National Gallery, London WC2N 5DN
£4 on the door/£2 online,
until 7 September
Making colour begins with a quote from the impressionist painter Renoir. He said, “Without paints in tubes there would have been no Cezanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what journalists call impressionism.”
Throughout the exhibition, paintings are paired with the materials—rocks, metals, plants or beetles—that the colours were produced from.
This helps us understand what a painting originally looked like—before pigments changed through time, or when gold leaf shimmered in candlelight instead of falling flat under halogen lamps.
But it’s also an opportunity to look at the history of art from a radically different perspective.
It draws on years of work by the National Gallery’s scientific department, lifting it from a gimmick to a genuinely fascinating exhibition.
Each room tells the story of a different colour, leading up to the artistic innovations of the 19th century, which were made possible by the emerging chemical industry.
But, unfortunately, it also limits its scope. There’s little about the ancient world and nothing about the 20th and 21st centuries.
Yet the petrochemical and digital revolutions transformed the ways we use colour.
The changes in materials and technologies are also presented as separate from the social upheavals that accompanied them.
This stops Making Colour from being able to claim to be a comprehensive history of colour.
But it’s still a fascinating glimpse at the material roots of art at a price that makes it accessible to a wide audience.