Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

Paint it black

Pierre soula architectural review

From the charcoal marks of prehistoric humans to dark modern art dealing with the destruction of war, blackness simultaneously speaks of everything and nothing

Wood was burnt and turned into charcoal, and charcoal used to make paintings. There were abundant chalk outcrops and white rocks around, but prehistoric artists chose a deep, carbon black to draw in the darkest of places and, guided by hand-held torches, left their still-mysterious marks in the cavernous depths of underground chambers. More interested in materials than meaning, Pierre Soulages feels ‘much closer to the lions of Chauvet than to the Mona Lisa’, and insists that, ‘since painting began with black, black is an original material’.

Felix vallotton fireworks architectural review

Felix vallotton fireworks architectural review

Source: BNF

Félix Vallotton’s Fireworks 

While the work of painters is commonly thought to originate on white canvas, some choose to darken their surface first and work with light instead. ‘It surprises you that my canvas is black’, said Gustave Courbet to a friend, but he explained, ‘Nature without the sun is black and dark: I am doing what the light does, I illuminate what protrudes from on high’. Before it is even a colour, black is for painters and printmakers a raw material to carve into and to extract light out of. It is the beginning, a background out of which forms, images and characters can emerge. As if by alchemy, a latent image suddenly becomes visible: a black beginning contains all the images in the world.

The bitumen used by Courbet gradually seeps and infiltrates the other pigments, as if rising back up and gradually obscuring the rest of the canvas, invading and infesting it. The skies of Un Enterrement à Ornans (‘A Burial at Ornans’) have darkened over time, as if enveloped in new gloom, reminiscent of the fine particles deposited on the pale skins of buildings. As years go by and modernity accelerates, black finds its way into everyday life, colouring buildings and infiltrating lungs. Parisian limestone and London bricks are stained as they breathe in all the smoke, the soot and the dust – and an austere Georgian facade looks better in black than yellow.

Pierre soula architectural review

Pierre soula architectural review

Source: Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais Philippe Migeat © ADAGP, Paris

Pierre Soulages’ Outrenoirs

In the era of reproducible imagery, a black surface acts like a blank page. Working with economy and precision on woodcuts, Félix Vallotton dispenses with shading, relying only on sharp white lines that stand out against pure blacks to show a crowd of spectators watching fireworks against a velvety black. The same natural asphalt Courbet trowelled his canvases with was used by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in the 1820s as, inspired by traditional printing processes, he searched for new ways to reproduce images. Coating a pewter plate with the bitumen, a derivative of black oil, and exposing it in his camera obscura, he created a negative of reality. The tar-like material hardened when touched by light, while the unexposed parts were just rinsed away with a solvent: he created the world’s first photograph. 

Blacks gain in intensity when they are scratched, punctured, lacerated with strokes of light. It is by painting the light that the artist brings the black to life. When night scenes started to become popular subjects for painters in the 1600s, the canvas became an opportunity to explore the representation of different light sources and degrees of illumination – the moon, a fire, some candles. The skill required to accurately and painstakingly portray the subtleties of their effects is a prowess in itself, an undeniable proof of talent.

Le noir est une couleur architectural review

Le noir est une couleur architectural review

Nearly 75 years after the Paris exhibition Le Noir est une Couleur (’Black is a Colour’), this month the Louvre Lens opens Soleils Noirs (‘Black Suns’), exploring the myriad meanings of black as both colour and concept

Yet Galileo and Caravaggio point to the deceptiveness of light when attempting to decipher the universe. For the astronomer, planets are no longer luminous stars but tenebrous rocks, while for the painter human figures are no longer divine creations but opaque bodies. Observing the human figure illuminated by a single ray of light in his studio, he erases soft reflections, projected shadows, and muted gradients. The contours of bodies dissolve into the black background – the canvas like the universe, infinite.

As an idea, black does not accept any variation in tone, any possibility of mitigation, any form of exception. Absolute and radical, it shares many of its paradoxes with the night sky. Pitch-black skies fascinate us precisely because they confront us with our limits – the limits of our senses and the limits of the universe. While Paul Éluard wrote ‘the night is of a single dimension’, Victor Hugo attempted to transcribe the lack of sensory definition in Le Promontoire du Songe: ‘My pupil dilated, my eye adjusted, and this darkness I was looking at grew paler’, but he recalls it was impossible to distinguish anything. ‘It was blurred, fleeting, intangible (…) If nothing had a form, it would be this’.

Last futurist exhibition architectural review

Last futurist exhibition architectural review

Source: 

Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square was first exhibited in The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0,10 in 1915. Referred to as the ‘zero point of painting’, it was placed high up in the corner of the room, the same sacred spot traditionally reserved for a religious icon in Russian homes

Malevich black square textbook architectural review

Malevich black square textbook architectural review 

Source: © digital image: the museum of modern art, new york / scala, florence

Malevich developed his ideas on Suprematism and published a visual textbook. For him ‘the [black] square equals feeling, the white background equals nothingness’ 

The depths of darkness are what we can project personal beliefs and ideas into. After contracting an illness that left him deaf, Francisco Goya abandoned his colour palette and reduced it to monochromatic tones to create his Caprichos series, a set of 80 prints oscillating between social satire and nightmarish visions. Isolated in an imaginary world of his own, he added aquatint to his etchings, letting the acid bite into the metal, creating tonal depth to his blacks. An admirer of Goya, Odilon Redon declared that black is ‘the most essential of all colours. One must respect black. Nothing prostitutes it’.

Unlike any other colour, black acquires status – artistically, socially and politically. It is adopted in the 20th century as the colour of modern, and especially postwar, art. In December 1946, the exhibition Le Noir est une Couleur (titled after Henri Matisse’s claim that ‘black is a colour that condenses and consumes all others’) presented pieces by Bonnard, Braque, Matisse and others at Galerie Maeght, in Paris. As Europe began to rebuild itself, the exhibition and its title induce hope to move beyond the darkness of war, while determinedly moving away from the ideas black had commonly been associated with – all things sad and evil. Before them, Kazimir Malevich had painted Black Square, a symbol of a dawning new age to forever change the idea that paintings should represent reality. ‘In the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square’, he wrote. Black makes it possible to negate place, action, time or history. 

anish kapoor section limbo architectural review

anish kapoor section limbo architectural review

Anish Kapoor’s Descent into Limbo installation turns a seemingly flat circle into a 2.5m deep pit hiding its true depth

Anish kapoor descent into limbo

Anish kapoor descent into limbo

Source: Filipe Braga / Fundacao de Serralves / dpa / Alamy

While Soulages was not part of the Maeght exhibition, it is in the 1940s that he realised his first abstract paintings with walnut stain, the Brou de Noix series. Rather than a rupture, he argues black represents art history’s continuity, taking us back to adorned cave walls and the beginning of time. With him more than any of his predecessors, our understanding of this colour was transformed and elevated. As a child, he would dip his brush into black ink and, when asked what he was doing, his answer would be ‘snow’. Decades and countless canvases later, his position remains unchanged: ‘I’m really working with the light more than with the paint’. 

Soulages has painted primarily in black for more than 70 years, and has not used any other colour since 1979. When painting his first Outrenoir that year, he claimed it was ‘from another country than black, a very rich country’. Black is ‘no longer black’ since it transmutes the light it receives. It transcends black, creating infinite variations of itself. The paint Soulages applies to his canvas has the texture of soft butter. Brushed, scraped, hatched and divided into slick or ridged territories, his thickly textured paintings play with the contrast between matte surface and reflective patches. 

The black of Soulages is undoubtedly one saturated with all other colours, pressed against each other, compressed, densified and multiplied. But black is also seen as the absence of colour, the absence of image – a vacuum. In Descent into Limbo, Anish Kapoor created a dark hole in the floor of a small, cube building and described is as ‘a space full of darkness, not a hole in the ground’. While the artist is known to have claimed exclusive rights to use Vantablack, a blacker than black coating made from military carbon nanotubes that absorbs up to 99.965 per cent of visible light, this apparently two-dimensional black circle painted on the floor is in fact a spherical pit with its sides painted ultra matt black. 

Asif khan winter olympics architectural review

Asif khan winter olympics architectural review

Source: Luke Hayes

Asif Kahn’s pavilion at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018

In opposition to the Outrenoirs, the challenge is to eliminate the reflective qualities that are seen to plague traditional black pigments in order to create the illusion of nothingness. Ad Reinhardt’s provocative statement, ‘There’s nothing to see – only paint’, materialises three-dimensionally. Any object smeared in this coating loses all its relief, bumps and ridges, absorbed in a void of black. Claiming that ‘architecture is always 50 years behind technology’, Asif Khan’s Vantablack-coated Pyeongchang pavilion for the 2018 Winter Olympics creates ‘the impression of a window cut into space’. Its edge the only distinguishable form, it looks like a Matisse cut-out pasted onto the real world. 

In 2019, the year of Soulages’ 100th birthday, professors of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT have surpassed Vantablack and created the ‘blackest black’ material to date. This ongoing battle of decimals blurs boundaries between art and aerospace and takes Odilon Redon’s intention to place ‘the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible’ to unexpected and uncharted territories. While Soulages argues that it is the reflections of light that move us, there is something about darkness that is condemned to uncertainty.

This piece is featured in the AR April 2020 issue on Darkness – click here to buy your copy today