Published on February 18, 2022

The Limitless Forms of Black & White Art

Black and white; A timeless, chic, and sophisticated style in any art form. Many artists have used the contrast created by these non-colours representing light and darkness for centuries. 

First Major Exhibition on Black and White Art

Many artists were featured in the exhibition Monochrome: Painting in Black and White at the London’s National Gallery in 2017, known as the first major exhibition exploring the theme. It included Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Ingres, Degas, Gerhard Richter and Picasso.

The event’s visitors started their journey by looking at pieces from the Middle age when colour became prohibited by religious orders for devotional purposes. They could then explore why artists had elected to paint without colour during this period, which is still a way for many to enhance their art. 

A Masterpiece in Black and White

Pablo Picasso is notorious for using the monochrome technique, which left a significant impact on the art world. He once expressed that colour is secondary to design, placing more importance to the structure rather than the vibrance of art.

One of his most famous works, Guernica, is an anti-war piece denouncing a bloody attack… without using the colour red. Many art analysts observed that this painting of the Guernica bombing by Hitler’s airforce in April 1937 includes similar lines to that used in the newsprint.

In The Guardian, art journalist Jonathan Jones wrote that Picasso painted Guernica in black and white “because it is digging into the truth behind pictures. A picture, in colours, is to be looked at. [He] does not want us to look passively but to imagine this terrible moment from the inside. Colours let us off lightly; black and white forces us to think.”

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937.

Abstract art

Picasso is known as the artist who created cubism, as per the MET Museum. The most influential visual art style of the early 20th century rejects the concept that artists should copy nature or work with the traditional perspective approach. It is also considered the first abstract art form.

In the 1930s, Pablo Picasso created a new visual language of lines and shade. The technique’s objective was to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the subject by reducing, fracturing, and realigning objects into geometric forms.

Pablo Picasso, The Bull, 1945.

The Genre in Photography and Films

Photography and films are a big part of the popularity of black and white art. Of course, in the beginning, film was black and white for technical reasons, but it is still considered a genre for artistic purposes.

In the late 1970s, American artist and feminist Cindy Sherman began creating her Untitled film series of 70 black and white photographs portraying herself as different generic female characters. This project brought her to fame and is still her most well-known work.

When Sherman created the Untitled film series, photography in black and white was already a representation of the past. The artist chose the female characters she posed as from photos in films, television, advertisements, magazines, and adult role models from her youth. Among others, she photographed herself as a housewife, a party girl, a woman in distress, and a dancer. Her objective was to analyze cultural constructions through her lens.

Sherman also wanted to confront the belief that photographs were truthful documents while using fictional narratives in black and white images. In a way, similar to Picasso, she was giving more importance to the dimensions of her art by expressing it without colours.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #20 and Untitled Film Still #22, 1978.

Banksy

In the modern art world, Banksy is leaving his mark worldwide with black and white pieces. As one of the most famous graffiti artists, it is often surprising to see a lot of Banksy’s famous art with little splash of colour. Instead, he occasionally uses a single colour with red for Girl With Balloon. However, many of his other pieces are exclusively in black and white:

·        The Anarchist Rat

·        Kissing Coppers

·        Mona Lisa Bazooka

·        Barcode

·        Peace

This style adds to his desire to provoke and shock and bring light to society. He did it in May 2020, during the pandemic, with a piece named Game Changer in the foyer near the emergency department of Southampton General Hospital in the UK. It was accompanied by a note reading, “Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it’s only in black and white”.

Banksy, Balloon Girl, 2002

Written by Vicky Girard