Romance and Subtleties of Black in French Art at Getty [Review]

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Getty“Black is the most essential of colors,” according to French artist Odilon Redon, who believed one could discover all the colors with subtleties worked into the black. The dark images, subtleties, and innovations Redon and his peers created are apparent in the exhibition, Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th Century French Drawings and Prints, opening Feb. 9 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Noir looks at how such diverse artists as Francisco de Goya, Maxime Lalanne, Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, Georges Seurat, Rodolphe Bresdin, Redon, and others exploited new materials available with the Industrial Revolution for innovative, expressive tonal works of art. The artists inspired by black media, particularly charcoal, mined the depths of blackness in imaginative ways.

“Black may today be the non-color of choice on the fashion-conscious contemporary art scene, but the enthusiasm with things dark and mysterious is certainly not new,” according to the Getty Museum’s director, Timothy Potts. He noted that artists of the period were engaged with darker areas of pictorial and psychological space, which was fueled by interest at the time in the spiritual, subconscious, and even occult realms.

An explosion of man-made materials changed the art world in the mid-19th century. Most important for this exhibit was the development of a fixative to stop charcoal from being as powdery, allowing it to adhere better to paper. The intricacies and fine detail in many of the works are amazing when the techniques employed are considered.

Lee Hendrix, the Getty’s senior curator of drawings, explained that the concept for the exhibit started with a charcoal drawing, which was not initially fully appreciated when it was donated to the museum. However, Hendrix realized she did not know what she was looking at. Studying the work carefully, Hendrix said, “I realized the complexity of the drawing was mindboggling.”

To create the works, layers of powdered charcoal were applied and then set with fixative. Many of the works created the illusion of back lighting. To create highlights, shading, and detail in the black sections, bits of charcoal were removed or blended. The artists used stumps and nibs to pick out bits of charcoal so that light seems to shine through. For example, a picture of a nude was not created as a sketch with shading added; rather it was a black figure with charcoal artfully removed to create shading.

Other examples are in works by François Bonvin. The artist created pieces featuring working-class people in everyday life. He put in careful details, such as realistic-looking wooden pieces of a barrel or the image of rising, swirGettyling steam by lifting charcoal off the page with a fine stump (and painstaking precision).

There was another innovation in the medium in the 1880s. Charcoal gave way to conte crayon, a firmer medium with a clay binder that was not erasable. Artists no longer needed to lift the black off the page to create shading. Instead they had to add subtle and precise shading. This is seen in works by Seurat and Degas in the exhibit.

While some of the artists are well known for works in other media, others in the show are not as well known nowadays. “Many of the artists involved have melted into relative obscurity, although they were immensely popular in their own time,” added Hendrix.

To mount the exhibition, the Getty explored holdings of drawings and prints in collections throughout the Los Angeles area. The exhibition features works on loan from the Getty Research Institute, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Hammer Museum, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Pomona College Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Art Foundation, and several local private collectors. The subtleties of Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints art exhibit will be at the Getty through May 15, 2016.

Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss

Preview visit to exhibition
Getty: Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints
Art & Antiques: The Black Arts: 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints

Photo of Vast Pasture with a Distant Town by Maxime Lalanne, 1850s-1860s, courtesy of the Getty Museum
Photo of Head of Sleeping Bacchante by Gustave Courbet, 1847, courtesy of the Getty Museum