Watt’s Up!?

by David Scott

Light! The Industrial Age: 1750-1900
Art & Science, Technology & Society

An exhibition at the
Carnegie Museum of Art,
Pittsburgh, April 7-July 29, 2001

Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, October 20, 2000-February 11, 2001
Catalog of the exhibition
by Andreas Bluhm and Louise Lippincott
Thames and Hudson Press,
272 pp., $20

James Mallord William Turner “Sun Setting Over a Lake” (1840)

Into this season of rolling blackouts and energy crunches comes an enlightening reminder that electricity has only been something we could demand for about 100 years.

“Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900, Art & Science, Technology & Society,” on display until July 29 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, tells the story of how something we could never quite understand became something we can’t imagine living without.

As its mouthful of a title indicates, “Light!” is an ambitious effort to show how the scientific discovery of light changed everything — from politics, labor and the family to landscape and portrait painting, religion, astronomy and human self-understanding.

The curators have marshaled a convincing array of artifacts and organized their evidence well. There are: pinhole cameras and light-house lenses; the first photographs of the Moon; a bizarre, circa 1900 French science-fiction film; Tiffany lamps, kaleidoscopes, Masonic memorabilia and eye-doctors’ devices. Not to mention some great art — Signac with his thousand points of light; a ghostly Toulouse-Lautrec; the unbelievable brightness of Ford Madox Brown’s sheep; the crinklings, twinklings and twists of Van Gogh.

“Light!” takes us back to the dark ages, when you hired a lantern carrier if you wanted to go out on the town at night, when the oil lamp was the center of the living room, not the TV or the computer.

The story starts with the publication of Sir Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking “Opticks” in 1704, a rare manuscript of which is on display here.

Newton’s work — the first to theorize about the properties of light — assumed almost cult-like status. He was portrayed, often quite literally, as a deity, as can be seen in Giovanni Pittoni’s “Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton” (1730). A self-conscious knock-off of Raphael’s “School of Athens,” the huge canvas shows the great philosophers of the ages gathered at Newton’s tomb, which emits a divine beam of prismed light.

In the blink of an eye, we move from Newton to the telescope and the microscope, and with these inventions, to new ways of looking at ourselves and the world we live in. Outside the laboratory, inventors and entrepreneurs of the time were busy trying to find ways to harness oil and gas, and later electricity, as sources of artificial lighting.

Within less than a hundred years, the world was burning the midnight oil. Night had been turned into day.

Factory owners, eyes fixed on brighter bottom lines, invented the night shift. Shopkeepers saw the light and illuminated storefront displays to lure window-shoppers. Cities never slept again. Ladies of the night loitered under street lamps, and night time became the right time for all manner of dark deeds that never should have seen the light of day.

It was “The Age of Enlightenment” and light — as the symbol of reason, liberty and progress — became a favorite slogan in the rhetorical arsenal of poets, reformers and revolutionaries.

As they filled the streets with the blood of priests, nuns and aristocrats, the French revolutionaries of 1789 were anxious to cast their efforts in the best light possible. Their rationale is given a tidy summation in the title of a little tract on display here: “In the midst of the Purest Light, you, obstinate clergy, remain in darkness.”

Not that the revolution was all that consistent in its reverence for light. It dispatched the great chemist and pioneer of lighting techniques, Antoine Lavoisier, to the guillotine. And street lamps, hated as symbols of the aristocracy, for a time were turned into gallows poles.

British libertarians were eminently more reserved and practical. “Decision by majorities is as much expedient as lighting by gas,” Prime Minister William Gladstone declared in 1858. In the former colonies, the Americans were working out a way to electrify the torch held by Lady Liberty.

New media were also being invented. Shadow-plays like “The Devil and St. Anthony” (1887), an eerie and frightening grotesquerie, gave way to photography and “moving pictures.”

A perfectly understated and unexpected gem at the Carnegie exhibit is Thomas Alva Edison’s short silent film from 1902, “Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show.”

Poor old Uncle Josh is a rube who can’t figure out that what he’s watching on the screen isn’t real. He tries to dance with a long-legged woman who kicks up her skirt. He jumps out of the way in panic as a freight train comes rumbling right at him. Finally, he pulls down the screen in frustration.

Seen a century later — in an era of “reality TV,” web-cams and computer simulation — “Uncle Josh” seems like a prophesy that moving pictures will lead to virtual reality, when what’s real and what’s not depends on your point of view.

The coming of the light changed old media, too. Painters, especially, grappled with how to reflect the new discoveries about light and the new possibilities of artificial lighting in their work.

With its thoughtful selections and careful juxtapositions, “Light!” helps us see even familiar paintings in a whole new light.

We notice for the first time, perhaps, how the kerosene lamp in Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” (1885) gives the room an eerie, subterranean feel, turning faces and hands into tubers and tendrils, as if the family members are becoming what they eat.

And it’s the oil-lamp in Degas’ “Interior” (1868) that tells us that something really bad is about to happen between the glowering man in the shadows and the sad woman whose cheek and shoulder are exposed to the light.

James Mallord William Turner’s “Sun Setting Over a Lake” (1840) becomes perhaps the most religiously moving picture in the exhibit, as lake and sky get lost in a smudge of primordial reds and yellows.

Where “Light!” is brilliant and sophisticated in its treatment of painting and the science of discovery, it is surprisingly simplistic and misleading about the role of the churches during this period.

The references to organized religion in the exhibit are scant. But generally they repeat the tired and long-debunked view that the churches were embattled bystanders, crouched in a duck-and-run pose as each new scientific discovery exploded another of their ancient beliefs.

You would never know from “Light!” that during this period — indeed, from the Middle Ages on — the Catholic Church was the single most important institutional patron of astronomical research in all of Europe.

It’s a long and complicated story, but essentially, the great cathedrals of Europe were outfitted with cutting-edge devices for tracking the movements of the sun, in order to help Church leaders determine the annual date for Easter.

Readers who want to know more about this will have to turn to the fine 1999 book by J.L. Heilborn, “The Sun in the Church” (Harvard, $13), a work that curiously doesn’t show up in the seemingly exhaustive bibliography of the exhibit catalog.

The exhibit ignores, too, how much the Enlightenment pundits plundered their Christian heritage in coming up with their fantasies and prophecies about artificial lighting. Indeed, one is struck by how much their excited chatter about the new technology amounts to a secular inversion of ancient beliefs that Christ is “the light of the world,” that the Church is the “children of the light,” and the fulfillment of the prophets’ promise that a world “in darkness would behold a great light.”

Despite these dim spots, “Light!” documents how the confusions of the era led to the creation of some beautiful and evocative religious art.

Claude Monet’s studies of the Rouen Cathedral, with their ethereal blues, are given a new perspective here — glorious and revelatory, the church emerging or disappearing in the middle of the air.

“Golgotha,” a 1868 painting by Jean-León Gérôme, is chilling — the site of the crucifixion as moonscape. In the distance you see the Jerusalem skyline, as the executioners move on foot and by horseback in a slow procession back to town. From the edge of the frame, the shadows of Christ and the two thieves are thrown forward. A symbol of a religion in eclipse, a Savior out of the picture? Or, is it a reminder that the darkest hour of the world’s night came just before the rising dawn of a new age?

Simon-Mathurin Lantara’s “The Spirit of God Moved Upon the Face of the Waters” (1751), hovers somewhere between abstraction and romanticism, all misty pre-radiant glow. The traditional triangular image of the Trinity is in the center of the picture, the name Yahweh writ within in Hebrew.

It captures that first dawn, the instant before God said, “Let there be light.” In the context of this fine exhibit, it seems like a last moment of calm and surety before an age of storm.

First published in Our Sunday Visitor (June 10, 2001)
© David Scott, 2003. All rights reserved.