The one thing that most of us disregard or don’t even notice when we visit a contemporary art gallery or contemporary art museum - are the walls. The (usually) neat white walls that the art is presented on (2D) or against (3D), the backdrop to the ‘pop’ of Lichtenstein, the intensity of Richter, the mirror surfaces of Koons... You would ask: “Well, isn’t it only natural that we do not notice the walls? After all, they are not the key thing here, the art is, right? The walls are a mere display surface.”
Indeed they are, but for the sake of this article let’s take a closer look at them. Actually, not really at the walls, but at the color they are painted in. Crisp, pure white. Not cream, not grey – white. “Brilliant white” (as it would usually say on the paint bucket). White has become the all-penetrating color of contemporary art. Each art gallery considers it "a must" to have a white interior, even if from time to time they paint a wall or two into a more “edgy” shade of orange or blue or whatever else. If and when the latter is done, it is usually for curatorial purposes rather than as an attempt to venture into the territory of alternative art display standards. While white – that’s standard. A recent standard, to be sure, but one that has taken the art world by storm and even inspired a name for one of the biggest commercial contemporary art galleries. An article in ArtNews even discussed how a wrong shade of white can ruin the whole experience of looking at the art displayed – a homage to how important the color of the walls is in a gallery context. As an alternative to the dark burgundy and bottle green that prevail in galleries showing Old Masters and Modernist works, the contemporary art gallery is a sterile space, with evenly painted white walls and pristine surroundings, a laboratory where the space is diffused for the sake of continuous artistic experimentation. Such is the era of Postmodern existence – you never know what to expect, especially from the creative type – the artist! Therefore from a psychological point of view white – as a blank canvas – gives dealers and curators a feeling of security, of being safe, of being prepared to tackle anything that an artist may present them with. White is a blank canvas. White is pure.
The idea, of course, is not a new one. The Western World’s association of white with purity can be traced hundreds of years back, especially when it comes to religion and Christianity in particular – the white dove, so very often found in Renaissance paintings, was a symbolic depiction of the Holy Spirit; Jesus Christ was often depicted wearing white robes; the Pope’s celebratory clothes also become white starting with mid-16th century. Apart from symbolizing purity and untaintedness, another reason behind this fascination with white comes from the preciousness of it – it is incredibly fragile in its “colourlessness” and very easy to ruin. Very symbolically, as easily as purity and innocence become impurity and sin, white become tainted and looses its pristineness. Owning white objects meant having the ability to sustain their whiteness (wash, scrape, clean), and therefore – being able to afford hired “help”. No wonder that the general public never adopted white as a popular color in clothing until capitalism firmly established itself as a mode of contemporary existence and fashion became accessible thanks to easier modes of production and the rising income levels of the late 20th century.
The one time, though, when white was appropriate (and is till today), was the wedding day. This was still, however, closely related to the idea of wealth and class. Made fashionable by Queen Victoria, who wore a beautiful lace gown at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840, the white wedding dress became not just synonymous with purity and innocence – it borrows this from many earlier uses of the color – but also with one’s status. It meant looking like the queen, following in her footsteps. The idea that one could afford to make a white dress, which would inevitably be worn only once unlike traditional wedding clothes which were, frankly, just decorated, exaggerated versions of traditional costume, is incredibly luxurious for 19th century middle class women. It shows a shift in thinking, a shift in economy, a shift in worldview.
Suddenly, looking aristocratic is easier than one imagined! Everyone now wanted to follow the white wedding trend as the picture of Victoria marrying Albert was reproduced in newspapers around Europe and the US. And, of course, one has to keep in mind the all-penetrating obsession of the Victorians with cleanliness and purity, which translates into their fascination with white. Pale, make-up free skin, white maids’ aprons and hand-kerchiefs – all these are attributes of the era and the class division.
In contrast with this elitist approach to anything white, the white of Modernism and the Contemporary is an attribute of the general, the stripped down, the accessible. It is still associated with purity, but this time not the purity that comes with one’s maid doing the washing for several hours a day. This time it is clean from the bourgeois, from the stuffy and overcrowded interiors of “Salons”, palaces and family homes, the gilded frames and Romantic landscapes. It is the white of simple forms and new trends in art: Malevich and Cubism, Le Corbusier and Purism, John Cage and 4’33, Rauschenberg and White Paintings. White is now not there to be kept pristine, it is there as a multi-purposeful canvas for anyone to fill. “Look at your own experience and at the surroundings making shapes through shade, while looking at my canvases,” Rauschenberg would probably say, encouraging the viewer to look into their feelings and emotions. Decades after this, we have become too spoiled – we disregard the white, we do not notice it. Maybe we could learn a lot while looking at a white wall of an art gallery – after all, it has a history that goes beyond bricks and paint.
The Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 exhibition runs now till March 15, 2015 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Photos: Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Opening Image: pale grey slashed chiffon wedding dress designed by Gareth Pugh and veil by Stephen Jones, 2011 Worn by Katie Shillingford for her marriage to Alex Dromgoole. Photo by Amy Gwatkin.