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Saturday Volcano Art: currently suspended 23 November 2009

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Saturday Volcano Art at The Volcanism Blog

The Volcanism Blog’s Saturday Volcano Art feature is taking a break at the moment, but will return later this year (2011).

When the series returns I hope to feature more volcano images by modern and contemporary artists (although great volcano art of the past will of course continue to appear). I already have some great modern works of volcano art lined up, but I am keen to know of more … so, if you would like to suggest contemporary artists you know of for inclusion, please get in touch.

It’s important to note that in the case of modern and contemporary artists I must have the permission of the artist or rights holder to feature their work on this blog so I can’t guarantee that your favourite modern volcano painting (or drawing, sculpture, mural, engraving, installation, cartoon, happening or whatever) will appear here, but please feel free to make suggestions and I will do what I can.

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Saturday Volcano Art: Tigua painting from Ecuador 31 October 2009

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Tigua painting from Ecuador

The Tigua people of Ecuador live in a rural area south-west of the capital, Quito, high in the valleys of the Andes. Their colourful and distinctive paintings depict scenes of communal life: festivals, markets, farming, daily activities. The volcano Cotopaxi presides over many of these pictures, symbolizing the spirit of the Ecuadorian landscape.

These paintings occupy that shifting and ambigous territory of cultural production in which indigenous artistic creativity depends for its sustenance upon tourist patronage, but they do represent a genuine pictorial tradition, not merely a commodified fabrication. Every part of the picture is filled with colour and life, and naive-seeming but complex tricks of perspective and distortion are used to draw the viewer into the landscape and bring order to the tumult of incident depicted. Tigua art conveys joy, lushness and life: it brims with vibrancy and colour, and conveys the spirit of the volcanic landscapes of the high Andes, and of those who live among them, beautifully.

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Saturday Volcano Art: Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry, ‘Ruins of the Greek Theatre at Taormina’ (1904-5) 24 October 2009

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Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary, 'Ruins of the Greek Theatre at Taormina' (1904-5)

The view of Mount Etna from the Greek Theatre at Taormina is one which has featured in Saturday Volcano Art before: back in March I wrote about ‘Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily’, painted by the American artist Thomas Cole in 1843. The painting above was completed some sixty years later by a very different artist, and conveys a very different mood.

‘Ruins of the Greek Theatre at Taormina’ was painted by the Hungarian artist Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry (1853-1919). Csontváry was a painter of visionary, mystical temperament who claimed that his vocation as an artist was revealed to him by God. Before this he had worked as a pharmacist. The revelation of his artistic destiny came to him in 1880; he spent the next fourteen years preparing himself by travelling, visiting artists and galleries, and earning enough money to pay for formal training in painting, which he began in 1894. He studied with artists in Germany and in Paris, and began producing his own paintings from 1895.

Csontváry painted intensely visionary religious scenes, mystically-charged landscapes both urban and rural, and some remarkable pictures based on his Italian travels, including views of Pompeii and the Bay of Naples. ‘Ruins of the Greek Theatre at Taormina’, which he painted in 1904-5, combines themes that recur repeatedly in his work: the way the past haunts the landscapes of the present, the tension between transience and timelessness, the scale and grandeur of nature. Csontváry’s highly developed theory of colour can be seen in the carefully balanced relationships between blue and yellow in the sea and the lower sky, and the dark reds and greens of the ruins and the landscape. The gradations of colour in the bay beneath the volcano and the bold diagonal of the cloud that reaches out from its slopes give the picture a quality of restlessness, while the snow-capped summit of Etna, white and ethereal, seems to possess an almost spiritual intensity. Yet there is an air of inhuman desolation about Csontváry’s vision that contrasts with Thomas Cole’s lush and harmonious classicism. For Csontváry the volcano is the presiding spirit of a beautiful landscape, but a spirit that remains bleak, remote, and indifferent.

[My attention was drawn to Csontváry's work by some comments left by Hungarian readers of this blog. My thanks to them for providing the topic for this week's Saturday Volcano Art, and for making me aware of the work of this remarkable and extraordinary Hungarian painter.]

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Saturday Volcano Art taking a break 18 October 2009

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Volcano matchbox label: 'Keppel Szoval'

The Volcanism Blog’s ever-popular Saturday Volcano Art feature is taking a break this week: pressure of work is the reason. Back next Saturday.

(For volcano matchbox labels, see here.)

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Saturday Volcano Art: ‘Eruption near Tonga’ (1886) 10 October 2009

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Eruption near Tonga, 1886 (Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand)

Remember Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apei? In March of this year an undersea volcanic eruption took place at the islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apei in Tonga, which produced some very dramatic images.

Our work of volcano art this week represents a similar event in the same area: ‘Eruption near Tonga’, a hand-coloured lithograph from 1886, in the collections of Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand. The print is anonymous and it is unknown whether the artist was working from direct experience of the event or from descriptions provided by others, but the resulting image does an excellent job within the limitations of the medium in representing all the main characteristics of the eruption: steam boiling up around the eruption column, the incandescent tree-like column itself, ashfall fountaining out from the top and falling back into the ocean, and the dark eruption plume billowing away from the top of the column. The power of the eruption is conveyed all the more powerfully by the isolation of the event against the flat background of sea and sky.

[Acknowledgement: this image was originally found by Dr Erik Klemetti, who used it to illustrate a post at Eruptions about Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apei. The original source is here.]

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Saturday Volcano Art: Joseph Wright of Derby, ‘Vesuvius from Portici’ (c.1774-6) 3 October 2009

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Joseph Wright of Derby, 'Vesuvius from Portici' (c.1774-6)

The English painter Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) visited Italy in 1773-5, and was in Naples from early October to early November of 1774. As it happens, this was a quiet interlude in Vesuvius’s eruptive history and Wright did not witness the volcano in eruption, but for an artist drawn to the dramatic interplay of light and darkness, and fascinated by the physical processes that governed the working of the universe, the erupting volcano was an obvious choice of subject, and Wright returned to it more than thirty times in the course of his career.

The picture illustrated here, ‘Vesuvius from Portici’, was painted between 1774 and 1776 and is perhaps Wright’s single most dramatic visual homage to the power and majesty of the volcano in eruption. Portici is at the western foot of the volcano on the shore of the Bay of Naples, so we are looking due east towards the summit of Vesuvius, which is about 8 km away. On the left is the remains of Monte Somma; on the right lava flows descend the flanks of the volcano towards the sea, setting vegetation ablaze.

Wright’s pictures are commonly organized around a single dramatic source of light, and here the volcano itself blazes like a huge furnace, roaring into the sky amid a swirling mass of cloud that draws the viewer’s eye inexorably towards the focus of the eruption – we seem to be looking down a tunnel of fire and fumes. The little bright flecks visible on the painting are not flaws in the reproduction, but representations of glowing fragments of ash falling to earth. On the left the moon rises, casting a paler glow upon the clouds and reminding us that everything we see in the picture – the volcano with its fires, the fertile landscape, the turbulent sky – is part of the same never-ending natural cycle of destruction and renewal.

As with paintings of Vesuvius by other artists, Wright has exaggerated the steepness of the volcano’s slopes (compare this modern photograph, taken from the approximate viewpoint of the painting), but in other ways he has been at pains to use a realistic mode of representation, with the landscape of rock formations, foliage, farms and houses modelled in lucid detail. Wright’s work engages in complex ways with scientific enquiry, and here he shows the volcano in the landscape as something awe-inspiring for itself, not as a mystical vision or an expression of divine power: his concern is with nature as something that moves the human spirit, but is also open to human understanding.

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Further reading

Joseph Wright of Derby at Revolutionary Players.
Vesuvius from Portici = Awesome Volcano Painting by Marshall Astor

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Saturday Volcano Art: J. M. W. Turner, ‘Vesuvius in Eruption’ (1817) 26 September 2009

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J. M. W. Turner, 'Vesuvius in Eruption (1817) - detailThe English artist J. M. W Turner (1775-1851) exhibited this watercolour of Vesuvius in 1817. It was one of a pair: its companion depicted ‘Vesuvius in Repose’. At the time of painting these pictures Turner, who did not visit Naples until 1819, had not seen Vesuvius for himself and worked from studies made by other artists. He had already painted a dramatic image of ‘The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains’ (1815), depicting the major 1812 eruption of Soufrière volcano on St Vincent. Volcanoes offered the sublime spectacle of a natural phenomenon both beautiful and destructive, and appealed to Turner’s sense of the dynamic cycles of destruction and renewal that governed both natural processes and the workings of human history.

J. M. W. Turner, 'Vesuvius in Eruption (1817)

The dramatic light effects of this picture vividly evoke the power of the eruption as it roars across the sky and bathes the land and sea in its red glare. The dazzling brightness of the heart of the eruption is created by Turner scraping away layers of paint to the white canvas beneath: the same technique is used to create the jagged lightning that flickers through the eruption cloud. Elsewhere, thickly applied repeated watercolour and gum washes give the picture a depth and intensity of a kind more usually associated with oils. The characteristically Turnerian compositional device of a vortex draws the eye in from the outer edges of the picture to the fiery summit of the volcano, almost swallowed up in swirling contrasts of light and dark. In the foreground, emphasizing the vast scale of the natural forces unleashed by the eruption, the tiny shapes of people can be seen gazing up at the spectacle.

Turner’s expressionistic vision of the volcano can be interestingly compared with the more rationalized classical vision represented by Xavier Della Gatta’s ‘Eruption of Vesuvius’ of 1794. Della Gatta seeks to represent the spectacle of the volcanic eruption, Turner to transcend representation and engage directly with the onlooker’s emotional response.

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Saturday Volcano Art: Wörlitz – a volcano in the garden 22 September 2009

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Carl Kuntz, Der Stein zu Worlitz (c.1796)
Carl Kuntz, ‘Der Stein zu Wörlitz’ (c.1796).

Leopold III Frederick Franz (1740-1817) was the ruler of the small German principality of Anhalt-Dessau in what is now the German Bundesland of Saxony-Anhalt. He was a great admirer of England, making several visits there between 1763 and 1785 and bringing back ‘advanced’ English ideas in economics, agriculture, culture and politics. The ‘natural style’ of gardening fashionable in England at this time inspired the prince to create an English-style landscape garden at his home estate of Wörlitz. For the Prince of Dessau, concerned by the threat posed to his small state by Prussian expansionism, committed to the free thought and liberty of the Enlightenment, and opposed to despotism and tyranny, the English garden was as much a political as an aesthetic statement.

The garden realm of Wörlitz was laid out between 1764 and around 1800 in the natural style of planting that characterized the English garden. There is an eclectic range of buildings and other features within the garden: numerous bridges and statues, a house in the Gothick architectural style, a pedimented Temple of Flora, the classical Wörlitz Synagogue – and an artificial volcano.

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Saturday Volcano Art: Katsushika Hokusai, ‘Mount Fuji seen through cherry blossom’ (c.1834) 12 September 2009

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Katsushika Hokusai, 'Mount Fuji seen through cherry blossom' (c.1834) - detail

Unfortunately there is no time for a detailed ‘Saturday Volcano Art’ essay this week, so please just enjoy this tranquil image of Mount Fuji by the Japanese artist and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), ‘Mount Fuji seen through cherry blossom’, from One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (1834).

Katsushika Hokusai, 'Mount Fuji seen through cherry blossom' (c.1834)

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Saturday Volcano Art: Auguste Desperret, ‘Troisième éruption du volcan de 1789′ (1833) 5 September 2009

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Auguste Desperret (1804-65) was a French artist who produced political cartoons and caricatures for the republican satirical weekly La Caricature, edited by Charles Philipon, which flourished briefly in France following the relaxation of press censorship brought by the July Revolution of 1830. That revolution brought an end to the authoritarian rule of King Charles X, who was forced into exile and replaced by the ‘July Monarchy’ of Louis-Philippe I (who would in turn be overthrown in the revolution of 1848). The first issue of La Caricature appeared in November 1830, and the last in August 1835; the ‘September Laws’ of the latter year, passed in response to an attempted assassination of the king, reimposed political censorship of the press and ended publication. In those few years, however, La Caricature had drawn on the skills of some very talented artists – most notably perhaps Honoré Daumier – to create some of the most memorable and effective political caricature in the history of the genre.

The lithograph reproduced here was published in issue no. 135 of La Caricature, 6 June 1833. Its full title is ‘troisième éruption du volcan de 1789, qui doit avoir lieu avant la fin du monde, qui fera trembler tous les trônes, et renversera une foule de monarchies’: ‘third eruption of the volcano of 1789, to take place before the end of the world, which will shake all thrones, and overturn a horde of monarchies’. The first eruption of this volcano of liberty was of course in 1789 itself, the outbreak of the French Revolution. The second was the July Revolution of 1830. In this image, Desperret warns, as the July Monarchy increasingly turns against the principles of French republicanism, that the third such eruption is yet to come.

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