The Play of Light On the California Imagination
Written by Hadley Meares
A land of Sunshine basking in a sun
That looks his last upon her—day is done;
But sun-flushed moons arise, and countless stars,
Thrilling and throbbing-sun fed every one.
—“California” by Charles Warren Stoddard, originally printed in Land of Sunshine: Volume Ten
Modern California was built on the back of sunshine. In the infancy of statehood, the uncanny light of the West, seeming to forever shine in the open sky, served as a lure and inspiration to artists, promoters and settlers alike. But where there is light, there must also be dark, and as the years went by, many Californians grew tired of the incessant sun beating down on their state. For these jaded Californians, the eternal light began to increasingly spotlight the shadier aspects of the western side of paradise.
During the 19th century, the perpetual sunshine of California was used as a powerful promotional tool, encouraging Americans and foreigners tired of rainy summers and dark winters to move to her sunny shores. Sunshine was ascribed with almost magical powers, promising prosperity, growth, restored health and fertile abundance. One of the biggest boosters of California as a modern-day Eden was the influential journal Land of Sunshine (published 1894–1923). Under the stewardship of longtime editor Charles Lummis, the journal—part literary magazine, part pro-California travel brochure—touted California as a place where a new settler could “cheer himself with her almost everlasting sunlight.”
For many early pioneers, their first glimpses of California lived up to the hype. In his 1931 autobiography, journalist Lincoln Steffens, a Northern California native, remembered how his pioneer father described his first view of San Francisco’s Golden Gate. He “always paused when he recalled how they turned over the summit and waded down, joyously, into the amazing golden sea of sunshine—he would pause, see it again as he saw it then, and say, ‘I saw that this was the place to live.’”
It was this “golden sea of sunshine” that increasingly drew artists of all disciplines out west. Visual artists, like the German landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, were fascinated with the beauty of the West’s sunrises and sunsets, and the colors and shades that were illuminated in the expansive western sky. The turn of the century saw the birth of the California Plein-Air Movement, also known as California Impressionism, which featured sun-soaked landscapes and seascapes by artists including Guy Rose, Mary Agnes Yerkes, William Wendt and Marion Wachtel.
Writers and poets of the era were also captivated by the sunlight of California, equating the ever-shifting light with the glory of God and the majesty of nature and enlightenment. According to biographer Susan Goodman, members of the Carmel artists colony—which included writers Mary Austin and Jack London—“associated the light with ancient Greece and what they saw as Carmel’s magical ethos.”
In Austin’s writings, this “divine light” was part of the West’s all- consuming natural majesty. “If the fine vibrations which are the golden- violet glow of spring twilights were to tremble into sound,” she writes in The Land of Little Rain (1903), “it would be just that mellow double-note breaking along the blossom tops.” In the short story The Mother of Felipe, she describes the otherworldly beauty of the Antelope Valley thusly:
“A country sublime with its immensity of light, and soft, unvarying tints— fawn and olive, and pearly, with its glistening stretches of white sand, and brown hollows between hills, out of which the gray and purple shadows creep at night.”
Austin was joined in this overwhelming awe of the West’s majestic light by naturalist and writer John Muir. For Muir, light was active and ever moving. “The morning sunbeams are pouring through the crystals on the bushes and grass,” he writes in an 1899 article for The Atlantic Monthly. In The Mountains of California, he is almost biblical when he describes the light of his beloved Sierra Nevada Mountains, which he refers to grandly as the “Range of Light”:
“And after ten years spent in the heart of it, rejoicing and wondering, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the sunbursts of morning among the icy peaks, the noonday radiance on the trees and rocks and snow, the flush of alpenglow, and a thousand dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray, it still seems to be above all others the Range of Light.”
But even Austin, bewitched as she was with the West, describes in California: The Land of the Sun “the note of human distrust amid all this charm of light and line and elusive color.” By the 1930s, this human distrust crystallized into cynicism and hatred of the sun and its false promise of a life of plenty. For authors like John Fante and Nathanael West “the sun was a joke,” a villain, a con. In Ask the Dust (1939), Fante’s protagonist describes the people lured from their homes by propaganda like Lummis’ Land of Sunshine:
“The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun.”
Nathanael West describes what happened next to these transplants in his legendary Hollywood takedown, Day of the Locust (1939):
“Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine & oranges? Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado, pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there?”
Nothing is the answer, according to West and Fante. Fante’s protagonist in Ask the Dust, a fellow California transplant, feels little sympathy for these rootless people. “Sometimes I am glad they are here, dying in the sun, uprooted, tricked by their heartlessness, the same faces, the same set, hard mouths, faces from my hometown, fulfilling the emptiness of their lives under a blazing sun.”
But there was still hope. For Fante, if daylight mocked, nighttime in California still held the promise of a better life, with “gold bars of light cutting the sky like searchlights.” Nighttime in California is a time to dream, to imagine that the fantastic can still come true. “Beyond my window spread the great city,” he writes in Ask the Dust, “the street lamps, the red and blue and green neon tubes bursting to life like bright night flowers.”
Nighttime was also the safe space of California noir writers and filmmakers of the 1930s and ’40s. Light—both real and artificial— signified danger, illuminating the worst in humans and the dirty underbelly of sunny California.
In Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), the villainess, played by Barbara Stanwyck, shrouds herself from the sun in her dark Los Feliz home. “The windows were closed and the sunshine coming in through the venetian blinds showed up the dust in the air,” the narrator played by Fred MacMurray recounts, signaling the dirtiness to come. In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), light glitters off glass eyes, creates halos on undeserving heads, catches a woman’s teeth so that they glitter like knives. Headlights signal danger, surly eyes become “points of steely light,” and a service station glares with “wasted light.”
“A single flash of hard white light shot out of Geiger’s house like a wave of summer lightning,” Chandler writes to describe a gunshot. Philip Marlow lies on his bed at the Hobart Arms, trying to get his latest case out of his mind—but the sun won’t allow it:
“I lay down on the bed with my coat off and stared at the ceiling and listened to the traffic sounds on the street outside and watched the sun move slowly across the corner of the ceiling. I tried to sleep, but sleep didn’t come.”
The light of mid-century California was a device that exposed the world and people in it for what they were: flawed and often dangerous. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, the sun took center stage and became a kind of character, a flawed protagonist in its own right, increasingly disfigured by the ever-present smog.
Born and bred in Southern California, the Light and Space Movement included artists James Turrell, Helen Pashgian, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Peter Alexander and Doug Wheeler. “The allure of waxed surfboards and gleaming automobiles in the California sun were aesthetic touchstones for the light, reflective and visually beatific quality of Light and Space artists' works,” explains artist and writer Ian Wallace. Using the best lighting Hollywood had to offer, reflective surfaces, screens and smoke, Light and Space artists turned man-made atmospheres into works of art.
But not all counterculture Californians were so enamored with the sun and the effects it produced. In the works of California native Joan Didion, the sun is often an ever-present annoyance, which highlights the emptiness and listlessness of her cold and glamorous characters. In Play It As It Lays (1970), protagonist Maria hides behind sunglasses, surrounded by people tanned “as evidence of a lifetime spent in season.” She is forever portrayed standing in the sun, sunbathing or letting the sun dry her wet back. But no matter how bright, the sun cannot cure what ails her. “Even lying in the noon sun on this blazing dry October day,” Didion writes, “Maria felt a physical chill.”
For Didion’s effervescent contemporary Eve Babitz, the lights of California are an integral part of her sexy, sensual Sunset Strip world. In many ways, the light is almost another of her long list of lovers. The sun sets like “the beginning of the world” as she stands on a balcony with a boyfriend. “It seemed to me as we drove down Santa Monica with the liquor-store lights all halos of color,” she writes in her roman á clef Slow Days, Fast Company (1977), “that Shawn was enhanced in such a blurry, silver fox of a night.” At a society party, women’s “wedding rings reflected the pink twilight, their golden bracelets caught the light of the mustard hills.” The seaside town of Venice “looks like a Hopper painting— Americana vistas of shadow and light on the sides of slatted buildings through a whitish mist.”
But too much of a good thing can tire even the most cheerful California girl. At times, Babitz greets the sun with contempt and malaise evident in Didion’s works. In Slow Days, Fast Company she remembers one particularly lethal sunny day. “No sunglasses could cut the glare and even your pores shrank back against the light.” Later that day, a friend from New York telephoned:
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“The weather,” I said.
“The weather? Are you kidding? It’s been raining now for two weeks and you talk about weather. I can read the papers—it’s wonderful out in California. What weather?”
“The light!” I explained.
“God, you kids out there are really the end,” she says. “The light!”
The nihilistic emptiness of this harsh version of the California light has become a popular trope in California art. As film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum once wrote: “There’s a certain kind of white, piercing, empty light to the Los Angeles sky at certain times of day—and gold piercing emptiness at others—that can make a person want to commit suicide, or snort cocaine.”
But for some, the dreamy lights of the West continue to inspire hope and awe. It comes as no surprise that Thomas Kinkade, the oft ridiculed “Painter of Light” of the ’90s and early 2000s, came from the sun-shaded California town of Placerville. “This ‘Kinkade Glow,’” Didion writes in Where I Was From (2003), “could be seen as derived in spirit from the ‘lustrous, pearly mist’ that Mark Twain had derided in the Bierstadt paintings” a century before. More recently, the relentlessly optimistic film La La Land (in many ways as big an advertisement for California as The Land of Sunshine) opens with a rousing number called “Another Day of Sun.”
And so, the lights of California continue to inspire both cynics and dreamers. In a spot so eternally bright, your personal truth is unavoidably illuminated—whatever it may be. MM