A new exhibition at the National Gallery helps explain why colour matters

“BACCHUS AND ARIADNE”, painted by Titian in the early 16th century, was removed from display at the National Gallery in the late 1960s to be restored. Its surface had become obscured by a thick, flaking pane of yellowing varnish. When it was put back, many gallery-goers were aghast: what had been a rather staid canvas was now Disney-bright in its intensity. Pietro Annigoni, who had painted Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait several years earlier, daubed the word “MURDERERS” on the front doors of the gallery in protest. Art critics still argue about whether Titian’s masterpiece was revealed or ruined by the conservators’ efforts. Considering the unsavoury attention this brought to the National Gallery, it might seem strange that the painting should have been chosen for the cover of a book about colour that accompanies a new exhibition there. But the controversy serves as a useful reminder of the passions that colour has the power to ignite.

“Making Colour” is located in a dramatically lit subterranean gallery below the Sainsbury wing. The exhibition is divided by colour, rather than chronology. In the blue room, for example, Sassoferrato’s glowing “Virgin in Prayer” (1640-50, see video below) is steps away from a wall devoted to “Seizure”, a sculpture created by Roger Hiorns in 2008 by flooding a bedsit with a copper sulphate solution that, when drained, left a crust of blue crystals. The final room looks at the use and depiction of gold and silver in art, from the flat gilt fields found in medieval devotional art through to Giovanni Girolamo Savaldo’s 16th-century “Mary Magdalen”, whose cloak of spun silver has been skilfully rendered in subtle mixtures of lead white and lamp black (essentially soot).