A Colorful History of Monochrome Painting

Monochrome painting has often been considered as the negation of art, or, on the contrary, as its most accomplished form. How did it come to be?

While the Impressionists were wondering about light and visual sensations in paintings like Monet’s ‘Snow effects in Giverny’ (1893), a group of French artists called ‘The Incoherents’ were having fun behind their backs!

Claude Monet, Snow Effects in Giverny, 1893

They produced the first monochromes: ‘Boozy Patrol in Fog’ (grey); ‘Tomato Harvest by Apoplectic Cardinals along the Red Sea’ (red); ‘Negros Fighting in a Tunnel by Night’ (black); and ‘First Communion of Chlorous Young Ladies in the Snow’ (white)…!.

Alphonse Allais, Ronde de pochards dans le brouillard (Gris) ; Récolte de la tomate par des des cardinaux apoplectiques au bord de la mer rouge (Rouge) ; Combat de nègres dans une cave pendant la nuit (Noir) ; Première communion de jeunes filles chlorotiques par un temps de neige (Blanc), 1883

But Kasimir Malevich’s ‘White Square on White field’ (1918) is considered to be the first monochrome in the history of art. He wished to express the absoluteness of painting. By freeing the mind of any material considerations, he pushed us towards a dynamic and infinite space!

Kasimir Malevich, White Square on White Field, 1918

Following this radical act, several artists became famous in monochrome painting, bringing new ideas in their artworks…

Yves Klein invented the International Klein Blue and obtained a patent protected by the Intellectual Property Law for it. He basically owned the color! (Well… not exactly: he owned the technique for producing this color, and it is impossible to obtain the color without using this technique, which is basically like saying he owned the color!) Thus, his goal was both commercial and conceptual…

Yves Klein, , Blue Monochrome, 1961

Lucio Fontana became famous by cutting and perforating monochrome canvas. By doing so, he questioned the flat nature of the canvas and transformed painting into sculpture by a single and simple act.

Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept: Waiting, 1968

Pierre Soulages could have been the director of ‘Fifty Shades of Black’!

Pierre Soulages, Painting, June 29, 1979

Gerhard Richter, after having created countless inspiring and avant-garde paintings, depicting scenes of history and society, decided to print large gray surfaces. When he was asked why he chose such a minimal form of expression, he simply answered: “I did so because I did not know what to paint, or what there might be to paint: so wretched a start could lead to nothing meaningful.” However, the subtle differences of texture and surface between his grey paintings eventually led him to other conclusions…

In short, impressionist, modern and contemporary artists revisited the requisites of form and space; while abstract painters like Kandinsky sapped the notion of subject; Marcel Duchamp reinvented the requirement of authenticity; and monochromes hallowed and killed (at the same time!) that of color… No wonder why the first half of the 20th century laid the foundation for an art out of control (and sometimes far from our understanding)!

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