Light has always been associated with life and health. Life and vitality became central themes during the period of upheaval that concluded the 19th century. A new epoch had arrived, ushering in new ideas such as movements that gave the power of light a prominent position within body and health culture and its new ideals. The new zeitgeist was distinctly felt in Danish culture: light was a key source of inspiration for artists around the turn of the century, and it would leave a palpable impression on the generations that followed.
The new forms of medical treatment presented by Niels Finsen imbued light with new significance. Light was already regarded as a symbol of ideal health, but with its newfound medical application it also became regarded as a powerful form energy that could actually treat much-feared diseases.
Vitalism in Denmark
The concept of an inherent life-force, a constant, strong will to life, was the central theme of vitalism. This common thread infused the work of painters, scientists, writers, composers and many others in the years preceding the year 1900 – and especially the decades that followed. In 1894 a group of male artists formed a brotherhood, the Hellenes, that aimed to live and create art in the spirit of vitalism.
Their endeavours were modelled on the Hellas of ancient Greece, which to their minds represented the pinnacle of culture, with health and beauty as pervasive ideals.
The Hellenes wished to lead healthy lives in healthy bodies, celebrating the naked body while basking in the life-giving rays of the sun. Their ideals were high indeed: healthy lives should be practised in a state of communion with nature, and the power and force generated by such living would be translated into the creation of new art that would touch and reach higher spiritual states. The ideals held by the Hellenes were expressed in their paintings, and other artists and sculptors followed suit.
Theodor Phillipsen (1840–1920) was amongst the painters who, during the period immediately preceding the overtly vitalist trends, offered fine examples of impressionist treatments of the sun and sunlight, evoked through densely saturated colour. However, vitalism and its art had different ideas and ideals. It regarded the sun as a life-giving and inspiring force and believed that the artistic process could reflect the importance of life-force and solar energy to the human body and convert it into something spiritual.
Anna Ancher (1859–1935) experimented with light from an early stage of her career, pondering on rays of light and their fleeting nature and form. From the late 1880s onwards, light and colour took on a more central position in her work. Anna Ancher developed her use of light to the point where it was not just an artistic device, but gradually came to be more important to her overall expression than the actual subject matter of her painting. Unlike Anna Ancher, Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916) has been perceived as passionless bordering on the morose, steeped in melancholy. His grey palette is a marked contrast to Anna Ancher’s colour scheme, but light nevertheless remains a crucial factor within his masterfully governed, harmonious choice of colour. His well-known work Sunbeams (Sunshine. Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams) from 1900 seems entirely simple in its composition, but the way in which the sunbeams pass through the room creates a sense that there is more to this than is immediately apparent in the painting.
Intense energy is also evident in J.F. Willumsen’s (1863–1958) painting,
A Physicist (1913) (Fig. 1), which shows a scientist in his laboratory, engrossed in studying the rays emitted by the device before him. Willumsen used the distinctive light emitted by the
tube-shaped lamp to create a densely atmospheric, magical mood in the laboratory setting; a world that would have been virtually unknown to ordinary people at the time. The painters and paintings mentioned here are just examples; many other artists also worked with light and the sun to create works that bring together beauty and the spiritual, merging them to form a greater whole.
The use of the human body presented in natural poses had been developed to reach its very highest level in ancient sculpture, particularly within Greek culture. The sculptors inspired by vitalism pursued the ideals found in ancient tradition, reinvesting them in new movements where the healthy body could be presented and processed in new forms. Rudolph Tegner’s (1873–1950) sculpture Towards the Light was created during a point in his career where he held a most positive outlook on life.
The huge sculpture celebrates Niels Finsen and his work on harnessing the healing properties of light. The figure shows a man surrounded by three women, reaching towards the sun and absorbing its life-giving beams. The inspiration from vitalism is clearly evident; body and souls reaches out for healing, towards the forces of life.
In literature, the impact of vitalism is distinct from other period movements by being felt amongst many fundamentally different writers, cutting across their widely disparate beliefs and allegiances. Examples include Martin Andersen Nexø (1869–1954 and Johannes V. Jensen (1873–1950): both worked with vitalist concepts and ideas, but from very different angles of approach. Vitalism was a significant element of literature after 1900, and it has infused literary developments in a range of genres, exerting subtle influences up until our present day.
The great Danish composer of the age, Carl Nielsen (1865–1931), was also affected by the new cultural movements in which light held a central position.
He composed the Helios Overture during a journey to Greece in 1903.
Helios describes the movements of the sun from the first dawn to the midday blaze onwards to the dusk of evening twilight. Vitalist inspiration is even more clearly expressed in his Symphony No. 4,
The Inextinguishable, which Carl Nielsen composed in 1914–16. The symphony reflects the mature and experienced composer’s view of life, based on the idea of a fundamental life-force as an inherent, constant drive that permeates all flora and fauna. Carl Nielsen wrote several notes on the ideas behind the symphony, and the programme published for the first performance of the symphony stated that “Music is Life, and inextinguishable like life.”
Finsen’s sources of inspiration and light therapy.
Niels Ryberg Finsen (1860–1904) embarked on his groundbreaking work with light therapy (also known as phototherapy, heliotherapy or photobiomodulation) in the early 1890s. The Fin de siécle period marked the end of a century and of an entire epoch, but it also saw the emergence and realisation of new ideas within art, politics, philosophy and science.
It was during this period that Finsen developed his new, revolutionary light therapy. Was there a connection and mutual influence at play between Finsen’s use of light for medical treatment and the era’s newfound faith in the magical properties of light?
Finsen was born on the Faroe Islands, where he also spent his childhood.
After some years living in Denmark and Iceland he enrolled as a student of medicine at the University of Copenhagen in 1882. His interest in the impact of light on living things began to be evident during his time as a student, around 1888 (3,4). Upon earning his medical degree in 1890 he set out to study the effect of light on living organisms.
Even as a young man Finsen felt the consequences of the illness that would stay with him for the rest of his life, growing increasingly serious until it caused his death 1904. In a series of letters from 1891 and 1892 he relates how he felt much better when he was out in the sunlight and fresh air.
Finsen’s first published article, from 1893, described the harmful effects of light on skin. Later that year he published several more articles on the importance of light in medical treatment, and new essays were added to the series in the years that follow.
Finsen described ultraviolet light as chemical rays because he believed they governed how light affected the organism. They could create burns, but they were also antiseptic, killing bacteria.
The main highlight of Finsen’s scientific studies and the actual results he achieved concerned his light therapy for the treatment of cutaneous tuberculosis (lupus vulgaris) and other serious skin diseases. This treatment consisted in exposing the affected areas of skin to the rays of the sun or to light from carbon arc lamps focused through large lenses. The warm rays were cooled by passing through water, and rays of unwanted wavelengths were filtered out.
Cutaneous tuberculosis is a progressive disease with serious consequences for patients. In his writings Finsen stated: “The fact that the disease usually attacks and disfigures the face is its worst aspect. The physical distress caused may be palpable enough in itself, yet the mental anguish caused is infinitely worse. The face cannot be hidden, everyone will see the disease; people are unsettled and deterred by the sight and will not wish to have anything to do with the afflicted patient.
In most cases Finsen’s new light therapy yielded good results; much better than previous treatments involving branding irons or corrosive chemicals.
Finsen set up an institute for the treatment of cutaneous tuberculosis and other serious dermatological diseases, creating an active research environment that took an entirely new approach to professional collaboration and study. Creative ideas were freely exchanged and developed, and with Finsen at the helm the institute saw the creation of what has been called the first scientific team in Denmark, possibly even in the world. Finsen did not stand on ceremony and maintained an informal tone when interacting with his co-workers.
The institute – Finsens Medicinske Lysinstitut – was partly funded by private means, but it insisted on treating all patients, including those with little or no money, and the results obtained must benefit other patients elsewhere.
Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1903. The prize was awarded for the third time ever in that year, so Finsen faced particularly strong competition for the honour.
The Nobel committee members were aware of the advanced stage of Finsen’s illness, and this presumably affected their decision. The exact causes behind the effect of Finsen’s light treatments have not been fully identified, but experiments with light of wavelengths similar to those used by Finsen have yielded results that may explain their efficacy.
Finsen died in 1904. In accordance with his wishes, an autopsy was performed;
it revealed the cause of death to be the so-called Pieck’s disease. The most significant complications were described as a chronic inflammation of the membranes around the heart, lungs, liver and spleen, an enlarged spleen and liver, and fluid accumulation in the stomach.
Finsen had succeeded in communicating the results of his light therapy to a wide audience, and quite in keeping with the spirit of the times he became something of a hero; not just in Denmark, but far afield.
Finsen and vitalism
As we have seen, light was an important source of inspiration for artists around the dawn of the 20th century, and its impact continued to be felt in subsequent generations. Within the field of science, similar trends are apparent in Finsen’s light therapy and in the use of x-rays and radioactive rays.
Finsen’s initial fascination with the energy of light may have been rooted in his close affinity with nature, but his systematic deliberations and practical exercises were conducted on the basis of scientific study. Finsen and Anna Ancher both strove to understand light, bending it to suit their greater purpose, and they did so around the same time that the Hellenes were carrying out their first properly vitalist activities, and before vitalism had achieved a general breakthrough.
Finsen worked with light just as the artists of his time did, seeing the results of his work directly on his patients. He actively contributed to the general developments seen around the time, and even though he required no metaphysical or spiritual interpretations of what he did he was not only aware of the new movements and ideals emerging in his time; he was part of it all. It seems certain that he was entirely aware of the growing interest in light and in health, and of how such interest might work in favour of his own endeavours.
Today, Finsen’s light therapy has been replaced by more effective methods, including antibiotics. There is still considerable interest in his ideas and in the results he achieved, especially internationally. Finsen’s work not only won him the first Nobel Prize ever awarded to a Dane; his light therapy has inspired doctors, scientists, artists and many others for generations – and continues to do so today.