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Four major exhibitions with colour at their core open this summer

How colour became primary

Published 3 June 2014

Simon Wilson surveys a slew of shows, in London, Liverpool and Margate, that reveal the changing roles colour has played in art history.

  • From the Summer 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    By some weird functioning of my favourite phenomenon, the Zeitgeist, there are no less than four major exhibitions in which colour is key running more or less concurrently through the summer. The National Gallery’s ‘Making Colour’ is explicitly an exploration of the subject; Tate Liverpool’s ‘Mondrian and his Studios’, Turner Contemporary’s ‘Mondrian and Colour’ and Tate Modern’s ‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ all focus on artists for whom colour was the primary instrument of expression. The four shows are strikingly complementary.

    The NG’s show surveys the use of colour by painters from the early Renaissance to Impressionism. It thus ends at what was merely the beginning of the liberation of colour that was fully developed by, surprise surprise, on the one hand Matisse and on the other, and very differently, by Mondrian. But ‘Making Colour’ is also a fascinating account of the materials of colour and how colours were made.

    The phrase ‘the liberation of colour’ is a cliché in the history of modern art. What it means is simple. In painting before Impressionism, as we see at the NG, colour is indeed often used to ravishing effect. Yet it is always subordinate to the subject of the picture and confined, more or less, depending on the artist, to the drawn forms through which the subject is depicted. Until Impressionism, subjects were predominantly religious, historical or mythological, and therefore particularly dominant in the work.

  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Skiff (La Yole)

    Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Skiff (La Yole), 1875.

    © The National Gallery, London..

  • Impressionism changed that, first by ditching the attention-grabbing subject matter in favour of apparently inconsequential everyday subjects and then by increasingly substituting drawing with an all-over brushwork from which forms emerge. The Impressionists also discovered the science of colour, in particular the law of complementaries. These are the primary and secondary colours, red/green, yellow/mauve and blue/orange, which when juxtaposed ‘complete’ each other and are thus seen at maximum intensity.

    The NG show ends with one of the most perfect illustrations of all this, indeed one of the most perfect of all Impressionist paintings, from the movement’s first full flush – Renoir’s delicious and haunting The Skiff (La Yole), of 1875. The whole composition revolves around the complementary clash of the deliberately heightened blue of the water and the bright orange of the skiff itself, no doubt in reality a warm brown. Colour has become the dominant element.

    Picking up on Impressionism, in 1905 Matisse began to paint pictures in flat areas of primary and secondary colours, which seemed furthermore to have no relationship to the images they evoked. This further elevation of colour to a leading role reached its final, full and astonishing realisation in the great cut-out works of Matisse’s last years, which can be seen at Tate Modern and which were discussed with an artist’s insight by Mali Morris RA in the previous issue of RA Magazine.

  • Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue

    Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue, 1921.

    Collect ion Gemeent emuseum Den Haag. © 2014 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International USA.

  • Matisse’s work, even at its most apparently abstract, is always based on his perceptions of the world. Mondrian would have none of this. He wanted to go beyond nature to create what he called a ‘cosmic, universal’ beauty. He therefore restricted his palette to the three primary colours and the non-colours black and white, and reduced his compositions to the square and the rectangle and the vertical and the horizontal as seen in Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue (1921). Diagonals were not allowed. He thus reduced painting to its basic elements in their most irreducible form – a kind of absolute art. In some works he restricted the colours to one or two, or even none.

    However, as the Margate exhibition in particular shows, he too started from nature. Ultimately his vertical and horizontal configurations relate to a tree or a human standing vertically on the surface of the earth, and he saw the intersections of the vertical and the horizontal as embodying the great opposites of existence – male and female, positive and negative, life and death. The Margate exhibition traces the long, gradual process by which Mondrian reached his mature style and hugely enhances our understanding of it. In Liverpool we see more of this, but specifically how Mondrian’s studios became other-worldly environmental realisations of his vision of pure beauty, and a blueprint for an ideal architecture. Indeed his influence on modern architecture and design has been as profound as on modern art.

    Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is at Tate Modern until 7 September 2014.
    Mondrian and Colour is at Turner Contemporary until 21 September 2014.
    Mondrian and his Studios is at Tate Liverpool from 6 June–5 October 2014.
    Making Colour is at the National Gallery from 18 June–7 September 2014.

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