Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 14, 2019
William Chapman Sharpe Grasping Shadows: The Dark Side of Literature, Painting, Photography, and Film New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 440 pp.; 113 color ills.; 42 b/w ills.; 155 ills. Cloth $74.00 (9780190675271)

Is a shadow a “physical event” or a “matter of perception? A thing or an absence of something?”(7). In Grasping Shadows: The Dark Side of Literature, Painting, Photography, and Film, William Chapman Sharpe argues that the shadow—a phenomenon as illusory and mysterious as it is tangible and commonplace—is a crucial motif employed by artists and writers seeking to express humanity’s relationship to the “unseen.” In this ambitious feat of interdisciplinary criticism, Sharpe demonstrates methodologies such as the close formal analysis of image and text, psychoanalytic theory, and social history to articulate the varied ways in which artistic shadows come to symbolize that which is repressed, misunderstood, or cast aside from society or the self. This lavishly illustrated tome serves as a unique addition to the art historical bookshelf chiefly by performing a new way of seeing the objects of our study: iconic works of art by Andy Warhol or Rembrandt van Rijn, for instance, are unmoored from the art historical canon and reconsidered in connection to literary classics, operas, children’s books, advertisements, and Hollywood films. Indeed, one of Sharpe’s stated aims is to make “explicit the inescapable relation between literary and visual ideas of the shadow, between reading and seeing the shadow” (10). While the exercise is liberating, this encyclopedic scope can at times make for an admittedly disorienting read, as hundreds of works of art are assembled en masse in service of the author’s thesis while not always thoroughly or responsibly tended to on their own historical terms.

While Sharpe considers an impressive breadth of global visual culture, from antiquity through to the present, the book’s clear strength lies in his analysis of cultural production in the nineteenth century, the “era of artificial illumination” and the author’s own area of specialization (13). In Europe and the United States, social changes heralded by industrialization, urbanization, and the “arrival of gas and electricity transformed how people in the West lived, worked, looked, and represented their surroundings”; these technological advancements “lent modernity new sources of shadow” (13). Sharpe sketches a wider philosophical arc between the early modern period and the Age of the Enlightenment that supports his positioning of light and shadow as symbolic forces in art; however, the (many) examples that fall beyond this history—whether chronologically, geographically, or culturally—are less convincingly integrated with the book’s larger thesis, and thus feel like afterthoughts that merely diversify its range.

Sharpe proposes that there are four “types” of shadows that one may encounter in art and literature. These are distinguished by the shadow’s relationship to its caster, be it “a vital bond, a mere subservience, an essential need, or dramatic divorce” (37). The book’s methodological overview is followed by four chapters that each focus on these categories, and a concluding reflection on artistic shadows in contemporary urban space.

Chapter 1 makes the case that there is “no such thing as a ‘just plain’ shadow” (47). Sharpe’s examples are diverse; in Nelson Shanks’s official portrait of President Bill Clinton, for instance, the politician is haunted by the shadow of a blue dress that hangs beyond the frame, as if immortalizing the specter of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Sharpe also draws focus to a most diminutive shadow within Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. In this painting, “the faint shadow of a tiny nail” set into the wall acts as both pictorial device and divine presence; it “speaks of a tangible world in which light dominates . . . over the pain and death that nail and shadow signify” (50).

The book’s second chapter introduces the “Vital Shadow,” an art shadow that is characterized by the strength of its connection to that which casts it. This section opens with a founding narrative of art historiography, wherein the Roman historian Pliny the Elder claims that the art of painting originated with an act of “tracing lines round the human shadow” (81). Recounting Pliny’s story of a young woman who, distressed by the impending departure of her love, attempts to preserve his likeness by “trac[ing] the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of his lamp,” Sharpe describes the vital shadow as evocative of both presence and absence. Like photography, it captures the “magic of that moment when the making of a representation coincides with the physical presence of the person whose shadow is traced” (82).

Perhaps not exactly a shadow, ontologically speaking, the silhouette also falls under this heading as an image that likewise has been alleged to reveal some ‘truth” about its subject. Johann Caspar Lavater’s physiognomical silhouettes purportedly evinced the relationship between a person’s internal character and external appearance. This practice was later grafted onto pernicious tools of social order, from the eugenics movement to racial stereotyping in the Jim Crow era. Sharpe proposes that Kara Walker’s famously provocative silhouetted caricatures reveal the potency of such images in the present day, as “viewers fill in the outlines based on their culturally learned readings of facial features and historical roles” (133).

The “Look Elsewhere Shadow,” discussed in chapter 3, instead serves to guide our attention “fruitfully elsewhere” in space or time. In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” for instance, the philosopher enlists shadows to decry the deceitful illusion of art itself. Plato’s allegory is not about the shadow play viewed by the prisoners in the tale, but rather the reality behind these projections, the world of light about which the prisoners are ignorant. “Shadows do not tell the truth,” Sharpe paraphrases, but “if we recognize they are shadows, we can begin to make our way toward the truth” (146).

The next two art shadows are bewilderingly “separated from their casters” (72). Chapter 4 attends to the “Completing Shadow,” exemplified by stories wherein a protagonist gains or loses her own shadow. In Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl), for instance, the eponymous character sells his shadow for gold, only to realize all too late that one’s shadow is commensurate with “the real, full substance of a man, his potential as a . . . member of the human community” (195). The gained shadow, on the other hand, might represent a more benevolent outcome; in Konrad Witz’s 1445 painting depicting the Annunciation, for instance, a shadow cast toward the Virgin’s lap stands in for the divine blessing bestowed on her.

One of the most poignant passages in chapter 4 is Sharpe’s analysis of an iconic scene in the 1936 film Swing Time, in which Fred Astaire dances—in blackface—in front of a triple image of his own shadow. Astaire appears to replicate the early history of minstrelsy itself, which can been traced to an 1828 performance by Thomas D. Rice, who assumed the derogatory persona Jim Crow while copying “the moves of his African American instructor who was hidden behind a curtain” (210). Astaire, however, pays tribute to his African American predecessors who had gone unacknowledged and uncredited for their talents, particularly John W. Bubbles and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, to whom he felt indebted. The shadows sometimes dance ahead of Astaire, or with greater agility and virtuosity, but they eventually walk out, discouraged and dismissed.

Finally, Sharpe examines the “Independent Shadow,” an art shadow that “breaks free of its owner” and gains autonomy. Hans Christian Andersen utilizes this whimsical device in his 1847 story “The Shadow,” wherein a shadow comes to assert authority over its former master. The “upstart shadow” personifies Jung’s theory that we each have a shadow double, “lurking within, poised to act up or speak without warning” (239). Other independent shadows in art include William Kentridge’s animated shadow processions and, perhaps my favorite popular-culture example, the shadow play that illustrates the “Tale of the Three Brothers” in the 2010 film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

In his concluding chapter, “The City of Shadows,” Sharpe muses on the ubiquity of art shadows of urban spaces, from Aleksandr Rodchenko’s abstracted photographs of the shadows of metal grates to film noir and street art. While many of the artistic shadows discussed throughout the book exemplify the darker sides of history and the human imagination—the specters of death, racism, and greed—these final pages strike a more optimistic note, suggesting that the “shadow art of the nighttime city” can also serve as a point of connection or communication across the vast and impersonal metropolis. Modern city dwellers, he writes, must get to know shadows “in the company of others, grasping shadows in social space” (333).

Grasping Shadows is a passionately argued and truly interdisciplinary work of scholarship. Attentive readers will indeed be transformed by this new lens through which to perceive the formal nuances in art and literary narrative. Yet its immensity might also be its vice, as an abundance of artistic examples are granted cursory analysis. As the book is a broad intellectual exercise, one might justifiably ask for whom it is written, or exactly whose future research it stands to support. Had the author reigned in this encyclopedic impulse, there might have resulted a more incisive thesis about the “shadow side” of modernity itself—a concept compellingly indulged at times, only to be quickly abandoned. At its most effective, Grasping Shadows enables us to look beyond what an artwork, to use a tired cliché, “sheds light upon,” and to instead search out its hidden meanings. “When we bring shadows into consciousness,” as the author promises, “we see our world and the world of art in a whole new light” (2).

Allison Young
Assistant Professor of Art History, School of Art, Louisiana State University