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.