Let there be light!

A new exhibit shows how art and culture changed dramatically in the early days of gas and electric illumination.

We flick a switch, and there it is. Light!

That effortless act is one humans have been repeating for only the past 100 years or so. What we now take for granted was once a remarkable innovation that - like computers at the turn of the 21st century - has radically altered society.

But until curators Andreas Bluhm of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and Louise Lippincott of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh shared a "eureka" moment, no one had seriously examined how light in art and in scientific invention intersected to redefine the world.

"I wanted the exhibition to feel like a mad scientist's laboratory or a universal exposition, not an art museum," explains Ms. Lippincott, referring to turn-of-the-20th-century Paris expositions that first displayed artificial light to the world on a grand scale with the Eiffel Tower and the Palais de l'Electricite.

The fruit of the curators' efforts is called "Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900, Art & Science, Technology & Society." The exhibition at the Carnegie through July 29 is a monumental survey of how discoveries about natural and artificial light transformed human existence.

Brilliant palettes and photography

Starting with Sir Isaac Newton's discovery that refracting light through a glass prism creates a spectrum of color, and moving on to breakthroughs such as the Fresnel lens, gaslight, cameras, and incandescent light bulbs, the exhibit conveys how an increased understanding of light:

* Changed painting from dark portraiture to the soft, brilliant palettes of Impressionism.

* Gave rise to photography, movies, and science fiction.

* Impacted live performance.

* Revolutionized medical practices, transportation, and commerce.

* Altered nightlife and reduced crime.

The curators began collaborating four years ago, after separately forming vague ideas of exhibitions that would link art and science. Mr. Bluhm had been searching for a theme that would partner his museum with a new Amsterdam science center. He thought of looking at color, but found the concept too hard to explain.

"Before there was color, there was light," he realized. And his museum was filled with examples of how Van Gogh and his contemporaries used light in 19th-century art.

Ms. Lippincott, meanwhile, had purchased a painting that spurred her interest in light. She began researching what she thought might become "The Gaslight Show."

Never-before-seen objects

When plans for the Amsterdam science center fell through, Bluhm and Lippincott joined forces. After deciding their collections would blend well, they began to gather many other relevant pieces from dozens of other museums around the world. In all, the Carnegie exhibition displays more than 300 artworks, as well as many scientific objects from the previous two centuries, that have never been seen in the United States.

"The combination of objects and art really [can] surprise people and get them to think differently," Lippincott says.

The Carnegie exhibition concentrates more on science and optics than did the Amsterdam show (on display from last October through Feburary of this year), she says, which emphasized artificial light. Amsterdam also had two features the Carnegie could not re-create: a working gaslight (for obvious reasons, most museums do not allow open flames within their walls); and a "time tunnel" of an Amsterdam street, showing the evolution of artificial light accompanied by each era's sounds, from horses to airplanes. Bluhm said the tunnel helped convey "that light is historic."

Cost and space issues prevented its duplication here - as did the opening-night fuse blowout that caused a 30-minute power outage in Amsterdam. (It was not, the curators insist, a public-relations stunt.) But the Carnegie has other unique displays, such as a re-creation of Newton's prism experiment.

Besides Van Gogh, the show includes many renowned Impressionist artists, as well as Romantic, pre-Raphaelite, and other painters.

Among scientists, in addition to Newton, the show highlights pioneers Daguerre, Edison, and Westinghouse, and the innovations they created or fostered: microscopes and telescopes, navigational instruments (from tiny models of the solar system to giant beacons), candelabra, fuel-burning lamps, and many early electric lights, as well as kaleidoscopes, early photographs, films, and X-rays.

Designers who merged art and function, including Louis Comfort Tiffany, also are represented.

"I was in the middle of a world that was completely unknown to me," Bluhm said of their quest for these objects, which led to some delightful experiences. An Internet search took Bluhm to a gaslight restoration shop in France. When the proprietor turned on all the gas lamps at once, Bluhm recalled, "It was magical."

They unearthed entire organizations of aficionados, including a group of volunteers that operates an energy museum in France that is open only once a month.

"A lot of people out there ... just have a passion for historical light," Bluhm says.

Raiding its own collection

The Carnegie's unique setup - industrialist Andrew Carnegie built the Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and the Carnegie Library all under one roof - allowed the curators to easily raid other collections for objects and period books defining how light works, and also tap experts to explain the objects' significance.

The curators also mined a collection at Harvard University and traveled offbeat paths to locate what they needed. Because many items couldn't cross the Atlantic from Amsterdam, some duplicates or similar pieces had to be found; thus each exhibit took on distinct characteristics.

Among the most fascinating items are early projectors: A 1760 lantern used for showing glass slides encases an oil lamp in a wood box with a metallic reflector and a stovepipe chimney. The Lubin projector (circa 1900) is an ungainly contraption with bicycle chains, springs, wheels, gears, a crank, and a plug, with a big tin box enclosing an electric bulb.

One of the most important 19th-century technological developments, the Fresnel lens (used in lighthouse beacons), allowed governments and companies to build international trade routes and overseas empires. Like the traditional torchbearer image, the exhibition explains, lighthouses became symbols of the spread of Western ideals (including liberty and enlightenment) around the globe.

"Light!" is divided into five sections: A Ray of Light (refraction, reflection, focus, shadows, photography); the Light of Nature (light and shade, daylight, twilight); Makers of Light (God, the state, capitalism); Personal Lights (wicks, burners); and Public Lighting (gaslight, electric).

A centerpiece is Van Gogh's "Gauguin's Chair," which is shown as the artist saw it in four different kinds of light: natural daylight, an open gas flame, an incandescent gas flame, and an electric arc light.

The lights of Van Gogh's era were re-created by a Rochester, N.Y., designer, who invented a system capable of reproducing the spectra of any illumination style.

When she saw his effects on a poster of the famed painting, Lippincott says she was amazed. "[That's when] I realized the exhibit would work," she says. "It's such fun to see people getting it."

For more information on the 'Light!' exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art, log on to www.cmoa.org/html/light/light.html.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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