Carnegie’s new show turns on to Industrial Age
A few years ago, walking along Grant Street Downtown, I encountered the effects of a partial eclipse of the sun. The experience was strange and disorienting. Elsewhere in the city, an artist acquaintance of mine was sitting beneath a tree in his garden and saw a multitude of crescent forms of the eclipse projected onto the earth through the overlapping leaves and branches of the tree. These are rare happenings, and interesting because they make us aware of the infinite complexities of light.
We take light for granted, except when it is taken away from us or when it is seriously altered. Then, and only then, do we start to think about it. At the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland you will find, marvelously displayed, the product of a number of years’ thought by Louise Lippincott, curator of fine art, and Andreas Bluhm, from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. ‘Light! The Industrial Age, 1750-1900’ ambitiously surveys the role of light in art and science, technology and society. Nobody has thought of a show like it before. When ‘Light!’ premiered in Amsterdam a few months ago, it was widely acclaimed. ‘The best exhibition currently on show in Europe,’ one critic remarked. It’s here now, until July 29, and you won’t be able to see it anywhere else.
When you step into the show, you find a sudden, and certainly unexpected, gloom. The walls have been painted a chocolate brown. You will need to pause a moment to let your eyes adjust. It’s not an eclipse, but a revelation. Alexander Pope put it wryly: ‘Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night/God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.’ A shaft of light strikes a prism suspended over the doorway; it is reflected onto one wall and scattered in all the colors of the rainbow on another. G.B. Pittoni’s large canvas, ‘An Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton’ (1727-30), converts the scientific prism experiment of Newton (the basis of all light theory before 1900) into a baroque allegory. Thus, the scene is set for the exhibition. Science and art will rub shoulders throughout the show. Close observation is the common ground of artists and scientists, although their findings may differ.
The dark walls of the first half of the exhibition allow the organizers to present many of the effects of light in real terms. A guttering candle (actually, an electric lamp pretending to be one) casts its light through a lacemaker’s glass, concentrating the beam on a single spot. In the gloom, one’s sensibilities are already changing – you are beginning to get the message.
Light is reflected, refracted and focused for your edification. Shadow, light’s inseparable twin, is cast. Lenses and viewing boxes are arranged so you can see through them. The Venus de Milo, glistening white and powerfully illuminated, becomes visible through these early cameras and viewers. The effects are distant and moving. And, in the final moments of browned darkness, an ancient moving image (it is Thomas Edison) is projected on to a screen.
Technology never takes a back seat in this exhibition, although in the next section, where natural light is explored, the realization dawns that Lippincott and Bluhm have assembled not simply works of art that illustrate their themes, but fabulous examples. Security is tight. The value of the art is immeasurable. Here you will find work by J.W.M. Turner, Vincent van Gogh, Joseph Wright of Derby, Ford Maddox Brown, P.H. de Valenciennes, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro. Although some come from the Carnegie’s own collection, many are borrowed from the great museums of the world, including the Louvre and London’s Tate Gallery. In terms of the art alone, it is surely the most important exhibition ever displayed at the Carnegie. Intellectually, it is without equal.
Who creates lightâ¢ In principio, it was God, and a strange 1751 painting by Simon Lantara addresses that particular mystery. The Enlightenment changed that, grasping the intellectual torch. The state, and ultimately capitalism, the New God, all find a place in this exhibition. Stock certificates and electric light bulbs pull us down to earth.
The star of the show wisely is reserved for the last room, and attempts to address the problem of what art looked like under the different lighting conditions of the past. Van Gogh’s ‘Gauguin’s Chair’ (1888) is the guinea pig. Lighting experts have devised a scheme whereby the painting is exposed to three different kinds of light for short periods of time. The difference is remarkable. Van Gogh installed gaslight in his house at about the time the work was executed. He had earlier observed to his brother how he liked the effect of gaslight in the street. With this clever little installation, many of the other paintings in the show are thrown into high relief. Vesuvius erupts with a red-hot intensity watched by the cool white moon. An oil lamp casts a disturbing light in a bedroom scene by Degas. A kerosene lamp transforms the family group eating potatoes (here represented by a lithograph). To know James Tissot’s ‘The Ladies of the Chariots’ depicts a kind of arc light should materially affect our understanding of the painting.
The important thing about any exhibition is that it should attempt to change our perceptions. It would be hard to find an exhibition more likely to do so than ‘Light!’ As you walk down the stairs after viewing it you will be, quite literally, enlightened.
Graham Shearing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .