Class 9 dependence

The stunning images of the night sky, directly above, are by Alex Cherney a "hobbyist astronomer" in Melbourne Australia. They were taken in a national park on the south eastern coast of Australia, in the virtual absence of light pollution. They brought me back to this post, originally from 2007:

When the blackout occurred a several years ago (2003) I was not altogether unhappy with the thought of spending time by candlelight. The street was thrillingly dark that evening (the street light normally filling my apartment with an insistent yellow glare having been temporarily extinguished) and I was rather excited to get out the few candles I had, group them in front of a mirror, and try reading...

In the back of my mind, I'd always wondered about the centuries played out in relative darkness. What would life by candlelight or gaslight have been like? Before gaslight, once night fell, the vast majority of people lived tethered to a small circumscribed orbit of light. A light fueled by a
list of substances that must have been frankly repellent in practice–animal fat, whale oil, bacon skimmings, dried manure, fish oil, kerosene. The smell and the wavering and sputtering flame and...dear God, the smell! An entire room would never never have been fully lit and the ceiling and corners would be perennially in shadow. What about color? Paintings, decor, textile--all had very different properties viewed under pre-incandescent light.

I came across a fascinating exhibit that was produced jointly by Carnegie Mellon and the Van Gogh Museum in Holland in 2001: "The exhibition displays Vincent Van Gogh’s
Gauguin’s Chair (1888), consecutively lit with the spectra of daylight, an open gas flame, gas light with a mantle, and the light of an electric arc lamp, demonstrating how the different light sources alter our perception of the painting’s colors."

Blue, he remembered, takes on an artificial green tint by candlelight; if a dark blue like indigo or cobalt, it becomes black; if pale it turns to grey; and soft and true like turquoise, it goes dull and cold... The pearl greys lose their blue sheen and are metamorphosed into a dirty white; the browns become cold and sleepy... (Des Esseintes ponders the effects of light on color in Huysmans' Au Rebours)
Gas was introduced as public street lighting in London, on January 28, 1807, and it was a revolutionary thing. (Baltimore was the first US city to employ gas, in 1816.) It freed the night. Occasionally, I still notice the stubs of former gas "outlets" in Brooklyn brownstones and wonder what indoor life was like under those hissing fixtures.

An article in the
New Yorker a couple months ago, "The Dark Side", discussed light pollution and the fact that most people, especially in the eastern US, have never truly experienced nighttime darkness. The "perfect" 'pre-industrial' night is designated Class 1 on something called the Bortle Dark Sky scale. That elusive state is described with this striking detail: "certain regions of the Milky Way cast obvious diffuse shadows on the ground." The Milky Way-- which I have never seen-- casting a shadow sounds magical and nearly impossible to visualize. In that setting I can imagine a full moon's light could be stunningly luminous-- which renders the nighttime landscape, above, as not all that fantastical. "The very darkest places in the continental United States today,"according to the New Yorker article, "are almost never darker than Class 2 ... The sky above New York City is Class 9." To see the night sky as Galileo knew it (or as anyone pre-1820s or so would have known it) one would have to travel to the mountains of Peru or the Australian outback....

And what about that evening during the blackout, when I lit my candles and put the mirror to clever use? I'd love to say I found it soothing and meditative. Instead I reflexively kept getting up to turn on a light. I ended that little experiment early and went to sleep feeling slightly claustrophobic with a hint of panic.

Addendum: New York Times reports on the renovated Wrightsman Galleries of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan, which sound amazing...
In some rooms the light is lowered to an almost nocturnal darkness in order to show how Rococo artists used reflective, shiny surfaces — gilded metal ornaments; gold-leafed, carved elements; mirrors; polished lacquer — not only as luxurious objects but also to make the most of candlelight.The darker rooms appear to be lighted only by candles, with realistically flickering bulbs in chandeliers and sconces.
images: Kersting, woman sewing, 1823; Heimbach, man with oil lamp; Degas, Interior, 1868/9; William Stott of Oldham, CMS Reading by Gaslight, 1884; La Tour, Magdalene, 1636; Heimbach, Men in a Studio; Hogarth, Night, 1738; Joseph Wright of Derby, Dovedale by Moonlight, 1784, Heimbach, Nighttime Banquet, 1640; 


Anonymous said...

oh my

Dylan Trigg said...

A very lovely piece indeed. Bachelard has this to say on candles:

“Dreamer of words that I am, the word ‘lightbulb’ makes me laugh. Never can a lightbulb be familiar enough to take a possessive adjective. Who can say ‘my electric lightbulb’ in the same way that he once said my ‘lamp’?”

Hope all is well in Brooklyn.

maria r. said...

if you had lived pre-electric light you might have been an entirely different person... all jumpy and claustrophobic, etc. --as you described (would that have also been pre-eyeglasses? geez!). Or maybe, since you wouldn't know the difference, you'd have been calmer/relaxed. Who knows? up where i live, i enjoy seeing stars at night, especially over the Hudson river. too bad for all the arc lights over at West Pt.!

Marina said...

I just read a Japanese essay written in the 1930s called "In Praise of Shadows" and the aesthetics of shadows by candlelight are one of the things touched on. I highly recommend seeking it out if you get a chance.

angela said...

That sounds great— I will do a search for it. Thanks so much.


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