The incandescent filament electric light bulb has been around for at least 130 years and has been described as the most successful creation of technology. It is certainly a wonder of production engineering, a production line will turn out 50,000 lights each hour: glass bulbs are blown from a continuous sheet meanwhile an inner stem with conductors and filament supports is fabricated and coiled coils of Tungsten wire, dipped in Zirconium are crimped on. The inner stem and the bulb are welded together, the air inside replaced by Argon at low pressure and then sealed before addition of a base for electrical supply.
The incandescent bulb while cleverly made is an inefficient generator of visible light and must by government order be replaced by more efficient means. Yet it has a central role as the signifier of a Eureka moment and as such will shortly join the class of symbols that no longer have a real counterpart in the daily world. Another such is the symbol used in the UK for a road traffic speed camera, referencing perhaps a Rollei SLR with bellows extension? Certainly no longer in production.
Arriving when it did on the wave of the Modern electric light was enthusiastically greeted by artists to light their studios and to save them from the rigours of the plein air but rarely makes an appearance in its own right. In 2011, the PACE Gallery in New York found enough material to note its passing (Burning Bright, a short history of the light bulb, 2011) but perhaps the title says it all, history is short for the light bulb. Today, artists join campaigns for the right to light their work as they choose but little artistic record will remain of the bulb itself. Other technologies have established their own niches of visual identity: the motorcar, guns and planes among others but the lightbulb has been pressed into the role of the servant rather than the subject.
The bulb has always just been there, entering a darkened room one instinctively feels about for the switch and it has too much of the commonplace for me to accept the reading of Picasso's Guernica (1936) which identifies the bulb with the totalitarian inquisitor's lamp and the sleep deprivation cell. For me, that it is still whole, unbroken and shining in the midst of so much trauma spells out its mission to illuminate the enormity of the Axis' crime.
Again, Man Ray's Rayographs (Rayograph 5 light bulbs, 1930) sometimes include the bulb itself as a subject of the light in addition to its role as the source of light. These images seize on the evidential quality of the rayograph, these object were patently here and here without possibility of lens trickery. As a record of the Modern the subjects of the Man Ray pictures are found objects which lead on into the Post Modern.
Jasper Johns' lightbulbs (Lightbulb 1, 1958) are the beginnings of a sampling of the Modern but at the same time celebrate the elegance of form found in the everyday.
We need Francis Bacon to follow on from Guernica, to include a naked bulb in painting Triptych, May–June 1973. The image re-uses the familiar presence to corroborate the pain of the moment – the lone figure, crouched on the WC is immersed in blackness; unlike the clarity dispensed in Guernica the light from the underpowered bulb barely pierces the gloom and despair.
For what it is worth, here is my record of the passing of the incandescent filament electric lightbulb. I photographed these bulbs to celebrate the beauty of the manufactured form. I note the spaces which they illuminate and the shadows they themselves cast. Even when failed, I note their deaths with blackened glass or broken filament.