Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

The Trouble with White

3rd August 2012

‘The Trouble with White’ by Stephen Greenberg

Have you ever noticed how much white there is in museums and art galleries?  Gallery after gallery of stark white walls suggest that white has become a pervasive cultural norm, with architects, artists and curators the chief purveyors of the look.  ‘White thinking’ now imposes a uniform aesthetic, and is the default position, regardless of the artefacts.  In this world colour is only desirable when it is primary and used in blocks like a Mondrian.  It is as if everyone has become snow-blind in a great cultural white-out.

To understand the depth of this conformity one has only to look at the studios of leading artists today. Many have their own white galleries in which they place and view the finished work, a showroom to sell their wares and serve their gallerists, creating a supply chain between high-end white ‘retail’ space and the works to furnish them.

But it wasn’t always like this.  Once long ago in 1914 Sergei Schukin, Matisse’s first patron, lined the 18th century patterned walls of his Moscow salon with dozens of early 20th century modernist masterpieces.  But then fast forward just ten years to the Paris of Le Corbusier and to the Maison La Roche, and we arrive at a model that has been rolled out ever since – the white walls of the modernist house.

The new architecture embodied the post World War 1 cultural spring when everything to do with the old regimes was being kicked out.  The threads of this radical conservatism were many and intertwined. Once the cathedrals were engineered so that large areas of glass became polychromatic – animated fantasias of changing light and colour.  But then came electricity which obliterated the dark sky, and more or less simultaneously the modernist movement and Corbusier’s pamphlet ‘When the cathedrals were white’; and the result was that light, along with white, took on a moral purpose, being transparent, healthy and hygienic.

Look carefully at MoMA in New York and you can see that it is the Maison La Roche, stylised and on steroids. Fast forward again to Zaha Hadid’s Maxi, where it still a challenge (i.e. nigh on impossible) to hang a painting. The artists have to make curved-white-space specific works like the massive Richard Serra in the Guggenheim Bilbao.

What once symbolised radical and avant-garde has become an unforgiving conformist orthodoxy.

There are several ironies here. For a start, the Maison La Roche was actually painted in pastel colours, but for 50 years architecture students the world over absorbed it only though monochromatic images in Le Corbusier’s ‘Oeuvre Complet’.  Also ironic is that even in a purpose-built house Monsieur La Roche had great difficulty in displaying his collections of purist paintings – ‘it’s almost a pity to put paintings in it,’ he wrote to the architect.

The story of white’s triumph was narrated recently by art critic James Fox White in his excellent three-part BBC4 television series ‘A History of Art in Three colours’.  Which means that now at last we can begin the conversation about its supremacy.

Where to begin?  Well, for a start, although white is sometimes good for works of art there are many things for which it is no good at all – such as the bits of unpainted pottery that make up the usual language of archaeology museums.  An object on a white background stands in stark contrast to it;  an object on a coloured background can vibrate in sympathy with it.

And white excludes us from the experience of going on a colour journey, through a colour palette such as Georgio Armani’s, with its warm greys, browns, blues and beiges, towards an accent colour.  Colour is the great missed opportunity.

White is cold; colour is warm and can stir up our emotions. For Proust, the triggers of memory were taste and smell but also sight. Colour is expressive, complex, and a trigger of mood, emotion and atmosphere.  How light and colour charm us is both psychological and neurological.

And there’s another point as well.  White is easy on young eyes and young complexions. But the eye is a sensual organ, and the muscles as we age cannot work overtime.  Young eyes can make the transitions between a luminaire and a line drawing, whereas those with varifocal vision have huge issues of adaptation when what they need is a feast for the eye as much as the intellect.

On several of our projects we have worked with colourists.  When we displayed Michelangelo’s last three drawings we worked with the artist Anthony Malinowski who uses colour pigments in his installations. The drawings are made in black chalk and the wall on which we placed them was made of a graphite pigment that vibrated with the chalk, so that there was a shimmer between the two. The wall then sat in a chapel-like space, with a  background of warm greys to the shell and a red wall to one side that was colour-matched to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  It was a Rothko Chapel with the three Michelangelo’s, and with Mary Magdalene enclosing her arms around the legs of Christ, an extraordinary work of art, in the middle.