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Let there be 'Light!'



Published: Sun, May 27, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



When you sit on the bench across from Vincent van Gogh's painting of fellow artist Gauguin's armchair, you focus on the obvious. A red and blue wooden chair contrasts with a brilliant green wall. Thick yellow brush strokes on a multicolored floor represent reflections of light from a candle and wall sconce.

But wait 30 seconds. The image of the painting created in 1888 changes. As the light sources switch from natural daylight to open gas flame to incandescent gas flame and finally electric arc light, you gain a new appreciation of how illumination affects perception.

The Van Gogh painting is only one example of how the science of light has influenced art and technology. The artwork is part of a major interdisciplinary exhibition called "Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900, Art & amp; Science, Technology & amp; Society" running through July 29 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

Art and science: Visitors should plan to spend at least an hour examining this fascinating combination of art and science at the museum, located in the Oakland area of the city. The exhibit combines more than 300 works of well-known artists with scientific and historical objects. Besides Van Gogh, the creations of Claude Monet, Paul Signac, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Joseph Mallord and William Turner hang in the gallery. Scientific breakthroughs by Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse are explained.

"Light!" was organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art in partnership with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where it was previously on view.

Self-guided tour: A free, recorded audio tour gives a thorough overview of the components. The tour is self-directed as visitors can digitally access information based on the number assigned to the exhibit piece.

Interactive components may keep school-aged children engaged while parents and grandparents examine some of the scientific and art work. Several early black and white films run continuously on screens and televisions throughout the exhibit.

The artwork includes drawings, paintings, etching, sculpture, photography and film. Some art is part of the Carnegie's permanent collection. Curators worked more than four years to bring together all the components of the show.

"Light is a fundamental element of life and something that can be either taken for granted or have a physical presence and physical effects -- something that is just as true for each of us as it is for the scientist and artist," said Louise Lippincott, co-organizer of the exhibition and curator of fine arts at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

"The exhibition is all about experience -- how we experience light vs. how scientists and artists of that era experienced and portrayed it," she added.

Five sections: Organized in five sections, the exhibit begins as visitors enter a dark room -- almost the absence of light. Immediately, your attention is drawn to a multicolored lighted rainbow -- light projected through a prism onto a dark wall. The works of Isaac Newton, whose optical theories inspired generations of scientists, artists, inventors and the public, are displayed.

Rare books including Benjamin Franklin's copy of a treatise that explains Newton's work are featured in the first section, called "Rays of Light."

The second section addresses the light of nature. The work of Van Gogh as well as paintings from Paul Signac and Albert Bierstadt demonstrate how the artists interpreted variations of light and shadow.

Two of Claude Monet's famous paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, at dawn and in morning light, show subtle differences in color intensity and shading.

Walking into the next section, called "Makers of Light," visitors discover how man harnessed energy. The exhibit is divided into light created by nature, the state and industry.

A variety of candleholders, oil lamps and gas lamps and electric bulbs are displayed in the next section. Another of Van Gogh's lithographs, "The Potato Eaters," depicts a peasant family gathered around a table sharing food under a single light source. In contrast, a Tiffany table lamp represents more decorative and sophisticated light sources that were available for the wealthy.

The final display illustrates how lighting in public places changed the way of life, particularly at night. One large painting by Hippolyte Camille Delpy depicts a street in Paris illuminated by both outdoor gas lights and internal lighting penetrating through glass windows.

Free tours are available Tuesday through Friday at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Thursday evening tours are at 7 p.m.

Art Nouveau tiles: After you've roamed through the "Light!" exhibit, don't miss the Art Nouveau tiles from the collection of James Baker that are on display in the Carnegie Museum's treasure room through June 24.

Displayed under bright lights and glass, the 294 glazed tiles represent examples of decorative arts that were popular in Europe and America from the 1890s to 1914.




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