Obscure and yet light… that may sound like a strange set of words to put together but this is what the Italian word Chiaroscuro derives from. The term has traditionally been used to describe an oil painting technique that rely on the contrasts between light and dark to emulate three-dimensional forms. - SB
Originating from the Renaissance, the most famous artists to have used this method are Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643), Caravaggio, (1573-1610) and Rembrandt (1606-1669). Mystery and depth have long since been conveyed through the manipulation of dark and light, especially in art, where painters darkened backgrounds and lit the forefront to create atmosphere. This method has successfully been adapted into film, creating the most iconic and recognisable imagery of cinematic history, think film noir.
Despite the origins of the use of chiaroscuro in cinema not being clear, there are two works that have been credited as the first examples. The 1915 film The Warrens of Virginia is perhaps the earliest film to have applied the terminology. However, it wasn’t until the German Expressionist movement, that the manipulation of light and dark truly became influential in cinema. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), is a German silent horror film, iconic for its dark visual style – a true quintessential German Expressionist film that has gone on to influence generations of filmmakers.
What ultimately grew from this art was a cinematic lighting style, which became known as film noir. Popular during the 1940s and ‘50s, it was known for glitzy productions and femmes fatales, these movies used black and white to convey danger and intrigue. The visuals were only heightened by the silver clouds of cigarette smoke, creating layers and obscurity in scenes with brooding characters.
More recent examples of chiaroscuro in film can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon, Sin City (2005) and its 2014 sequel. This just goes to show how long-lasting and useful the technique has become over the centuries; the dichotomy of light and dark will be one to inspire many mediums to come. It also shows how the movement has almost gone a full circle, by going from colour paintings via black and white via noir cinema and back into colour in modern film. Some modern filmmakers have even gone back to using just black and white, to heighten the drama of the film for a modern day audience. Explore a few of the key films that have been exponents of this lighting method, from 1950s noir to 21st Century dramas here. Fans of the painting technique, or of baroque art in general, will be interested to discover the exhibition
Beyond Caravaggio which will open at the Scottish National Gallery on 17th June 2017. This display of sublime Renaissance works will be Scotland’s first ever to exhibit the works of Caravaggio and his followers.Caravaggio’s use of dramatic lighting has managed to inspire generations of painters, such as Gentileschi, Ribera, Valentin and Ter Brugghen, all of whom will be featured in the exhibition.
The Big Combo
This 1955 flick follows Lt. Leonard Diamond on a hunt to catch the gangster Mr. Brown. The final scene (watch below) features a famous example of black and white imagery in the noir genre.
Disturbing and darkly comic, Delicatessen (1991) is directed by Amelie mastermind Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The film is post-apocalyptic and bleak, shot entirely in a sickly yellow filter that makes the views supremely uncomfortable.
The Neon Demon
The Neon Demon, another film by Refn, was just as shocking as his previous film upon opening to audiences. The euphoric soundtrack perfectly captures the vibes of the director’s striking employment of light and colour.
The Man Who Wasn’t There
The 2001, Coen brothers-directed film is shot in black and white and set in the 1940s- a seamless blend of modern filmmaking and homage.
Good Night, and Good Luck
A period drama but not really a crime noir, Good Night, And Good Luck still retain a tense tone, thanks to the chiaroscuro technique employed by George Clooney, who both directs and stars in this film.
Only God Forgives
Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychological thriller was a controversial entry in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Vibrant but shockingly violent, the film’s use of neon light catapults the noir genre into modern times.
The Taking of Christ, 1602
The Supper at Emmaus, 1601
BEYOND CARAVAGGIO 17 June – 24 September 2016
Scottish National Gallery