Thank you for virtually viewing Reflections on Light: Works from the NCMA Collection. This exhibition was organized by the North Carolina Museum of Art. Generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This exhibition is made possible, in part, by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources; the North Carolina Museum of Art Foundation, Inc.; and the William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment for Educational Exhibitions. Research for this exhibition was made possible by Ann and Jim Goodnight/The Andrew W. Mellon Founda-tion Fund for Curatorial and Conservation Research and Travel.
This visible-induced luminescence (VIL) image of a Roman oval-form sarcophagus fragment glows brightly in several places. VIL uses infrared light, often used to look beneath the surfaces of paintings and is a vital tool for archaeologists. When used to examine ancient objects, VIL can detect the presence of a specific pigment: Egyptian blue. Popular for thousands of years throughout Egypt and the ancient world, Egyptian blue is considered the first synthetic pigment. If one looks closely at the fragment, pigment is visible along the carved decorations, the areas glowing in the VIL. This visual evidence combined with the VIL shows that Egyptian blue was used to make the paint.
Ultraviolet (UV) light is perhaps familiar to most as the illumination from a black light bulb or lamp, which makes certain materials fluoresce, or glow. UV’s ability to make some things glow while others go completely dark is essential for investigating works of art, allowing researchers to see beyond what the human eye can see. In this case an ancient amphora from the island of Cyprus, off the coasts of Turkey and Syria, looks like it has been splattered with neon paint when examined under UV. The UV image reveals the extent of the damage that this vessel has endured, showing where it has been broken and mended in various stages, since different types of adhesives applied at different times will fluoresce in distinctive ways.
An imaging technique named infrared reflectography (IRR) allows us to look beneath the surface of this painting. The surface of this wood panel was prepared with a white priming or ground layer. After priming, the artist would sketch an initial design with a dark, carbon-based pigment, such as charcoal made from burnt plant materials. The combination of the light ground layer and dark sketch make it possible to visually peel away the upper layers. IRR harnesses infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye. It penetrates through the painting, reflecting off the white ground and being absorbed by the dark sketch lines. This results in a clear picture of the artist’s preliminary design, or underdrawing.
First appearing like a gestural stripe of gold across a white canvas or a sunset reflection off the water, this image slowly reveals itself as warm light shining through the crack under a door. Raff’s predominantly white photographs seek to capture the sculptural qualities of every- day life: subtle white-on-white details that are, in this case, entirely differentiated by light. The extreme close-up and precisely cropped view that Raff presents to the viewer here gives the image a sublime, otherworldly quality. In this image the door starts to resemble a passage into another world.
Eudora Welty’s photograph of a Sunday school in Mississippi combines portraiture and documentary photography with an infusion of divine light wholly fitting the subject matter. While the students regard or avoid the camera with varying levels of suspicion, the teacher sits resplendent in white, looking knowingly at Welty and at us. Welty began her illustrious career as a writer and photographer for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a government initiative designed to employ and support those affected by the Great Depression, including thousands of disenfranchised African Americans in the Jim Crow South. For the WPA Welty photographed and documented daily life in Mississippi, eventually leaving to write for larger publications and earning a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
This murky and serene image evokes the feeling of diving deep into the ocean and looking back toward the surface of the water while sea plants and creatures float above. This unique photogram—a photograph made without a camera—records the actual position of objects on light-sensitive paper. This process, similar to the way architects made blueprints before the popularization of modern copy machines, brightens the areas of the paper exposed to light, while the objects on top stop the light and the paper beneath remains dark. This old-fashioned way of making photographs preserves the organic forms and masses of the objects as well as the artistic gesture of their placement, resulting in this eerie, oceanic ensemble.
Chris McCaw’s Sunburned, one of a series, presents a physical imprint of sunlight. Using a large-format camera, McCaw exposes vintage photo paper for up to twenty-four hours. This results in a one-of-a- kind negative, or reverse image, which bears burn marks and holes that trace the position of the sun during the exposure time. Here, the landscape set- ting of the image matters less than the opening that has been drilled through the paper using nothing more than light. McCaw explains the sun’s vital role in his artistic process: “not only is the resulting im- age a representation of the subject photographed, but the subject, the sun, is an active participant in the printmaking … both creating and destroying the resulting photograph.”
Carefully photographed in black and white, Bruce Barnbaum’s image of a narrow slot canyon in Arizona gives dramatic movement to thick sandstone. Defined only by beams of light, the canyon’s walls resemble fabric, water, or abstract markings more than rock. The shallow range of focus, abstract forms, and attention to heightened contrasts between light and dark in Barnbaum’s photographs show his interest in the modernist photographers of the first half of the twentieth century, whose pioneering efforts encouraged viewers to see photography not as documentation but as art. Barnbaum’s preoccupation with photo- graphing the natural world is strongly connected to his decades-long passion for environmentalism.
Does this photograph capture a dance, a drawing, or a trick of the light? The answer is a little of all three. One of the most successful female photographers of the early twentieth century, Morgan is known primarily for her photographs of dancers, but she was fascinated by movement, gesture, and physical expression of all kinds.
Even the title of the work, Cadenza, Light Drawing, indicates movement: a cadenza is a brilliant and virtuosic flourish, often improvised toward the end of a musical performance. Morgan captures both the path of the light, glowing like bright white paint, and the human movement that produced it, in the form of a blurry figure at the top of the photograph.
This hazy but comprehensive view of Yosemite Valley includes what Carleton Watkins felt were the most important features of the site: Bridalveil Fall, Cathedral Rock, Half Dome, and El Capitan. This spirit of documentation led Watkins to title the work Best General View and was built into his project from the beginning.
This photograph was taken during one of Watkins’s expeditions for the California Geological Survey, during which he used an image process that required large, heavy glass negatives. For the trip that produced this iconic photograph, Watkins brought with him two thousand pounds of equipment, which included enough glass for more than one hundred negatives but which required a train of six mules to carry.
This somber photograph is a daguerreotype, the first form of photography available to the public starting in the 1840s. The image was produced directly on a specially treated sheet of silver-plated copper, giving daguerreotypes their almost holo- graphic or ghostly appearance. The exposure times could take several minutes, and posing could even involve a specially made collar to hold the sitter’s head still, which is why most subjects are not smiling.
To avoid damage and tarnishing of the image, daguerreotypes would be placed under glass in specially made cases, often with velvet and leather, as in this example. Though novel and precious objects when first introduced, daguerreotypes would be replaced by negative-based photo- graphic processes, which allowed the production of multiple copies.
Although clay lamps were widely used in the Mediterranean, the innovation of glass lamps provided a light source that shone brighter and longer. Whereas the light emanating from ceramic lamps was limited to shining in an upward direction, the transparent walls of glass allowed light to radiate downward and outward. Conical lamps of this type were typically paired with lamp holders either attached to a wall, set on a table, or suspended from the ceiling, casting a much wider glow.
Although lamps were an economic and efficient way to provide light in the ancient world, their purpose was not merely functional. Vessels in the shape of animal or human figures were often used to ward off evil spirits through exaggerated and somewhat contorted facial features. This lamp is in the shape of a male head wearing a Phrygian style cap. A smaller lamp would be inserted in the back of the vessel so the light could shine through, similar to a jack-o-lantern.
This lamp likely originates from Tunisia, due to the region’s mass production of vessels with religious iconography. A Christ-like figure is molded in relief on the discus, flanked by the heads of the twelve apostles. The Christ figure’s hands are raised in benediction, while the surrounding apostles’ heads are turned in profile. An unusual aspect of this lamp is that it shows little evidence of use, containing no visible burning or oil residue on the surface, meaning it was likely used as a votive or funerary object.
Beyond serving practical purposes, many Roman lamps displayed decorative scenes, molded in relief on the top. This lamp’s architectural view depicts a harbor that may be a famous port such as Ostia, Alexandria, or Carthage. However, it may also be a fictional, idealized scene. The decoration and volute spout of this lamp indicate it likely originated from Africa and was perhaps part of a group of lamps designed to imitate earlier Italian lamps.
This feeder-vase was used to pour, or “feed,” oil into ancient lamps. While the vessel would contain a large quantity of oil, a small spout located on the shoulder controlled overflow, intending to prevent excess oil from spilling out. This type of piriform, or “pear shaped,” vessel was frequently used throughout the Mediterranean in the late imperial period and was likely manufactured in North Africa during the early third century.
Electricity is something often taken for granted in modernity; the ancient world relied on small lamps as a vital source of light. This lamp was designed with a sealed discus that was broken by the owner after purchase. Unlike some of the other lamps in the NCMA collection, Samaritan-style lamps are devoid of human figures in accordance with religious beliefs. Instead, the decoration consists of linear and geometric motifs, in addition to two cypress trees on each side of the handle.
This piece, representing a bright, burning mortuary bundle, would be placed on top of fiery offerings as a metaphor for the cremation of warriors. Smoke from incense burning in the base escaped through the rear chimney, creating a multisensory experience. At the top a miniature temple is adorned with quetzal birds, feathers, flowers, and jewels. In the center there is a dead warrior wearing a butterfly nose piece, symbolizing the soul reborn. This com- bination represents the Flower Mountain, a solar paradise that is full of shining colors and is for those who died in battle. In the ancient Americas, butterflies and flowers symbolized flames, and fire was the means by which warriors were transformed to enjoy the paradisiacal afterlife.
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Consisting almost entirely of white and yellow paint and sculpted by dense graphite lines, the vaguely skeletal figure at the center of Golden Dawn appears to both emerge from the void and fall back into it. While the white masses are shaped and pushed forward by the yellow light, they are also fully absorbed by light, causing solid form to dissolve before our eyes.
Richard Pousette-Dart believed that art should transform life “into the exalted realm of reality wherein its pure contemplative poetic being takes place—wherein art’s transcendental language of form, spirit, harmony means one universal eternal presence.” Golden Dawn appears both quietly luminous and bursting with activity, resisting our desire to give it one specific meaning.
The Grand Canyon glows red from a blast of sunlight, dissolving into kaleidoscopic color in the distance. A native of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Daingerfield painted from memory rather than direct observation, which broke from the tradition of most artists. Overwhelmed by the canyon’s scale, light, and color, he chose to combine multiple impressions, seeking not so much to document as to present a vivid remembrance.
This painting was commissioned by the Santa Fe Railway to promote travel to the Southwest and was completed during the decade-long struggle by Theodore Roosevelt to designate the Canyon as a National Park. Daingerfield’s response to the Canyon, however, transcends tourist imagery and helps us understand why the president fought to protect this natural wonder.
Dominated by an owl-topped gold goblet (the artist’s name means owl in Dutch), Den Uyl’s Banquet Piece exemplifies what was known as reflexy-const, or the art of depicting reflections.This concept was one of the most important demonstrations of artistic skill.
Reflexy-const is evident in straightforward reflections like that of the gold goblet in the pewter jug to its left or the green shadow on the tablecloth beneath the green glass roemer, as well as in subtler details that give the painting its three-dimensional quality. Notice how the green glass’s reflection colors the edges of the lemon peel and the plate that hangs over the table, which in turn blocks the reflection of light from the white tablecloth, resulting in a dramatic shadow.
In this painting of Christ as “Savior of the World” (Salvator Mundi), the artist’s skill competes with the brilliant gold background. The use of real gold symbolizes the space of heaven. Christ, contained within this glowing background, exists in a space apart from our own.
At the same time, however, Northern European artists’ skills with oil paint made images such as this one more realistic and relatable. The artist brilliantly imitates gold, pearls, and reflective jewels, but it is the clear orb that is most attention grabbing. In it we see the reflection of Christ’s blessing hand and an entire cityscape. In this painting both real and imagined reflections work together to present Christ descending to earth from heaven.
This highly embellished letter was once part of a book and would have been the first letter of the first word of a canticle, or song. Bordered by real gold and fictive jewels and reliefs, the letter functions like a window onto the divine. It opens up to a minutely detailed landscape in which we see two Marys encountering an angel at Christ’s tomb, where they are told that “He is risen” (Matthew 28:6).
Illuminations got their name from the use of reflective, expensive gold, seen here in the border and the halos of the three figures. For centuries before this image was made, gold leaf was used in paintings and manuscripts to symbolize the glow of heaven.
In Yoruba art beads are points of light. Just as beads are transformed by light, they transform the objects and persons they adorn. Beads are also economically valuable and signal great power and spiritual health, which is why this sacred crown was meant for the ruler (oba). Faces on either side of the crown may refer to Olokun, god of the sea and “owner of the beads”; royal ancestors; or the inner, spiritual face of the oba himself, with bulging eyes signaling the ruler’s illumination.
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Minkisi figures (singular nkisi) serve many functions: to protect, heal, and seal agreements. The sculpture becomes active when a spiritual specialist (nganga) adds special material (bilongo) and calls spirits to inhabit the figure. Its stomach is sealed with a mirror, which recalls the reflective surface of a river in which spirits dwell, and which allows vision into the spirit world as well as vigilance against enemies. The nails and spikes driven into the sculpture when people sought help from it triggered its power and solemnized oaths sworn before it.
Gilded objects communicate power and leadership to the Fante and to people around the globe, admired for their luminosity and reflective, eye-catching properties. For the Fante gold represents the soul (kra) and is an earthly reflection of the sun. Among a Fante chief’s court officials is the “soul washer,” identified by this pendant and responsible for the well-being of the king’s soul and those of the entire kingdom through purification rituals.The radiating patterns (here, beetles and ferns), adapted from imported objects, reflect the ruler’s pivotal position in the gold trade.
Covered in hammered brass with wide, distinctive eyes, this reliquary figure (mbulu ngulu, or “image of the spirit of the dead”) was created to top a relic box in order to guard and protect the departed and mediate between people and their ancestors. The figure’s intense gaze warded off intruders, and the brass repelled trespassers from the shrine and maintained the harmonious relationship between living descendants and the deceased. The metal signifies prosperity and provides a shiny, reflective surface to drive away evil forces that prefer darkness.
Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the ancient miracle of a one-day supply of lamp oil burning for eight days. This lamp takes the form of the menorah, the seven-branched lamp stand of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Two more branches have been added to make the eight lights required for Hanukkah and a ninth serving as the shammash, or servant light.
This lamp’s designer drew inspiration from biblical descriptions of the menorah as well as from the rich artistic traditions of the indigenous Arab and Jewish communities in the Middle East.
M. J. Sharp takes photographs in almost complete darkness, yet they are full of light. The long exposure times pick up all forms of stray light, from the moon to the manmade environment, producing a magical, otherworldly glow. Sharp often captures subjects that are abandoned or overlooked, such as this house and silo in Texas. The artist says she tries to notice “the discarded, taking time to sit with and really see the beauty in what is moving along at its own pace, in its own time, for its own ends.” Nighttime images such as Sharp’s capture the amount of light that exists in the darkness, just as she aims to emphasize the beauty of what has been discarded.
What could have been a simple image of a young boy enjoying a glass of wine is rendered dramatic, even sinister, by Ter Brugghen’s preoccupation with light. Having spent time in Rome studying the paintings of Italian artists like Caravaggio, and following his fellow Dutch painters, Ter Brugghen introduced candles to his paintings. Blocked by the boy’s right hand, the candlelight pushes upward, setting the wine aglow and immediately drawing our attention to it while illuminating the plain background more than the boy’s face. This emphasis on the wine hints that the painting was probably part of a set of the five senses (taste), but the subject seems in this case more of an excuse for artistic experimentation with light.
This image, completed eight years after a Monet sunrise inspired the term impressionism, shows a glowing sunset near the cliffs in the town of Étretat in Monet’s native Normandy. Arising from new developments in the science of light and color, Monet’s contrasts of warm oranges and yellows with cool blues and greens practically vibrate off the canvas.
Despite the lack of smooth transitions between colors, Monet’s painting captures the brilliance and glittering light of a February sunset. Nevertheless, this lack of polish initially drew harsh criticism. In 1874 Louis Leroy reviewed what he called the “Exhibition of the Impressionists.” Leroy was horrified by Monet’s earlier work, an impression rather than a painting, exclaiming that “wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.”
Here we see chaos sparked by a sudden burst of fire in the sky. The volcano Mt. Vesuvius was famous already in the 1700s for its destruction of the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in southern Italy. As Naples, a large city in the shadow of Vesuvius, became a travel destination, the ominous mountain still occasionally erupted.
Volaire’s painting captures one such event, which he witnessed in 1769. In this painting even the bright moon pales in comparison to Vesuvius, whose outpouring of lava produces smoke and ash as it meets the air. Volaire’s nighttime setting allows for all manner of light sources and reflections to showcase the artist’s skill, but none can truly rival the terrifying volcanic glow.