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July 02, 2012
Remember hand shadows? Perhaps, the oldest art form known to man. Unfortunately, replaced by such creative killers as radio, television, the Internet and better lighting.
I used to be quite good at casting a head on the wall that either resembled a Newfoundland Dog, or Winston Churchill (sometimes with a pipe if I got lucky).
There’s little history on the subject, but it’s a good enough guess that cavemen had the necessary backlight and proper dark cave that their hands would cast shadows.
It was a small leap of faith to think… “Look, Ogsti, "You've made a “Big Lizard.” Either that, or there was an actual big lizard behind them.
We do know that an ancient Indian epic poem Ramayana, from the 4th Century B.C, a mere 24,000 lines, is written about the life of Rama, son to the king of Dasciadha, and presented in hand and shadow form.
In ancient China, puppeteers stretched donkey skin, dried sheepskin, many varieties of animal skin, on their hands. Scrunched them into all sorts of wondrous things. Then did their thing in front of a screen with the light passing through, and told stories, creating the first puppet shows.
Hand shadows reached their absolute zenith (such as it was) in the 19th Century, thanks to candlelight, the gas lamp and Henry Burcill.
Burcill's main claim to fame was, along with Sir Edwin Landseer, sculpting the four great lions in Trafalgar Square. What’s totally endearing about him is he wrote (I should say drew) the two classic books on the subject, “Hand Shadows” and “More Hand Shadows.”
First published in 1859 and 1860 (in two parts), they're simply books of pictures. No words. No page of text describing the history and variations of each pattern.
Might have wanted to keep a few secrets to himself.
However, Albert Almoznino, in a small 1964 classic, “The Art of Hand Shadows” spills all the beans.
He’ll tell you how to hold your hands in order to make a lumbering dinosaur, a pair of playing monkeys, an eagle that slowly takes flight and for his coup de gras, a cat that scratches itself, lashes its tail, and jumps towards the audience. Don't try this at home. (Yet.)
Hand shadows. From a simpler time. A fascinating unsung creative vestige of art that I think deserves a hand.
Maybe even yours.
Can you think of any lost art you'd like to retrieve? Or art you'd like to eliminate?