Rembrandt’s Ecce Homo grisaille (1634) has a very striking appearance in one of the main rooms of Monochrome, the new exhibition at the National Gallery. The word “Tenebrae” can refer to the Holy Week service surrounding Jesus’s Passion, and originally comes from the Latin meaning “darkness”. This depiction of Pontius Pilate showing Jesus to his accusers springs from the dark, with its waxen pallor against shading, it is like tendrils of light intertwining around dark clods of soil. The use of a fine curtain as a staging device mixes with the animated, bulbous faces of the hostile onlookers, incongruous with the figure of Jesus. We see Rembrandt’s genius – a half-mocking ceremoniousness, a brine-infused grandeur that really seems to mock, yet have a humble pathos at its centre.

Monochrome is an inquiry into the use of black-and-white painting, photography and installation, which begins with 12th-century Cistercian stained glass. The Cistercian order obeyed an ascetic set of laws saying that no colour should be used in their decoration or art.

We see a Van Eyck, of Saint Barbara. The painting has the dun colour and gentle tendons of a leaf skeleton, perfectly beautiful in the way the Gothic tower behind her dually expresses the growth of the Church and her fateful imprisonment in a tower. The detail is so teeming that there is nowhere to rest the eye. Maybe the painter’s perfectionism veiled his autism.

The muted palette at this exhibition needs some invigorating with lines and swirls, and I would easily swap the deadened likenesses of sculpture (black-and-white was used to imitate sculpture on canvas in the Renaissance) by Mantegna or Titian for the wonderful Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) of Diomedes Devoured by his Horses. As the viewer faces the picture, Diomedes’s body makes a convex bow as he lies flailing on the ground, prone before the hooves and teeth of his steeds. The horses owe a debt to Leonardo’s lost Battle of Anghiari. The young god’s arms curve up to the left, and the ovoid is swirled anti-clockwise with the tableau of horses, to be broken with a flourish with the swaggering rearing of the main horse.

In mid-autumn London, surrounded by bourgeois neo-Victorians wearing coordinating slate Jeggings, sometimes a show dedicated to monochrome isn’t what you’ve been crying out for. And yet at times the impish, decayed glory of Rembrandt, an autistic, exquisite Van Eyck and a flesh-eating equine are enough. There is a wonderful, immersive orange light installation as we leave; just as the compression of the exhibition pent us in, the bath of light at the end releases us, like an icy swimming pool.

Monochrome: Painting in Black and White is showing at the National Gallery, London until February 18

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