Let there be Light!

Although it is designed for the general public, the exhibit simply called Light! at the Carnegie Museum of Art has plenty of interest to lighting professionals. Blending art and artifacts in equal numbers, Light! remains on exhibit through July 29 at the Pittsburgh museum. Even the special exhibition space it occupies straddles the art museum and the science museum.

The complete title is Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900, Art & Science, Technology & Society. The organization of the show is not chronological--the thematic arrangement of exhibits makes for an intriguing show.

The first of five exhibit areas is called "Focus, Refraction, Reflection" and the first display recreates Newton's prism experiment. As guests remember their physics class where they learned that white light is composed of the entire spectrum, they move forward to other principles of light. A large fresnel lens shows how lighthouses used the prism principle in a practical way.

Microscopes and telescopes sit side by side and guests can view a statue through a spherical mirror to experiment with the qualities of light as scientists did two centuries earlier. There's lots of signage to read in Light! but guests can come to certain conclusions themselves--such as how the history of light parallels the history of glass.

A second exhibit area is called "Light and Shade" which looks at natural light. Appropriately, the first part of this section is illuminated with natural light through diffuse skylights and the exhibit takes visitors from dawn to twilight. Many of the exhibit's important impressionist paintings are here including two of Monet's morning views of Rouen Cathedral. As we move into twilight, however, we see some of the exhibit's more unusual items. Transparencies of various types used light to creation motion. These exhibit the early examples of light used for entertainment.

Lithophanes, in which images were pressed into porcelain and then backlit with candles, were popular with the middle class in the first half of the 19th century. Often, imitations of the great masters were reproduced and given movement from the flickering candles. Earlier, Swiss artist and stage designer Franz Kiklaus Konig painted some watercolors 2'x3', backlit them, and exhibited them in his apartment and later on tour. One is on display in Light! Still earlier, smaller pieces of glass painted with opaque media were seen through viewers. One depicts the burning of the Amsterdam Theater in 1772. Fire and moonlight were common motifs in all of these.

The third area of Light! deals with who makes light. This includes God, power brokers such as the Pope and the military, and in the industrial age, factories such as ironworks. A fourth exhibit cluster details personal light and shows how homes and home life evolved as lighting fuel changed from candles to oil to gas to electricity.

The final area of Light! deals with public light. Central to this exhibit area is material relating to the Pan American Exhibition of 1901 in Buffalo and the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1899. Electric lights were replacing gaslight and limelight, and nighttime entertainment for the masses was possible. Light! explores the impact this had on society, when people could widely circulate at night as well as by day.

Without going too much into color theory, the exhibit shows the effects of light on a painter who may work in one light, such as daylight, and then is exhibited under gas light, electric light, or even candles. Using different lights to simulate gaslight, daylight, and incandescent electric light, van Gogh's "Gauguin's Chair" is set in a deep shadowbox and visitors see the entire nature of the painting change under different light which gives a new emotional vocabulary to the work. Van Gogh worked with backlight as well in a study of a bat giving an ethereal life to its translucent wings.

Other pieces of special interest to lighting professionals include an 18th-century portable theater with layers of oil on glass. It features indoor pyro long before its current vogue. There's Degas' "Interior" which, in contrast to his bright ballet pieces, features a naturalistic setting in which brooding marital stress dominates the work with strong use of shadows. Several pieces illustrate European shadow theater, and paintings document the dazzling Paris Hippodrome whose glass roof was not needed after being retrofitted for electric light in the 1880s with Jablochkoff candles (a form of arc light), as well as Edison bulbs and spotlights.

Engravings show how the "Pepper's Ghost" illusion worked, and visitors will want to open locked display cases to peruse the early books on lighting theory. Light! traces the history of photography a bit as well. A small theater shows a short Edison film in which a stagehand interacts with the film within the film.

Developed jointly by Amsterdam's van Gogh Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Light! is an example of the movement toward integrated exhibits that give context to art by relating it to other fields. The catalogue for the exhibit belongs in every lighting professional's library.

Photos courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art.