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Light & Art

Article & Art by Marianne ANGERSBACH


Not even the most rational mind can escape the mythical impact of light. Throughout the history of mankind, light has fascinated artists, philosophers, scientists and seekers of God. Light shines even brighter when compared to its counterpart, darkness. Yet although there are theories about what light is, no one has managed to explain it precisely.

Since sight is one
of our most fundamental senses, perceiving light is an experience that every seeing person shares.

As long as we can see, we feel secure and in control of our environment, while in the dark we are fearful and insecure. Without our sun, the most basic source of light, there would be no life on earth.

We are reminded of this every year, when in the cold season sunlight is too weak to keep plants alive. Nature is reborn only when the sun's intensity returns in the spring. In hot countries, however, the sun not only gives life but sears and destroys, giving it a double nature as nurturer and destroyer.

 

Marianne Angersbach, Spark of Flame, '99, oil on board, 41X37 cm.

These universal experiences transcend time and culture. They have given us a rich heritage of mythological and spiritual reactions to the experience of light and darkness. Not only artists but many religious teachers have tapped into this vast area of the subcouscious mind.

Since the beginning of human history there have been cults related to the sun. Archeologists have found engravings of the sun disk and its journey in boats and chariots that date to 2,500 BC. This was at the same time when Stonehenge in England, a structure closely related to the movement of the sun, reached its final monumental form.

In ancient Egypt, graves and temples were designed to make maximum use of the sun's rays. In the fourteenth century BC king Akhenaten founded a sun-light religion. He enthroned the light as God, thereby creating one of the first monotheistic religions in history. He founded the city Armana halfway between Thebes and Memphis. The temples of Armana had no roofs so that the sunlight could fall directly onto the altars. A famous Egyptian symbol for the sun is the eye, and in much Egyptian theology, light was the beams that emited from God's eye.. Akhenaten and his wife Nefretiti proclaimed themselves to be the sole conduit through which people could worship the sun; they were not only sacred but also indispensible because they alone could mediate between the sun and humanity.


Marianne Angersbach, The Turning Point, 900X100 cm. Oil on canvas, 2000


Ever since then, light has had a close relationship to power and royalty. Animal symbols for the sun, such as the lion and the eagle, are found on seals and banknotes up to the present day. Even the Nazis, by choosing the swastika as their symbol, used a symbol of light to promote their power. The swastika is an ancient and universal symbol of light and enlightment that depicts the sun in its movement across the sky. It has been used to decorate Aztec and Inca temples, Hindu shrines and the robes of Buddhist monks.

With the exception of the swastika, which has fallen into "darkness" like Lucifer (whose name means "light"), light is always used to depict things that are good. In our minds light is the life essence, the good and the beautiful, hope, enlightment, and even the experience of God itself. Darkness is traditionally connected to evil powers that maliciously try to overcome the realm of light. Darkness is where Lucifer, the fallen force of light, reigns. For some mystics the world itself is a dark place; those who want to live in the realm of light, they believe, must turn their backs on the world and its tempations.

In Persia twothousand years before Christ, Zarathrustra founded a religion based on this eternal conflict between the good powers of light and the evil powers of darkness. He taught that Ahura Masda, the god of creation and light, first brought the world into being in a purely spiritual, immaterial form. His second creation, the material world, was attacked by the darkness personified by the god Angra Manju and his demons. That conflict brought darkness into the orginal perfect and light-filled world.
Marianne Angersbach, Dark is Light, oil on canvas, 80X90 cm, '98

According to this religion, believers should try to burn away the powers of darkness (fire played an important role in their ceremonies) and transform the world back into its original immaterial form built from pure light.

The third-century Greek philosopher Plato saw the world situated between two poles, celestrial light and darkness. Light was supposed to be the only reality. Although matter was dark, nature and especially the human soul could reflect some of this light. Only the soul could unite fully with God's light. The further away from the dark material world one moved, the closer one could come to God. As Plato and other Neoplatonic mystics put it, in the night of the world the soul is a spark of light; in a fleeting moment of utter ecstasy the soul can reunite with celestial light. In that divine realm, Plato wrote, ''everything is transparent and no darkness exists. There is no resistance but only transparency, so everybody and everything is visible in its innermost essence. Everybody carries everything within him and also sees everything in everybody. All things are present there. One is all, the individual is the whole and lumniosity is eternal."

The gothic cathedral, one of the most spiritually influenced forms of architecture, is a light-filled space. Its multicolored glass windows give the vast interior an immaterial aspect.

Entering the church's portal was supposed to transport believers into a miracalously different world.

The huge glass rosette of Saint-Denis in France, which is considered to be the first gothic church, is the equivalent of the sun discs of much earlier cultures.

Marianne Angersbach, Speechless Song, Acyrlik'97, 90X100 cm.

Illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages are brilliantly colorful, but the colors are not realistic and
not transparent. They are dense, and the light they transmit does not come from another source behind them. Instead the illustrations are themselves the source of light. They are the message, and it is not coincidental that they were usually illustrations of biblical scenes.

Since antiquity, some philosophers have asserted that the eye not only perceives light but also emits it. Goethe believed that our ability to perceive light was proof of our connection to the divine. "If the eye were not like a sun, how could we see light?" he asked. ''Is not the fact that we can see light a testament to God's own power?"

Between 1412 and 1425 the Italian architect Brunelleschi made the first drawings with realistic perspective. He did that by concluding that a straight beam of light reached out from the eye to every point of the seen object (a view that Euclid also held). Every beam, he recognized, would penetrate the seen object at one specific point. By connecting these points he was able to produce an exact reproduction of the object.

Marianne Angersbach, Dualism, oil on canvas, 63X70, 2000

By 1500 Renaissance painting had fully emerged, and with it a new way of treating light. Light was perceived as coming from a source, either from within or from outside the painting; the painting itself was no longer the source of light as it was in the Middle Ages. Strong contrasts between darkness and light played a crucial role in Renaissance painting.

In many of Caravaggio's paintings, for example, light falls from the upper left corner into a dark space. The beam of light illuminates the scene like a floodlight on a stage or movie set. This beam was not intended to represent truly natural light, but rather a life-giving force. It ususally fell onto Christ or the saints, who by reflecting it would illuminate other figures in the scene.

Rembrandt's paintings are also characterized by strong contrasts, but in his work even the dark parts seem to emit a dark light, so that light and dark parts melt into a whole. So-called █sacred light" plays an important role in his work. It radiates from holy figures like Christ and gives his religious paintings an intimate atmosphere, as if a candle were illuminating the faces of people sitting around it.

In nineteenth-century art "sacred light" disappeared and was replaced by temporal light - sunlight, moonlight or light from candles, torches and later electric lamps. Romantic artists like Caspar David Friedrich gave light to focus new attention on darkness. His most famous painting, "Monk at the Sea," is a dark seascape in which a single tiny figure stands alone on an empty beach contemplating a mysterious dark world. During this period writers expressed the same fascination. "Often I turn toward the unspeakably holy and secretive night," wrote the German poet Novalis. "What do you enclose beneath your cloak that holds my soul with such invisible power?"

Impressionism, the most famous artistic movement of the nineteenth century, was based on the celebration of light.

Impressionist painters worked to capture the reflection of sunlight on objects and figures. Light was their main subject, so much so that the subjects of their paintings often seem to fade into a world of colorful light. This was a bold but hardly new approach. The thirteenth-century cosmologist Robert Grosseteste believed that light was the first form of physical existence and that at the dawn of time everything was made from light. He believed that all of material creation was nothing but condensed light.

Impressionism is still a hugely popular form of art, and it owes its popularity mainly to its fascination with light. It reflects the dream of people throughout history, the dream of a world beyond the real one that would be nothing but vibrating light.

Marianne Angersbach, A Shadow Clear, 41X37 cm, oil on board, 1999

Nowadays artists work with light itself. "We are flooded with light," Gyorgy Kepes has written. "We switch light on and off, send it where we will and even negate it. We project, reflect, fix, focus, diffuse and scatter it."

The work of James Turrell, a prominent contemporary artist who works with light, is about light itself rather than objects. His aim is to make light tangible as both substance and energy. In his work light creates an illusion but is still a palpable form of creative energy. In one series of works he used light to create volume. Viewers entering the exhibition room had had the illusion of seeing three-dimensional objects when there was nothing but projected light.

 

Turrell's latest project, scheduled for completion in the fall of 2000, is the Roden Island Crater Project. Roden Island Crater is a cinder cone on the eastern edge of San Francisco's volcanic plateau, and Turrell plans to use it to achieve a giant optical illusion. "The modified bowl will function as a huge sky space and manipulate the phenomenon of celestial vaulting," he wrote in explaining the project. "The natural beauty of light used as sculptural material will be conjoined with the physical power and spatial amplitude of the desert landscape.

From the dawn of history, light has been recognized as central to the way we perceive the world around us. Without it art would be inconceivable. So would life itself.

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