Part 4: Option 4: Project 3: Mystery: Reading: Stoichita, VI 1997, Short History of the Shadow


(1) Read… Stoichita, VI 1997, Short History of the Shadow, Reaktion Books, London.

(2) Record your thoughts using notes or drawings.

Description: Stoichita’s compelling account untangles the history of one of the most enduring challenges to beset Western art – the depiction and meanings of shadows. “discriminating, inspired interrogation … dazzling analysis”–Marina Warner, Tate Magazine “Ambitious and a pleasure to read … a thoroughly worthwhile book.”–Times Higher Education Supplement

Stoichita, V. I. (1997) Short History of the Shadow. London, UNITED KINGDOM: Reaktion Books, Limited.

Before starting this I’m thrown back to considering the book I’m reading at the moment, Foster, H. et al. (2011) Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. (s.l.): Thames & Hudson. I’m now up to 1955 and it is glaringly obvious that what is considered art at any one time is fluid, a cultural/technological product rooted in the local and international contexts of its day. Also, what is discussed as ‘art’ is only ever, perhaps, the top 5% of artists. The famous artists who spearhead the commercial and academic art world are as rare to the totality of workers in art as Hollywood film stars are to the millions who who work in TV and film industries the world over.

I don’t know what was going on in the art world in 1997; anything about the background and views of the writer; or when the reviews were written. One of the reviews is from the Tate Magazine, a specialist publication writing for a specialist market… and the Times Educational Supplement writes for an educated clientele. But, rather than see this book as a literary artefact I’m going to take it on my terms and see what resonates for me; irrelevant of its cultural context or who chose it for this exercise and with what agenda.

About this book: references the shadow’s importance to painting, cinema and the arts. Says that the shadow is the presence which is an absence… which means that you can see the shadow (a presence) but it is hiding what is inside it (an absence).

I think that today shadow is mainly used as a visual narrative tool, in commercial art, cinema and TV, to build suspense.

From my art reading I also think of shadow as an indexical mark, like a car tyre mark when it’s been driven down a sheet of paper; the exact opposite of the authorial mark exemplified by the Abstract Expressionists and any artist with a personal voice.

About the author Victor I. Stoichita was educated in Bucharest, Romania, and later gained both a PhD from the University of Rome and a Doctorat d’Etat from the Sorbonne in Paris. He is currently Professor of History of Art at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. His publications include Visionary Experience in the Golden Age of Spanish Art (Reaktion, 1995) and The Self-Aware Image (1997).

I take from this that Stoichita is a recognised European academic and that his ideas (at least in 1997) were considered to have academic weight.

There is an introduction and 7 essays. As I haven’t time to read the whole book, I will read the introduction and up to 4 essays. The instructions say there are some ‘nice moments and quotations that might inspire you’, however I can’t capture those moments without reading the text. I might pick some quotes up from a quick scan, but even a quick scan of the whole book would take longer than the time allocated. All the book is about the shadow, and potentially relevant, so I’m not scanning to find which chapters to read but to find content.

Introduction: This focuses on how Pliny uses shadow to construct the myth of art, and Plato the myth of knowledge. How ‘seeing’ light and dark are equal, absolute light and absolute dark are both blinding. Sight and knowledge both come from light defined by dark, or dark defined by light.

However, I have a problem with this book as because it is focussing on the shadow in the context of representation art, which is only part of the history of Western Art. Representational art is mostly pre photography. Also the book favours an anthropological standpoint and there are many other ways of looking at art.

Studying the shadow with regards to representationalist art and its anthropological significance has limited relevance to my abstract practice. However, I always learn and deepen my painting by looking at new ideas so I am going to read at least a couple of chapters.

I have am going to read [1] Shadow Stage and [7] In the Shadow of the Eternal Shadow.

1 The Shadow Stage

This is written in fairly plain English, but is still too dense to offer up much sense/value as a skim read.

He is reading between the lines and supposing to such an extent (he points this out himself) in his interpretation of Pliny’s and Plato’s texts that his essay reads like an opinion. It has more of the feeling of a cleric’s ‘true’ interpretation of the Bible rather than an academic text.

However, he raises some interesting points about what he supposes to be the early use of shadow. He sees shadow, or drawing around the shadow, as a magical spell capturing an essence of the the original, and being a thing in its own right. The evolution of shadow paintings into mimetic painting is dealt with at length through historic texts.

Where shadow painting was seen as a ‘thing’ mimetic painting was seen as ‘no thing’. So, a shadow painting stood for the person or their soul and was a thing, but a mimetic painting was not the real thing, it was ‘no thing’.

This leads me to think about modern art and my practice. My practice mis not about mimesis, it is not mirror based, or representational. Therefore, when I make an abstract painting I make a ‘thing’, ontologically speaking this is fundamentally different from making something which is a simulacrum, a ‘no thing’ or copy, as in representational painting.

My paintings in Plato’s terms are the ‘thing’ itself. Plato talked about a chair or a table being the ‘thing’ (one down in hierarchy from the ideal mental construct of the ‘thing’), and the painting of the chair not being the ‘thing’ but one step further away from the truth. In short, a painting was a copy or a lie. In these terms modern art has made the transition from producing a ‘no thing’ (a copy of a thing) to being a ‘thing’.

Other thoughts are that paintings of recognisable places or people have a psychological affinity with the early understanding/power of shadow paintings in almost being a thing in their own right by keeping alive something of the original. In triggering fresh memories of past places or events I suppose they are, in one sense at least, ‘magical’.

Of course this begs the question of what ‘thing’ this new art is. Is it the authorial presence of the creator? Is it an embodiment aesthetic beauty? Is it shaped material as an essence of humanity? Is it the indexical record of a random event, and if so in what way is that ‘record of an event’ art?

My feeling is that the ‘thing’ of painting is culturally determined. On one hand the ‘thing’ (that is art) could be anything. This is surely the underlying principle of Duchamp’s urinal or any found object being contextualised (by being signed, framed, or put in a gallery) as art. On the other hand, what is valued as high art (at any one time) is culturally determined by the gatekeepers; the critics, museums and universities and the commercial market.

7) In the Eternal Shadow Return

A major problem with this digitised book is that it has illustrations on almost every other page and no permission to use them, so you just get a blanked out page. The text describes the image in great detail but it is no substitute for the image itself, so you have to find all the images on the internet.

Also, the detailed description of the images is gratuitous for it is mostly not about drawing conclusions and backing up arguments, but an actual description, and if the images were present you wouldn’t need the description.

So, this is a very bad digitisation because we have a heavily illustrated book, reliant on the illustrations for meaning, with almost no illustrations.

However, worse still is the text itself. The text is heavily psychoanalytic and ascribes meaning to paintings, painters, and their actions without any evidence. It is the pure unchallenged, unsupported opinion. The writer doesn’t refer to any academic evidence (historic or contemporary) that agrees or disagrees with his opinion, and cherry picks his paintings and textual references to support his argument.

In short, he is ‘telling us’ the motives and significance of painters, what is in their heads and the true meaning of their work, without any evidence to back it up.

Stoichita uses Warhol’s Shadow paintings to support his opinion of the meaning of shadows in art. He talks about a smaller exhibition than the one below (with 66 rather than 102 paintings) but they are the same silk screen prints in both shows, based on a single photograph of some shadows in his studio. As with his prints of Marilyn Monroe the series is composed of different combinations of colours using a single photographic negative.

Installation view of Shadows, September 20, 2014 – February 15, 2015 at MOCA Grand Avenue, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Brian Forrest

As an art student I can see no basis for Stoichita’s opinion about the significance of shadows in art as exemplified by this exhibition. He spends 10 to 20 pages promoting his theory as ‘fact’ but it doesn’t seem to make any sense in relation to these paintings, or be supported by any evidence. However, this exhibition fits very well with Warhol’s other work, and his interest in serialisation and mass production. I can see no significance in the original photograph being of shadows, and yet Stoichita generates nearly twenty pages of opinion based on this one fact.

As the Museum of Contemporary Art says [Andy Warhol: Shadows (s.d.) At: (Accessed 14/04/2021).]…

In 1978-79 Andy Warhol produced Shadows, a monumental, 102-part series of silkscreened canvases. The work’s internal compositions are culled from photographs of shadows taken in The Factory, the artist’s New York City studio. In Shadows, Warhol extended his long-standing interest in seriality and repetition while forgoing the cultural icons and commodity forms that most often populate his art. MOCA’s presentation will feature the full collection of paintings from Dia Art Foundation. Installed edge to edge, the series of abstract panels-once referred to by Warhol as “disco decor”-create a haunting, environmental ensemble.

There is some interest in Stoichita’s more generalised discussion around the connection of profile with shadow and frontal view with mimesis. However, in the two chapters I’ve read I don’t think he has examines the role of shadow in art merely uses some figurative paintings with shadows to support his personal theory.

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