Shadows: Edges of the World
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza & Fundación Caja Madrid Feb 10 to May 17 2009
POSTED: MARCH 5, 2009
Two thousand years ago, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder described the origins of painting, recounting a moment when a girl in Corinth, holding a candle, traced the outline of her lover on a wall on the eve of his departure for war. It’s a charming story that has been the source of numerous paintings, including theatrical recreations by Joseph Wright of Derby, Joseph-Benoît Suvée and even the Russian artists Komar and Melamid, who turned the lover into Joseph Stalin and the moment into the founding of Socialist Realism. What the Stone Age painters of Altimira and Lascaux would make of the story, we will never know, but it serves as a fine starting point for the exhibition “Shadows” that opened in Madrid last month at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and Fundación Caja Madrid.
The show is curated by Victor I. Stoichita, an art historian at Fribourg University in Switzerland. In 1997 he authored a book titled A Short History of the Shadow, and the current exhibition is his thesis writ large, featuring 144 works by more than 100 artists. The show charts the shadow image through the history of painting. In this way it is reminiscent of the exhibition “Melancholy,” curated by Jean Clair, then director of the Picasso Museum, that was presented a few years ago in Berlin at the Neue Nationalgalerie and in Paris at Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. Spanning centuries, Clair’s show offered a supple storyline that threaded movements from ancient Greek and Roman art to neo-expressionist painting. Its single theme, rather than being a limit, was an invitation to consider a diverse selection of artworks in a new light, and “Shadows” does the same. Its concentrated focus refreshes art history. The theme becomes an occasion to find an evolving resonance in individual artworks that cuts across categories and centuries.
One notices, for example, the delicate modesty of the shadows in a Renaissance painting by Giovanni Bellini. These are supportive shadows, from an era when shadow was a painterly discovery, an aid to the rendering of perspective. Their subtlety lends a rounded clarity to Bellini’s religious theme without intruding on the brightness of the scene. They are shadows held in check by holy light. His dialogue between shadow and light is ongoing through the show, as if it is the function of shadow to define the nature of light. In a Rembrandt painting, poised on the edge of a new secular era, we see shadows take the form of impalpable projections from a high window that lend a febrile pulse to an interior space, an element of mystery that enhances the naturalness of the image and wraps it in a humanist touch. Nearby, a de La Tour painting shows shadow as an impenetrable darkness, an envelope of night carved into form by the light of a single candle. The darkness is as hard as stone; and yet it is a theatre of intimacy.
As a space and a substance, shadow carries a progressive presence in western art. As one moves through the show at both of its venues, it becomes clear that the movement of time and history brings an enhanced awareness of the imaginative links between shadow and darkness. In a Goya, it fills the corners of a courtyard in a madhouse. In a Menzel, the shadows of an interior staircase become apparitions, the edges of a dark unknown. The Belgian painter Léon Spillaert fashions symbolist landscapes where darkness is the norm and all human forms are blank silhouettes. As time passes, the art shows shadows that begin to be invested with an independent otherness, not the cool balance of daylight that we see in Impressionist painting, but a parallel darkworld where shadows begin to act out an overlapping drama, whether it is de Chirico’s architectures of shadow, Christian Schad’s hovering demons, or Picasso’s looming and dominating male shadow that registers as the projection of a gendered gaze.
The equivalence of shadow and light in Modernist art is arresting in Stoichita’s show. He shows an evolution of shadow from serving as chaste Renaissance helpmate to shadow operating as the agent of a prevailing anxious worldview. A Hopper hotel room becomes a place where the lodger lives in shadow, while a Cornell box materializes shadow as a sculptural presence and force. In Magritte, shadows define illusions of the real; in Tanguy’s surrealist pictures, the cast shadows are realist elements in an absurdist landscape. Even Andy Warhol’s Pop art speaks a language where shadow is shown as an equal double to its companion subject. This highlighting of the modern consciousness of shadow is complemented by a photography component of the show in which shadow functions as a natural element of image-making, a building block that defines spaces and peoples. And with cinema, the concluding section of the exhibition, shadow is the core of representation, a world unto itself with waiting audiences.
In the end, the whole of art begins to seem like a march of shadows thanks to Stoichita’s relentless tracking of a single visual element. His show is a reminder of how supple art is in response to what we bring to it. Other histories are always at the edges of what we see. (Paseo del Prado 8 & Plaza de San Martin 1, Madrid SP)