Seeing Red – and other colours

For some time now I have been meaning to visit the National Gallery’s summer exhibition – Making Colour, claimed by the organisers to be the first exhibition of its kind in the United Kingdom. The ability to produce colours has long been a quest of man, and for someone who drives a vehicle, the colour that many artists would describe as a non-colour, I have always been fascinated in man’s ability to produce colour in its myriad forms.

[T]he exhibition staged in the Sainsbury Wing, the gallery that Prince Charles memorably described of its predecessor as: “. . . monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”

The inside of the Sainsbury Wing has a rather austere soulless air about it. Wide staircases, high ceilings, artificial light; one wonders what the original design that Prince Charles lambasted was like. But I was here to see colour, not acres of cream Portland stone.

The exhibition is split up into six rooms and the entrance lobby. A very user friendly audio guide is available for a modest £3. This I would recommend, the videos on paint preparation are worth the price alone.

In the lobby is J. W. M. Turner’s paint box found in his studio after his death, alongside his very chaotic palette. Adjacent is a self-portrait by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brin. A fashionable lady showing off her pristine palette organised with colours running in sequence.

Le-Brun And this is how the exhibition is organised each room showing the development of colour: The Quest for Blue; Painting Green; Fashionably Yellow; Seeing Red; Royal Purple; and Gold and Silver.

For me the star room is undoubtedly The Quest for Blue, that most expensive and ethereal of colours. Many blues had green undertones or faded over time until the Afghani stone lapis lazuli was discovered. Customarily used to paint the Virgin Mary’s robes it was considered to be more expensive than gold.

Roger-Hiorns-Seizure-2008 But the most interesting piece in the exhibition is not a piece of figurative art but what might have been described as an installation. In 2008 artist Roger Hiorns flooded an abandoned flat in Harper Road with 75,000 litres of copper sulphate solution. When he drained it a month later, every inch of the flat’s surfaces was covered in piercing blue copper sulphite crystals, one of the pigments used in modern paints.

Roger Hiorns named it ‘Seizure’ and it became a cult hit. It has since moved to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a place utterly unlike the rough-and-tumble of brutalist Peckham. Instead, the work now sits among the gentle rolling hills.

Making Colour is at the National Gallery until 7 September.

Roger Hiorns Seizure by aqnb CC BY-NC-SA

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