Take a brief glance at the development of Western art, and we will find that, from Ancient Greece to Byzantium, and on through the Middle Ages, paintings often appear two-dimensional; the figures are like paper cut outs, and painters had not worked out (or were disinterested in) how to represent perspective. Art during these times was deeply linked to the Church, and was less concerned about what was real, and more about what was grand or magnificent. The use of gold and other bright colours were favoured over true, lifelike hues.
Paolo Veneziano, The Crucifixion, c. 1340
A few hundred years later Renaissance art had become less associated with idealism and leaned more towards Humanism. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio began to study the human body and nature in deeper detail. These artists sought a revival of classical figures, and discovered ways of depicting perspective. But most importantly, they explored the interplay of light and shade. This technique of contrasting light with shadow is known as chiaroscuro. It brought art alive, it gave it form and definition. It acknowledged shadow and darkness as an equal and important part of the entire picture. This study of light and shade revolutionised art, and the technique would later be perfected by artists such as Rembrant, Rubens, and van Dyck.
Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, 1602
In a similar way that the Renaissance artists discovered the importance of shade, the darkness that surrounds our own lives should not be ignored. Depression and other mental illnesses can often feel like a dramatic turning point and departure from convention. The sudden introduction of a mass shadow that darkens the canvas of our existence forces us to question everything we have hitherto known.
Society tells us constantly that we must maintain an appearance of normality; that we should ‘keep our chin up’, ‘cheer up’, that ‘it can’t be that bad’. But what if it can be? What if it’s simply not possible to maintain equilibrium? Should we then feel ashamed that we have somehow failed in our own depiction of life?
Common sense tells us that happiness is a state of being when things are going right. It is a commute to work where all lights turn green, it is walking hand-in-hand in sunshine after rain, the taste of ice cream in a summer breeze, a kiss in the arms of love under starlight. Happiness feels like a Byzantine painting — gleaming and uncomplicated.
However, once we have experienced an episode of profound sadness and loss, it opens our eyes, widens our palette of experience. Life becomes a Renaissance painting in which darkness exists alongside happiness, the joy with the anguish, ecstasy with despair, light with shade.
If we become accustomed to fixing our gaze only at one point on the canvas, it can be disorienting when our perspective suddenly shifts. But, if we stand back so that we may appreciate life’s entire complexity then, perhaps we will realise that contentment comes from acknowledging our own chiaroscuro. Contentment then, may be less about the eradication of shadow or desire for constant light, than it is about an appreciation that life’s surface must contain a blend of moments that both glisten and darken. Without this contrast, things would appear flat, formless, and lacking in definition. If we value true representation and depth of experience, then we must acknowledge that we are defined by both states at once at all times.
Centuries later, Expressionists would explore this connection between the external canvas and the inner turmoil of our lives. Munch and van Gogh speak to us not because we recognise realism in their work, but because we acknowledge the delineation of existential anguish within their brushstrokes.
Edvard Munch, Melancholy, 1891