All of you who are here, thank you for coming, I am so glad and proud to have you gathered around. You being here means a lot to me, but it mainly means that you call out for some clarification about an artistic issue. I guess that you expect me to make it at least relevant, for lack of fully answering the question.
Maybe because you assume, rightly or wrongly, that you do not have the same insight than an artist, and that, so it seems, he has a tangible knowledge stemming from the backgrounds of his work of creation which he is supposed to be mastering.
Well here I am, faced with your expectation. How do I do to meet this challenge?
And as you can easily imagine, this very question makes me feel quite nervous.
The reason is simple, and so as to temper a little bit your expectations, may I kindly remind you that I am no theorist, and even less a speaker. That being said, please let me thank you for understanding my anxiety and accepting my limits.
Because first and foremost, I am a painter; though sometimes, I like writing as well. As I do consider that both thinking and writing lead us at questioning the process of creation in its deep nub, questioning it till looking at the bigger picture, then raising it up to our mind so as to make it “sayable”.
But you also may run the risk of giving in to the stultifying temptation of intention; this intention which is stated according to a predetermined logic and to the detriment of a rash and creative impetus, which primal nature is to defy and foil any preconceived idea.
Wherefrom the obvious weakness of this kind of writing and speaking, even if it is right and proper, when it comes to the reality of the artistic work.
Of course I shall rely on your caring support and your kindness to better grasp my doubts and cover up my missteps.
But I am totally confident in the fact that, whether be its nature or extent, the process of creation often sounds like a dream, like a fantasy, that is to say a personal matter.
For sure the process of creation is a private matter. I can claim it straightaway I can state it loud and clear. I can even go further because I really think that insomuch as the artist is truly aware of this fact, it could greatly help him at making the most effective power of his hesitations, doubts and weaknesses.
For the reason that inasmuch as he is deeply willing to stay a honest-to-goodness man through his deeds and words, he can nothing but let the others being the same way; given that truth can’t be truly trueif not fully mutual and two-way shared.
That being said and excluding any uncertainty, will you please allow me inviting you at leaving aside all of your preconceptions so we can tackle together the question of shadow in painting. This concept is so much important to me that I felt the need to name it, wherefrom “STATE OF SHADOW”, a choice redolent of its designation.
Begging the question of shadow in painting does mean dealing with an issue that branches out in so many questions. Indeed, this issue pertains to the hard-to-grasp things, the secret and scaring ones, but it can totally open on a symbolic reality made of positive and constructive values.
It concerns first and foremost our capacity of visual perception, as we grasp and understand what we see around us mainly through our eyes, not only the inner reality of what we look at, but also all of the emotional reality.
That being so, when it comes to deal with a topic as tricky as this one, you got to get used to deal with confusion and trouble, as it cannot be all clear to lend itself to a proven and flawless approach.
In this case, the question is about a cryptic reality, full of meaning and giving way to any possible interpretation, a reality which determines the basis of our insight, and which contributes at structuring our thoughts by opening them on the infinite, and yet indefinite, horizons of the imaginary world.
So we do have here an endless field of investigation which involves multiple skills and great expertise, a field that has forever been fascinating and questioning the Man’s mind and conscience.
I am totally aware of the intricacy of this issue, of its relations to what keeps shaking my thoughts and driving my artistic approach. I just keep on groping my way along in the dark mazes of shadow where so much passions and so many presumptions are sprouting while awaiting some light.
Although cautious and still gun-shy, I try to tackle my questioning head-on, to transpose it where I am the most comfortable and quite at ease, that is to say my background experience.
When we look at an artwork, we usually do not wonder about the process of its creation. We take it as a foregone conclusion, as an end result that totally blots out the starting point and the many steps of its creation. And we don’t even mind to wonder how this piece of art came here, from where it came or why it is the way it is. The only thing we see is the artwork coming out as if by magic and nothing but the artwork. This is what the general public will remind, nothing more.
But then again, if we try to redo in our head the same process than the one which led to the completion of the artwork as it is, we would seize much better the difficult position of the artist in the heat of the moment, and we would truly understand that the final result, which is in plain view for everyone, is actually nothing but a remote possibility among millions of others, and that it could have been totally otherwise.
In a few words, what would be the meaning of any answer if not triggered by a prior question? What would be the pertinence of a solution that disregards the problem it has been solving? And what is worth a destination if the journey is not full of twists and turns? Let’s think about that!
From a symbolic viewpoint, a pure full light is of absolute value. Shedding its own light on itself, it casts only on what the eye cannot or must not see. It seems that it pertains much more to the spiritual, the timeless world rather than to that of the tangible reality. Whereas physically, looking at such a direct light with no shield can be quite harmful to the eye. Besides being painful, direct full light burns down the sight system and leads at ending sadly in looking though seeing nothing. But thanks to the shadow provided and directed by the light, the sight sense is protected and can keep its sharpness of vision which is a lifesaving necessity.
For the best as for the worst, the Man has since ever been living and dealing with the unsettled and unsteady reality of shadow. And because it is full of mystery and as it fuels our souls’ turmoil, shadow keeps on creating the just perfect breeding ground for our dreams and our fantasy.
The concept of shadow has been studied, investigated and analyzed from every possible angle. For some, shadow goes together with darkness and is filled with evil connotations. For others, shadow is source of peace, calm and abandonment, the ideal conditions for meditation and contemplation. Its spiritual, symbolic and aesthetic side has always been a determining factor as for the specific features of any culture. Sometimes fascinating, sometimes disturbing, shadow is always around. It did strongly imprint the human minds and feelings, all the while ceaselessly representing a basic principle of creation and inspiration for the visual arts.
In the everyday life of Men, being tailed by shadow and tailing it everywhere comes down to acknowledge its permanence in their existence; it means exposing the hidden side of their being and thus being able to uncover the deepest stirs of their souls. And as a matter of fact, visual and spatial arts are the best way to make the shadow effects strongly marked and with a quite important part, though always shrouded in mystery.
Any artistic activity producing an artwork which purpose is to catch the eye, to give it a special kind of sight that connects the senses and involves the mind, this work will be neither productive nor truly creative if not perfectly mastering the changing effects of shadow. This rule applies since the dawn of times, since the very first graffiti skillfully drawn on the walls of dark caves during those dark and early prehistoric times. One way or another, this age-long art since ever fascinating the humankind, doesn’t it always bring back somehow to a hazy and repressed expression for a special state of shadow?
For instance, if for an architect the art of construction consists in bordering an area to structure an empty space in an efficient manner and in proportion, his creative logic and his talent shall be put to the test while dealing with the thorny distribution of the shadow effects.
As for the sculptor, who would he be if not his amazing skills and ability for taming the shifting and capricious effects of shadow? These unpretentious effects are those who really mold the shapes, define the contours, draw the details, and fix the whole by giving an expression and a meaning to a raw and shapeless material.
Then again, what if we think about the role of shadow on stages whether be for theaters or show business? Insofar as the shadow is properly distributed, isn’t it a key factor when it comes to the originality of what is given to see?
And whatever be the reason, as soon as it comes to take a given space away from the laws of reality, those laws ruling all commonplaces, then this space is often tainted shadow. Places of worship or dens of iniquity, close or isolated places whether private or public, all of these places, delimited and opposed to the commonplaces of the so-called reality, withdraw into themselves to create a quite particular atmosphere.
These pieces of spaces belonging to the inside, in their opposition to those of the outside, from where would they draw their singularity, if not from the infinite number of combinations between half-light and semi-darkness.
Another field of depiction:
Talking about the importance of shadow in photographic and cinematographic art means entering into a field where the part of shadow and its effects are measured up by the specificity of this special technique used for image production. Speaking of which, do we really need to underline the importance of the lighting levels and the efficiency of their effects; these effects which turn the shadow into a prolific crucible for this kind of art using high-tech methods so as to set up and structure the best balance between the parts that are clearing and those that are darkening.
As for the ‘Black and White’ effect and once it reaches the top art level, where to seize its deep nature and its mystery if not from the inner features of its shadowed areas?
Let’s talk about painting now, which even so is supposed to be the pivotal point of my reasoning. What would be its main reason to be if not dealing with strokes of shades?
Not that I want to retrace the story of shadow in painting, this is neither my intention nor my scope of competence, but I can totally follow up on the legend that situated the origin of art painting in the West, as from this very day a Greek young lady drew the contours of her truelove’s shadow thrown on a wall before he left, so as to capture forever his outline and thusly defy the absence of her beloved missing one.
Long before the Greeks, so it seems that the Egyptians would have been the first people to try painting by using shadow effects. In those ancient times, it was considered as being the soul itself, before being considered later as its mirror image. The outlines did not directly draw the models’ body, but were rather made of shadow effects which, through their fixity, were giving meaning to absence so as to ward off death. In its very principle, wasn’t it mainly mournful, this art of those early ages?
The weird thing about the style that has always been typical of the Egyptian art is the strange rule determining the characters’ depiction. Indeed, the faces and feet are always represented in profile whereas the shoulders are always in front view.
An educated guess would be that this persisting representation of profiles, so precise and subtle, would be based on a prior work of tracing over a human side-on shadow.
Among the entire Egyptian painting legacy, as prolific as it can be, the one and only exception that proves the rule is that of two female musicians represented full face.
Who can claim not being fascinated by the baffling force of the stunning works produced by the great classical masters of chiaroscuro? Who has never been captivated by the surprising boldness of Caravaggio’s work or the impressive features of Rembrandt’s one?
This breathtaking art is certainly a resounding praise and a solemn celebration of the shadow and its mysteries. It was, it is and it always will be a major reference in the history of art, besides remaining at the top of the world artistic production.
Moving on to romanticism too, how can we blot out the part of shadow and the attraction force of the mysteries that surround it? This new insight stemming from an innovative approach did renew the styles of expression and thought by rejecting the former guiding rules inherited from an exacting academicism. All you have to do is to remind the dramatic artwork of Goya, the poetic and delicate one of Corot, or the mesmerizing wash drawings of Victor Hugo, to admit that you have to be questioning the mysteries of shadow so as to fully open the imaginary world on a prolific and creative mindset, so that painting art could break free from the strangleholds of a pedantic and restrictive mannerism.
As for Eugene Delacroix, true to himself and to his romantic ardor, he did deeply upset the concept of shadow by subjecting it to the law of the matching contrasts. And this caused a breach in the opacity of the dark, so that the color can step into for dropping off its sparkle through the dark. This was the coming of Impressionism.
Insomuch as the chiaroscuro was one of the main techniques used in the art of painting for a long time, one of the main changes brought by the Impressionist revolution was for sure the brightening up of the painters’ color palette, going so far as to totally exclude the black color from the chromatic range.
Thusly, by experiencing different kinds of shadow effects and by distorting the forms, this new outlook started to cloud the logic which was prevailing throughout the long history of art. Every single thing giving consistency and structuring the space was distorted in order to highlight and make shine the changing effects of the light waves. This was the force driving the originality of this new movement, but this was its weakness at the same time.
Though innovative and bold, this kind of art triggered strong reactions which opened up new possibilities for the art of painting. But some great talents did not follow the trend, to quote only Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin or Van Gogh. They countered the new movement by highlighting the magnificence of the dark shadowed strokes, thus returning to the drawing all the strength which first made all its power. That was the case for the Expressionists and other followers, including the Cubists who for sure were among the most fervent and stubborn activators.
The consequences of the innovations introduced by the Cubism did open unexpected ways and were going to lead at the developing of a previously unseen and resolutely modern art.
Often in unusual forms, the thorny question of shadow obsessed the mind of successive generations as of the early stage of surrealism till informal art. Many gifted personalities, including Malevich, Giacometti, Kline, Motherwell, Hartung, Soulages, Serra, followed more recently by Longo, Wool and Yan Pei-Ming, all these artists and a lot of their peers, totally fascinated by the dark color and its so many variations, didn’t they force the shadow painting to the extremes? Didn’t they make of the black the ultimate color? The “beyond the black”, so they say, for that the blackness rises differently to the eye looking at the artwork? An exaltation of the power of darkness and a clear radiance of its great secrecy…
Going beyond the beaten paths, some strange approaches drove the shadow concept till the extremes to give it credit and a brand-new sense, to quote only that of the pioneer and resolute Marcel Duchamp, or later after those of Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys.
The thorny issue of shadow in painting cannot be limited to the only turmoil that prevailed in the West, and which effect and extent are acknowledged worldwide.
What to say for instance about the pictorial art of the Far East? Is there better artistic tool than the magical effects of the black ink to give shadow its marvelous plastic quality that lifts the mind up and sharpens the senses? The well-chosen name of Indian ink, masterfully spreading over these backgrounds of paper whose felt-like flatness makes the empty spaces finely vibrate.
With a lot of verve, the Japanese writer Junichirô Tanizaki developed his insightful reasoning as for his own idea of beauty in his famous book, “In Praise of Shadows”. Using simple and sharp words, he describes the shadow as being a key element of the Far Eastern culture. He wrote: “We, Easterner people [ … ], therefore, we have no negative feelings at all for darkness, we do accept what we can’t fight. If light is dull, then so be it! And even odder, we sink with delight into the darkness and we do uncover this peculiar beauty proper to its nature.” Later below, he commented: “I think that beauty is no essence in and of itself, but rather a certain art of drawing shadows, a game played between light and darkness as the result of juxtaposing diverse substances. Just like a glow-in-the-dark stone shining through the night but losing its precious-stone splendor at daylight, beauty would have no reason for being if not thanks to shadow effects”.
So, this is where things stand concerning the thorny question of shadow. Far be it from me to have answered it, my words can nothing but widen it more and more because of the domino-effect reasoning. But posing this question means being seeking for a certain light, the other light. It means answering an ideal calling us out to lead us upwards towards a perfect and wholesome condition. Because doesn’t our life give us the deep feeling of mingling totally in a numinous merger with the transcendent condition of light and shadow through its intrinsic relation with the universe?
And to wrap it up, all of these last-generation innovations of today, using electric power and laser tools to lighten ranges of vision either fussily delimited or widely floodlit, don’t they unexpectedly show a new reality?… another reality that would lead us at changing our perception of time and space, by turning our landmarks upside down and by setting up another state of being where shadow might forget its true meaning.
And now I shall conclude by telling you the answer of a dear friend of mine who, while we were talking of my questionings about shadow, told me the story of a playlet of which I remind the only title: The Man who Lost his Shadow.
So… watch out not to lose your shadow.
(Rabat, May 21st, 2016)