Chiaroscuro

November 21, 2018

"Asphalt Storage Tanks" by Eric Rennie

My SLR cameras have automatic controls that make it possible to operate them like point-and-shoot cameras so you can take pictures without fiddling with anything other than the shutter.  There are situations where this feature comes in handy, particularly when you have to shoot rapidly.  But if that is all you want to do, you are probably better off with a far less expensive point-and-shoot camera.  You will be able to take perfectly decent photos, albeit by sacrificing the rich tonal variations that can be captured with manual controls. 

Painters during the Renaissance perfected a technique called chiaroscuro, an Italian word derived from the Latin “clarus,” meaning clear or bright, and “obscurus,” meaning dark or obscure.  These artists could lend depth and drama to their work by bathing their subject is a strong single source of light that emphasized the contrast between light and shadow.  Leonardo da Vinci is usually credited with pioneering the technique in the 15th century, with Caravaggio and Rembrandt not far behind.   

Rembrandt frequently made use of chiaroscuro to lend psychological depth to his many self-portraits.  He produced more than 90 of them over his lifetime, including paintings, etchings and drawings – more reputedly than any other known artist.  I remember seeing a late self-portrait at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and being struck by its utter lack of affectation.  As a younger man Rembrandt had sometimes pictured himself in historical fancy dress.  There was none of that here, just a broken old man emerging from the shadows, a man old beyond his years.  

Rembrandt was never much to look at, and the years had not keen kind.   There was a lifetime written on this face, a life in which he had suffered the loss of a wife, a mistress and three of his four children.  He had been wealthy and successful in his prime but had lived beyond his means and then had fallen out of fashion. His house and possessions had been auctioned off to pay his debts.  He was even obliged to sell his dead wife’s grave in Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk.  Through it all Rembrandt kept painting, and the result was magnificent even in defeat – indeed, you can argue that defeat had elevated his art to a plane achieved by few other artists.

Near the end of his life Oscar Wilde recalled walking as an undergraduate around the gardens at Magdalene College in Oxford.  He told a friend he wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world.  And so he had, never imagining that he would be made to eat such bitter fruit along with the sweet. He wrote, “My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.”   His downfall began with an ill-advised libel suit against the Marquis of Queensbury, who had called Wilde a sodomite for consorting with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas.  The lawsuit was unsuccessful, and in short order Wilde was prosecuted and convicted for gross indecency, winding up imprisoned under harsh conditions in Reading Gaol.

Why did Wilde consider it a mistake to confine himself to the sunlit side of the garden?  Did he imagine he was tempting fate by shunning the darkness?  His use of the word “confined” is significant.  He came to recognize that far from being a negation of life, the shadows were what gave life its depth and emotional resonance.  As a young student at Oxford, Wilde might be forgiven for having been drawn exclusively to the light.  It served him well enough when he wrote his light-hearted comedies for London’s West End.  But without the heartbreak and disgrace of his last years, he could never have written De Profundis – arguably his most powerful and affecting work – in which he gave a full accounting of his downfall.        

A point-and-shoot camera will automatically adjust the exposure to fill in the shadows that might otherwise gather around a picture.  The result is images that are brighter and more colorful than what you actually see with the naked eye.  It’s kind of like those old Hollywood movies from the 1950s, which lent a cartoonish Technicolor glow to everything.  Artistic depictions of heaven suffer from the same deficiency.  They are painted in primary colors, with no half tones.  If they appear two-dimensional and uninspired, that is why.  The genius of chiaroscuro as an artistic technique is that it does not try to separate “clarus” from “obscurus.”  The two do not exist in isolation, but each sets off and accentuates the other.  As to whether the light is swallowed up by the dark or emerges from it, that all depends on how one chooses to see it.          

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