Night vi­sion

An ex­hi­bi­tion of noc­tur­nal im­agery by 60 artists throws light into dark cor­ners, finds Laura Gas­coigne

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

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

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