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Last Updated: Friday, 22 February 2008, 17:48 GMT
Grey's anatomy
Map 1962 by Jasper Johns

By David Cannadine

Fog, pavements and depression. The colour grey has dreary associations but a new exhibition recasts this ashen shade as one that suggests an intelligent perspective on the complexities of life.

A visit to a big exhibition in New York this week set me thinking about the significance and meaning of the colour grey, not only in art, but also in life and in politics.

When Margaret Thatcher's successor as prime minister decided to publish his story in 1999, he called his book simply John Major: The Autobiography but rumour has it that several more imaginative alternatives had been vainly urged upon the author.

One of them was supposed to have been Shades Of Grey, which would have thrown back at Major's critics a phrase they often used to describe and belittle him during his rather torrid time at 10 Downing Street.

Indeed, the satirical puppet show, Spitting Image, had gone even further, for while Margaret Thatcher was always vividly depicted as a domineering, determined, three-dimensional flesh and blood being, John Major was invariably caricatured as a grey man, in a grey suit - and with a grey face to match.

So whatever titles may have been considered for his autobiography, it seems highly unlikely that Primary Colours can have been one of them.

In any case, by the time Major's book appeared, those words had already been appropriated by the Newsweek columnist Joe Klein, who'd anonymously published a novel with that title in 1996.

Primary Colors is a thinly disguised account of Bill Clinton's efforts to gain the Democratic nomination, and eventually the White House, in 1992, and it was subsequently filmed, starring John Travolta and Emma Thompson.

David Cannadine
Many artists have been fascinated by its possibilities

The story's central character is larger than life, not only in his remarkable gifts of empathy, charisma and eloquence, but also in his many self-indulgent failings.

At one level, then, the title Primary Colors acknowledged the lengthy and protracted process whereby the Republicans and the Democrats get to choose their presidential candidates.

At another it paid homage to Bill Clinton's colossal, if flawed, personality. Indeed, it seems highly unlikely that anyone will ever write a book about him, or about Hillary, with the title Shades Of Grey.

For many people, grey is intrinsically unappealing, uninteresting and unexciting - a sort of Cinderella of the artist's palette, which never gets to the Technicolor ball, which is why it often serves as a metaphor for everything in life that's dull and commonplace and boring.

There's no grey in the rainbow, Mother Nature's most dazzling and bravura display of light and warmth, and thus of joy and hope.

And how can plain, drab, monochrome grey possibly compete with the sun-kissed radiance of yellow, or with the big-sky brilliance of blue, or with the full-bloodied intensity of red, or with the environmental resonance of green, or with those end-of-spectrum certainties of black and white?

It just doesn't stand a chance. When Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles, took another young Liverpool starlet under his wing in the early 1960s, he predicted for her a great future, provided she changed her name - from Priscilla White to Cilla Black, but he certainly didn't suggest that she should call herself Grey.

Wet pavement
Pavements don't help grey's image
In this Brian Epstein was surely right, for grey as a name often carries with it connotations every bit as downbeat and damp-pavement as does grey as a colour; and people who are grey by name are easily thought of as being grey by nature.

The first verse of Thomas Grey's Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard concludes with a description of the ploughman homeward plodding his weary way, and leaving the world 'to darkness and to me', which doesn't exactly make you want to get up and dance and sing and shout.

Yet despite these negative connotations of grey as a colour, of grey as a metaphor, and of grey as a name, many artists have been fascinated by its possibilities and excited by its potential.

Joseph Mallord William Turner lived for light, believed it held dominion over darkness, and is alleged to have said on his deathbed that "The sun is God"; yet his most audacious atmospheric effects frequently depended on the use of the colours black and blue - and grey.

The American painter, James McNeill Whistler, established his reputation with a portrait of his mother, called Arrangement In Grey And Black, and his later studies of the River Thames, which he called Nocturnes, made extensive use of both these colours.

As for the Impressionists, we tend to think they were obsessed with warmth and colour and light. But like Whistler, Monet's later studies of the Thames were often undertaken on dismal and foggy days, and grey is much in evidence on these canvasses as a result.

And so to the splendid exhibition I recently visited at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York, where I was reminded of the importance of grey and of the many varieties of greyness and which is devoted to the work of Jasper Johns.

Johns was born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia, and he's been a fixture on the American art scene for more than half a century, but he's not the type of painter that you might immediately associate with a sort of Turner- or Whistler- or Monet-like interest in grey.

Jasper Johns: Flag Above White With Collage
Jasper Johns was hugely influenced by grey
On the contrary, Jasper Johns first emerged as a force in contemporary art during the late 1950s, with his lush, richly-worked and highly-coloured paintings of flags, maps, targets, letters and numbers, and since then, they've become so iconic that in 1998 the Metropolitan Museum Of Art paid more than $20m for his White Flag, painted 43 years earlier.

Yet the title of this latest show at the Met is Jasper Johns: Gray (with gray, of course, spelt the American way, with an 'a' not an 'e'), and it displays more than 120 of his paintings, reliefs, drawings, prints and sculptures from almost the whole span of his long life.

As they make overwhelmingly plain, grey has been a significant colour in Jasper Johns' palette, and an important influence in his work, for most of his artistic life, whatever else he may have been doing.

Early on in his career he put it this way: "It is the gray zone between the two extremes that I'm interested in", and this exhibition is testimony to the many ways in which he's approached and explored that zone, amplifying grey into a full and significant spectrum of colour and of meanings.

In some of these works, grey is off-putting, and spells despondency, negativity, even concealment; in others grey is warm, vibrant and engaging, drawing the spectator inexorably towards the canvas; yet elsewhere, grey suggests nuance, subtlety, ambiguity and uncertainty.

From the many viewpoints offered by this enthralling Jasper Johns exhibition, 'shades of grey' is scarcely the term of abuse that it became during the 1990s when it was associated with the name of John Major.

On the contrary, it suggests a wise and considered perspective on the baffling intricacies of life, which Johns seems to have understood instinctively almost from the outset of his career, but which other, less reflective mortals, only come to recognise rather later in life.

The Monkees explored the complexities of grey
Forty years ago Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote a song entitled Shades Of Grey, which was recorded by a pop group called The Monkees, and it explores exactly this process of dawning recognition.

It begins "When the world and I were young, just yesterday, and life was such a simple game". But how things change with age and experience:

Today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light,
Today there is no black or white
Only shades of gray.

One youthful fan of The Monkees was an Oxford undergraduate and part-time rock guitarist named Tony Blair, but this particular message of theirs was clearly lost on him by the time he got to 10 Downing Street, where he was often inclined to view political issues in clear-cut, even messianic terms.

So much so that his mentor and friend Roy Jenkins once gently chided Blair in the House of Lords for his tendency to see the world beyond Britain too simplistically in terms of good and evil, or of black and white.

I doubt if Roy Jenkins had ever even heard of The Monkees; but, like Jasper Johns, and John Major, they'd clearly anticipated the point he was trying to make.

We live in a complex, bewildering, uncertain world. There's much to be said for seeing it, not in the simple terms of brightly lit primary colours, but rather as varying (and sobering) shades of grey.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Jean Grey from the X-Men comics/films was far from Grey in character (save for her multitude of deaths - and subsequent re-births).
James B, Sheffield, UK

This piece was so pretentious that I had to switch my radio off on Sunday. Tony Blair? The Monkees? I hope Prof Cannadine was doing this for a bet or had some other humorous purpose.
Simon, London

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