While the installation of gas and electric light in 19th-century cities certainly influenced society and culture, a new book argues that the artificial darkness which emerged in the same era had its own impact. Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media by Noam M. Elcott was released earlier this year by the University of Chicago Press.
“Darkness has a history and a uniquely modern form,” writes Elcott, an associate professor of art history at Columbia University. “Ancients and early moderns alike knew darkness as chaos and absence, night and shadow, evil gods and melancholic thoughts, the color or noncolor black. They knew darkness principally as negation. Moderns mobilized artificial light to conquer the dark, disenchant the night, and create new media and art.”
Elcott’s Artificial Darkness navigates this human-made gloam through a series of sites and individuals, such as Étienne-Jules Marey at his 19th-century Physiological Station in France. There Marey photographed movement against a black screen, with participants dressed partly in black, to emphasize certain motions while masking other parts of the body. Elcott also emphasizes how darkness in the theater, whether for cinema or drama, is a relatively recent norm. At the turn of the century, a dark theater might have been referred to as “Wagnerian,” referencing German composer Richard Wagner’s Festival Theater, which had a successful 1876 debut. Before that, a theater was “a space to see and be seen, two aims that were often in conflict.”
Elcott notes that “artificial darkness was, above all, a technology of visibility and invisibility.” Of course, this new immersion of the audience into a tantalizing night quickly sparked fears about scandalous behavior, with reactionary actions such as the British National Council of Public Morals’s issuing the 1917 report “The Moral Danger of Darkness.” Nevertheless, the dark emphasis on the stage endured, and Elcott highlights later artists like Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus performers that involved the obscurity of dark space in avant-garde theater.
“Modern artificial darkness negated the negative qualities ascribed to its timeless counterpart: divorced from nature and metaphor, highly controlled and circumscribed, it was a technology that fused humans and images,” Elcott writes. “More precisely, controlled artificial darkness negated space, disciplined bodies, and suspended corporeality in favor of the production and reception of images.”
Artificial Darkness is definitely an academic book, although its thorough text is beautifully illustrated with the ghosts conjured with magic lanterns in Étienne-Gaspard Robert’s 19th-century phantasmagoria, “Black Art” shows from the 1890s when skeletons hovered in inky space, held aloft by hidden performers, and Georges Méliès’s early 20th-century films that conjured fantastic illusions through dark screens, such as making heads of actors disappear. From the photography darkroom to the disorientation of time in theatrical spaces, the 19th and 20th centuries radically changed our perception of darkness, from a state of night and shadows, to an artificial setting for spectral spectacles.
Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media by Noam M. Elcott is out now from the University of Chicago Press.