This sensory, poetic exhibition offers a fresh perspective on masterpieces of the History of art. Almost 75 years after the legendary exhibition ‘Black is a Colour’, it provides an engrossing exploration of this fascinating colour, which has been endowed with a multitude of symbolic meanings in Western art, from antiquity to the present day. A paradoxical colour, is black the absence of light, emptiness, a joyous amalgam of all the colours or something that dazzles ?
Right from the outset, visitors are immersed in a familiar experience of black thanks to artistic depictions of themes that have been omnipresent throughout the history of art, such as night with its dark sky. The colour of beginnings of every kind, and of infinity and timelessness, as well as of death and ignorance, black was a structural but ambiguous element in representations of the sacred. It aroused fear as well as fascination, both of which were sources of the melancholy sought by artists when revealing this colour’s beauty and sensuality in their works.
As a result, black became a colour that was emblematic of modernity in both industry and art. Imbued with a strong social dimension, black was a symbol of power and the colour of elegance, reflecting the codes adopted by fashion designers and artists.
Throughout the 20th century it was used increasingly freely, becoming a visual substance that was endlessly experimented with, as demonstrated today by the works of Pierre Soulages. Inspired by the flat slagheap on which the Louvre-Lens stands, the exhibition pays tribute to its mining past, images of which are dominated by coal and the infinitely nuanced traces it left.
The exhibition features nearly 180 works, intermingling periods and disciplines, and spanning painting, fashion, the decorative arts, the moving image and installations. Ranging from Velázquez and Ribera to 19th- and 20th-century artists such as Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Kandinsky, Malevich, Reinhardt and Soulages, together with creations by designers like Jeanne Lanvin and Yohji Yamamoto, ‘Black Suns’ explores the paradoxes of black and the myriad ways in which it has inspired artists, from Antiquity to the present day.
From the start, visitors are immersed in the experience of black. Omnipresent in natural phenomena, black has inspired artists from all eras, who have sought to capture this stimulation of the senses in their works.
In the 15th century, night became a subject in itself for painters. Scenes of darkness, both outdoor and indoor, offered an extraordinary opportunity for experimenting with emotional states, as demonstrated by Benjamin Constant’s Moonlight Sonata, in which the artist reveals the enigmatic, impressive personality of one of music’s greatest geniuses, Beethoven, by means of almost complete darkness. More disturbing or extreme, storms and dark water were other motifs that could reveal black’s richness. From Gustave Courbet to the video artist Ange Leccia, artists have chosen these subjects as a way of exploiting the colour’s endless nuances, in compelling compositions.
Shadow, an absence of light that is the product of a light source, was the legendary wellspring of drawing and, in the work of certain artists, became the very heart of the canvas. The interplay between dark and light prompted them to explore a paradoxical type of composition, with the subject depicted against the light, calling into question our perception of the world, as exemplified by Douglas Gordon’s series of eclipses.
The exhibition also explores black’s structural but ambiguous role with regard to the sacred. In various religions since Antiquity, black has commonly been associated with hell, arousing fear and fascination. During the Middle Ages, it was intimately bound up with the occult and with superstitions, and formed part of the Western imagination in the form of the monsters and diabolic creatures depicted by artists – from the engravings of Félicien Rops and the fuzzy spiders of Odilon Redon to the monochromes made from the bodies of flies by artist Damien Hirst. Magi, wizards and the dark episodes of witch hunting during the Inquisition are all subjects that have abounded in the fine arts and literature up to the present day. This iconography can be found in Eugène Delacroix’s painting of Macbeth Consulting the Witches and John Henry Fuseli’s The Three Witches, both works imbued with a dark and bewitching power.
An integral part of reflections on death, the colour black was used in works dealing with religious subjects representing the ‘passions’ and the ‘vanities’. Through their sensitive use of chiaroscuro, which developed in the 17th century, artists highlighted the dark anguish of suffering bodies, imbuing their scenes with a dramatic atmosphere. In his Pietà, a work that was a homage, Hippolyte Flandrin accentuated the dramatic intensity of his painting by representing an almost faceless mother, barely visible against the canvas’s dark background, bent over her son’s body.
Black acquires a social dimension. Seen as the colour of the dark stain and sin by Christian societies, black would gradually change status to become the symbol of power. The high cost of the dying techniques that were developed in the 15th century, which made it possible to create dazzlingly black textiles, made it an attribute reserved for members of the higher echelons of society, who were keen to have their portrait painted dressed in the most refined fabrics. In the 19th and 20th centuries, in the skilled hands of great fashion designers like Jeanne Lanvin and Yohji Yamamoto, black came of age, becoming widely adopted as a symbol of elegance and modernity. The black of velvet, satins and lacy fabrics, whether depicted by artists like Édouard Manet or showcased in textile creations, were dazzling tributes to the colour’s radiance. In contrast to the luxury of garments dyed black, painters also revealed the grime that blackened the rags and flesh of the underprivileged. At a time when deep political changes were impacting the most vulnerable social classes in the 19th century, artists chose the blackness of the street to display the coarsest aspects of modern societies and their most disadvantaged members.
Industrial black has particular resonance at the Louvre-Lens, which is located in the heart of a former mining region. Black coal, a symbol of the industrial era, marked miners’ faces and captured the collective imagination. These workers of the deep, often referred to as ‘coal faces’, came to symbolise this modernity. With his Pile of Coal, Bernar Venet made a sculpture out of this ordinary material, heaped directly on the floor, without any specific dimension or form.
In the second half of the 20th century, artists of the Nouveau Réalisme movement, like César, also used black materials to reveal the poetry of the modern world and convey a new reality marked by consumerism. The artists of Arte Povera, like Jannis Kounellis, preferred humble organic materials that reminded man of his history. In one of his works, bags made out of jute marked with the names of distant destinations are piled up to form a thick mattress in front of a wall painted black. Very prevalent in the artist’s work, the colour conjured up soot and coal, the materials of the industrial revolution that marked 20th-century European societies.
At the beginning of the 20th century, artists used black for black’s sake. Although this colour could symbolise different things, artists harnessed the colour’s own inherent qualities, highlighting the different textures and effects in compositions where only the colour itself seems to be present. The term monochrome was universally adopted to refer to these creations dominated by black. In his Ultimate Paintings, Ad Reinhardt offers a contemplative experience, akin to meditation in ‘the last paintings that anyone can paint’.
Black also became the raw material for artistic creation, with artists using it as a screen from which forms and images emerge. Ceramics, engraving, printing, painting: by eliminating material or colour from the support, artists turned black into an element that was fundamental to their works’ existence.
Adopting a radical approach, certain artists like Kasimir Malevich deliberately eliminated narration and figurative elements in favour of abstraction. In these works, black became a substance that was endlessly re-examined, utilised for its symbolic character as much as its visual qualities.
Forming what could be seen as a conclusion, the outrenoirs of Pierre Soulages exploit all of the richness, dualities and complexity of black.
Crédit Agricole Mutuel Nord de France, Grand Mécène de l’exposition
En partenariat avec ARGILE, couleurs de terre
Marie Lavandier, general heritage curator – director of the Louvre-Lens, Juliette Guépratte, director of strategy Louvre-Lens, and Luc Piralla, heritage curator – assistant director of the Louvre-Lens, assisted by Alexandre Estaquet-Legrand, head of research at the Louvre-Lens.
Edited by Marie Lavandier, Juliette Guépratte and Luc Piralla-Heng Vong.
Co-edition Lienart / Musée du Louvre-Lens
380 pages, approx. 250 illustrations