Gurdjieff International Review

Light, Lighting and Illumination

Alexandre de Salzmann


lthough all men have eyes, few men experience with their eyes. It is therefore difficult to clarify with words the problems concerning light. This can easily be verified by experiments which not even lighting technicians are in a position to challenge. They trust their measurements more than their eyes and they think calculated levels of luminosity represent absolute values. But, for the eye, and therefore for the impression upon the eye the only thing that matters are effects, relative words. To learn to see these is what it means to experience with the eyes.

For example:

A man who wishes to take in a sunny landscape does not hide himself in a dark cellar in order to enjoy the splendor of the sun streaming through a small square window. All he would get from that would be a glaring circus effect. No, what he does is to place himself in the midst of the sunlight.

The lighting of our theatres resembles this dark cellar. Through the contrast between the darkness in the audience and the brightness on stage they try to achieve the illusion of sunlight. But, for this illusion they sacrifice all the nuances of color in the image; strong contrast destroys all the details of form and color.

Diffuse light—daylight without sun—heightens color values and allows contours to speak. One need only set a still life—preferably one with good colors on it—near a window and allow the light that falls upon it to pass through a piece of white tissue paper. Unless you are color blind, you will see how the colors begin to glow, how the contours soften without losing clarity, how everything becomes harmonized...

Light must be like an orchestral instrument whose crescendos and diminuendos conform to the entire musical score. One can even think of light as a musical scale in which the notes from E above middle C to A above high C comprise a succession of increasing intensities of white light, while from E above middle C downwards, the various tones of color are mixed in with the white light. The complete absence of light corresponds to silence.

If the musical qualities of light are to be developed, the source of light must be invisible. The light must be as mobile and free-floating as a musical tone.

Movement is music visible in rhythmic bodily exercise. Not more and not less. More and yet less would be an animated picture, that is, literature with unliterary expressions, or acting without words, i.e. pantomime, in which one is always wondering why the people aren’t talking. It is important—for us very important—to hold fast to this point. For us, too much expression is a greater danger than too little.

Light conforms to music. Music animates movement. Light clarifies movement. Not that it makes movement visible, that is, knowable. The how is everything. Only through light can movement take on form and expressiveness. However, this is only possible when light plays the role of a milieu. Light must be for movement what a sounding board is for a musical tone. More, even! It must so affect the movements that it and the music together comprise one psychic force. Movements of tone and color should express one and the same thing. This is felt by the performer whose rhythmically moving body makes it visible to others. We feel it with him; we see and hear the same thing at the same time.

For us, then, light does something more than tell stories about the sun, moon and stars. We do not demand of it that it produce effects. Nor must it make things pretty, nor evoke moods. It must only give to colors, surfaces, lines, bodies and movements the possibility of unfolding themselves. None of these elements should act at the other’s expense least of all the lighting itself, which should function as a binding force. A “reverberating light”—that is what we seek. Needless to say, such light must fill all the space at hand, including both the audience and the performers. □

Originally published in the journal, Der Rhythmus, Jena, Germany, 1912. The English translation used herein was published in Material for Thought, Summer 1972, and is used here with the kind permission of the publisher. The image is from the play Salome by Oscar Wilde, with the scenography of Alexandra External (1882–1949) and the lighting of Alexandre de Salzmann. The first performance took place on October 9, 1917.


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Featured: Winter 2018/2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (1)
Revision: August 15, 2020