Professor Victor Stoichita on Shadow
Venice, October 9th 2011
MIRROR STAGE / SHADOW STAGE
Giorgio Vasari decorated his house in Florence (1569-73 cc) with frescos presenting a puzzling iconography, described also by a famous Florentine guide as the history of Apelles and the origin of painting.
The walls represent different scenes of the famous, first mythological painter, from the “cobbler challenging Apelles to the synthesis of beauty representing Diana (or Helena?)” but the most ambiguous identification is for the frontal left wall, where a painter learns to paint on the model of his own shadow tracing the borders of his own shape, turning his back to the light. Vasari plays with the real shapes and shadows (the chimney is right the central in that wall) and figurative effect. But is the represented figure really Apelles?
Vasari in his opus magnum Vite de’ Pittori studies the origin of the art (of representation) and gives his personal representation of the origin of the myth, which was probably source for his fresco: “Accordingly to Pliny and Quintilian, this art was introduced in Egypt by Gyges of Lydia who draw an outline of himself cast by fire with a piece of coal, without any colouring”.
This version by Vasari is certainly based on the ancient legend narrated by Pliny as well as Quintilian about the origin of representation and painting, which lies in the tracing of a shadow, however not dealing with self-portraits…
Pliny situates the origin of the art as the result of a love story between a young girl and her lover who is in due to leave; this scene was never represented through Renaissance, therefore the value of the adaptation by Vasari would be thus even greater. In this story, the woman traces on the wall the projected form of her beloved sleeping to conserve his shape and memory. According to legend, both to the Egyptian and the Greek, painting originated ille tempore from shadow. This is an important and very different mechanism of thinking in art. compared to self-portrait or to the direct observation of a body / object as in this primitive state the effect of shadow is to reduce the surface volume: it is a projection, a flat 2 dimensions, a copy of a copy. The perfect profile of the Egyptian paintings and the archaic Greek black on red figures are a product of this figurative convention.
Vasari adapted the story (maybe he read Pliny with a wrong interpretation? Or he took on purpose different suggestions?): the primitive scenario with two people became with one person, from the erotic to the individual, but more problematic is that issue of the self-portrait.
Another version of the beginning of painting is described by Quintilian, here also originated by projected silhouettes, but out of the Plinian love context.
With Vasari’s attempt we can understand that the shadow / image in the fresco is supposed to show an inferior, primitive stage of the representative perfection – illustrated on the opposite wall. Still many problems of this scenario lie in the virtual impossibility of imagining the creation of a self-portrait through the outlined shadow.
Here the mythical origins collide with questions arose from psychology of representation and the metaphysics of projection. Another context: first experience of relation to shadow:
Psychologist Jean Piaget related the perception and conscience of shadow with children and discovered four stages, through experiments and questions:
- Around the age of 5, a child can understand that that shadow is related to an object and its opaqueness, but as the result of the participation of two roots – one internal and one external;
- aged 6-7 shadow is seen as the product of one single object, as a substance emanated from the object;
- from about 8 years old, conscience arises that shadow is produced with a light source behind and opposite the object, but still as an emanation from that object ;
- only lately shadow is perceived as something abstract, part of light (or its absence) and not of the object.
Jacques Lacan, in a study twenty years after Piaget’s, reminds us that children can recognize themselves in a mirror at eighteen months. It is Lacan’s famous “mirror stage”, by which he means a representative situation” in which the “symbolic matrix” manifests itself and where “the I is precipitated in a primordial form before becoming objectivized in the dialectic with the other”.
The issues of mirror, shadow and self-identification are strongly related and can find an answer in two complementary solutions of the representation status: one from the physical circumstances of the projection – and the identification of the I (the ego, the eye, …)– , the other status from the “shadow stage” – that involves mainly the identification of the other.
Mirror stage and Shadow stage becomes therefore opposite.
In light of this we can understand why Narcissus fell in love with his specular, but not with his shadow; and why in Pliny’s the object of the young woman love is the shadow of the other (the beloved), as they are two different modalities of interaction between image and representation.
Reading Narcissus myth in Ovidio’s Metamorphosis “What he sees, he knows not, but he burns for it”, the young man in enamoured with the form of his image, what he sees is not there but a shadow of a reflected form.
Later representations stressed the evanescent nature of mirrored and specular images: i.e. in Antonio Tempesta’s, 1500 cc, we do not see Narcissus’ reflection, we can imagine it, but we partially see the shadow he casts; this shadow is broken and becomes a reflection. Narcissus is not aware that it is himself and a margin of doubt lingers.
What if this shadow were in fact “another”? Drama of identification rises, through charm and seek. A thin barrier of water separates them. “I a him. What shall I do?” Sight and embrace are in contrast and no contact happens. In the tragedy, when the hero understands that the image is not something else, the highest tragic point is achieved.
The interpretation of Narcissus finds also modern forms, as we can see for example in a famous advertisement by Chanel for the Egoist perfume. We can see a young man fighting against his shadow to get the perfume that this shadow possesses. Only the bottle is truly duplicated as fetishism object. The ballet of identification is settled on rivalry – not on love: the sophisticated illusion of the struggle against the other, the conquest and also seduction, creates a strong relationship with Adonis, settled through this modern figure who is jealous of his own image.
In this idea of confrontation to the other to get the object of desire and possession, the mirror becomes the shadow – the “other”.
In the history of Western representation, Plato’s philosophy dealt first blow against the shadow stage. it was the mirror rather than the projection of interposed bodies that was to become the vehicle of the mimesis: the mirror stage is a deviation/mutation of the shadow stage.
In Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura we read “the invention of painting comes from Narcissus, who was turned into a flower. The shadow drawing of early painters used to believe in, by painting around shadow made by sun (see Quintilian) is simply a process of addition”.
From this interpretation comes a new conception of the pictorial image as the product of an erotic act (it is the case with Pliny) involving the same and not the other. In Alberti, the embracing of the mirror contrasts radically with the outlining of the shadow: from the Renaissance on, image (painting) was thought as the product of love of the same.
The image formed by Vasari of the “origin of art” maybe integrates best the “shadow stage” and the “mirror stage”.
VISUAL REFERENCES: http://www.giorgiafiorio.com/gf/Shadow_visual_ref.zip
 Professor Victor I. Stoichita, President of History of Art Faculty of Fribourg University, wrote among the other works A Short History of the Shadow, London, Reaktion Books, 1997.
This report is a concise and reduced version of his lecture at Università di Lugano, October 9th 2011.
 The Sala delle Arti is described by Bocchi and Cinelli, 1677.
 editions 1550, 1568
 in his Natural History
 Compare Pompeian advanced figuration, that Pliny certainly knew.
 psychologist of 1920s
 See also Caravaggio’s wonderful representation, 1599.
 Word game between umbra / reflected image, imaginis umbra / nil.
 “I am charmed, and I see; but what I see and what charms me I cannot find”.