A Short History of the Shadow


In this book the author explains the history and meaning behind the shadow in western art. Beginning with the shadow's role in the origin of painting, Victor I.Stoichita covers its symbolic significance across history, from Renaissance painters to Picasso, Warhol and even Piaget's child psychology. Over time he explains how the shadow came to represent negativity, or how the shadow was demonized. The excerpt below is from the first chapter which deals with the earliest representations of the shadow, infused with magical properties, and at times representing the soul.

"...As Maspero reminds us in his classic study, the shadow was how the Egyptians first visualized the soul (ka). In this case it was a 'clear shadow, a colored projection, but aerial to the individual, reproducing every one of his features'. And the black shadow (khaibit), having been regarded in even earlier times as the very soul of man, was subsequently considered to be his double." [pg 19]

An interesting point brought up was the difference between a shadow in sunlight and a shadow at night. He says "..a shadow in sunlight denotes a moment in time and no more than that, but a nocturnal shadow is removed from the natural order of time, it halts the flow of progress." This is relevant because day versus night is a recurring theme in my work since October last year. It also reminded me of the work Tobari no Akari, which to me signified stillness and a frozen moment in time due to the use of nocturnal shadows.

The author's comparison of specular representations with the shadow is also relevant to my work. For example mirrors and reflections in water represent a double (mimesis or likeness) of the real object or person, whereas the shadow can represent the other: "The frontal relationship with the mirror is a relationship with the same, just as the relationship with the profile was a relationship with the other." Giorgio Vasari, The Origin of Painting, 1573, fresco Casa Vasari, Florence.[pg.41]

The book lead me to question the role and significance of the shadow in my work. I've used the shadow in my first installation as a negative symbol to represent the darker hidden city. Whereas in collaborative work such as Tobari no Akari and concept work Beedi Leaf the significance is contextual and at times open to interpretation. Similarly the author underlines the changing meaning of the shadow, "...we could say that to Lippi the shadow as a symbol, is an interminably interpretable symbol." [pg.82]

Although my study of the shadow as a signifier will continue, I cannot find much information about the history of the shadow in Indian or Eastern Art. Besides brief excerpts on shadow puppetry I've discovered only limited information on the significance behind this ancient tradition.

Update: More on the significance of the shadow in the east here.


Stoichita,V (1997). A Short History of the Shadow. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Turner,C and Stoichita,V (2007). A Short History of the Shadow: Interview with Victor I. Stoichita. Cabinet Magazine Issue 24 [online] Available from http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/24/stoichita.php [Accessed 26th April 2011].

Warner, M (2007). Darkness Visible Cabinet Magazine Issue 24. [online] Available from http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/24/Warner.php [Accessed 26th April 2011]