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?

Gauguin Yellow Christ

Inspired by the painted crucifix in Trémalo chapel: Gauguin’s Yellow Christ 1889

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.

John Lavery's The Opening of the Modern Foreign and Sargent Galleries

When beige was the new red. John Lavery’s The Opening of the Modern Foreign and Sargent Galleries at the Tate Gallery, 26 June 1926

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.

Paul Gauguin, 'Faa Iheihe' 1898

Paul Gauguin
Faa Iheihe 1898
Oil on canvas
support: 540 x 1695 mm frame: 700 x 1855 x 95 mm
Presented by Lord Duveen 1919

View the main page for this artwork

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?

Comments

Leon

Dear Christine I hope you and your team have given the matter of wall colours considerable thought. I was shocked by the choice of yellows and greens for this year's Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy. I felt that the colours drained the paintings of their own colours, especially the zingy apple green in the rooms of flower pieces. Having said that, as I recall Copenhagen's Carlsberg Museum uses primary-based colours in it's superbly hung rooms of Gauguin and the Impressionists which did not disturb. However these are more intimate rooms. I hope you have chosen neutral or earth colours. It is not about interior decoration. I hope that us visitors will find the colours of Gauguin's paintings sing out for themselves, and not Yellow Christ on a wall painted with any tinge of yellow.

Linda McMillen

Very pale warm pink I think this would be a nice warm color and neutral enough; it would be representative of the warm glow of late day ( the best time of day to take out door photos ). I think the Tahitian paintings would look fabulous with this background, like a Tahiti sunset. It is most likely going to be very cold and gloomy wheather so nothing better than to come in from the cold to a warm and inviting Gauguin exhibit.

niall

I may be too late but I would suggest if the walls are to be coloured that the paintings should be in the plain white frames which were Gauguin's preference - though this is usually ignored by the owners of his paintings.

Kathleen Miller

A light blue used on the walls would enhance the mood of the Gauguin paintings and might make the blue skies of the Symbolist's paintings seem to umbrella all periods of Gauguin's artwork. (However, my not knowing exactly which paintings will be shown, a color choice is important related to the objects.)

Robert Horvitz

Lilac - (this is inspired by Seurat's use of colour complementaries).

The one consistent dominant and characteristic colour in Gauguin's paintings is the warm brown skin-tone of the Tahitian women. The complement of that colour would be something like a pale purple. It should make the paintings stand out brightly.

fedolain

I don't really believe in colour codes, I believe it depends on every single artist or work. I definitely think Gauguin's paintings should be hung on walls with neutral colours, white would be the best, but beige or very light grey would work too. Gauguin's colours are meaningful and bold colours on the walls would interact with them and influence the whole painting. Unless you don't want to give the exposition a particular meaning, then you can "play" with colours to convey certain meanings... Come on tell us, what colour did you choose? (I'm from Italy and I can't easily come and check!)

Lightdragoon

Perhaps there should be an exhibition on wall colours for different paintings? There is an interesting difference between Galleries where there perhaps tends to be a more chronological hang and Country House collections which are much more to the whim of the collector, and where the spaces have to be 'lived' in. At Petworth, for example, the rooms were decorated with pale wall colours and displayed the collection of old masters (Titian to Cuyp to Claude to etc.) When built in 1827 the North Gallery was painted white to show off a mix from the Turners and Wilsons, antique and neo classical sculpture to Fuselli and family portraits. This was changed to a pale red by the 1850s, dark red (as now seen) in the 1870's, and green in the 1920's. Interesting that at the time of restoration in the early 1990's the feeling was to stick to a familiar red, rather than return to white. Perhaps there is a practical side to this as well? Plain white will show up the dirt so much more easily and requires more frequent redecoration, and we all know how an aristocrat likes to save money on the practical things. Is there a difference between making a statement with the art, trying to get items to show up on your wall, or even be part of a decorative scheme, and letting the art make it's own statement without being interfered with by the background And you haven't even got onto frames yet, Christine..!

Lex

I think Gaugin's Christ should be hung on light blue. That would be like the blue of the sky extending from the painting. Give it a feeling of vastness.