Jennifer Sliwka

Featuring major loans with prestigious provenances, including Pablo Picasso’s Las Meninas (Infanta Margarita María), Olafur Eliasson’s Room for One Colour, Etienne Moulinneuf’s Back from the Market,  Malevich’s Black Square and many more treasures, ‘Monochrome’,  an exhibition exploring the tradition of painting in black and white over seven centuries, remains on view at the National Gallery in London until 18 February 2018 and it’s a must-see.

Dr Jennifer Sliwka, an art historian specialising in Italian Renaissance, who has curated exhibitions such as ‘Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500’ (2011) and ‘Visions of Paradise: Botticini’s Palmieri Altarpiece’ (2015), worked at the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, taught for Universities in Canada, the US, France, Italy and the UK among other successful projects, talks to Art is Alive about curating this show with Lelia Packer. From her favourite artworks in the exhibition, her future projects and tastes in contemporary art, Jennifer gives insights into curating one of the most significant exhibitions presented in London this year.

How did the idea of the exhibition come about and how long did it take to put together?

I’ve been interested in black and white painting for many years, initially as part of my doctoral thesis on the Renaissance Sienese artist Domenico Beccafumi, and subsequently through my interests in modern and contemporary art.  I began developing the exhibition about 4 years ago when my colleague, Lelia Packer revealed that she had worked on black and white painting from the Northern Baroque period and had also long felt that an exhibition on the subject would be exciting. We decided to combine forces and develop the exhibition to cover the entire history of painting in black and white in the Western tradition from its beginnings in the twelfth century all the way to the present day.

Was it challenging to get and install Olafur Eliasson’s piece? Can you please tell us about the work: why did you chose to show it at the very end of the exhibition?

My first introduction to Olafur’s work was, as for so many of us in London, his Weather Project in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2003 which left a lasting impression. I was then fortunate enough to be able to see his monographic show at MOMA in New York in 2008 and to experience his ‘Room for one colour’ light installation first hand. Once experienced, that work, along with many others by him, remain in the consciousness and pop back into my mind and different moments. In developing this show I recalled that work again and how it had transformed all of the visitors to the show into monochrome and thought it would provide a fitting and memorable epilogue to our exhibition, demonstrating how artists’ interests in deliberately restricting their colour palette in order to encourage viewers to stop and consider their works or think differently about what they are being presented with continues to this day and using media beyond paint. Eliasson and his studio were very positive about the show and felt that this work would be a good fit right away which was heartening. Traditionally however, Eliasson likes to begin his shows with ‘Room for one colour’ as a means of preparing visitors for what they are about to experience. In this case, we felt that in an exhibition about the medium and techniques of painting, it would be more powerful if visitors went on a journey through 700 years of the history of painting in black and white, effectively peering into different worlds devoid of colour and learning why artists have elected to paint in monochrome, and ended by walking through a room in which they were transformed into black and white themselves.

Can you pick three highlights and explain why you chose them and why they’re so relevant to the core concept of the exhibition please?

There are so many extraordinary highlights and generous loans to this exhibition that it is hard to choose just three!

Even after working on the show for three years however, I think I was most moved when we unpacked and installed the Ingres Odalisque in Grisaille, the Jan van Eyck Annunciation and the Black Square by Kazimir Malevich. The Ingres features in a room in which we explore the development of a taste for grey paintings as independent works of art, that is not as works which serve a specific religious function or are preparatory for works in colour. It is fascinating to me that having completed his famous Grande Odalisque (Louvre) in colour over a decade earlier, Ingres returned to the subject and created this reduced black and white version which, and this is only really appreciable in person, has the most sensuous hint of blush colour in her right ear and down her back. This appears to be a highly personal work that Ingres kept in his studio until his death and it would seem that she was a subject he felt the need to revisit over the course of his career.

Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation marks a watershed moment in the history of painting in black and white as it represents two marble sculptures representing the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary as if set within a highly polished marble recess. Van Eyck’s unparalleled skill in the oil medium means that he can convince us that he has painted palpable stone sculptures and, again this needs to be appreciated in person, the backs of these white marble figures are seen reflected in the highly polished black marble the artist has painted behind them, the whole is a spectacular feat of illusionism and skill.

Malevich’s Black Square also marks a watershed moment both in the history of art and for black and white painting, as he famously stated this is the ‘zero’ or beginning of a new art -in this case, abstract art. He also called his Black Square an ‘icon for our time’ and hung it high up in the corner of the room at the site normally reserved for an orthodox icon and something of this work does seem to radiate a kind of divine or otherworldly charge to this day.

Exhibitions can be very hard to put together and the public understands that: do you feel that the exhibition is missing anyone? Or rather, which artworks would you have liked to get that you didn’t?

Securing loans is probably the most complicated and difficult thing that curators do that the general public has very little knowledge or awareness of. I’m delighted with the quality and variety of loans we secured and by the generosity of our lenders. That said, there are always ‘what ifs’. Early on I request a Jackson Pollock painting that was already promised for the opening of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi which was a shame and I would have loved to show a very early representation of black and grey painting on white silk, the fourteenth century Narbonne Altarcloth from the Louvre which, unfortunately, is too delicate to travel.

The Grande Odalisque is an absolute treasure: can you talk a little bit about it please?

The Grisaille Odalisque remained with Ingres’ heirs until it was sold by a French dealer to the MET in 1838 so it has an amazing provenance. It is also worth noting that it was regularly visited by Jasper Johns on his visits to the MET and he has credited it as part of the reason why he began painting grey versions of his coloured paintings.

Your personal favourite in the exhibition and why?

My personal favourite changes with my mood every time I visit the show and according to the different people I am visiting it with. I’ve particularly enjoyed going around with artists and learning about what strikes them as the most interesting / exciting – it is often not the biggest names! On my visit this morning I spent a lot of time in front of Vija Celmins, Night Sky #3. That work has a wonderful capacity to encourage slow looking and to absorb you entirely, you almost feel swallowed up by that velvety sky and mesmerised by the stars that seem to twinkly in front of your eyes. It is on loan from a private collection and I know how much it means to the owner so I am always particularly touched that they agreed to part with it for the length of the exhibition and share something so dear to them with the public.

Is the exhibition going to travel after London?

The show moves to the Museum Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf in the Spring where I think it will look pretty spectacular and quite different, it will also be expanded slightly as they have much larger spaces than we do in the Sainsbury Wing.

What’s your next project?

I have quite a few new exhibition ideas I am currently developing but I’ve also just signed a book contract so I that is my immediate focus.

Your tastes in contemporary art in general: who are you following closely, the latest exhibitions you’ve visited and loved?

My taste in contemporary culture tends towards the minimal but I am quite omnivorous when it comes to art. I am a huge fan, for example, of both John Akomfrah’s extraordinarily rich films and Park Seo-bo’s elegant hanji paper paintings. Exhibitions that have struck me in the last few years include Michael Dean at the South London Gallery, the recent Rachel Whiteread show at Tate Britain and Mark Dion at the ICA Boston.



Image: ‘Odalisque in Grisaille’, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop about 1824-34 (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence)