17th century, artists and scientists made "colour wheels" that claimed to show all known shades of every known colour. With this knowledge they were able to theorise "complementary" colours. Yet as the exhibition reveals, painters had understood centuries earlier how to get a vivid effect by setting red next to green.

Yet even these powerful effects work in our brains, not in the exterior world. The show includes a film that demonstrates how subjective the experience of colour is. Look at this bright infrared-like image of a castle in a landscape, it asks. Stare at the black dot. Keep staring. Now here is another picture of the castle - what do you see?

I saw a natural-looking colour photograph of a castle, with green grass and blue sky - only to be told I was looking at a black-and-white photograph. My mind had supplied the "right" colours. Colour involves our memories and assumptions, which fill in the blanks to create phenomena that are not objectively "there" in the outer world.

At least lapis lazuli is something to hold on to. Before Newton, artists had no theory of colour - they thought light emanated from our eyes and bounced back off objects; even Leonardo da Vinci believed this. But they knew that only strong, lasting pigments could enable them to paint lifelike colours. Blue was exceptionally difficult. The only source of permanent deep blue was lapis lazuli, mined in Afghanistan.

In a beautiful section of the show, the curators reveal how lapis lazuli is still mined in Afghanistan: there's a moving picture of a miner with a huge block of it on his back. Sculptures from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia show how lapis lazuli was traded and cherished. In Renaissance Europe it was called "ultramarine" because it came from beyond the sea. It was more precious than gold.

The exhibition's rarest and most bizarre object is a painting by Orazio Gentileschi from about 1613 of David Contemplating the Head of Goliath. It is painted on a panel of lapis lazuli that creates a spectacular sky behind David.

The most dazzling revelation in this feast of sensations and ideas concerns the origins of modern art. Impressionism was made possible by the discovery in the 19th century of new, cheap colours, including cobalt blue. Squeezing blue from a tube without having to pay a fortune for it meant Monet, for example, could dapple it freely. Without that, modern art would look totally different. It might not have happened at all.

The 19th century saw a fantastic sunburst, helped along by the development of modern chemistry. Mauve was invented. Artists suddenly had access not just to natural greens but totally unnatural, lurid ones. That new universe of green is spangled through Cezanne's landscapes. Degas lost himself in a universe of reds.

Making Colour's revelatory insight into modern art climaxes in strangeness worthy of legend. The exhibition takes a scientific look at Roger Hiorns's installation Seizure, in which he bred spectacular blue copper sulphate crystals on every surface of a London flat.

That crystal cavern - now in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park - goes to the heart of what makes this exhibition so inspiring. Colour is science, and yet the science that makes it has the smoke and mirrors and occult aura of alchemy.


Clockwise from left: Degas' La Coiffure, a detail of Roger Hiorns's Seizure and a 16th-century maiolica saucer bowl Photograph: The National Gallery/PA

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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