Experiencing Light 

Actually, it’s just about pigments on some support. Preferably pigments mixed with some adhesive that will fix the paint on the support. However, the first geniuses of painting, those creators of the cave paintings in the Cantabrian Mountains maybe, didn’t really fix anything, they just applied charcoal and red earth on the face of some rocks. What the people of those times might have seen, when torch and kindling dimly lit dark caves, rather than illuminating them. Some brief flickering here and there, and all of a sudden an animal jumped right out of the rock or a hunter shot an arrow. Then, again, gloom, and all of them crouching around the fire.

Actually, it’s just about pigments on some support. That’s what I thought when I studied some low serving dishes of ancient Greece. Again the rust-coloured red and the sooty black of older times, but now heightened with white. Here they were, animals and men, the fast horses of battling charioteers, heroes playing and loving and dying. What the people of those times might have seen, at night, when they lay feasting around tables with many oil lamps lighting the room. Flames quietly flickering, surrounded by nothing but velvet darkness. And then a slave would bring in the dishes, splendidly painted, and carry them past the reclining guest who could look at the pictures on the bowls from below. Some brief flickering here and there, the dish moving, too, and all of a sudden one saw horses before carriages moving, heard hooves pattering, the shouts of fighters and their moans of death and love. Then all of them gathered around the table, the bowl placed right in front of them. And soon, the next dish would be brought in.

Actually, it’s just about pigments on some support. Which by now might easily be gold, too – or at least look golden. And upon it, a grand and most colourful scene could be set: the moment when the three Magi appear and hand over their presents. Late-medieval splendour, slightly awkward movements like coming out of a torpor. When the lights suddenly went out in Cologne Cathedral, and the beautiful Three Kings Altarpiece briefly sank into evening gloom. Then my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Many tiny candles in front of the altar cast their light like a glistening carpet of stars against the altar base, and I beheld a miracle: How tenderly Mary held the Divine Infant in her arms, the splendidly clothed Magi dropped to their knees, everything moving graciously – I even thought I saw the wind that kept the royal flags rustling. And all the saints on the sidepieces of the altar were chattering. How typical, I thought, these people, painted by Stefan Lochner, really must be from Cologne. Then, the floodlights went on again and illuminated the entire setting. And everything on the altar went quiet and still again.

Actually, it’s just about pigments on some support. And it’s getting quite tumultuous, when the Roman soldiers are seizing Jesus in order to arrest him. This makes me think that after nearly all the problems of spatial representation had been solved during the renaissance and everything could have been shown in a rather perfect perspective view, Caravaggio tried something decisively new here. He went looking, and then he has found the light switch in the picture. Admittedly, it still has some sort of loose connection. Yet: light is sweeping across the pictures and brings them to life, and suddenly, the light in the picture is now sweeping across the persons and things depicted and brings them to life. Transforms pigments on some support into light. And I think, let there be light!

Actually, it’s just about pigments on some support. And now I think that it might also work in three dimensions. Like white foam with golden particles embedded elegantly spreading in the layered room, and from down below altars growing like eruptions of gold towards the so-called Dießener Himmel [Heaven of Dießen]. Everything’s bright, very bright, the whole church seems to be built for sunlight to enter. A unique Rococo delirium. That’s when I notice a picture on a side altar with the power to hold its ground against this flood of light. Saint Sebastian. There are muscles and luxurious silk clothing to be seen – and complementary colours in the form shadow. What has been painted by Tiepolo here, seems like a window to another, very bright and overly clear world, a breakthrough. The light is coming from this other world.

Actually, it’s just about pigments on some support. And here they are shining out of these more remote exhibition rooms, these glowing summer days full of warm air breaking through the poplar trees. Everything’s but shimmering light, a blazing and glistening so intense that it almost seems to come from out of this world. In Manet’s pictures, everything is transformed into light and air. The intensity of the glare makes me squint involuntarily, I am nearly blinded by this remote summer day.

Actually, it’s just about pigments on some support – that’s what I think when I start mixing paint on my palettes. How I will apply paint on canvas or on paper, how I will begin playing with it – and suddenly, light appears within the picture, which is when the actual playing will have begun!

Robert C. Rore, 2018