Dance into the Light

Feb 22, 2021

There was a mid 19th century American art movement called “Luminism” (what a great word!) that dealt principally with light in landscape painting. The movement was characterised by the effects of light in the landscape, of light that washed the painted plane with an almost ethereal tranquillity emphasised through the depiction of calm water and hazy sky. When viewing these paintings today, the landscape themes suggest a pearly utopia awash with clear light and serene surfaces where climatological disturbances cannot exist. Nature transcends into something otherworldly, even though the subject matter is recognisably of the times. The atmosphere in these paintings is possible because of the artists’ depictions of Light. I’ve given this noun a capital because it has so much importance in the history of artmaking, and most particularly, in painting.

As I write this blog, I’ve got my headphones on, listening to a Phil Collins song “Dance into the Light” (yes, I am currently revisiting my 1980s 20-something decade!). Have you ever thought about the amount of songs where the word “light” exists in the lyrics? It’s a lot. Songwriters knew and know still, the value in the elegance and metaphoric power of this word. Artists and lyricists both use light to create an atmospheric presence that’s either beyond what we could possibly imagine, leads us to what is possible to image, or showers us in the realisation of what is happening right here, right now. Amazing to think that one word can do all that in two forms of creative human expression.

So, back for a moment to the Luminist movement. American painter John Frederick Kensett’s Lake George 1870 is an archetypal example of Luminism – every aspect of the painting relies on where light touches subject – the brow of a cloud formation and a thin sliver of foreshore below a mountain exist in our eye because of the treatment of light. Both natural phenomena feel luminous, while the rest of the painting’s subjects are shadowed in low tonal description. Even though this painting is 150 years old, its power to suggest nature’s impact on us is strong. We understand the definition of nature’s tranquillity just by looking at this painting. So, this is the control of light in a painter’s hand.

But what happens when nature chooses to demonstrate her command of light in other ways? How do artists respond? Frederic Edwin Church responded by increasing the immensity of scale of his paintings and treating light as the ultimate drama queen. He was on the periphery of Luminism; Church’s paintings reflected his traveller-artist persona – the light conditions he captured came from a first-hand understanding of it as a natural phenomenon. One way to describe his painting subjects is to use the word “physical”. His landscape paintings of the natural world were highly detailed, and perhaps viewed from a century on, a romantic version of wild realism, best depicted in his 1861 The Icebergs. I love, love this painting. It was inspired by his 1859 voyage to the North Atlantic. It’s magnificent because of Church’s rendering of late afternoon sun in the Arctic. My three favourite subjects are sky, water and ice. Here, in this painting, light equals immensity – everything is big – the huge chiselled iceberg, the expanse of glassy sea, the ponderous clouds. Google the painting and take a look at the central iceberg. Church’s treatment of light gives this iceberg a principal character. It is a player enveloped in complex reflections of light and shadow offering us, as the viewer, a chance to understand the “material play between surface and depth” (according to art historian Jennifer Raab). I’ve seen blues, purples and pinks cast upon the ice – just like this in East Antarctica – but translating this to paint, through the illusion of modelled light is so hard to do. We need to look back to understand how to move forward. The artists of the Luminist era were interpreters and decoders of light; we need to remember this as artists, and painters especially.


Fast forward to late August 2020. The South Australian Museum hosts an annual prestigious competition called the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year. The exhibition that accompanies this award is always awe-inspiring. What many of the photographers have in common is their sophisticated manipulation of light captured in the natural world. The resulting images might be 150 years beyond the Luminist era, but their compositional goal with light is the same. Lea Scaddan’s Kangaroo Silhouette defines what we see as the boundary of the kangaroo’s body in the same way that Kensett drew that sliver of a painted light line along the shore of Lake George, defining our perception of space.

Golden Medusa, a portrait of the Papuan Jellyfish, by photographer Raja Ampat is every bit as compelling in its luminous quality of light as Church’s The Icebergs. Ampat’s light captures surfaces that shimmer and change facets just as the eon-compacted ice of the Arctic reflects and refracts light. Painter and photographer, both understand that light attracts shadows and voids, and that it’s the combination of these opposites that describes form.

And then there’s contemporary master American light-maker, James Turrell. His manipulation of light in site specific installations is extraordinarily experiential. In the artworks cited above, we’ve looked at 2 dimensional expressions of a phenomenon that exists in three dimensions. This is what Turrell captures in his series of Skyspace. I was fortunate to experience one of his skyspaces located in Hobart on the rooftop of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania, Australia. This light work is called Amarna. Most of the museum is subterranean, again echoing the contrast between light and void that we have been exploring in painting and photography. Sunrise and sunset explode the senses when inside the parameters of Amarna. This Sykspace uses colour kinetics to affect the way we perceive the sky – in this installation, a large rectangular opening to the sky above. What happens when the natural passing of light from day to night, or night to day moves across this void is that the light becomes painterly – we are back in a Kensett or Church painting. Strangely and inexplicably we are once again contemplating the immensity of the natural world. Turrell augments this sensory experience with light optics that change subtly and essentially shift us into the Luminist sensibility of experiencing light. We’ve come full circle.

If you can, take some time to explore the artists and works I’ve mentioned – they are easily sourced through the internet. Everything has the potential to change our perceptions. In this time of great change, the natural world is both precious and precariously close to being altered for all time. Great art can change both our sensitivities and observations, shining light on what matters, shaping form and offering us invaluable ways to dance into the light.


Wendy Muir

Art Eye Deer Teacher