Surely the original shape-shifter was the moon. Appealed to for divine intervention, it could almost be the visible version of a Higgs boson particle. The thought occurred to me while I was reading James Attlee's book Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight (2011). In it, Attlee makes the odd comment that it took artists a surprisingly long time to learn how to represent the moon in a naturalistic way that an ordinary person would recognize. Really?
What about E.H. Gombrich's idea (in Art and Illusion - 1960) that artists paint what they know, rather than what they see? If you look at Jean-Paul Van Lith's ceramic moon you might see it as a cry of anguish, but probably not after you discover that he titled it Fish Moon.
To the Futurists, especially who were enamored of speed and electricity, the moon was a symbol of antique superstitions that would be superseded by the light of a thousand electric bulbs. “Let’s murder the moonlight!” was a typical bombastic proclamation from Filippo Marinetti, the man who called himself “the caffeine of Europe.” The kinder, gentle painter Giacomo Balla was so elated by his visit to he Palais d’Electricite at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 that he named his two daughters Luce and Electricita. His Street Lamp – Study of Light (1909) shows a moon that is weak and ineffectual. Morgencolla, the old English term for night terror, is a state mind attenuated by modern life.
On the moon trail, Gottfried Treviranus discovered two types of photosensitive cells in the human eye around 1834: cones and rods. Later Max Schulze proposed a duplex retina operating at two different levels – one is bright and sensitive to color, the other is dull and monochromatic, the moon level if you will. Below a level measured at 50 per cent moonlight the eyes switch to rods alone to provide scotopic vision. Mesopic vision is an intermittent blend of signals from both types of receptors. This explains why moonlight looks natural to us, and not a failure of our eyes and also why black and white photography looks realistic to us.
Both the Chinese and the Japanese have seen rabbits in the shadows on the moon. The Chinese version is a scholarly hare while the Japanese version is a rascally rabbit. Tsukumi,, the autumn Moon Festival also has two faces, the religious observance of Shinto believers and the harvest festival of Japanese farmers. In Japanese mocha-zuki means both to pound rice” and “the full moon.” Festival rice dumplings called moon cakes are served on a tray with the seven ornamental grasses of autumn. The tray is placed on a window sill where the moonlight will will touch it.
1. Granville Redmond - Rising Moon. Tiburon, 1916, Oakland Museum of Art.
2. Jean-Paul Van Lith, Fish-Moon, 1974, National Ceramics Museum, Sevres.
3. Charles Rollo Peters - The Other Nocturne, undated, private collection - California.
4. Jean-Francois Millet, Park with Sheep in the Moonlight, c. 1872, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
5. Unknown artist/Icheda Gomei-publisher - Rabbit In The Moon (New Year's card), 1915, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.