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1. the case for black & white
AS YOU CAN IMAGINE, I spend a lot of time browsing through the art sections of used bookstores. Is there anything more disappointing than the poor quality reproductions in a thirty year old art book? Maybe: how about an older art book with only black-and-white reproductions! Now, I do own many older art books, but believe me, it is for the words of Heinrich Wölfflin or Charles Baudelaire, not for the images.

We are fortunate to live in an age of high quality, color reproduction capability. Not too long ago, authors justified those black-and-white images by pointing out that color images were so poor as to confuse the reader. Black-and-white was determined to be a more accurate reproduction of a painting. Nowadays, the only images featured in black-and-white are the forlorn "destroyed in Berlin, 1945" paintings, for which there are no existing color reproductions.
But an interesting book, "Conversations on the Dresden Gallery", made me pay more attention to the possibilities in black-and-white reproduction. In 1956, Louis Aragon and Jean Cocteau discussed images from the Dresden Gemäldegalerie on the occasion of its reopening after World War II. They addressed the issue of color versus black-and-white reproduction:
COCTEAU: "... When faced with the two types of reproduction we have often hesitated considerably, for color photography is not a palette and it cannot be said that the colored photograph keeps all the painting's range of mystery, all the grace and energy the painter put into it.

"... It is in order to enable the public to share our hesitations and judge of our doubts, that we have sometimes set the black-and-white and color reproductions side by side."

ARAGON: "It's as if one had enjoyed two distinct mental perceptions, in black-and-white and in color, and neither gives you the picture in its entirety. In placing them alongside each other we hoped that, from the two images, the reader might construct a third image in his own mind."
Now here is an exciting possibility! Although no reproduction can hope to replicate the experience of viewing the original work of art, this perspective offers opportunity for reproduction to express something that would be impossible to see in a museum: the same work in both color and black-and-white.

And so, how would you expect this juxtaposition of color and black-and-white to enhance your perception of a reproduction? The black-and-white image should highlight the "linear" aspects of the work, and the color image should feature the "painterly" aspects. Would different artists benefit more than others from this approach? Matisse or Gauguin as opposed to Rembrandt or Vermeer? What about different styles? Impressionism, versus Cubism? I have provided a few examples for you, but the beauty of this method is that anyone with a minimal graphics software package can download the images, convert a copy to black-and-white, and compare for themselves.
Once you have gotten used to looking at the "hidden" side of paintings in this way, remember it the next time you have the fortune to view a real painting in a gallery or museum. There is a never-ending richness to great art, but it requires an informed spectator with the sensitivity to perceive it. I hope this has provided you with another tool to enhance your enjoyment of fine art. Remember: those who simply "know what they like" have closed the door on all the rest of art...

Mark Harden

Artchive visitors offer some responses discussing black and white imagery.


Side-by-side color and black-and-white images:

Cèzanne, "Still Life with Green Melon"
Constable, DETAIL OF: "The White Horse"
Renoir, "Gypsy Girl"
Rubens, "The Three Graces"
Velazquez, "Juan de Pareja"

Instructions for converting images to black & white

Conversations on the Dresden Gallery
Louis Aragon/Jean Cocteau
Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982
ISBN: 0-8419-0730-7

©1996-2007 by Mark Harden's Artchive

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