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Shades and shadows are the visual artist’s raw material, both modelling the lineaments of an object and giving it extension in space. But shadows are not only the building blocks of pictorial space, they are also metaphors. Shades in Hellenic culture were the souls of the dead in Hades. The undead vampire either casts no shadow, because he lacks an immortal soul, or else makes a demonic, rearing one, as in F.W. Murnau’s 1929 silent film Nosferatu. For Jung, the “shadow side” was (in part) an equivalent to Original Sin, the burden of primitive impulses that we drag around with us. Plato even more famously used the shadow to suggest our incomplete understanding of reality: a projection of the world on the back wall of the cave in which we are confined. Many of these ideas – what the catalogue calls “the element of magic which lies in the shadow” – are explored in the exhibition now at Compton Verney, having travelled from the Palazzo delle Papesse in Siena.

These installations, videos, sculpture and photography are almost all from the past 30 years, though most were made in the last 10. Of the older selections, there is a self-portrait by Warhol, in which his face, half turned towards the viewer, appears alongside the shadow of his profile, cast on to a glittering wall. From 1976 there is another self-portrait by Francesca Woodman, in which the nude artist is half glimpsed sitting on a chair, while her shadow on the floor takes on a form that bears little obvious relation to the shape of her body.

Several other pieces substitute shadows for actual three-dimensional bodies. Doug Aitken’s clever five- screen video “Lighttrain” tells a rudimentary story of a man, of whom only his shadow is seen, walking in the city, having a sexual encounter with a shadowy woman, being mugged by another mob of shadows, running away. Aitken’s manipulation of the images on the cruciform arrangement of screens is brilliant, at times kaleidoscopic, at others extending the field of vision, or repeating images in pulses.

A simpler video by the Indonesian artist Fiona Tan, “Downside Up”, consists of a steady shot of a patch of pavement swept by low sunlight. Here the passers-by cast shadows much larger than themselves and Tan’s trick is to photograph them from above with the contrast turned up, and the image upside down. Now shadows, seen “upright”, seem to constitute reality, while reality becomes its shadow’s shadow. Tan’s
is a movie-version of still photographic work by Marvin E. Newman from the 1950s, some of which is also shown here.

Other pieces operate on the “shadow-puppet” principle. Christian Boltanski’s small figurative silhouettes attain life on the wall by virtue of the candles that flicker in front of them, and Fabrizio Corneli’s ghostly Banksy-style wall image of a flying man is created by powerful lights shone upwards to cast the shadows of small cut-out shapes projecting from the wall.

Four paintings by the 17th-century French painter Georges de la Tour, and another by his son, have been borrowed from English collections to run alongside The Shadow. After 200 years of posthumous neglect, de la Tour’s 30-odd known works became famous during the last century for their extraordinary exploitation of candlelight and shadows to create a chiaroscuro atmosphere that (in his best canvasses) outdoes even Caravaggio.

In the finest of these works, “St Jerome Reading” from the Royal Collection, the bald and bearded saint peers myopically through one lens of his spectacles at a letter. It is not, as a matter of fact, one of the artist’s explicitly “candlelight” compositions, but never mind. The subtle translucency of the paper under the dim light is quite beautifully conveyed.

Exhibition continues until September 9, tel 1926 645 500

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