Interview with Dr. Corinna Thierolf

Lights off?

For centuries, lighting has played a dominant role in painting. With Impressionism, the depiction of a momentary light situation became the central motif. But then came the great age of abstraction. Did this mean that the significance of light then disappeared for art? A conversation with Dr. Corinna Thierolf, consultant for art work after 1945 at the Pinakothek der Moderne (art gallery).

You can find symbols of the sun even in the oldest depictions – the sun itself is tranformed into a god. Later on, light became the central theme of painting. Over the centuries and beyond all religious boundaries and enlightenment tendencies, light obtained a highly symbolic character. Is the light myth completely timeless?

Natural light, or better yet the essence of light, its life-giving power was indeed idolised in the early testimonies of art, although this not only included the sun but also the moon and stars. The stars represent contact with the gods up in the sky; by looking at the stars people wanted to understand what the gods intended with us. But beyond all symbolism: Painting is only possible with light. We can only see and paint with light. Even the early depictions found in caves could only be made if it were possible to illuminate the darkness ofthese rooms. This is a light made with human intelligence.

"If the battery is empty, and nature is exhausted, the lights go off."
Corinna Thierolf

Man has always felt that light is the source of all life; its symbolic power has survived thousands of years in a whole host of different cultures. How do things appear today?

Joseph Beuys, in his "Capri Battery" dating from 1985, with the direct connection of a lemon and a fluorescent bulb, developed a poetic image that our age depends on nature just as much as that of our ancestors. If the battery is empty, and nature is exhausted, the lights go off.

For Dan Flavin, from whom the Pinakothek boasts a number of large light installations, the suggestion of extinguishing light does not arise here. The works simply shine and shine. Hardly anyone would think that such a cold fascination with these artificial objects would cease simply by pulling the plug. Is modernity altogether cold when light is concerned?

That's not really the case. In actuality, Flavin deliberately used the "cold white" light colour in these "monuments". It is, so to speak, the light of Enlightenment, with which one can look at things objectively, without making the divine origin of light the subject. Flavin worked with a total of seven light colours, but it is here that he used cold light.

In the Baroque period, light dramaturgy had the greatest impact on painting, and at the end of this development there are some nicely draped fluorescent tubes?

Flavin's arrangements have a deliberately simple geometry. For him, light and composition are technical, rational, naked, and thus take a witty stand against the over-bright, flickering, colourful light in Times Square, for example, which promisingly promotes the world of consumer goods. By working with reduced means, Flavin enables the viewer to become aware of light's fundamental mode of action: its intangibility, its constant transformation over time.

But his installations constantly emit the same number of lux?

Flavin wanted to see his work, from which a permanent and uniform cold light radiates, installed in rooms with daylight wherever possible. Daylight is warmer and changes constantly. In the room containing the Flavin installation, the natural and the artificial light penetrate each other. This enabled Flavin – albeit with very different means to Beuys – to establish an almost inseparable connection between nature and art. In the Flavin room, we can ask the question: what is natural light, what is artificial light – and presumably we can not separate the two from each other.

"Light and darkness are much older topics that are constantly being reformulated."
Corinna Thierolf

Is the fluorescent tube in art today, what the gold ground was in the Middle Ages?

A nice and apt comparison for Flavins art! The difference is that the gold ground wanted to elevate the viewer into a divine realm. The gold ground of the icon reflects the light back to the viewer. The religious depiction and the viewer stand in the same light space and are thus also connected by content. Flavin was aware of such connections. In his works, he reflects this religious tradition. However, in keeping with our much more secular times, he does not concentrate on sacred content, but rather on everyday life, from which the fluorescent tubes are taken directly as an object. The spiritual content of light, its intangibility, is preserved. Flavin, too, makes the intangible tangible in his works, but he does not associate it with a religion.

In Baroque art, there are examples of how light became a stylistic device – the chiaroscuro effect. Shadow in the world, and even the dark, signal the absence of light. Does all this still matter in modern art?

Light and darkness are much older topics that are constantly being reformulated. To draw on an example from the recent past, take a look at our splendid picture "1960 New Year Wall, Night" by Franz Josef Kline, with this superhuman painting technique in black, grey and little white, so intense that, precisely because of the almost complete absence of light, you are compelled to think of the opposite, i.e. light. Again, there is the moment of transcendence: It is not about the externally visible light, but rather about an undefined source of light. The light does not come from "out there," Kline said, "but from somewhere else." He wanted to leave the "where from" open.

In churches, transcendence takes place purposefully to a God?

On the one hand, yes. Think of Chartres, where the light beams through the stained glass windows and becomes sensually perceptible. This use of light makes the intangible, the divine, tangible. This is all the more so as neutral daylight seeps through windows depicting religious representations. Incidentally, it is interesting that at the beginning of the 18th century a canon had a simple hole drilled in one of these windows containing religious images. As a result, daylight flows into the interior of the church, directly on summer solstice. This sundial looks like an intrusion by the factual observation of nature into the world of the church.

"Think of Chartres, where the light beams through the stained glass windows and becomes sensually perceptible. This use of light makes the intangible, the divine, tangible."
Corinna Thierolf

Did light ultimately lose its divine character with the discovery of electricity?

No, I do not think so. The divine in a confessional sense without doubt, but not the divine in the sense of the creative.

So let's suppose: where there is light there is creativity. There are landscapes and even detailed city portraits, of which the impression of light is the last thing remaining in the end. A Canaletto depiction of Venice has a different light than one of Dresden, and everyone raves about the southern light. Is there such a thing as Munich light?

Let's take a look at Munich's artists from the city's Blauer Reiter (blue rider) artist group. Remember the famous painting “Kämpfende Formen" ("Fighting forms") by Franz Marc from 1914. This is expressed in pure colour, nothing else than the polarity of bright and dark, light and shadow. August Macke's "Mädchen unter Bäumen" ("Girls under trees") from the same year is also an excellent example that embodies the transformation of light into colour. A very specific experience of "Munich light" can be had in the Tageslichtraum (daylight room) with Walter de Maria's "Large Red Sphere". It is impressive to see how the balls appear to hermetically converge on days when the skies are clouded over, while on sunny days they absorb the surroundings through concentrated reflection. The observer becomes a finely tuned instrument for the different effects of the same work of art, as perceived in different lighting situations.



Text: Nansen & Piccard; Photos: Frank Stolle