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Light Against the Darkness: Light and Dark in Western Art

If still-life painting is not invariably an art of contemplation, then what comes closest is perhaps the painting of faint light against dark, like candlelight in the time before electricity, or the gleam of moonlight in the pitch-dark of night. Those are the lights that give out hopes, a sense of security and serenity. I am not referring to the lights that partly reveal the true colour of a monster- the shock of lightening that triggers all the wicked happenings. Those paintings of more sinister overtones are not discussed here. I always value more the glimmer of light than the overwhelming darkness.

Georges de La Tour’s The Penitent Magdalen (1638-43) is a painting embedded with symbolisms. The skull nestling on Mary’s knees is the emblem for mortality; the candle, the spiritual enlightenment; the mirror, the reflection of human’s vanity. Mary is aware of herself as a mortal and thus she is staring at herself instinctively into the mirror. Or rather, she is staring at the candle, or the reflection of the candle in the mirror? It is an irony that the candle is deliberately placed before the mirror. The candle and the mirror therefore are the contenders that fight to become the most lasting value in human lives. Obviously the candle claims the victory in the end, with the mirror submissively allows an imprint of the flame which burns determinedly and coruscatingly- an implication of the dismissal of earthly vanities and the triumph of the power of divinity. Seeing such image Mary is visibly entranced. Her fingers crossed and poised atop the skull; Mary harbours a momentary wish of aligning herself with the deities.

The gleam of hope can also be engendered in a time of hardships and predicaments. Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters (1885) is a testimony of all the sketchiest and the crudest. The peasants’ faces are scarily grotesque: eyes are sunken and creases and indentations ploughed deep. The image is unapologetically ugly, with the its ugliness augmented by the loose brushstrokes and dark colourisation. Amidst the oppressive gloominess the only source of light comes from what hangs from the ceiling. But an artificial light it is, which seems also to serve cruelly as a mockery of the peasants’ impoverishment. Whilst most viewers tend to sympathize with the peasants’ misfortune, what reached me first when seeing this painting was all the characteristics that made Van Gogh distinct from his ancestors. The light therefore is not artificial at all, but a torch bore by Van Gogh, shining up the path treaded by his fellow post-impressionists.

Warmth oozes from the break-through of light, most evident in Jean-Francois Millet’s Angelus (1857-59). This is a painting of contemplation, and the committed love of the earth. Both the man and the woman’s heads hung in devout prayer before heading home after a day’s toil. The figures are shaded with sombre tones and made similar to that of the soil. Their affiliation with the earth they step on is so strong that at any moment the two can blend together unsurprisingly. The setting sun has some pale blueness and redness trailing behind it- the only light colours that leavened the heaviness of the painting.

I do not know if Gabriel Garcia Marquez, when writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, had any particular picture in mind that echoed the image invoked by the novel. By my humble estimation, after reading Marquez’s epic novel, Jean-Francois Millet’s depictions of the farmers’ lives are what come the closest. Both One Hundred Years of Solitude and Millet’s genre paintings exude a sense of humility, not only to the home they are raised in but also to nature and the universe that encompass. Darkness never befalls those people’s lives but only a greyish murkiness that comes and goes periodically. At times a ray of light peeks through the gathering clouds, yet once the heads are lifting up in search of hopes, the light diminishes, leaving merely a trail of faint afterglow that swans weakly around the heaven.


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