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Light and Shadow

Artists use light to reveal stories and create moods. Henry Ossawa Tanner used light to depict faith in his painting "Two Disciples at the Tomb". Käthe Kollwitz used etching techniques to highlight the horrors of war in "Battlefield". Dan Flavin used fluorescent lights to transform everyday materials into art, as seen in "Monument" for V. Tatlin.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] How does an artist use light to help keep us out of the dark? (bright music) Light reveals the world around us while shadow obscures it, but without contrast between the two, we wouldn't see shapes or forms at all. Artists use light in a variety of ways to tell the story, to create a mood, or even as the medium itself. Let's look at a few examples. This is the "Two Disciples at the Tomb" painted in 1906 by American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. Born in Philadelphia, he spent most of his career in Paris, the City of Light, and developed a uniquely modern approach to religious subjects. In this painting, Tanner represents the moment when two disciples of Jesus Christ discover his body missing from his tomb. The scene has two kinds of light: a soft natural glow coming from inside the cave and a supernatural light that radiates from John himself. With yellow and white highlights, Tanner illuminated John's face and chest as well as outlined his profile, giving him a radiant glow to suggest his faith. Peter who denied Christ is mostly composed of darker, earthy browns and peach tones. By using light to tell the story, Tanner creates something miraculous. 600 miles away in Germany, Käthe Kollwitz created art that reflected her personal experiences of suffering and loss using experimental etching techniques. Traditional etching involves scratching lines into a coated metal plate. After it's treated in an acid bath and inked, the etched lines appear as dark areas on the print. Kollwitz' etching "Battlefield" represents the aftermath of a 16th century peasant revolt. A woman shrouded in black searches a field for her son. Her lantern light reveals a single anguished face among many corpses. Kollwitz creates this ominous scene without using color. Instead, she concentrates areas of etched lines to create darkness and leaves key sections more sparsely inked. What appears as a flash of light is where Kollwitz smoothed the plate so ink wouldn't adhere to it. It's through this strategic placement of light that Kollwitz exposes the horrors of war and poverty. While it may have been complicated for Kollwitz to create light with her etching, for Dan Flavin, making light was the easy part. Living in New York City in the 1960s, Flavin created art from industrially produced materials, the stuff of everyday America. "Monument" for V. Tatlin is one of a series of works inspired by early 20th century Russian sculptor Vladimir Tatlin. Tatlin strived to combine artistry and engineering in his work, sometimes on a massive scale. His design for this monumental structure celebrated the promise of the modern age. Flavin used fluorescent lights to evoke the geometry and spirit of Tatlin's design, though, for him light wasn't spiritual or emotional. He was more interested in working with the physical qualities of light. Flavin spent a lot of time considering the arrangement of the fluorescent tubes and how that light would interact with its surroundings. And because fluorescent lights eventually burn out, Flavin always included an instruction manual detailing replacement tube specifications for museums and galleries. By transforming the mundane into the monumental, Flavin lit a path for future artists to follow. From Tanner's depiction of light as a holy symbol, to the moody shadows cast by Kollwitz, and Flavin's sculpting of fluorescent tubes, our perception depends on an artist's use of light. Next time you're in a museum, consider how light influences your perception of other works of art. (bright music)