One of my most vivid childhood memories comes from the time of the miners’ strike (sciopero dei minatori) in the mid-1970s, and the frequent and lengthy cuts in electricity endured by homes across the UK.
We had little choice but to sit around a table as a family and talk, with candles as our only means of illumination. In retrospect, it seems a wonderful time.
My mum and dad would make shadows with their hands, and by manipulating their fingers conjure the shapes of animals such as rabbits and chickens against the wall.
This seemed to involve a simple and ancient magic that fed a childish appetite for images and exploited a basic attraction to the play of light and shadow.
As such, it harnessed the same basic features of the cinema where light is projected on a screen. In Hollywood, as someone once remarked, they managed to turn light into money.
A sundial is a more primitive instrument that uses shadows to tell the time. And if we go back in time, then shadows have an important part to play in the development of our civilisation.
Plato in The Republic speculated that as humans we do not see the real and true forms of things, but only their shadows.
He illustrated this with a tale of people chained in front of a fire, who do not realise that the shadows projected on the cave wall are merely reflections of the real things they cannot see behind them.
The young Alexander the Great broke in his horse, Bucephalus - who no one else could sit on - by noticing that the horse took fright at his own shadow, so riding him into the sun.
Virgil in Book VI of The Aeneid imagined the dead in the underworld walking ‘in the darkness of that lonely night with shadows all about them’.
The dead in the underworld were known as ‘shades’. Weightless, bloodless, unembraceable, they were imagined wandering as ghosts beneath the living earth.
Interestingly, however, Ancient Greek and Egyptian paintings did not represent shadows. Nor, despite his use of sfumato or the smoky effect he imparted with paint on canvas, do shadows feature in the paintings of Leonardo.
Caravaggio revived the tradition of shadows, which was then developed by Rembrandt, modernised by De Chirico, and given motion at thirty-two frames a second in the twentieth century with the sinister use of chiaroscuro in films such as Nosferatu and The Third Man.
We all know what it is like to watch our shadow elongate and then shorten, depending on the angle of the sun. It can be a playful moment for children as they chase their own shadows.
But the emphasis and meaning of shadows more often tilts in the direction of moral darkness.
The 1814 story, Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso, tells the tale of a man persuaded by the Devil to sell his shadow. Of course, the consequences are terrible because the Devil is really looking to steal the hero’s soul.
The idea of a shadow took on an even more threatening and menacing shape in the last century.
One of the most haunting images from the aftermath of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima includes the shadow left on the steps of a bank – the human-shaped stain being all that remained of a man sitting there at the precise moment the bomb fell.
The explosion vapourised him in an instant. Eerily, the flash accompanying the blast developed photographs in nearby laboratories with the sheer strength of its light.
It seems vividly to illustrate the American writer and thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assertion that, ‘history is the lengthened shadow of a man’.
For Anne Boyer, in a moving memoir about her cancer, The Undying, the theme was extended not just outwards but also inwards when she viewed her own X-rays. ‘Radiology,’ she said, ‘turns a person made of feelings and flesh into a patient made of light and shadows.’
Modern photographs continue to play with the idea of shadows. One of my favourites include the Japanese artist Shigeo Fukuda’s Shadow of a Motorbike, created using the careful assemblage of hundreds of pieces of cutlery. It’s an astonishing and virtuoso piece of sculpture.
Children, being small, do not cast much of a shadow, even in direct sunlight. But as they develop, their shadows naturally extend to reflect their growth.
Joseph Conrad used The Shadow Line as the title of his 1917 novella to depict the border between youth and full adulthood.
School is, in many ways, about children being readied to cross this shadow line, and learning to cast their own individual and unique shadow upon the world.
I think back often to the shadows my mum and dad cast on the walls when they were alive during those power cuts in the 1970s. I remember our laughter as we passed our fingers painlessly through a candle flame.
Now more and more, I reflect upon the multiplying days and nights since then as I have myself passed from a child to an ageing adult and my parents long passed into shades.
The simple poignancy of George Oppen’s one-line poem, Old Age, springs to mind:
‘What a strange thing to happen to a little boy.’
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