“I feel blue, I feel green,” crooned Martin Creed at a recent performance at the Whitechapel Gallery. A “high yellow note”, Van Gogh said, characterised his hope and turbulence in 1888, the year he made “Sunflowers” and the painting of his yellow chair. We talk of Titian reds and Veronese greens. Colour defines our perception of the world, and of painting.
So telling the history of art through the story of colour is a marvellous idea, and the National Gallery in London could have created a stunning exhibition in Making Colour, which opened this week. In an overly conceptual era, a show devoted to the craft of colour is welcome, and the National has key pictures from every epoch with which to trace how chromatic brilliance results from an extraordinary alchemy: between cultural convention, technological innovation and individual inspiration.
The account begins, promisingly enough, with a gallery devoted to “the quest for blue”, opening with a lapis lazuli female figure from around 3000BC and closing with a piercing blue crystal fragment from Roger Hiorns’ “Seizure”, a beautiful remnant from the derelict south London apartment that the artist flooded with copper sulphate solution in 2008.
There are other quirky things too: Orazio Gentileschi’s “David Contemplating the Head of Goliath” (c1612) painted in oil directly on to lapis lazuli, with the markings of the semi-precious stone creating the ripples of clouds and their reflection in water; and a lapis lazuli bull with a bearded human face.
Ultramarine, for centuries the rarest colour, more expensive than gold, derives from lapis, whose only source is the Sar-e-Sang mines in Afghanistan. This explains the universal choice of ultramarine, as a sign of devotion and preciousness, for the mantle of the Madonna, as in Giovanni da Milano’s “The Virgin” (c1350) and Sassoferrato’s clear, rich-hued “The Virgin in Prayer” (1640-50) here.
That Europe had to import lapis, and other costly minerals, notably orange realgar, explains, too, the growth of the port city of Venice as the Renaissance capital of colour. The first of many major omissions here is one of the National Gallery’s greatest Titians, “Bacchus and Ariadne” (1520-23), where dazzling ultramarine, intensified by glazing pigments, is woven through the picture and contrasted with passages of realgar, vermilion and red lake, a Venetian speciality byproduct of textile dying. The absence here of Titian or Veronese, among art’s supreme colourists and both well represented in the permanent collection, is unaccountable.
Scholarly wall texts, and displays of minerals, pigments and palettes, cannot compensate for the lack of stellar pictures, which, as this show progresses, makes it more and more disappointing. Of course a study of the materiality of paint must explore its problems and difficulties: how, for instance, smalt, a mixture of ground coloured glass with cobalt oxide, is hopelessly unstable, as in Jan Jansz Treck’s “Still Life” (1651) and Pierre Mignard’s “The Marquise de Seignelay”, both discoloured to dull grey. But too many faded pictures do not make an alluring exhibition.
Things cheer up in the 1700s, with the chance discovery of Prussian blue, which could be manufactured in bulk – Gainsborough used it for the gown and sash in “Mrs Siddons” (1785) – and further in 1804 with the production of synthetic cobalt blue. A competition to make artificial ultramarine launched by the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale in 1824 was won by Jean-Baptiste Guimet, at last bringing a reliable, deep blue in reach of all painters.
Around the same time a chromium-based, dark spring green pigment, viridian, was also manufactured; Cézanne combined it with emerald, which is unnaturally bright when unmixed. It is one of the many paradoxes of how landscape becomes art during the industrial revolution that the crystalline blues and greens of Cézanne’s studies of nature, for example “Hillside in Provence” (1890-92) here, were only made possible by such developments in the chemical factories of the smoking cities.
“Without paint in tubes, there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro,” said Renoir. His shimmering orange boat reflected in a blue Seine, “The Skiff” (1875), is a highlight here and a perfect illustration of the theory of colour published by chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul in 1859. Would there have been impressionism, a movement rooted in ideas about perception and subjectivity, without the 19th-century science of optics? There would certainly not have been Seurat, who studied Chevreul’s work obsessively and whose pointillisme, painting in spots of pure colour fused by the eye, was foundational for modernism. For this part of the show to make sense, a visit upstairs to the great “Bathers at Asnières” (1884) is essential.
Despite its omissions, “Blue”, the most successful of the colour-coded galleries here, tells a compelling story. The other sections, with tacky populist titles – “Fashionably Yellow”, “Seeing Red” – offer neither narrative nor intellectual coherence. Each boasts one star exhibit – Gainsborough’s lovely portrait “The Painters’ Daughters Chasing a Butterfly” (c1756) showing the endurance of Naples yellow; Degas’ russet “La Coiffure” (c1896); Carlo Dolci’s pristine “The Adoration of the Kings” (1649) in the final gallery, “Real and Fictive Gold” – but too many works are second division Old Masters, shuffled up from the storeroom, in selections that appear random. The only work made after 1900 is, bizarrely, the Hiorns.
I am grateful to this show, nonetheless. Although the unravelling of 20th-century colour as expressive, liberated from realistic constraint, is beyond its remit, it focuses the mind on how – whether – colour defines form, and, in urging revisits to the permanent collection, on lineages from Old Master colourists to today. As a result, the exhibition reverberates with several significant current London shows. Tate Modern’s Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs explores how the French master’s “cutting directly into vivid colour” solved a life-long tension between drawing and colour. David Zwirner’s Bridget Riley: The Stripe Paintings is a retrospective of a form of minimalist abstraction taking Seurat as starting point, while Ian Davenport at Waddington Custot, where poured puddle paintings riff on historic approaches to colour, notably in “Colourfall: Ambassador”, is a reduction of Holbein’s masterpiece into marvellously evocative glossy streaks.
‘Making Colour’, National Gallery, London, to September 7, nationalgallery.org.uk>