“The art of fixing a shadow."

Pliny the Elder’s Natural History tells the story (also echoed by Turner) of the Maid of Corinth, who “was in love with a young man; and she, when he was going abroad, drew in outline on the wall the shadow of his face thrown by the lamp.” This scene, which has been represented often in Western art (fig. 1), expresses both pictures of desire in a single scene; it has its cake and eats it too. The shadow is not itself a living thing, but its likeness and projection of the young man are both metaphoric and metonymic, icon and index. It is thus a ghostly effigy that is “fixed” (as in a photographic process) by the tracing of the outline and (in Pliny’s further elaboration) eventually realized by the maiden’s father in a sculptural relief, presumably after the death of the departed lover. So the image is born of desire, is (we might say) a symptom of desire, a phantasmatic, spectral trace of the desire to hold on to the loved one, to keep some trace of his life during his absence. The “want” or lack in the natural image (the shadow) is its impermanence: when the young man leaves— in fact, when he moves a few feet— his shadow will disappear. Drawing, like photography, is seen to originate in the “art of fixing the shadow.” The silhouette drawing, then, expresses the wish to deny death or departure, to hold on to the loved one, to keep him present and permanently “alive”— as in Bazin’s “mummified image” in the film still.

Of course, this last remark suggests that the picture could equally well be read as the symptom of a wish for the young man’s death, a (disavowed) desire to substitute a dead image for the living being. The picture is as much about “unbinding” the bonds of love, letting the young man depart, disintegrating the imaginary unity of his existence into the separable parts of shadow, trace, and substance. In the world of image magic, the life of the image may depend on the death of the model, and the legends of “stealing the soul” of the sitter by trapping his image in a camera or a manual production would be equally relevant here. We can imagine the young woman coming to prefer her depicted or (even better) sculpted lover as a more pliable and reliable partner, and rejecting the young man should he ever return to Corinth.

Mitchell, W. J. T.. What Do Pictures Want? (pp. 67-68). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

1. Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, The Origin of Drawing, engraving from Oeuvres posthumes, 1819. Photograph courtesy of The University of Chicago Library.

2. Passersby, Covertness_Oil bar on Linen_34x22cm_2013