shadow play / vocabulaire des ombres


a primer on light


Suppose you’d want to do a post about shadows & light and , while procrastinating at your computer, you’d browse the web for inspiration. You would soon wish yourself back on the high school benches to learn all about Optics and Physics and Neurobiology.
Who would not want to discover the secrets of The Nature of Light ( is it a Wave? Is it a Particle? ) and learn about how it Reflects and Refracts ? Who would not fall for the seductions of Atmospheric Optics , studying the delicate interactions between air, dust, haze, water and Light ( Why is the Sky Blue? Why are Clouds White? ). And of course one would love to get a crash-course in anatomy and neuro-biology to understand why we see what we see - or rather, how we make up what we see. (1)



shadows defined


But since neither my key-board nor my failing brain is set up for mathematical formulas, we’ll have to stick to good old words to approach our subject, and to visual observations and general ruminations.
The number of entries (Fourteen!!! not counting the a’s & b’s) for “Shadow” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary already indicates the extent of the human fascination with Shadows. A fascination which has fostered a range of connotations going way beyond the humble shadow’s status as a derivative optical phenomenon.
In order to thwart false expectations, I’ll be therefore transparent about my own motivations for this post: sharing my sensuous-emotional response to the visuals of shadows & light, in reality and in art.
So there will be no gloom & doom in this post, hardly any drama - at the very most there may be some faint metaphysical mutterings. In Merriam Webster definition terms this means I’ll safely concentrate on meanings 1,5 & 8.


1) : partial darkness or obscurity within a part of space from which rays from a source of light are cut off by an interposed opaque body
5) : the dark figure cast upon a surface by a body intercepting the rays from a source of light (lovely definitions, conjuring up a scientific graph with purposeful ligh-waves brutally blocked off by an unwaveringly opaque volume)
8) : a shaded or darker portion of a picture



I am moved by shadows ...


This being said, there’ s no denying, I am moved by shadows and reflections, and by how they indicate the intensity of light & the time of day – like this morning, waking up and seeing the shadowy edges of the curtains projected on the wall (announcing a ravishingly sunny day) . Or later, staring out of the window – coming under the spell of a silent cast shadow falling on the glaringly white brick wall.
I am somehow soothed by the refractions & reflections of light & its many shades – like the light refracted by the dust in a room, drawing hovering sun & shadow stripes on the wall, late in the afternoon. And ah, the elation of light bouncing off a water surface or an iron balustrade. And what else are shadows but the silent companions of all these delicious light effects.




But still, what would be so particularly poignant about light and shadows? Apart from their general usefulness to help us see and interpret a three-dimensional world? Perhaps it’s their sheer fleeting quality, their utter complicity with Time (and thus with us, transient beings) . As Gombrich states quite factually: “a shadow is determined by the hour of the day and the time of the year, both governing the position of the sun at a given latitude”.

Though of course it is Bonnefoy, with his poetic intuitions, who gets closest to this pathos of shadows, and to why one would want to celebrate them :

a desire to face the world in its most fleeting aspects, seemingly least charged with being, to consecrate them so that I may be saved with them” .


And: “what the cast shadow really designates, as the hand on a dial, is such place at such moment”


shadows in art

As an eminently visual phenomenon, it is odd that the representation of shadows & chiaroscuro has for so long been rather the exception than the rule in art. Of course, insofar as art is expected to represent symbols or “essences”, the fleetingness of shadows would be very disruptive indeed. Imagine shadows messing up the eternally frozen Egyptian images…

But also in the early Italian renaissance art, clearly on the representational track, cast shadows are rare. Though they did want to represent reality and more specifically reality as seen from the viewpoint of a spectator. And so they did use all the illusionary tricks from perspective to modeling via shading (3) . But they were still out to catch “essences” , and would only allow the use of shading to create the illusion of three-dimensional volumes on a two-dimensional plane. And perhaps a few attached shadows here & there to enhance the illusion of depth. So yes, shadow-modeling as a useful means to conquer space on the canvas. But no explicit cast shadows, since these were deemed to clutter and confuse an otherwise harmonious composition.

It is in the Northern Renaissance art that light and shadows tentatively gain prominence, in the wake of the Northern bent for realism and individualism. The Northern masters wanted to represent people, landscapes and interiors “in the uniqueness of the moment, not in the abstraction of the essence” . And “ the individuality of the moment is represented by the shadow of objects” (Todorov) .

A personal explanation for this particular northern sensitivity to atmosphere and light is that just because light is so rare in the north, it is considered to be all the more precious. Also, the hazy northern skies soften the light & refract it in a thousand nuances. Whereas in the South the sheer abundance of light and its glaring harshness may mean it is less avidly and lovingly observed.

As to this North-South contrast, Gombrich compares to good effect paintings of madonna’s by two 15th C contemporaries. The Italian master ( Masaccio ) evokes a regal presence on a throne, and masterly suggests solidity and volume through modeling via shading, but introduces only the barest of cast shadows and does not evoke any atmosphere. Whereas the northern master ( Campin ) places his Madonna in a very common interior with a fire burning in the hearth, with a towel on the rack, with many everyday objects, all casting shadows. So, in contrast to the imposing eternal essence in the Italian version this Northern madonna has become a living human being , present in this world, inhabiting a passing moment.




This advent of fleeting light & shadows in art is quite quite moving ….., not only because it marks the advent of the individual existence, of the here & now in art, but also because it acknowledges this oh so human oh so sensuous sensitivity to the vagaries of light.







Of course, during the baroque period shadowy mysteriousness and dramatic cast shadows abound - both Southern and Northern masters of that époque excelled in chiaroscuro and knew how to exploit the dramatic potential of dark & light contrasts.



But perhaps the more modest genre and interior paintings are dearer to me: a maid sweeping a room while light filters through the windows, a dark corridor with at the end the sunny rectangular patch of a door opening, the hazy reflections and shadows of church windows and pillars suggested on a wall. And then I think of the paintings by Pieter de Hooch, Emmanuel De Witte …


And yes, the more fleeting & humble, the more consoling and soothing I find it to behold the light and shadow play in paintings (5).



















not that many footnotes
(1) Dale Purves & Timothy J. Andrews (department of neuro-biology University of Durham):
“because the complexities of a three-dimensional world are projected onto a two-dimensional receptor sheet, the interpretation of most retinal images is equivocal” - we’re just guessing at what we’re seeing, ready to be fooled by illusions – we all know that, don’t we.

(2) Merriam Webster – definition of shadow
1: partial darkness or obscurity within a part of space from which rays from a source of light are cut off by an interposed opaque body 2: a reflected image 3: shelter from danger or observation 4 a: an imperfect and faint representation b: an imitation of something : COPY 5: the dark figure cast upon a surface by a body intercepting the rays from a source of light 6: PHANTOM 7 plural : DARK 1a 8: a shaded or darker portion of a picture 9: an attenuated form or a vestigial remnant 10 a: an inseparable companion or follower b: one (as a spy or detective) that shadows 11: a small degree or portion : TRACE 12: a source of gloom or unhappiness 13 a: an area near an object : VICINITY b: pervasive and dominant influence 14: a state of ignominy or obscurity

(3) Shading, as illuminatingly defined by MW:
1 : the use of marking made within outlines to suggest three-dimensionality, shadow, or degrees of light and dark in a picture or drawing


(4) My favourite books on shadows (& these books’ ideas permeate this post)


  • Tzvetan Todorov : Eloge de l’individu – Ode to the Individual
    (" ils sont représentés dans l’unicité de l’instant, non dans l’abstraction de l’essence / Represented in the uniqueness of the moment, not in the abstraction of the essence")


  • E.H. Gombrich : Ombres Portées – Shadows. The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art


  • Yves Bonnefoy : l’improbable et autres essais (in two essays, one about Byzantium,and another about humour and the cast shadow in art) - useful quotes:
    " Les deux intuitions discordantes de la pensée d’Occident, ce qui est périssable – et destin – et ce qui est éternel / The two discordant intuitions in Western thought, that which is perishable - and fate – and that which is eternal "

  • "Un désir en moi qui recherchait sa patrie, celui d’affronter notre monde en ses aspects les plus fugitifs, apparemment les moins chargés d’être, pour les sacrer et que je sois sauvé avec eux"
    "Profondément ce que l’ombre portée désigne, comme l’aiguille sur un cadran, c’est tel lieu à tel instant […]"


  • Michael Baxandall: Ombres et Lumières – Shadows and enlightenment

(5) The metaphysical anguish (de Chirico) and the heart rending immobility of shadows (Hopper) may be treated in some later post. And yet, I don’t know why, but the last picture to insert already in this post just had to be this Hopper. ..

3 comments:

Roxana said...

There is also Tanizaki's "In Praise of Shadows"... I like it very much, he explains why the shadow had to lie at the core of Japanese aesthetics, and the first Bonnefoy quote goes along the same lines. Very beautiful...

Roxana said...

I just remembered I had that:
http://roxanaghita.blogspot.com/2008/03/we-find-beauty-not-in-thing-itself-but.html

ffflaneur said...

seems like an utterly indispensable book!