From Cave Wall to City Hall: A short history of light art


Light has been one of our greatest tools and served as an integral facet of beauty, art and the artistic process as far back as mankind has existed to appreciate it. In a long drawn out way, we can even say it all started with the French: The Cro-Magnons, already touted for being the first graffiti artists, were also the first to use light in art, taking torches to light the way as they painted the depths of caves in Ardèche in what is now southern France.

Since then, light has been one of the most explored and employed concepts in the artistic process. Painters use unexpected combinations of colors to capture its many hues, writers employ the black and white word to evoke its vivid nuances in the reader’s eye, photographers manipulate it to striking effect, cinema has harnessed it to create moving images, theater productions, performers, musicians, magicians – all kinds of artists have assumed the use of light to bring visual attention to their ideas and to interact with audiences.

Light art as a genre has several subcategories and can refer to the use of artificial light as subject, tool, or medium. To take an overly simplistic view, it can be divided into a tangible form, as captured in photography, or a non-tangible form, through light projection.

Light painting dates back to the very inception of photography and refers to the photographic technique of moving either the camera or the light source to create tracks of light on the image. George Demeny’s “Pathological Walk from in Front” in 1889 provides an early example of the use of long exposure to create light trails.

Man Ray officially began exploring light painting as a technique in the 1930s, leading to further experiments by French painter and abstract expressionist, Georges Mathieu in the 1950s, Dean Chamberlain in the 1970s, even Picasso, and on and upward to contemporary light graffiti artists such as France’s Chanette Manso and Michel Séméniako, TCB (Twin City’s Brightest), and LAPP Pro, among many others.

The projected forms of light art really start to come onto the scene in the 1960s, built on a foundation created by artists such as Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Argentinian Gyula Kosice. According to Bluoin ArtInfo, in the middle of the decade  “a loosely affiliated cadre of artists based in Southern California, including Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Doug Wheeler — frustrated by the limitations of abstract painting — turned their attention away from the creation of conventional art objects and towards sensory perception itself.” Elsewhere, the 60s saw a French artist again at the artistic crossroads in François Morellet and his minimalist, geometric, light sculptures.

Morellet, Turrell, and countless others experimented with everything from the most basic of light sources – fire – to floodlights, fluorescents, projectors, and glass microspheres, interspersed with traditional and innovative supports.

The result of their curiosity was a new era of exploration into how we perceive and interact with the world around us, in both an abstract sense and the very real experience of our own towns and cities.

In Lyon, France, this synergistic experience of light, art, and life has taken on a radical identity. Now an epicenter of urban lighting, Lyon has also become host of one of the largest and first light festivals in the world, its annual Fête des Lumières (Festival of Light). The festival unites experts in light technology and light art for a weekend celebration that brings life not only to residents (and over 80 million visitors!), but even to the buildings and public spaces of the city itself.

Like moths to the flame, mankind has been attracted to light for eons. It’s a testament to its capacity for inspiration that, in addition to manipulating light for its functional value, we have endlessly been fascinated with it as a medium to create beauty and artistic dialogue.


Bask in the lumière December 13-20 for the first ever DC edition of Fête des Lumières, inspired by the original festival in Lyon.


Photos borrowed from:
Light Painting Photography
Hostel Bookers
Info Travel
France and Beyond
Parole de Maman
Neo Amusement


Jennifer has worked for AFDC since 2011 in various positions. She gets giddy over learning French terms and phrases and collects them for her own enjoyment and that of AFDC readers. She sporadically muses about words, language, and other scattered ideas at

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