Part Three: Do you need to love art to light art?

A self-professed lover of Art, Cliffe Tribe, Sales Manager at Casambi, has enjoyed a lighting career journey that has so far taken in many industry milestones – through the 20th-century analogue age into what he calls ‘the digital magic of today’. Cliffe’s written a series of blog posts on lighting as the love language ofartand how Casambi’s wireless control solution is contributing to a modern-day revolution in how we display it.  

Part 3 – Using digitally addressable lighting to modernise how we view art…

On Tuesday October 1st, 2019, Jonathan Jones, in the Guardian newspaper when critiquing the ‘Rembrandt’s Light’ exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, wrote:

“Glorious art needs no gimmicks”

He goes on to say that the lighting team from DPG, ERCO and Casambi, who joined forces with renowned Hollywood cinematographer and lighting designer, Peter Suschitzky, were attempting to make the exhibition “popular and accessible” by introducing Casambi lighting animations, focussed imagery and imitating screenplay-style captions. 

Interesting… Surely in today’s ‘many bums on seats’, leisure-competitive world, there needs to be an unquestionable desire to make art even more engaging and accessible? Especially as today, we have the technology to help the process along.

Of course, there is a school of thought that believes that old masters need no introduction or special accoutrements to enhance the majesty and wonder of their artworks. However, as modern-day custodians of historic art, should we not be making beautiful and priceless objects as popular and accessible as possible? The aim must be to lend the viewer a helping hand to fully engage and emotionally interact with all the varying methodologies and plotlines embedded in a masterpiece. 

Today’s digital lighting allows us to be more experimental. Should we continue to be handcuffed to the restrictions of an analogue age? 21st Century lighting tools such as high-performance LED light sources with refined optics, multi-controlled effortlessly through wireless technology via Casambi App, are now available to help tell the full story as depicted by the original artist. 

Sadly, there are still those who believe that we should ignore the power of digital technology and remain firmly in an analogue mindset, especially when it comes to lighting art. I say that to make museums and art galleries fully accessible to all, we need to develop the experience – a joined-up approach to how we future-light artworks is needed.

Around the world, footfall in art galleries and museums is falling. According to UK Gov statistics, visitor numbers have dropped by as much as two thirds over the last four years. Putting the disastrous effects of Covid-19 pandemic aside, should we not be making a visit to a gallery or museum a special experience to compete alongside a theme park or a cinema? A fun-packed informative and educational event that attracts the widest demographic?  The power is in our hands to give individual imaginations a jolt, to provide a spark for everyone that leads to an unexplored world of magic and mystery.

For all this to work we must strike a balance between the visitor experience and a need to carefully preserve our wonderful treasures…

Edvard Munch: ‘The Hands’ (1893 – Oil and crayon on cardboard – 91cm x 77cm)

In part 1 of this blog series, I wrote about how the Dutch old master, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669) became the primary exponent of implanting light within a painting. The chiaroscuro technique is so immediately visible in much of his work and in consequence our eyes are naturally drawn to ‘His’ light. Other places within an aged-old painting, that could also be subjected to damage, dirt, and craquelure, may not visually describe the entire story of the canvas. The viewer may well be missing out on an important plotline lurking in the darker background.

“All we need is to have paintings clearly lit and a chance to look at them in our own way” – Jonathan Jones.

Jones informs us that we as lighters should just rock up to a 450-year-old Rembrandt masterpiece and bathe it in uniformly artificial light. It would of course be wonderful to offer a constant, viewer-preferred 300 lux across a canvas, all with a fully focused colour temperature of 5000k. Clearly the critical conservation consideration and regulated colour rendition prevents this.

As we know, Rembrandt paintings had large sections of canvas cloaked in dark colours and used the chiaroscuro technique to embolden smaller sections to highlight parts of the story. If we took Jones’s advice then sure, those darker places within a painting might become clearer, but we would (a) lose the dynamic of ‘Rembrandt’s Light’ and (b) quite rightly have the conservators howling from the roof tops about the destructive properties of artificial lighting.

There needs to be a balance here and smartly controlled digital LED lighting is the answer.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery in southeast London is the oldest purpose-built public art gallery, founded in 1811

It is not a gimmick to control how much light or colour of light is placed on a canvas. It is a responsible consideration of the power of digital technology. There are great possibilities now with tuneable white lighting luminaires to easily select a definitive colour temperature of white light between the warmer spectrum of 2700 degrees kelvin cycling through to a much cooler 6500 degrees. 

We can also automate with great accuracy the amount of light projected at any given time – from seconds to hours to years. These processes are both scientific and safe. 

Casambi is a Bluetooth mesh technology and is not affected by the outage of a WIFI network that may result in a fail-safe illuminance of 100% output – not great when illuminance on an artwork needs to be carefully controlled.

In any given Casambi network we can program up to 255 scenes, each with due consideration as to the exact amount of illumination projected from an appropriately specified LED light source housed within a fully beam-focused luminaire. The free to download Casambi App, allows the user to easily decide the colours which finely balance specific detail within a painting. In due accord, scenes can be set to illuminate, with more clarity, the features and drama topics represented in the piece. 

We can instinctively and easily, with the Casambi App, program the exact amount of time that a painting can be exposed to artificial light, and we can create fully automated animation scenes that, on loop, darker to lighter, scroll-control illumination from 0-100 percent.

At Dulwich Picture Gallery during the ‘Rembrandt’s Light’ exhibition, we set up a small gallery space with just a single painting on display. We invited visitors to sit on a bench and watch as a carefully programmed animation scene, on a one-minute loop from zero to one hundred percent, illuminated the beautiful and completely enchanting ‘Christ and St. Mary Magdalen at the Tomb’ 

Rembrandt Van Rijn: ‘Christ and St. Mary Magdalen at the tomb’ (1638 – Oil on canvas – 61cm x 49cm)

The Bible story tells us of the mystical moment when in the tomb a resurrected Jesus Christ, disguised as a gardener, presents himself to Mary Magdalen and she, for a short time, does not recognise him. All this action is going on in the darkened foreground of the painting.

Using a narrow spot-controlled Optec projector luminaire by ERCO, we focused on the middle left-hand corner of the painting. This was where Rembrandt had used the chiaroscuro technique to depict the sun rising over Jerusalem – the 25% of the painting that is instantly and clearly visible to the naked eye. Due to tight conservation controls, the amount of constant light allowed on the canvas, makes it difficult for some to view the action going on in the remaining 75% of the painting. 

By programming a ‘cascading’ animation scene in the Casambi App we were able to not only blend with the chiaroscuro effect to reimagine the sun rising over Jerusalem, but also and for the first time probably ever, bathe ‘Christ and St. Mary Magdalen at the Tomb’ in 100% artificial illumination – if just for a few seconds only. 

The reaction from the audience was one of wonder and surprise – very much an experience and not a gimmick.

There are many ways to apply digital technology today all with the aim of creating an experience. Bringing beautiful artworks to life and not just for the educated art aficionado, but for everyone – the young and the old, the curious and the dreamers. 

Collaboration is the key to taking the art experience forward. Curators, technicians, conservators, and art owners together with designers, luminaire manufacturers and controls companies such as Casambi – all joining together to make magic happen. 

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