Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Quotable Tuesday: van Gogh's Artificial Light

As I write this article, three electric lights illuminate the space around me, but that doesn't leave me more impressed by them. It makes them fade into the background. Even as artificial lighting becomes something that we cannot live without -- to paint a picture, to take a nighttime stroll, to write an art review -- light itself becomes something we take for granted.

Van Gogh's pictures, with stars and moons and setting suns that shine as big and bright as lamps, but only as big and bright as lamps, record the moment when this happens. Light has stopped being a force. It has become one more datum in a modern life.

In today's Washington Post, Blake Gopnik writes about a new MOMA show that showcases van Gogh's nighttime scenes. Gopnik starts out cynical - another van Gogh show designed to part fools from their money in exchange for a Starry Night-themed mousepad? - but quickly admits that the show ultimately changed the way he looked at van Gogh's work. Instead of considering van Gogh in the tradition of Old Masters who use light to craftily illuminate their subjects, van Gogh is a new breed of artist, one for whom artificial light is something of a subject in itself (deliberate or not).

And how is this about food? Well, it's a stretch, but Gopnik mentions the democratizing effect of light in terms of gathering places (including cafes). Not long before van Gogh was painting, only the very rich and aristocratic had much opportunity to gather at night in well-lit spaces. Cheap gas light changed all that, and likely changed the social dynamic.

Sometimes it's helpful to be reminded that cell phones and email and the internet weren't the first game-changing innovations out there.

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