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Commentary: Light plays an important role in art

The title of an exhibition of Tala Madani's work at the Contemporary Art Museum in St Louis (CAM) is "First Light.” Many of the paintings feature the presence of illumination, for example, from the beam of a car headlight or a flashlight; Madani's subjects interrogate both themselves and each other in search of larger truths. This notion of projection connects her work not only to cinema and its presentation of images through light, but also to art history and the tradition of chiaroscuro, or the contrast of light and dark.

Light has been the subject and involved in art and literature forever and of course innumerable songs deal with light such as, "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "You Light up my Life" and "Shine a Little Light on Me" and phrase after phrase talks of light--"She's beginning to see the light," "he can now see the light at the end of the tunnel," "let's shine a little light on the subject," "its lighting the way", and "he's beginning to see the light of day." There's even an art center on Cherokee called The Luminary.

An article on the internet titled, "Art and Culture" says in regards to light in art, "Paintings and murals in all cultures of the world show how artists have used light and shade and color to illustrate mood and create atmosphere. Modern technological possibilities allow artists to use light in new ways in entertainment and performance and large scale lighting installations can dramatically highlight the beauty of architecture."

The article talks of laser light shows and points out that stained glass is one of the oldest examples of light in art and dates back to the fourth century. Stained glass relies on natural light to illuminate its brilliance in great detail. It goes on to talk about light’s role in photography and cinematography and talks of light's role in theater and dance.

In live performances, effective lighting is so important that it typically warrants a working crew, commonly known as lighting technicians, and stage lighting in performance arts pieces not only allows the audience to see what's happening on stage, but can also be used to set the tone, direct focus or alter one's position in time and space.

Internationally known visual artists such as Dan Flavin, James Turrell and Bruce Nauman have used light as their medium in art since the 1960s and there are large light festivals and events all over the world. Our own “Lantern Festival: Magic Reimagined" held at the Missouri Botanical Garden last summer thrilled people of all ages.

Light art can be sculpture, site-specific light installations using the urban and natural environment, relief, suspended, ground based, temporary or permanent.

An article by Scott Neuffer titled, "Dark and Light Symbolism in Literature says, "Darkness and light have been used as symbols in world literature throughout human history. Darkness and light in the classical canon typically represent two opposing forces of nature, whether good or evil, knowledge or ignorance, love and hate or happiness and despair."

In his article he discusses the religious symbolism of light in both the book of Genesis and light as a symbol of love as in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" when Romeo first sees Juliet as the sun itself, as the ultimate source of life. "But soft, what light through yonder breaks?/ It is East and Juliet is the sun."

Light and dark themes continue in contemporary literature. David Grossman, award winning Israeli writer in his most recent work, "Falling out of Time" in reference to parents who have lost their children says, "want-I want to wake up, to wake out of it, to wake into the light, I want to dip, to bathe my everything in light.”  And Anthony Doerr's, "All the Light We Cannot See" was on everyone's reading list and still is.

So, visit one of our wonderful museums or libraries or attend a concert and your life will be enriched and illuminated by all of St Louis' wonderful cultural and light filled offerings.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for some thirty years on numerous arts related boards.

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