Have you ever wondered about the wall colours in exhibitions, how and why they were chosen? Have you loved them, or loathed them? Did they enhance or detract from the works of art? I’ve been mulling over this recently, mainly because we’ve been choosing paint colours for the Gauguin exhibition. What colour, for example, would you hang Gauguin’s Yellow Christ on?
This isn’t as straight-forward as you may think. For example, take Tate Britain’s current Eadweard Muybridge exhibition. Wonderful photographs, but black and white. Is that why the curators chose a range of rich wall colours, such as plum, pink and green? Should the reverse happen for Gauguin, whose colours can be so bold - bright yellows, blues and pinks, and vermilion, his favourite colour (you can see it as the background colour to The Vision of the Sermon). Colours can have certain associations and resonances. You probably know that, on the whole, the convention for showing contemporary art is white walls. Historic art is very rarely shown on white. Why? Think of Tate Britain’s permanent displays, which are broadly chronological - you move from green and red for the historic displays, to light grey for the modern displays, and white for the contemporary collection.
This is nothing new. In 1926, a suite of galleries were added to the Tate site at Millbank for what were then called the Modern and Foreign collections. The hang included Impressionist art and Gauguin’s Faa Iheihe, which had been donated by the art dealer, Lord Duveen, in 1919.
These galleries were decorated with beige fabric. You can just make this out in John Lavery’s painting, through the doorways on the right. The historic art was hung on red brocade, as you can see in the foreground gallery, which is hung with paintings from the Turner Bequest. This is the bit that fascinates me. The gallery leading into the Modern section was hung with Turner’s unfinished oils and sketches from the 1830s and 1840s, which had been re-evaluated by the early twentieth century as a bridge to Impressionism and Abstraction. The gallery was redecorated in beige. Can the historic, the modern and the contemporary be colour-coded? If so, what colours do you think we’ve chosen for Gauguin?