Monochromism: A New Perspective

Monochromism, specifically achromatic art, applies predominantly black, white and grey paint, with occasional sparse use of blended, muted colours, to create atmospheric visual effects. It is an art genre made possible by the way in which an absence of colour on a canvass may actually serve, in a counterintuitive manner, to enhance tone, contrast and mood.

As an oil painter, I switched permanently to achromatic art in the summer of 2006, following some surprisingly satisfying initial experimentation. When I use colours these days it is in monotone works which try to use a single dominant colour with subdued use of other colours (see Link Monotone Art).

My embrace of this understated aesthetic originated in an instinctive fascination with stark black and white photographs, whether portraits from bygone eras, newspaper pictures of war and major events or shots of wintry landscapes. Accordingly, I feel comfortable referring to achromatic monochromism from time to time simply as black and white art.

Yet, I do love colours, at times yearning to turn back to a palette displaying a richer, warmer variety of colour-tones. By narrowing down choice, however, I am able to take hold of the twin solace of discipline and originality. For me, there is a stronger authenticity to be found in achromatic art, as well as a sense of calling to fully explore this darker, more existential style of visual art, especially for subjects and themes suited to it, such as period pieces, moody landscapes, nocturnes and depictions of social problems like poverty, starvation and war.

Monochromism, which can either be black and white or chromatic, has received scant attention from art historians. It has been relegated to a minor sub-genre within contemporary art. In modern art this style has been principally chromatic. In addition, it has been overwhelmingly a tool of abstraction. For example, the whimsical French conceptual artist, Yves Klein (1928-1962), painted in monochrome ultramarine during his blue period. Klein seemed to want his art to become increasingly invisible and once held an exhibition in Paris showcasing a largely empty room. With this nihilistic tinge to his thinking and his work, it may be deduced that he saw monochromism as a way of dematerialising, if not debunking, reality.

The mature work of Russian-born American colour-field artist, Mark Rothko (1903-1970), gradually converged towards greater levels of abstraction and monochromism. In his later work, characterised by large-scale, floating shapes of colour with soft, loose edges, Rothko conveyed extraordinary luminosity, sensuousness and sense of depth, as in Untitled (Gray) 1969 and Orange Yellow Orange (1969). In these vast colour-field paintings, there is no centre, no focal points to trap and hold the eye, for his self-conscious purpose was to evoke emotive optical experiences that were engulfing, encompassing, warmly embracing, setting up an intimate companionship with the viewer. As an authentic artist, he yearned to create and share pure states of being through this mystical use of colour. The result was a thoroughly non-intellectual form of art. And Rothko's greatest colourist creations are undeniably affective: there is something mysteriously moving about his finest works.

In the last years of his life, vivid reds, oranges and yellows of his earlier paintings made way for dark, muted greens, blues, blacks and greys. At last, this evolution led to the ascetic, monochromatic murals painted for the St. Thomas University chapel in Houston, Texas. These near-impenetrable paintings, fourteen in total, touch the furthermost boundaries of abstraction, and have become almost a-tonal, deathly, funereal. The centrepiece is a monochrome triptych in monotone dark brown, accompanied on either side by triptychs of vague black rectangles. The other chapel works also employ dark, opaque tones, creating an atmosphere of meditative silence with intimations of a nothingness beyond human consciousness. There in Rothko's chapel, one encounters either the apotheosis of abstractionism or the death of the artist, as killed by his art, or both. One is forced in the presence of ponderous works thus stripped of all material reality to contemplate essences, to face a daunting eternity. Once again, monochromism has become the instrument abstract art used to dismantle the world, leaving only pure being, adrift in a state of negation, lost in a noble but vain pursuit of purity and perfection.

But there is another, even more neglected kind of monochrome art which seeks not to dissolve outer reality but rather to interpret its underlying forms and structures in the light of mystery, to capture the spirit of wonder existing within our tortured but beautiful world. It is this other form of monochromism which has the potential to re-connect art to the world and to move beyond post-modernism in an authentic new flowering of originality and intensity appropriate for the 21st Century. After all, Rothko's chapel, with its epic, sombre series of works on death, eternity, nothingness, oblivion and, perhaps, rest, is the definitive portrait of artistic nihilism. After that, it has no room to grow and no place left to go.

Our world today, rich in information and superficial, cheaply accessible sources of stimulation, is yet hungry for an art rich with meaning, subtle with beauty, providing some form of illumination of social, global and cosmic challenges of life.

And for this, a monochromism which leaves the underlying forms of the external world intact, keeping viewers connected to it while at the same time attempting to shift, or enrich, their perception of that world, may be required. And one can look initially to one of the most influential precursors of modern art, 16TH Century artist El Greco, to show how this might be done.

During his Spanish period (1577-1614), El Greco displayed some nascent, inarticulate leanings towards monochromism, used to etherealise his portraits of saints. Saint Sebastian (1577-78) is painted in a monochrome grey-blue, with some subdued use of a few dull, background colours, to depict the ascetic character of the 3rd Century Christian martyr as he endures with fortitude his temptations and struggles. A similar etherealising style of colour is employed for Saint Peter in Tears (1580-82), as well as for Mary Magdalene in Penitence (1577). Even The Adoration of the Shepherds (1612-1614) applies comparatively bright areas of red and yellow on top of what is essentially a monochrome surface. And only the red robe of Christ and the blue robe of Saint Peter stand between The Resurrection (1584-1594) and what would have been the world's first monochromatic masterpiece.El Greco's quasi-monochromatic paintings are full of mood and meaning, springing from a religious intensity and a mind confident enough to interpret the classic subjects of Christian art with a fresh kind of daring.

The possibility of an interpretive, rather than an abstract, monochromism, hinted at in some of the spiritual portraits of El Greco, was made real by Picasso's 1937 masterwork Guernica, painted only in black, white and grey. I believe this is the greatest monochrome painting so far. Oddly, despite becoming one of the most celebrated modern paintings of all, it did not spawn much colour-blind mimicry. This mystery only deepens when one considers that in the pre-Second World War era of a burgeoning mass media, films and photographs, not to mention newspapers, were black and white by default. Nevertheless, Picasso's sweepingly evocative and prophetic anti-war piece certainly unleashed some of the untapped potential of the achromatic style, even if it was not subsequently fulfilled by himself (or anyone else). And what is noteworthy is that Guernica does deliver a potent social commentary in spite of the artist's innate self-absorption and a-political bent as a man. By using a monochrome style to dematerialise the world, by contrast, Klein and Rothko had abjured their the right to interpret it.

Black and white art remains to this day a vast, latent form of artistic power, like solar energy, waiting to be plucked from the air and turned into a lasting asset of great benefit to civilisation. In the history of art, artists have flirted with monochromism rather than entered into a serious relationship with it. That puzzling state of affairs may be about to change. For achromatic art has its own form of beauty and compelling uniqueness. The fact that it can also be effectively employed to comment on stirring issues of real life may imply that both beauty and truth are, in the end, colour-blind.

By Michael J.Lee
20th August 2010
Cape Town