I’ve been surrounded by stories of shadows lately, especially stories of people separated from their shadows. It hasn’t been intentional. I’m midway through Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, I recently found the Faust-like tale of Peter Schlemihl, and shortly before that, His Dark Materials (I guess “Peter Pan” will have to be added to the list eventually). Figuring that there must be something to this, I checked out a copy of Victor Stoichita’s A Short History of the Shadow for a bit of enlightenment. The writing is at times trying, full of academic language and awkward phrasing (just like my writing!), but that can be forgiven as it’s a translation. The meat of the book is worth the effort.
A Short History presents a compelling look at the development of the Western art tradition, a series of essays framed around artists’ use of shadow and simulacra as allegorical devices. Stoichita wanders from Pliny and Quintilian’s early explications of painting’s history (departing loved ones captured by silhouette traced on the wall) to the optical and philosophical experiments of the Renaissance to the modern investigative works by Kazimir Malevich, Joseph Beuys, and Andy Warhol.
The common threads of these stories are fascinating: shadow as a powerful double of the human form; specular reflection as a evanescent ‘other’; shadows bearing the indication of a man’s true nature; the emptiness of a person bereft of their shadow. All themes I’ve been encountering in other writing lately. Shadows have always been much more than devices for the simple rendering of volumes, and this book is loaded with examples.
A fairly recent interview with Stoichita conducted by Cabinet Magazine is available on their site, summarizing many of these essays.