Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

Light: A New Medium of Expression

[Architectural Forum, LXX, mei 1939]

 
 
 

"Painting With Light" is an old chapter of human activity. We have documents about antique illumination for theatrical performances in which colored glasses, prisms, etc., were used. Centuries later the magic lantern appeared - fireworks, the light effects of the baroque opera; and, later still, different projects for a color organ. Today, in light, from photography to television, we have more sources for a new art form than at any other period of human history. But unless we learn to clear our minds of the old, traditional ideas of painting, not even the work of talented painters will reach the level of a genuine artistic creation.
It is the general opinion that manual painting is the peak of optical creation. Its basic significance is that different pigments reflect and absorb certain parts of the spectrum. So far as pigments possessed these qualities they were used for the creation of an optical illusion which was actually similar to the light effects which solid bodies performed. Such a three dimensional object showed, if normally lighted, a plastic shape through its lighter and darker shading, and the painter had only to imitate the different surfaces of the solid object by mixing different pigments. However, this manual effort never could repeat the same radiant effect because the direct reflection of the object had always a more intense value. We call the procedure of traditional painting "mixture by substraction". The term implies that each new mixed color will be darker than the previous color by itself.This can clearly be seen from watercolors. Each layer darkens the previous one; in other words "it subtracts light". However, besides these primary pigments there are three other primaries, the light primaries, and in the new art of painting with light, they are going to play an important part. They are the red, green, and blue of the spectrum. We call the mixture of light primaries "mixture by addition" because, contrary to the case in pigments, the resultant color is lighter than each of the component colors. We can see this when we throw different lights from different filtered projectors on one spot of a screen. A mixture by addition of green and red lights creates yellow. However, the mixture by substraction of green and ref pigments produces not yellow but an olive brown.
As early as the close of the last century the Pointillist painters, Seurat and Signac endeavored to create an impression of radiant yellow sushine by the use of thickly sprinkled red and green pigment particles on the canvas. They adduced in support of their theory evidence of a discovery made in 1869 by Ducos du Hauron that the human eye splits the colors of the spectrum, red and green, into minutest points producing a yellow to the vision. Aristotle, also, knew that colors in juxtaposition will mix in the retina when seen from a distance. We find this principle applied in painting as early as the Florentine and Venetian pictures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Fra Angelico and Botticelli used a first layer of thin coloring for the figure of their paintings, for instance green, and then covered this green surface with innumerable fine red lines; the result was an infinitely spiritualized whitish-yellow flesh color.
Rubens used the optical energy of the "turbid" medium in order to obtain flesh colorings and transparent blue shadows which could not be produced by mixtures of pigment. Rubens painted on a white ground thickly sown with black lines - making the outlines and deeply shaded portions of his model in brown and going afterward over the whole with a creamy, translucent, pinkish white. The result was a radiantly transparent orange rose, a perfect flesh color with bluish transparent shadows.
But not only the Old Masters worked in this way, employing subjective results of optical effects; Van Gogh applied colors so thickly that the pigment appeared as a relief; the brushstrokes created shadows and the edges of the strokes were touched by light. Thus light and shadow were drawn into the picture as a determinative, qualitative factor and an effect was obtained similar to that aimed at by the Florentine.
C&eecute;zanne carried this research work one step further. He was less intersted in the representation of radiant surfaces than in the subtle qualities of colors to perform movement forwards and backwards, up and down, centrifugal and centripedal, etc. He created with these a new spatial representation as well as a new painting quality.
A psychological experiment made at the University of Wisconsin gives a clear explanation how color is able to change sizes. Black, white, yellow, green and blue cubes of the same sizes have been shown each beside the other. The white cube appeared to be the largest, black to be the smallest. Yellow was larger than green, and blue was smaller than green. The same phenomenon can be expressed otherwise. The white cube, being the largest, appeared to be the nearest to the spectator, the black, being the smallest, appeared to be the furthest away from him. This means that if a painter would use these colors he would be able to change their experimental characteristics with certain manipulations. The Constructivists' work often offers the example that black for instance stands in front of white, etc. The after images and the subjective changes the neighbor colors are valuable means to the painters' spiritual craftmanship. For example, the upper of a black plane can appear bluish if a yellow plane is placed beside it; the same black below can simultaneously appear reddish if a green plane is placed beside it.
As yet the psychological and physiological experiences of color have not been sufficiently integrated with the physical laws of light by painters, sculptors, architects, commercial artists and publicity men.
In fact, all color harmony systems concerning the pigments differ from one another, all defining a different number of colors and with them the complementary pairs. Newton speaks about seven colors; Goethe, Schopenhauer about six; Ostwald about eight; and Munsell about ten. Goethe defines the primary complementaries as: yellow-redblue, blue-redyellow, purple green. Ostwald defines them: yellow-ultramarine, iceblue-orange, red-seagreen, violet-leafgreen. Munsell: yellow-purpleblue, blue-yellowred, red-bluegreen, redpurple-green, purple-greenyellow. Newton mentioned only once a complementary pair: gold-indigo. Still the fundamental laws of perception of color are an inborn attribute of every human being. In other words the appreciation of color depends upon the general psychological fact that man answers every color with its contrast, with its complementary. Our eyes react to red with green, to yellow with blue and so on.
But until today we were not able to define the complentary color pairs with an abdolute exactness. The old masters interpreted the complementary colors individually. That is to say, in spite of the fact that almost all classical paintings were made with complementary color contrast - red-green and blue-yellow - they show slightly different tones of the complementaries. It even seems as if the personal achievement of a painter depends upon this individual modification of the law of the complementary colors. Now we have to reckon with the extensive use of electric light as a source of illumination. Since the spectrum of this light differs from that of sunlight, the well-known effrcts of color harmony undergo various transformations. We learned from Goethe that objects lit by colored light produce shadows in their complementary color. For instance, if an object is lit with red light, its shadow becomes green.
One may ask now - is it possible to do anything artistic with the purely physical complementaries or do we have to continue with the subjectively interpreted daylight effects alone? I believe it is possible, but the purely automatic harmonies which are no longer created by pigments but by light projection will probably have to undergo a process of step-by-step development of artistic appreciation. We are so accustomed to the old form of manual painting that we are not yet able to see that later painting may become a "machine painting" without lowering its spiritual level. The technique as part of the creative process is only important insofar as it must be controlled at every stage of production. Besides this, it does not matter at all whether the result itself is achieved by manual or machine operation.
Of course the pedagogic value of the manual pigment painting will not be denied. But this painting will be no more the only art expression. Photography is already a proof. We have to observe its form, its creative process, the superimposition and mirroring, the innumerable lens and prism effects, the mechanical and chemical distortion of the surface, the light-flooded planes, the "chiaroscuro" in the finest gray graduation. Then we know that our wish to express ourselves with optical means can only be satisfied by a thorough knowledge about light. We must become familiar with colorimetry, wave lengths, purity, brightness, excitation of light, and with the manifold possibilities of the artificial light sources. Optical illusions, changes in size, automatic complementaries, surrounding effects of negative shapes, of hue, chroma and value are already in use. In addition we experiment with polished surfaces, with transparencies which allow a combination of pigment and direct light effects.
The next step will be the conscious use of reflexes, solid and open shadows, mirroring refraction with prism and grating, polarization and interference of light.
Since the eighteenth century many persons were working in this direction: Pater Castel, Hoffman, Rimington, Scriabin, Hirschfeld-Mack, Thomas Wilfred and Alexander Laszlo. They all have experimented in the color organ. Viking Eggeling has been the pioneer for the abstract film. There should be mentioned also other forerunners of light display: gigantic light parades of battleships, projectors, search-lights, skywriters, changing light-pictures, flood-light, luminescence, phosphorescence, ultra-violet, infrared, cathode and polarized X-rays.
The work of the future lies with the light engineer who is collecting the elements of a genuine creation. Great technical problems will be solved when the intuition of the artists will direct the research of engineers and technicians.
It is premature to go into details yet. But one thing is clear - that the forthcoming experiments, the study of the physiology of the eye, the physical properties of light and the introduction of new technical means with their "automatic" and "mechanical harmony" will play a very important part.
Consequently we must never cease observing the simple or rich phenomena of light and color which are offered by the daily routine at home and on the stage, in the street and in the laboratory - in our physical and chemical apparatus.
Finally - it seems to me that we should direct all our efforts like the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann toward the creation of an optophonetic art which one day will allow us to see music and hear pictures simultaneously.

Moholy-Nagy: an anthology / edited by Richard Konstelanetz, [1970], New York 1991
blz.: 151/155