There are few terms that contains a wider possibility of interpretations and connotations than the word “shadow”, both in a physical and metaphysical sense. So, when Mattias Härenstam calls his new prints “Where the Shadow Falls”, he offers multiple ways of viewing and understanding his works.
Of the four prints we present in this series, two of them picture figures or trees casting a shadow behind them, while the other two casts’ shadows in front of themselves, keeping the actual person out of the picture frame. In this it seems that the artist asks us to reflect on what it is to confront light and what it means to walk away from it.
But what is a shadow? The simplest answer is an area of darkness in which people and things cannot be seen. Or, put another way; absence of light – light being what allows us to see the world around us.
The eternal theme of light and shadow has always interested artists and is given importance in both a philosophical and a “technical” sense.
According to an old Greek legend, put down by Pliny the Elder (79 AD), painting arose thanks to a shadow. The legend tells of a Corinthian virgin who outlined her lover’s profile on a wall, cast in the light of a candle. Thus, she tried to preserve her lover’s image. Intriguing as this may sound, the oldest drawing we know of is 73 000 years old, found in a cave east of Cape Town, South Africa.
Origin of drawings or paintings aside. Our deep interest in the appearance of light and darkness derives from ancient times, when being able to see was vital for staying alive. As our understanding of our self and the world around us grew, we described the phenomenon through mythology, religion, science, and art.
Throughout history artists, who was recognized as “masters of light and shadow”, sought to convey more than just a play of shades, often leaning on religion:
“And the earth was waste and without form; and it was dark on the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God was moving on the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God, looking on the light, saw that it was good: and God made a division between the light and the dark, Naming the light, Day, and the dark, Night.” (The Old Testament, Gen. 1, 2—5).
This confrontation between light and darkness, representing good and evil, has formed the attitude of European culture up till today.
Partly due to their interest in depicting dreams and fantasies, the surrealists attached great importance to the shadow, often portraying their fantasies more realistic than reality itself. For this purpose, they carefully painted every detail and used shadows to emphasize the motive.
In the realistic painting of the 20th century, the ability of the shadow to create a mood of universal loneliness was actively used, as we can see in Edward Hopper´s paintings of lonely people, viewed in front of or behind windows in café´s or flats, as if they were trapped in some sorts of glass cages. Even the Pop Art King Andy Warhol dedicated a series of his artworks to shadows, underlining contrasts in faces and bodies.
Many contemporary artists also use light and shadow to sculpture and add meaning to their works. As an example, Japanese artist Kumi Yamashita sculpture her art, placing constructed objects at certain distances from a single light source. Thus, she creates artwork comprised of both the solid, material objects and the shadows they make.
This brings us back to Mattias Härenstam’s woodcuts “Where the Shadow Falls”. Not only is the motif light and darkness, the material of which they are made is black ink on white paper, underlining the contrast between the two.
The artist does not offer a code of understanding his motives. He only implies through the titles where to search for clues, leaving us with an interpretation list from the whole of mankind’s history.
What more can you ask for?