Art's tenebrous twin

A Short History of the Shadow
July 18, 1997

This book explains not so much where shadows come from or where they fall, but what they mean when they arrive. It is all too easy to think of shadows as holes in light, but if we do this I think we miss what is most interesting about them. When an object is transformed into a transparent two-dimensional tint with a shape, generated because of its position relative to a light source, we call it a shadow. As a shadow the object will not have only been translated from three to two dimensions, from one colour to another and from one gradation of tone to another, but also from one material to another. Shadows are not black holes. A terracotta pot, depending on where it stands, becomes a shadow made of grass or stone or water or flesh; it visibly becomes made of what it is cast upon.

As a painter I have been steered away from shadows. Educated by modernists, I was led to believe that shadows were a part of the tool-box of the realists and could be entertained as reasonable subjects only if you were a colourist coming at them via Monet, Matisse and Greenburg. My mind was changed by a Royal Academician called Norman Blaney who told me about his war as a camouflage artist in the desert in Africa.

His job was to confuse German intelligence by setting up illusions of either camel- or mule-supply routes. The problem was for the British artists to create supply routes that would lead the enemy into believing that the allied forces were stronger on the ground than they really were. The idea was to make sure that some illusionary events convincingly coincided with German spotter-plane fly-overs, which were, perhaps not surprisingly, at the same time each day. The trick was based on one simple observation. From the air in the desert you do not see objects, just shadows. The fake supply routes were built on this belief and created by laying out canvases in lines flat on the desert sand. Each canvas had the shadow of a heavily laden beast painted on at the appropriate length and angle for the time of the enemy sortie. It struck me that this was the meeting of a figurative and a conceptual image and that in those desert canvases the academic achieved an enlightenment, something which also happens in this book.

The Shorter History of the Shadow is a fairly cool and modest title for a conceptually large and generous book. Its arguments and examples do indeed depend on the central theme of shadows but its approach takes us into a much bigger, more challenging and entertaining arena than that normally occupied by art historical texts. The back cover describes the book as a tour de force and I go along with this. Both Ernst Gombrich and Michael Baxendal have recently published books that take shadows as their theme, but neither tells us more about art or shadows than the author of this book.

Victor I. Stoichita, professor of the history of art at the University of Fribourg, concentrates throughout the book on interpreting the role of the shadow in a wide range of written and visual narratives. He takes us from the Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder to a 1400 bc papyrus, through Masaccio via a French comic book to a film still from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Then out to Warhol, Duchamp, Beuys and Christian Boltanski. It is a story of art in its own right, a story found lurking in the shadows, but one far from marginal.

The book starts by relating Pliny's poetic and appealing origin of painting (which incidentally is referred to in Gombrich's book, Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, as the beginning of sculpture rather than painting). The event that inspired the first painting, according to Stoichita's reading of Pliny, was the departure of a loved one. As a way of capturing her lover's image a young woman draws around his shadow and it is through this fable of the captured shadow that painting begins. The outline, according to Stoichita, is filled in with a monochrome and then detailed and finally given volume through painted illusion.

This is a beautiful yet nice story with which to begin a book, but it leaves me worrying about Cro-Magnon Man. Let us transport the appealing purity of Pliny's beginning of painting to the caves of Lascaux. How convenient it would have been for both writers today and muralists then, had the bison stood between the fire and the wall. This transfer of object from three to two dimensions and from floor to wall, like photography today, would have required no sophisticated technical skills, just the desire and opportunity to do it. A genuine people's art. But, of course, in another story of art we are left wrestling with how and why early painters carried their images, gathered in the light, beyond the cave mouth into its depths to reconstruct them on its walls and roof without so far as we know any devices other than pigment and an applicator.

Throughout the book we are invited to consider the boundaries of painting and how they are marked by shadows. How a study of physiognomy connects with Louis XV's minister for finance and the cutting of silhouettes and how Lavater used these as a measure of the human soul. How a failed photograph can be seen as a prefiguration of Malevich's "Black Square". How there was a remarkable passing of skill from Man Ray as photographer to the sculptor Brancusi allowed him to render his objects as new objects by permanently bonding them to a selected shadow of their own in two dimensions through photography. How Freud's notion of "the uncanny" requires the duplication of the self, and how this is illustrated by the French comic-book hero Lucky Luck when Lucky the gunslinger "out-draws" his own shadow in a stand-off gunfight. There is also an exploration of the repercussions of selling your shadow to the man in grey. This book is not far-fetched. It is ambitious and a pleasure to read. It takes what could be a dull theme, tests it with scholarship and brings it to life.

I read the last chapter, "In the shadow of the eternal return", twice and found it far more complex than the rest of the book. It deals with some great artists both living and recently dead. In this chapter Stoichita's aim appears to have been directed towards trying his themes out on the art of today.

Working with an impressive bunch of artists - de Chirico, Warhol, Beuys and, perhaps less obviously, Boltanski - he spins a complicated web built on European and American culture which ties de Chirico to Nietzsche, Warhol to de Chirico, de Chirico to Pinnochio and Warhol to Micky Mouse (according to the author, both were born in 1929) and over this he pastes the massive penumbra of Beuys. The good thing about this chapter is that you get a feeling that the author has a real enthusiasm for these artists and that he has a genuine ability to take us convincingly from Plato to Boltanski and from Nietzsche to Warhol. The weakness is that in this last chapter the shadows cease to be a vehicle for expression. Instead, they turn out to be something of an obstruction.

In the final chapter, the shadow is used as a metaphor for the obscuring of meaning in recent art. In the rest of the book Stoichita uses shadows as the key to understanding. It may well be the case that art has changed, but this shift may also highlight the problem of trying to talk about recent history and current affairs while keeping up the quality of example and insight. He argues, I think, in the end, for the magic of artists not the magic of art, and if this is the case, then it is quite literally their shadows we are left with. A rather depressing thought with which to conclude a thoroughly worthwhile book. I will put it on the book list at the Ruskin School of Drawing but also recommend it to my friends who are not so keen on art. Its appeal should go beyond its intended target audience.

Stephen Farthing is Ruskin master of drawing, University of Oxford.

A Short History of the Shadow

Author - Victor Stoichita
ISBN - 1 86189 000 1
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £14.95
Pages - 224

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments