03 February 2016


"Volcano: Nature and Culture" by James Hamilton is an offshoot of a 2010 exhibition at Compton Verney, Volcano: Turner to Warhol. The book considers artists' and writers' perception of volcanoes and its change over time.

I've been curious about Krakatoa since reading Twenty-One Balloons (William Pene du Bois, 1947) as a child, in which the protagonists escape the eruption in a hot-air balloon raft. Yes, science fictional fantastic, and the illustrations are very old-fashioned; for the reality of the event, Simon Winchester has written an excellent account. "Volcano" has Krakatoa, and rather a lot of Vesuvius, and Etna, and lots of other volcanoes, as seen and recorded by artists - and these are set in the context of scientific thought.

Three things I was particularly drawn to in this book:

1. "Kilimanjaro Southern Glaciers 1898" by Georgia Papageorge (2010), incorporates poured ash from the mountain and represents the oldest known photograph of the mountain -
She is "among the first artists to begin the task of creating an iconography for the dormant volcano in Tanzania. Her palette consists of paint and canvas, photographs, charcoal, tree bark, red and white chevron barrier cloth and the fertile product of the volcano's own interior, lava dust. [The photograph] is enlarged by her and streaked with trails of liquid lava, and articulated by a red zigzag line representing temperature fluctuations and glacier melt on the volcano over the twentieth century."

2. Ilana Halperin's visit, aged 30, to Eldfell, the Icelandic volcano born in the same year she was. The result was an exhibition, Nomadic Landmass, in Edinburgh in 2005, and some of the work was shown in "The Library" at the National Museums of Scotland in 2013. I saw it there and would have liked to spend more time with it. This drawing wasn't part of "The Library" -
Ilana Halperin, Nomadic Landmass
"Nomadic Landmass" says James Hamilton, "included photographic images taken from the aie over Eldfell, and geological specimens and drawings taken from photographs of the destruction caused by the birth of the mountain. ... Halperin has taken the extreme detachment of volcanic activity as her subject, and has personalized it, drawn it to herself, and invited it to become intertwined with her own life. The mountain's pulse, and hers, become one."

3. In 1665 Mundus Subterraneus, by the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, was published, with many illustrations (see some here); in 1669 it was translated from Latin into English.
"Kircher was driven by the admixture of extraordinary genius and religious obligation to become the most learned and active savant of his age. While he may not, as traditionally claimed, have been the last man to know everything, he did hold the world's knowledge in his hands and cherished it all, publishing on every subject under the sun. [He] led a charmed life that spanned the Thirty Years War and the Counter-Reformation. He had not only the intellectual capacity but also the organizing genius to prospect a route through knowledge and its accumulation, to its expression and distribution.

"Volcanology was only one of the topics covered in Mundus Subterraneus, along with the working of the tides, the weather, fossils and early man [but] it is Kircher's understanding of volcanoes and the illustrations of them that particularly caught the imagination of the fellow scholars and the narrow band of literate Europeans in his day.

"Kircher's worldview was maintained in the English version, which was liberally extended from the original by other accounts and amendments. [It] goes on to describe many other volcanoes all over the world... Kircher's central task for his readers was to try to demonstrate with engravings and text how volcanoes work.

"As a courageous example of extreme information-gathering, Kircher had himself lowered into the heaving red crater of Vesuvius at night in 1638, during one of its actively threatening periods. His report is graphic in the extreme:
Methoughts I beheld the habitation of Hell ... An unexpressible stink ... and made me in like manner, ever and anon, belch, and as it were vomit back again at it."

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