Mystery: project 3 ‘Short History of the Shadow’

The first task is to read the eBook, Short History of the Shadow (1997) by Victor I Stoichita, and make notes or perhaps drawings to record any thoughts. I was able to access a PDF via Ex Libris.

We seem to be talking here about the speculations of a man who died in AD 79 (Pliny) and the later constructions placed on this by Plato and Hegel. Pliny said that painting began when ‘men’ drew around their shadow, which I suspect is not substantiated by later research on cave drawings where it seems all but demonstrated that people first blew paint as an aerosol around their own hands thirty to forty thousand years ago (Anthony Gormley’s BBC documentary How Art Began, last shown ~ 2021 and now no longer available*). In this documentary, it was also clear that the paintings of animals were not only made without the benefit of shadows but were also corrected for perspective in the rounded and lumpy cave walls.

There is some discussion of Piaget’s work with children using mirrors and shadows, much of it superseded due to more sophisticated technologies and approaches. Psychologists rarely studied the cognitive capabilities of animals at this point, coming at it from a much more mechanistic perspective. Latterly, and with the benefit of Theory of Mind (see Korkmaz, 2011) whereby an internal representation of self is postulated, self recognition has been shown in a variety of primates and even some fish, which begs the question of the sense of ‘I’ or ‘me’ in non-human species. Given the art work of chimps, gorillas, and elephants is credited with knowingness of construction, and that of AI, not without its controversies – see Drimmer, 2021 – coming not far behind, there’s probably quite a lot of untapped research material developing should anyone feel inclined to investigate shadows.

Later in the book, there is discussion of ‘shadow projection’ which Hockney has addressed in some detail in his 2001 book (and documentary series), Secret Knowledge. This relates to the discovery of lenses, the camera obscura, and other devices that brought an astonishing accuracy to the paintings of artists who used it.

I have to admit now to just flicking through most of this book. I find the avuncular language unnecessarily oratorical and with too much verbal redundancy. The sort of expounding a Victorian family, lacking any other form of entertainment, might have endured over dinner. I have probably missed something critical but secretly I doubt it.

*I found I had recorded it and now I’m watching again, but this time with an artist’s eye. The art work in these caves, some of which may go back further than forty thousand years (the undated Aboriginal work), is a very long way from the stick men with arrows and spears that we’re used to seeing representing this art. Framed as ‘Man’s’ superstitious attempt to achieve hunting success by drawing the animals they hope to kill, these are much more primitive than the fluent, rounded, soft and clearly living animals in these paintings. The marks are modern, full of energy and fluency, and describe relationships between animals as well as individuals. And then there are the silhouette of hands, made by blowing pigment around a hand placed on the cave wall. Some are made by children. If we’re looking for narrative and mystery, they’re here in abundance. What stories are these, probably the earliest known figurative paintings, telling? Are the hand marks ritualistic – seasonal perhaps, representative of greeting another Spring? Are they decorative, in which case they might be indicative of a culture that values aesthetics.

In thinking about this, particularly the Aboriginal work, I was reminded of Bill Bryson’s 2001 book, ‘Down Under’, a fabulously wide-eyed gallop through the past and present of Australia, Bryson talks with astonished admiration and reverence for the Aboriginal culture which we – White western (largely) men – all but eradicated in the name of civilisation. Admittedly not a renowned historian, Bryson nevertheless assembles a coherent account of this in the way only an experienced journalistic writer with a penchant for laugh-out-loud and also wry humour juxtaposed with pointed critique is able to do. Aboriginal art is narrative; connected to its spiritual roots in a way western art (and western, occupying, politics) was never able to recognise because it discounted Aboriginal cultural contexts.

There’s a documentary about Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri fronted by Rebecca Hossacks for The Arts Society, called Documenting the Dreamtime, which, if you’ve also read Bryson’s book, places the roots of Aboriginal art at the centre of their whole frame for living and dying. Unfortunately, Hossacks, while doing her best to represent this and with Tjapaltjarri a guest in her home, looks more like someone who adopted a street cat and feels noble for having done it but half expects it to bite her. To me, it’s a very uncomfortable demonstration of how people with privilege and entitlement are often unable to recognise this in themselves.

There is a link further down to information about dreamtime from which the quote and images below come.

Images posted in the spirit of fair, educational, and non-commercial use.

20th May 2022. This discussion (Pettitt and Pike in The Conversation, May 14th 2022) adds another few thousand years to the appearance of hand stencils, “Until it re-emerged on our computer screen, this 64,000 year old hand stencil remained undiscovered despite 70 years of intensive study in the cave.” and rock art itself, “Some 500 European caves are known to contain rock art from the Pleistocene era between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago.” [online] Available at

Bryson, B. 2001. Down Under. Black Swan. Also, energetically, in Audible version.

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