Chiaroscuro

The ‘image’ captured my imagination. The photograph, the filmic frame, the theatrical moment or sequence of moments… The ‘image’ forever emblazoned on my mind’s eye as a result of the careful or careless creativity of an individual or individuals. The imagination thrives in the image, dwells on its contents, its connotations, its possibilities. For whom, why, and how the ‘image’ was created intrigued me, intrigues me. Little wonder then that I embarked on a career in lighting design, and less wonder yet that for my course of post-graduate study I ventured into an exploration of the works of those who persist and persevere in presenting the image. Below are the early musings of a curious mind…

 “Daylight is not at our command. Although we can dim it, (drapes, coloured glass, etc.), we cannot control daylight itself and modify its proportions at will. We must therefore, turn to artificial light created by ourselves, i.e. stage lighting. For our eyes, this light is the simple light of day what, for our ears, the art of sounds is to shouting. It will be the aesthetic ruler of brightness – capable of modifying its vibrations”[1]

 Adolphe Appia, the late nineteenth century theorist of stage lighting and design, was a strong advocate of uniting both performer and performance in time and space, not only through the use of light but more specifically the concurrent use of light and shade. He rejected the nineteenth century use of two-dimensional sets and stage scenery in exchange for a three-dimensional scenic approach.

 “For Appia, space was a dynamic area that attracted both actor and spectator and brought about their interaction. Complementing his concept of space was his belief that lighting should be used to bring together the visual elements of the drama.”[2]

One of the first theatre designers to embrace the dramatic possibilities promised by the development of the electric light, Appia’s “experiments with the intensity, colour and movement of light provided innovative theoretical and practical approaches to the function of light in theatre as well as evocative and atmospheric designs.”[3]

The practical application of his lighting theory, (later to be systematized in the U.S by Stanley McCandless and later again utilized to great success by Jean Rosenthal), was founded upon the concept of simulating natural light as would emanate from a logical source in relation to bodies on the stage, mimicking the natural world which he himself inhabited at the time.

 In his 2005 essay ‘One Hundred years of Stage Lighting’ Arnold Aronson argues that we can no longer light for the stage as Appia did, “The images we create upon the stage are inevitably codified reflections of the world around us, and thus informed by contemporary sensibilities”[4] and given the near perpetual illumination of our sprawling urban centres, owing to burgeoning technological advancements, modern society has all but eliminated the darkness in our living world.

And so, if as Aronson suggests, we live in a society engulfed in artificial light, why then are designers such as Paul Keogan, choosing to create dramatic worlds where intense beams of light, a tight concentrated focus on facial features and accentuation of shadow juxtapose with deep saturated colour washes, conjuring images which bear no small resemblance to the compositional chiaroscuro art works of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer or indeed of the Tenebrism style as practiced by Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.

If baroque art was intended to evoke emotion and passion instead of the calm rationality that had been prized during the Renaissance [5], has Keogan then either consciously or otherwise, invested in a language of light where his particular application of lighting fixture, focus and directionality is a paradigmatic choice such as is related to the reality to which it refers, where darkness as a form determines meaning, and as such challenges the hegemony of modern-day society, a society saturated in artifice, or artificial light as the case may be.

Keogan’s work is vivid and memorable, as much as for what is least seen as for what is most visible. A stark and intense cold light floods through seams and doorways in the set of Grange Park Opera’s ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’ by Francis Poulenc, merely grazing the Carmelite nuns as they await their fate in the wake of the French revolution, the silhouette of the all-seeing ‘Duende’ in Cork Opera House’s production of Ástor Piazzolla’s ‘Maria De Buenos Aires’ is stenciled upon a deep red cyclorama wash looming over a ‘Maria’ entirely unsuspecting of her inevitable fate, ‘Maksim’s’ brutal journey through Corcadorca’s presentation of ‘Plasticine’ by Vassily Sigarev is illuminated mostly through the use of multiple manned followspots (reputedly, a very specific choice over the first draft usage of automated VL Spot 2500 lanterns) positioned at varying heights and angles, casting carefully calculated shadows on the oppressive world of the play.

In an interview with Irish Theatre Magazine, Keogan was quoted to have said “My approach to design is very simple and quite stripped back. Certain people have said ‘Oh, it’s kind of good because you design sets that you like to light, so it’s almost that the lighting comes first and the set is the structure that works around the lighting.’ I don’t know that that is something that I consciously do, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the way that I subconsciously work.”[6]

If as an artist, Keogan initially envisions his works through the application of lighting design, i.e. that by stripping back the image on stage, by isolating the visual representation of the performer, by saturating the performance space in deep hues, is he then embarking on a process of demystification, ultimately, and similarly to the artists of the Baroque era, seeking to provoke a passionate response to a hegemonic social structure.

Roland Barthes established that myth is a culture’s way of thinking about something, a way of conceptualizing or understanding it. The myth exists before the image. “Myths mystify or obscure their origins and thus their political or social dimension. The mythologist reveals the hidden history and thus the sociopolitical works of myths by ‘de-mystifying’ them.” [7]

Through the careful selection of light ‘chiaro’ thus emphasising what is portrayed in darkness  ‘oscuro’, I propose that Paul Keogan is in fact subverting the potential for ‘codified reflections’ of the fast-paced, technologically enslaved society in which we live, subsequently illuminating the mythology of contemporary social structure in his works.

Over the course of the next twelve months, I intend to investigate sociological meaning, mythology and cultural context inherent in the lighting designs of Irish Theatre Scenographer Paul Keogan, exploring his use of darkness with regard to text, performer and performance space, expounding upon his relationships with artistic collaborators, his choice of production, technology and his artistic inspiration, stimulus and motivation.

 Lux ex Tenebris

References

[1]  Eurythmics and Light, Adolphe Appia, 1912

[2]  http://www.encyclopedia.com. “Adolphe Appia.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. accessed 23 Sept. 2014

[3]  http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/staffhome/siryan/academy/theatres/appia,%20adolphe.htm

[4]  Aronson, Arnold. Looking into the Abyss. Ann Arbour: The University of Michigan Press, 2005.

[5]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baroque_painting, para 2, accessed 20 Nov. 2014

[6]  Susan Conley, ‘A Career in Lights’, Irish Theatre Magazine, (published online 24 Feb 2011), http://www.irishtheatremagazine.ie/Features/Current/A-career-in-lights , para 7, accessed 16 Sept. 2014

[7]  Fiske, John. Introduction to Communication Studies, London: Routledge, 1990.

Advertisements

One thought on “Chiaroscuro

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s