Tracing History of the Light Art Discipline

Light is an essential substance of the universe. It is ubiquitous, ephemeral, and mysterious. As such it is a powerful tool to evoke sensations, tell stories, and convey emotions – create art. Creative potential of light has been known to human beings since the beginning of art history. Nevertheless, art that relays on use of light only started gaining attention with the first mention of the term “light art” that was coined in recent 1930 with creation of kinetic light art work, Light-Space-Modulator, by László Moholy-Nagy.

The Chauvet Cave Painting ca. 30 000 b.c.

The Chauvet Cave Painting ca. 30 000 b.c.

Light art as a movement led by the artist Moholy-Nagy occurs in the first half of the 20th century, but, was there no art relying on the use of light before that time? If we were to consider light art not only as an art movement but as an art discipline that significantly uses light as a creative medium, we can classify cave paintings, dating back to 40,000 years ago, as the first light art pieces. These are typically paintings showing numerous variations of the same subject (e.g. a horse) that was not meant to be viewed as a static image, but under a flickering fire that turns it into a moving image.  Unsteady shine and rapid changes in the brightness of fire held in a moving hand is what provides sensation of a painted subject moving.

Archaeologist Marc Azéma and artist Florent Rivère looked at the Chavuet cave paintings and found the earliest origins of animation. They concluded, “Ancient artists created illusions of moving animals on rotating bone disks. Stone Age artists intended to give life to their images. The majority of cave drawings show animals in action. Stone Age artists meant to depict animal movement in such scenes.”

This kind of consideration of light and its perceptual potential places the Chavuet cave paintings under the art disciplines of painting, installation art, site-specific art and light art. Jumping to the 15th century we find Leonardo da Vinci studying light both as an artist and a scientist. He intended to understand the natural forces and therefore he explored mathematics, physics, optics, botany, zoology, mechanics, hydraulics, astronomy, philosophy and other disciplines that explained anatomy of the human eye, nature of light, and mechanics of the camera obscura.

Reflection of light in a spherical mirror and paths of light rays in parabolic mirror. Credits: Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1510-1515

Reflection of light in a spherical mirror and paths of light rays in parabolic mirror. Credits: Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1510-1515

Da Vinci’s holistic creative research provided him with profound understanding of how light behaves, how it interacts with various materials, and how it affects a human eye. This led him to the invention of optical instruments and to obtain expertise in complex human perception. He applied his scientific inquiry of light into artistic innovation, which is evident when his paintings are analyzed. For instance, his painting The Last Super is know for groundbreaking treatment of light and perspective in two-dimensional art. Da Vinci is also distinguished as a predecessor of chiaroscuro techniques that applies prominent contrast of light and shade in a painting, drawing or print, and the skill to create the illusion of three-dimensional forms.

The Last Supper. Credits: Leonardo da Vinci, 1494–1498

The Last Supper. Credits: Leonardo da Vinci, 1494–1498

The chiaroscuro technique that has been further developed by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, and finally perfected by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn has also been applied in other art disciplines including photography, cinema and theatre. In Ingmar Bergman’s movie Winter Light, the cinematographer Sven Nykvist deliberately contrasted light and darkness into a dramatic image that adds to a sensation of  meaningless existence that the movie is addressing.

Winter Light by Ingmar Bergman. Credits: Sven Nykvist, 1962

Winter Light by Ingmar Bergman. Credits: Sven Nykvist, 1962

In the realm of installation art Olafur Eliasson applied similar techniques of crafting the balance between light and dark. For his installation titled ‘Beauty’ he shined a prism, producing a full spectrum light, into a completely dark room full of mist that created a fleeting artificial rainbow, an ephemeral piece that alters viewers perception based on their viewing angle and the mist’s state.

Beauty. Credits: Olafur Eliasson, 1993

Beauty. Credits: Olafur Eliasson, 1993

Light is a complex medium that behaves differently depending on space and time. It is treated differently in painting, cinema, installation art, and other disciplines. It is in this difference that we can find holistic knowledge about light that can then inform about the manipulation of light within each discipline.

As an artist working with light as a tool to transform the poetic experiences of spaces, I find essential to understand light as a material as well as the examples of creative uses of light in history across different art disciplines and further. At the core of researching light art as a discipline is the development of new knowledge on the critical role of light in history of art as well as its enormous cross-disciplinary significance.


maja_petric_profileMaja Petrić is an artist working at interface of science, technology and art. She holds the Doctorate in Digital Art and Experimental Media (DXARTS) from University of Washington. Maja grew up in Croatia during the violent fragmentation of Yugoslavia. It is then that she became preoccupied with using art to transform the traumatized sense of her surroundings. Her work is about transforming poetic experience of space through light. Most recently, her artwork has been nominated for 2015 INTERNATIONAL LIGHT ART AWARD by the Centre for International Light Art. Currently she is preparing a book on light art history. Part of her research can be found online, each day she publishes historically relevant light via social networks – Light Art A Day.

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