On Light and Shadow: A “Fluxus Eleatis” Discourse

Daido Moriyama provoke no.2, 1969 / 2014 © Daido Moriyama, Courtesy of Simon Lee Gallery and Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

“Our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud, and come to nought as the mist that is driven away with the beams of the sun. For our time is as a shadow that passeth away and after our end there is no returning.” Wisdom of Solomon 2.4


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer

Ernst Gombrich, British-Austrian art historian

Mr. F, wanderer

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Austrian poet

Ms. B, anthropologist (of unknown ethnicity)

Marcel Proust, French writer

Miss. T, gourmant

Junichiro Tanizaki, Japanese author

Leonardo (da Vinci), Florentine painter, artist, scientist

Martin Gayford, English, Art critic

The Discourse (Fragments)

Ernst Gombrich“By shadow (ombra) is meant that which a body creates on itself, as for instance a sphere that has light on one part and gradually becomes half light and half dark, and that dark part is described as shadow (penumbra)Half-shadow (mezz’ombra) is called that area that is between light and the shadow through which the one passes to the other, as we have said, gradually diminishing little by little according to the roundness of the object. Cast shadow (sbattimento) is the shadow that is caused on the ground or elsewhere by the depicted object . . . .” – After Filippo Baldinucci, Vocabulario Toscana dell’Arte del Disegno, Florence 1681.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Where there is much light, the shadow is deep. A shadow is made when an object blocks light. The object must be opaque or translucent to make a shadow. A transparent object will not make any shadow, as light will pass straight through it.

Junichiro Tanizaki:  Why should this propensity to seek beauty in darkness be so strong only in Orientals? The West too has known a time when there was no electricity, gas, or petroleum, and yet so far as I know the West has never been disposed to delight in shadows. Japanese ghosts have traditionally had no feet; Western ghosts have feet, but are transparent. As even this trifle suggests, pitch darkness has always occupied our fantasies, while in the West even ghosts are as clear as glass. This is true too of our household implements: we prefer colors compounded of darkness, they prefer the colors of sunlight. And of silver and copperware: we love them for the burnish and patina, which they consider unclean, unsanitary, and polish to a glittering brilliance. They paint their ceilings and walls in pale colors to drive out as many of the shadows as they can. We fill our gardens with dense paintings, they spread out a flat expanse of grass.

Mr. F: The opening aria in Handel’s opera Serse (Xerxes), sung by the man character, Xerxes I of Persia, is about the shade of a plane tree.

Ombra mai fu (Never was a shade)

Tender and beautiful fronds
of my beloved plane tree,
let Fate smile upon you.
May thunder, lightning, and storms
never bother your dear peace,
nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.
A shade there never was,
of any plant,
dearer and more lovely,
or more sweet.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Young St. John the Baptist (The Burlington House cartoon)
(London, National Gallery of Art)

Leonardo (da Vinci): Shadow is the obstruction of light. Shadows appear to me to be of supreme importance in perspective, because, without them opaque and solid bodies will be ill defined; that which is contained within their outlines and their boundaries themselves will be ill-understood unless they are shown against a background of a different tone from themselves. And therefore in my first proposition concerning shadow I state that every opaque body is surrounded and its whole surface enveloped in shadow and light. . . . Besides this, shadows have in themselves various degrees of darkness, because they are caused by the absence of a variable amount of the luminous rays; and these I call Primary shadows because they are the first, and inseparable from the object to which they belong. . . . From these primary shadows there result certain shaded rays which are diffused through the atmosphere and these vary in character according to that of the primary shadows whence they are derived. I shall therefore call these shadows Derived shadows because they are produced by other shadows . . . Again these derived shadows, where they are intercepted by various objects, produce effects as various as the places where they are cast . . . And since all round the derived shadows, where the derived shadows are intercepted, there is always a space where the light falls and by reflected dispersion is thrown back towards its cause, it meets the original shadow and mingles with it and modifies it somewhat in its nature.

Martin Gayford: “According to ancient sources, the first artist ever to use this device (chiaroscuro: contrasting light and dark) was an Athenian named Apollodorus. It was he, according to the historian Plutarch, who ‘first invented the fading in and building up of shadow’. Apollodorus was called ‘Skiagraphos’ (‘Shadow Painter’). Before he began to model his figures, Pliny says, there was no painting ‘which holds the eye’.


Miss. T: Monsieur Proust “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”, the second volume of “In Search of Lost Time”, you define memory.

Marcel Proust: The greater part of our memory lies outside us, in a dampish breeze, in the musty air of a bedroom or the smell of autumn’s first fires, things through which we can retrieve … last vestige of the past, the best of it, the part which, after all our tears have dried, can make us weep again. Outside us? Inside us, more like, but stored away…. It is only because we have forgotten that we can now and then return to the person we once were, envisage things as that person did, be hurt again, because we are not ourselves anymore, but someone else, who once loved something that we no longer care about.

Mr. F: The woman without a shadow.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “Er wird zu Stein.”

Ms. B: If the Empress still does not cast a shadow within three days, the Emperor will be turned to stone. The following clip is from a stunning production with David Hockney’s stage designs.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “My earliest sketches for the libretto are based on a piece by Goethe, “The Conversation of German Emigrants” (1795). I have handled Goethe’s material freely, adding the idea of two couples, the emperor and empress who come from another realm, and the dyer and his wife who belong to the ordinary world.” (as quoted in wikipedia)

Giorgio de Chirico L’enigma di una giornata (II) ~ 1914 Museo d’arte contemporanea dell’Università di San Paolo

Ernst Gombrich: “Cubism reinstated the role of shadows both to guide and confuse the viewer. Later still the Surrealists exploited the effect of shadows to enhance the mood of mystery they sought, as in Chirico’s dreamlike visions of deserted city squares, where the harsh shadows cast by the statue and solitary figures add to the sense of disquiet.’

Martin Gayford: “Shadows can convey information, but also create illusions.”

Ryoji Ikeda, test pattern [no.5], 2013, audiovisual installation at Carriageworks. Commissioned and presented by Carriageworks and ISEA2013 in collaboration with Vivid Sydney. Image Zan Wimberley | © Carriageworks/WikiCommons
Junichiro Tanizaki:  And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows,heavy shadows against light shadows—it has nothing else. Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows. Out beyond the sitting room, which the rays of the sun can at best but barely reach, we extend the eaves or build on a veranda, putting the sunlight at still greater a remove. The light from the garden steals in but dimly through paper-paneled doors, and it is precisely this indirect light that makes for us the charm of a room. We do our walls in neutral colors so that the sad, fragile, dying rays can sink into absolute repose.

© Roy Zipstein

Junichiro Tanizaki: It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten. I would go further and say that it is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark. In the cuisine of any country efforts no doubt are made to have the food harmonize with the tableware and the walls; but with Japanese food, a brightly lighted room and shining tableware cut the appetite in half. The dark miso soup that we eat every morning is one dish from the dimly lit houses of the past. I was once invited to a tea ceremony where miso was served; and when I saw the muddy, claylike color, quiet in a black lacquer bowl beneath the faint light of a candle, this soup that I usually take without a second thought seemed somehow to acquire a real depth, and to become infinitely more appetizing as well. Much the same may be said of soy sauce. In the Kyoto-Osaka region a particularly thick variety of soy is served with raw fish, pickles, and greens; and how rich in shadows is the viscous sheen of the liquid, how beautifully it blends with the darkness.