An exhibition of nocturnal imagery by 60 artists throws light into dark corners, finds Laura Gascoigne
Turner’s last words, ‘The sun is God’, may be apocryphal, but, for a painter of light on landscape, they make perfect sense. It is light, after all, that reveals three-dimensional form and, without it, artists can’t see to paint.
night painting should, by this logic, be a contradiction in terms, yet painters have long been fascinated by the dark. In the 17th century, following Caravaggio, they competed to see how little light could be shed on their subjects before they were engulfed in total darkness; in the 19th century, twilight became the test of tonal mastery, before Vincent van Gogh rose to the challenge of painting starlight and created the most famous nocturne in art history.
Because night painting has to be an art of the imagination, it continues to appeal to contemporary artists. The painter and printmaker Tom Hammick has made something of a speciality of it, professing ‘a deep attachment to the velvet dark, to the stars above my studio and to the blue-black outline of trees against an infinitesimally less dark sky’, so when he was asked to curate an exhibition for Towner Art Gallery in eastbourne, the choice of theme was easy. What has emerged is a diverse display of some 100 paintings, prints and drawings exploring the hours between sunset and sunrise and, in the process, shining a light into the deepest recesses of the artistic imagination.
reaching back 250 years, the exhibition, titled ‘Towards night’, is determinedly non-chronological. Familiar masterpieces from national collections have never been seen in such unfamiliar company: Caspar David Friedrich’s Winter Landscape (about 1811) hangs alongside a Crucifixion (2005) by Craigie Aitchison; J. M. W. Turner’s Fishermen at Sea (1796) is partnered with Alfred Wallis’s Voyage to Labrador (about 1935–6). Only an artist could have made these connections, but they work. Part of the point of the selection, for Mr Hammick, is to show how artists have learnt from each other through history and are still learning.
What it also shows, in passing, is how radically our perceptions of darkness have changed. There are no candles or flaming torches in this exhibition: in their place, we have the cold-blue cathode-ray glow of Danny Markey’s TV Room at Night (2008), the sudden flare of susie Hamilton’s Blue Petrol Station (1996) and the fluorescent-orange glare of the reflective tailgate on nick Bodimeade’s Gas Truck (2001). By comparison, the arc of roadside trees caught by the lights of a vintage Lagonda in Gertrude Hermes’s Through the Windscreen (1929) seems wonderfully romantic.
nightlife also seems to have lost its glamour. There are no
Marc Chagall’s painting The Poet Reclining (1915) was a childhood favourite of Tom Hammick