The Museum of Shadows

For Aleš Pohorsky

Gérard Macé

Illustration by Michela Caputo

It fell to Kafka's city to invent the Museum of Shadows, or at least give it a home. With its outsize castle and its dark narrow streets, its spectacular Baroque style, and its passion for magic lanterns, no other city in the world seemed better suited, chosen I should say, to welcoming this most unpredictable, ephemeral and elusive of subjects. And the least easy to curate, unlike the heterogeneous objects which clutter all our museums, from furniture and toys to old ploughs, a whole world of bric-a-brac now the domain of modern art as well, which is itself sometimes nothing more than its own never-ending last cry.

In my language the museum of shadows sounds like the museum of amber, and with an 'L' in front like the museum of London. I thought I had got it wrong when I first heard of this unlikely place, I was in Vilnius and it was hard to imagine a museum of London in the middle of Lithuania, but there might well have been a museum of amber, a resin found in abundance on the shores of the Baltic, moulded against ancient icebergs and by the waves always new and different, and fossilised over countless millennia. Rings and necklaces the colour of honey are made from it, the colour of fly-paper too, and sometimes you can see insects trapped in them.

But it really was a museum of shadows, and as the astonishment of it set my imagination free I started filling Malá Strana with light-footed dancing forms, even more intangible than the ones of broad day-light. But shadows cannot survive as phantasmagorias, and having no body they need reality, so I decided to visit Prague again and see this completely different type of museum.

It was winter, and the museum is only open from April to September; there was even work going on, they were using the closure to rebuild the space which is now the auditorium and screening room. So I took to the streets for a few grey, rainy days, and it began to snow, as luck would have it: the city starts to appear and disappear, and you are on the edge of another world. Snow is the underside of darkness, or rather it is a white darkness that falls in other places than black darkness does: at the bottom of a sink, on surfaces where no one walks, in the folds of peoples' clothes, on statues blackened by the weather, on the edges of anything where it can fall without immediately melting. I avoided the castle during those walks (to keep the inaccessibility it has in Kafka, but also because it is too big, too official, with many courtyards and endless doorways, and the keepers of the peace are only soldiers in their Sunday best) and I would go past the Museum of Shadows time after time, and look up at its far from mute facade.

The building which is home to the museum has a history of its own. It was built by a Job of a man (but without divine intervention or any of that horrible nonsense) who lived through times of plenty, then bankruptcy, then made his fortune again. His name was Rotlev, he was a bourgeois from Prague and he owned open-roofed silver mines in Kutná Hora at a time when they were extremely important to the Kingdom of Bohemia. After a time of plenty, the resources of the hillside ran dry and Rotlev was staring at bankruptcy; so he took out a loan against a veil woven in threads of gold belonging to his wife, and paid the wages of his workers one last time. His generosity seems to have been rewarded: his workers discovered another vein, and with luck once again on his side Rotlev reclaimed his wife's veil from the broker and built the house in Havelska which he called U ZAVOJE (The Veil); and he had a short dedication carved in relief just under the eaves which gives the essence of this moral tale.

There was nothing for it but to come back in spring or summer, which are better suited in any case to shadows and tourists. The house was the same with only one difference, which was that the current proprietor (or rather curator, and made for the post too, with his passion for danse macabre) had put a sundial on the front which gave the establishment a sign, provided the insignia for its letterhead and its publications, as well as the design for the crockery on sale in the shop. Nihil sine sol, nothing without sunlight: the motto on the sundial captures the spirit of the museum, and apparently the curator planned to open only when the stylus casts a shadow, but was put off by the difficulties involved.

On the stairs up to the first floor (the light from a traditional casement window is reflected in a pattern on the steps, making a variable geometry like a sundial with living and moving frets, but no shadow is really there, or if so a light shadow not a dark one, with shapes paler than its outlines), on the stairs visitors meet with their first surprise: an individual in a wig like a master of ceremonies stops them for a second, draws their profile on the wall in chalk or charcoal, using the shadow they cast in the oblique shaft of light. The crowd of visitors (perhaps a small one, depending on the day) has more substance than in other museums. The night-watchman even photographs the wall every evening, after which he rubs away the outlines of the strangers superimposed on each other, or facing one another, but the traces they leave are still preserved each day in a special golden book, which is turning into a one-off and unique work of art people can ask to see if they want.

The first room leading from the landing is devoted to Plato and his inevitable cave, but instead of shadows, which would be a ponderous illustration of Plato's famous allegory, there are only books: all the translations of this by now mythic idea into every possible language. This paper Tower of Babel, which is supposed to call to mind a cave and not a tower at all, illustrates an obvious but profound thought: any translation is only the shadow of an original to which it seeks to remain true, but which it nonetheless deforms. And visitors can see for themselves: the original Greek is displayed on one of the empty walls, and they can read the translation in the nineteenth-century edition of Larousse which I opened: "Imagine, Glaucon, an underground cave with its wide entrance facing the light, and imagine men chained there since their childhood with their legs and neck so tightly fastened that they can neither move nor turn their heads, and they see only what is in front of them. Their light comes from a fire a little way above and behind them. A path rises up between the fire and the prisoners, imagine a little wall there like the screen which actors in a play put in front of their spectators, above which all their marvels appear. Imagine too that men pass in front of this wall carrying objects of all kinds and which appear above the wall: statues of men and animals, in wood and stone, in a many different shapes. Some are talking, some are quiet. Now you will say, what a strange picture you are showing me, and strange prisoners too. Well, strange is our nature as well. Unable to move for the duration of their lives, the men see of themselves and their fellow prisoners only the shapes drawn by the light of the fire on the wall in front of them; and of the objects moving behind them they see also only the shadow. Were they able to converse, they would certainly call real the objects whose shadow they see stirring on the wall; and if there was an echo in the prison, whenever a passer-by should happen to speak they would believe it was the shadow passing in front of them which was speaking. In short, the captives confer reality only upon shadows." And so it goes on: the prisoner blinded by the light of truth; his painful return to the world of shadows which he can no longer even see; and Plato goes on to comment on the soul rising to the realm of the Good, forever inaccessible to those who remain.

To complete the picture, so to speak, there are a few works on the subject displayed under lights in the study on the first floor: Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows to begin with, an essay which seems to flow like ink from the tip of a brush and in which the author, without denying the Enlightenment or the benefits of electricity, deplores the destruction more or less everywhere of all those dark recesses, all the refuges for meditation and the body's intimate needs; then Victor Stoichita's Short History of the Shadow, Chamisso's The Wondrous Story of Peter Schlemihl, which begins a new era in the far from short history of this idea, the score and the libretto of Die Frau ohne Schatten, books on daylight demons and Chinese theatre, and on the magic lantern as well, a collection of scripts from Seraphim's Theatre, Michael Baxendall's Shadows and Enlightenment, and of course Gombrich's Shadows: that lecture was commissioned by the museum on the occasion of its inauguration in 1993, although it was published a little later by the National Gallery of London as an essay to go with an exhibition which was beyond the means of the Czech government. If Gombrich had narrowed his focus he might have called his lecture On Shadows Cast in Paintings, but he draws on draughtsmen and photographers as well as Pontormo, Holbein, Turner, Caravaggio and de Chirico, and this allows him to reproduce his Self-Portrait at Sunset. His shadow stretches out on the pavement, possibly a street in London; it raises a walking stick, and a camera which viewers can only guess at, but which provides for this knowing little piece of self-reflection.

The second-floor landing is where children can play; they have already forgotten the time, not really so long ago, when they were first aware of their own shadow and also their mirror-image, but they still try and tread on their shadow as though testing the reality of their bodies. One hand over the other, fingers bent, now they are being shown how to make the shadow of a wolf on the wall, or an ass, or a duck, or the devil: budding artists all, dragged away a little later by their parents to the room on Pliny and the invention of painting. In his Natural History Pliny tells the story of a Corinthian virgin (although this is an Egyptian legend) in love with a young man preparing for a long journey, and she wanted to keep his image by her: she drew the outline of his shadow on the wall, which others then coloured in, and her father who was a potter filled it in with clay, which means that the origin of painting merges with the origin of sculpture, but as ever this is a story of love and simulacra, of absence and idolatry. The Pliny room is given over each year to a contemporary artist, and when I was there I saw the work of Markus Raetz. Using the widest possible range of materials, and above all his childlike but complex sensibility, this artist has been catching out his viewers for some thirty years with the illusions he creates from the effects of images. A flimsy arrangement of twisted wire and twigs turned into human figures in profile, when reflected in a mirror; and an assemblage of aluminium shapes, whose pattern created a mobile space which looked like nothing in particular, also turned into a human face when viewers saw it in the mirror. The exhibition was rounded off with a series of graphite drawings, very precise, always surprising, which seemed to pre-suppose the power to see double.

The third floor is devoted to astronomy, or at least the solar system, with equipment no more complicated than was used in lessons long ago, when an orange and a candle were enough explain to the coming of the night; in those days you could still hold on to the mane of a comet. At the door of what is in effect the planetarium sometimes there is a mountebank plying his trade, just to add a bit of excitement. But the planets can do it for themselves, they complete their revolutions in very quick time, and the machinery reproduces the twenty-four hour cycle in fifteen minutes. The most spectacular effect is unsurprisingly the play of shadows on the cuts and bumps of the Earth shown in relief; and also the total eclipse of the sun, on show every day but never at the same time.

The theatre of shadows is on the next floor, and I prefer it to the celestial machinery below, it is easy to imagine Javanese puppets and Chinese shadow puppeteers as regular guests there and honoured residents. Seraphim's Theatre of the Eighteenth Century has not been overlooked either, a large part of its repertory is on display: short but complete plays such as The Broken Bridge, Harlequin the Corsair, The Impresario, Cassandra's Wig, and The Cavern of the Black Forest, and also the intermezzi and pantomimes with titles to make you wonder, like Orpheus in Hell, about which nothing is known although people remember seeing it. "There is enough detail to understand what is happening. To add anything would damage the poetry": let me also follow the example of what Artaud says about this theatre.

Nor would it be a good idea to say everything there is to say about The Museum of Shadows, but I should add that in this place dedicated to silence, where visitors are faced with their own anxieties and the magic of the world, and with an image of themselves which neither the laws of optics nor of philosophy can fully explain (and perhaps philosophy frequently flatters to deceive, in spite of its apparent realism), heated debates do occur during the annual conference held in the auditorium. On the real nature of shadows, which has even overtaken the argument about the sex of angels; on the relation of shadow to soul (we know since Borges that theology is branch of the fantastic); on the difference between a shadow and a reflection, following a memorable screening of The Student from Prague, the film adaptation of Chamisso's book made as early as 1913 (although in that masterpiece of silent cinema, the unfortunate student has lost his image rather than his shadow and is horrified at the sight of blank mirrors).

As you might imagine, Chamisso has held pride of place at these conferences ever since the inaugural one, his story of a man who loses his shadow (why nobody thought of it before is hard to know, but apparently everything comes at its appointed time) is probably being whispered quietly in the ear of every visitor, just as Peter Schlemihl might be the museum's guardian angel, ambivalent like the angel of the bizarre and sad like an angel in the Fall. There have been plenty of predictable interpretations (castration and the death of God have each tried to cut themselves the biggest piece of the pie). Commentaries centred on the similarities of Schlemihl to Faust (Schlemihl sells his soul to the devil in person) and to The Wandering Jew (Peter refuses to sell his soul to regain his shadow, although he does exchange a purse full of gold for a pair of seven-league boots which turn him into a nomad for all eternity) have been more precise, and more factual too. Still more compelling are the readings which compare the character to his author. Chamisso was born in France to a family forced into exile during the Revolution, his loyalties remained divided between nationalities, languages, and his several vocations; like Peter he travelled far and became a botanist, searching perhaps for the mandrake or the Blue Flower of the Romantics. A character like the shadow of his own author is a theme which over the years has prompted a number of variations.

Die Frau ohne Schatten has been the subject of a colloquium at the museum, but the proceedings have not been published. Without music they would have been tedious in any case, especially as much of the time was spent comparing recordings, including the one made by Leonie Rysanek in Prague in the 1950s. I would still have liked to read the paper with the engaging title on the relation in the opera between shadow and echo. But to illuminate the shadow lands which join Chamisso to Hofmannsthal would spoil the pleasure, and next year's colloquium on The Kingdom of Shadows is eagerly awaited. Orpheus in Hell will be revived, and the black ship of Ulysses sailing away from Circe the sorceress will be recalled once again. Libations on the shores of the river Oceanus flowing around the whole world will once again come to mind, along with animal sacrifices and the search for meaning. The cries of the dead will once again ring in our ears, and no longer will we be deceived as to the true nature of shadows, which the Ancients understood so clearly. Following in the footsteps of Ulysses as he talks with Tiresias, and then with Oedipus and Phaedra too as though he already knew the whole world's tragic works, once again we will understand that the land without light of which Homer speaks is not simply a theatre, and that from behind the footlights speak the voices of the dead forever telling our future as well as their past.

People's silhouettes scored on a wall, and sunless shadows, were among the most compelling impressions left on the mind by the bomb on Nagasaki. If I had any influence over the future of The Museum of Shadows, I would like to have those mute images shown there, they have so much to say, and so much more to say, about the reality of the twentieth century.

translated from the French by Timothy Mathews

© Editions Gallimard (Paris) 2004