Let There Be Light! ; A New Exhibit Shows How Art and Culture Changed Dramatically in the Early Days of Gas and Electric Illumination

Article excerpt

We flick a switch, and there it is. Light!

That effortless act is one humans have been repeating for only the past 100 years or so. What we now take for granted was once a remarkable innovation that - like computers at the turn of the 21st century - has radically altered society.

But until curators Andreas Bluhm of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and Louise Lippincott of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh shared a "eureka" moment, no one had seriously examined how light in art and in scientific invention intersected to redefine the world.

"I wanted the exhibition to feel like a mad scientist's laboratory or a universal exposition, not an art museum," explains Ms. Lippincott, referring to turn-of-the-20th-century Paris expositions that first displayed artificial light to the world on a grand scale with the Eiffel Tower and the Palais de l'Electricite.

The fruit of the curators' efforts is called "Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900, Art & Science, Technology & Society." The exhibition at the Carnegie through July 29 is a monumental survey of how discoveries about natural and artificial light transformed human existence.

Brilliant palettes and photography

Starting with Sir Isaac Newton's discovery that refracting light through a glass prism creates a spectrum of color, and moving on to breakthroughs such as the Fresnel lens, gaslight, cameras, and incandescent light bulbs, the exhibit conveys how an increased understanding of light:

* Changed painting from dark portraiture to the soft, brilliant palettes of Impressionism.

* Gave rise to photography, movies, and science fiction.

* Impacted live performance.

* Revolutionized medical practices, transportation, and commerce.

* Altered nightlife and reduced crime.

The curators began collaborating four years ago, after separately forming vague ideas of exhibitions that would link art and science. Mr. Bluhm had been searching for a theme that would partner his museum with a new Amsterdam science center. He thought of looking at color, but found the concept too hard to explain.

"Before there was color, there was light," he realized. And his museum was filled with examples of how Van Gogh and his contemporaries used light in 19th-century art.

Ms. Lippincott, meanwhile, had purchased a painting that spurred her interest in light. She began researching what she thought might become "The Gaslight Show."

Never-before-seen objects

When plans for the Amsterdam science center fell through, Bluhm and Lippincott joined forces. After deciding their collections would blend well, they began to gather many other relevant pieces from dozens of other museums around the world. In all, the Carnegie exhibition displays more than 300 artworks, as well as many scientific objects from the previous two centuries, that have never been seen in the United States.

"The combination of objects and art really [can] surprise people and get them to think differently," Lippincott says.

The Carnegie exhibition concentrates more on science and optics than did the Amsterdam show (on display from last October through Feburary of this year), she says, which emphasized artificial light. Amsterdam also had two features the Carnegie could not re- create: a working gaslight (for obvious reasons, most museums do not allow open flames within their walls); and a "time tunnel" of an Amsterdam street, showing the evolution of artificial light accompanied by each era's sounds, from horses to airplanes. Bluhm said the tunnel helped convey "that light is historic."

Cost and space issues prevented its duplication here - as did the opening-night fuse blowout that caused a 30-minute power outage in Amsterdam. (It was not, the curators insist, a public-relations stunt. …

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