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Breath and Shadow
A human being is only breath and shadow. – Sophocles.
The mind can contain a whole skyscape of grief and loss and stressful pandemics, yet go about working cell by cell on spreadsheets, or writing word by word, an essay sparked by a prompt. It can imagine the universe is its oyster, it can blithely go about seeing multiverses in a grain of sand. Smoothly glide back and forth along the continuum of time from history and art history to sci-fi and fantasy. Between truth and fiction, between the abstract and concrete, between the painfully personal and the monumentally universal. There is no end to its skittering about.
Today it’s vaulted back to the first seat of Western higher learning, to Athens. That’s where the history of the cast shadow in Western art goes back to - ancient Greece. They were the first to develop and use ‘a geometry of light’ and cast shadows in art. Apollodorus, an Athenian artist, introduced a shading technique called skiagraphia (lit shadow-painting) to create the impression of volume, depth and space on a flat plane. However, in the Allegory of the Cave, Plato set up a shadow-reality dichotomy that continues to influence all spheres of Western culture even today. That Greek perception of shadow was negative – associated with ignorance, illusory, unreal.
A counterpoint can be found in the Natural History in which Pliny the Elder, the Roman historian, recorded the Greco-Roman origin myth of Western art: a young woman – the clay modeller Butades’ daughter, who captured her lover’s shadow on a wall as he slept on the night before his departure as a romantic keepsake. This was a far more positive angle, a love story, but it could not throw off the Cave’s, um…long shadow. Cast shadows in art dwindled from the classical period onward, with their dodgy impression of ugly, gloomy, negative, deluding the viewer with trickery and deception. Shadows in art remained a no-no for centuries. Till the Renaissance upended everything.
Darkness is the absence of light. Shadow is the diminution of light. – Leonardo da Vinci.
The grasshopper meanwhile, as is its wont, has leapt down a rabbit hole. What exactly were the Easterners doing to their shadows? Eastern art, the Chinese, Japanese and Indian traditions are deep and ancient, but they always were more stylised than Western art. No space for cast shadows there historically. From the Renaissance onward Western art explored the exact representation of experienced reality through linear perspective, shading and shadows. Eastern art by and large remained moored in tradition however, and experiments with realism came later, mainly due to European colonisation. But the converse is also true, Eastern art diffused into Europe and inspired Western artists too. In particular, Japanese art crossed the oceans and left its indelible mark on one particular, much celebrated artist.
A landmark Renaissance work, where linear perspective and cast shadows were first used, was a fresco in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. The artist, Masaccio (1401-28) was one of the pioneers in Renaissance art - he used cast shadows masterfully.
In another Masaccio artwork – St Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow, the shadow of the saint dominates the core message, but visually the shadow does not hide the sick.
The vocabulary of shadows continued to develop through the work of later artists - Caravaggio, Bernini, Gianlorenzo and others. By the time of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the techniques of perspective, chiaroscuro and cast shadows were quite established. And then Impressionism with its soft brush strokes, stunning colours, subtle movement and shimmery reflections shredded all the rules again.
Like a shadow, I am and I am not. – Jalaluddin Rumi.
Japanese art was a major inspiration for Vincent, he wanted to find a take-off point for a more modern, more stylised vibe, and Japanese prints – with their bold patches of colour, prominent contour lines, lack of horizons and shadows, truncated frames and focus on nature – fitted admirably. He went south to Arles looking for the “clearness of atmosphere” and “colour effects” of Oriental prints. Even his idea of an artist’s commune was based on Japanese monks living and working together. His painting of his bedroom at Arles is the epitome of the Japanese influence – bold colours, a subtly distorted perspective and removal of all cast shadows.
WC - 1051
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