Where is the light coming from in Joseph Wright of Derby’s 1768 painting ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’? It’s a question that art historians have puzzled over for centuries. Because although Wright is known for his luminescent, candlelit paintings, this one doesn’t quite conform: the light is too white, too powerful, and too dispersed to be coming from a single, flickering flame.
There’s another way of reading the question: how does a painter manage to create such a radiant canvas from paint alone (go and stand in front of the painting in the National Gallery – you’ll see what I mean). Wright wasn’t the only painter doing this in the 18th century, but nevertheless, the luminosity of the canvas is breathtaking. Even when you get up close, it seems to defy the physics of pigment.
We could ask a similar question about Anthony Devlin’s photograph, taken in Manchester on Tuesday night – except, of course, we all already know the answer: the big screen. We hardly need a caption to be able to read this photo. Every expression, every gesture, instantly tells us what we’re looking at: people watching a game of football. But what’s brilliant isn’t so much what we can see as what we can’t: out of frame, the football casts its luminous white glow on the crowd, creating a powerful play of light and dark that the camera exploits to perfection.
The technical term for this is chiaroscuro. Literally translating as ‘light-dark’, the word refers to the creation of sharp contrasts of light and shade in painting. In photography, the figurative and the material source of light tend to be one and the same and are usually easier to achieve than in painting (just stick a light in a dark space), but the result can be just as striking. In Devlin’s photo, that hard contrast is working on so many levels: not only does it direct our eye to particular details, but it also does something strange to our sense of space and depth, and it changes the way we read the scene.
Of course, this is also happening in Wright’s painting. Look at the little girl in the foreground (how could you not? The light demands that you do). Falling directly on her face, the white light reveals her innocence and purity. But then look at the scientist holding the contraption with the bird. Half bathed in shadow, there’s something ominous, maybe even threatening, about his face. And then there’s the kid in the background – the one looking right out of the frame towards us – who doesn’t get much of the magical light on him at all. Do we read him as the shadiest of characters – or as somehow removed from the whole awful scene?
Devlin’s photo doesn’t use the light to signal moral virtues or complex interior states, but it still has compositional force, standing in for what is absent: the football. What if we didn’t know what this photo depicted? Without our knowledge of the game – without the universal legibility of a crowd of football fans at the moment the ball hits the net – the picture would appear (with the single exception of the man on the far left) to show a mass of people in the grip of total fear and dread.
Look at the guy on the far right in the North Face coat: pure horror. Look at the woman in the centre, second row back: screaming in terror! Look at the woman on the front row, second from right: hands raised in a defensive shield. And all of them gazing into this dazzling light, like an outtake from The Day of the Triffids. Here, as in Wright’s painting, it’s the light – whose source remains elusive in both – that becomes the focal point. In a strange way, we don’t just see its effect – we seem to see the light itself.
Some critics have read the mysterious bright light of Wright’s painting as the manifestation of divine revelation. Could football be our modern religion, an awe-inspiring torch, a unifying force that’s strong enough to bind us in times of darkness? We’ll find out on Sunday.