Life of the Volcano

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 1 October 2010

Volcano: Turner to Warhol, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until October 31

James Hamilton, Volcano: The Volcano in Western Art, 48pp., Compton Verney, £7.95.

Alwyn Scarth, Vesuvius: A Biography, 342pp. Princeton University Press, $29.95

Three months before this exhibition opened, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, throwing millions of tonnes of volcanic particulates into the earth’s upper atmosphere. “A genius stroke of publicity”, as the show’s curator, James Hamilton, wryly described it, but the week-long eruption proved to be more than merely well-timed, for it served to change the focus of the entire exhibition, transforming it from a richly detailed survey of volcanism in art to a topical reflection on the ungovernability of nature.

The result is a gripping display that unfolds over three spacious suites of rooms at Compton Verney, the eighteenth-century country seat near Stratford-upon-Avon that has developed a reputation for hosting innovative arts events in the six years since it opened to the public as an exhibition space. And Volcano is certainly innovative, drawing its chronology not from historical or artistic periods, but from volcanological stages that plot the life cycle of an active volcano from dormancy to awakening, through violent eruption and aftermath, then back to quiescence once more. It is a clever curatorial conceit that allows an eclectic mix of eras and styles to hang together in every room, connected by the seismic narrative. Thus the first room is devoted to the classic, conic beauty of dormant stratovolcanoes such as Hekla in Iceland and Mount Fuji in Japan, as depicted in the celebrated woodcuts of the nineteenth-century Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige, while the second room is filled with premonitory puffs of smoke from Vesuvius in Italy and Cotopaxi in Ecuador, the latter represented by a trio of delicate oil sketches made in the early 1850s by the roving American landscape painter Frederick Edwin Church.

But sparks soon begin to fly, and by the time one has made it across the connecting gangway to the second suite of rooms, accompanied by the booming soundtrack of James P. Graham’s fourteen-minute film Iddu (“him” in Sicilian dialect), an immersive multi-screen rendition of a trip around the ever-erupting island of Stromboli, the show has gone fully pyrotechnic, with its pair of big guns, Turner and Warhol, firing sky-high lava fountains at each other from opposite ends of the room. Yet, as Hamilton points out in his accompanying catalogue, neither Turner nor Warhol actually saw an eruption: these images, of Souffrière and Vesuvius, are as much about the potency of paint as they are about the pent-up energies of the earth, Warhol’s runny acrylic producing “lava of its own in the unexpected paint spatters that fall down the canvas”.

For them, as for most of the other artists in this exhibition, a volcanic eruption was an imaginary apocalypse of light, heat and terror, a single blasting moment of sublimity that shakes the world to its core. “The blaz’d hill in lightnings shone”, as Turner described it in an overheated poem that he insisted on exhibiting alongside the painting in 1815; “down its sides of liquid flame / The devastating cataract came”. In reality, most eruptions make for disappointing viewing, consisting of dense, choking clouds of ash and smoke, with the occasional streak of orange lava to alleviate the gloom. As Norman Lewis noted, in his classic account of the last major eruption of Vesuvius in 1944, “I had been prepared for rivers of fire, but there was no fire and no burning anywhere – only the slow deliberate suffocation of the town under millions of tons of clinker . . . the whole process was strangely quiet”.

But even those artists who did witness eruptions at first hand – notably Pierre-Jacques Volaire and Pietro Fabris, both of whom were resident in Naples during Vesuvius’s late-eighteenth-century heyday – were happy to exaggerate the visual effects, Volaire’s impressive “Vesuvius Erupting at Night” (c.1778) peopled with a crowd of spectators who would have been incinerated on the spot had the eruption been anything like as fierce as he depicted it. Joseph Wright of Derby spent a month in Naples during one of Vesuvius’s quieter phases, but he compensated by filling more than thirty canvases with the incandescent fury of an all-out Plinian explosion. “’Tis the most wonderful sight in nature”, he claimed. Of the few who attempted a documentary treatment of the subject, only the Danish painter Johan Christian Dahl came close to verisimilitude in his “Eruption of Vesuvius” (1820), a dull, sooty tableau of smoke and flame that was commissioned by a “Mr Monticelli, professor of mineralogy in Naples”, who presumably instructed Dahl to paint exactly what he saw.

Cartoonists, of course, are under no such obligation, and one of the exhibition’s most enjoyable sections explores the regularity with which volcanic eruptions have been used for satirical ends, from James Gillray’s “The Eruption of the Mountain, or, The Horrors of the ‘Bocca del Inferno’” (1794) which elided geological and political upheaval, as the French Revolutionary Terror entered its bloodiest phase just as Vesuvius spectacularly blew its top, to Christian Adams’s “Election Smothers Britain” (2010), one of a number of newspaper cartoons that likened the Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud to the imminent general election: “Eyjafjallajokameron”, as Peter Brookes neatly summed it up in his Times cartoon for April 22. Gillray also used the image of an erupting Vesuvius as an unsubtle dig at the elderly, impotent Sir William Hamilton, who remains better known for having been cuckolded by Horatio Nelson than for founding the science of volcanology during his thirty-six-year diplomatic posting to Naples. Hamilton climbed Vesuvius on at least sixty-eight occasions, and his detailed drawings and observations, which he sent to the Royal Society in London, led him to conclude that “volcanoes should be considered in a creative rather than a destructive light”, even though his hobby came close to killing him on a number of occasions.

In some ways Hamilton is the hero of this exhibition – his great folio plate-book Campi Phlegraei (1776) lies open in a glass case beneath a contemplative portrait of him by David Allen – just as he is the hero of Alwyn Scarth’s highly readable Vesuvius: A biography, two excellent chapters of which are devoted to Hamilton’s exploits on the turbulent mountain, where much of his time was spent ferrying nervous British aristocrats as close to the smoking crater as they dared. But the book’s best chapter is its last, in which Scarth assesses the likely impact of the next major eruption of Vesuvius. It makes for disquieting reading, given that the population of the region (some 600,000 people) has doubled since the last outburst of 1944, with thousands of modern-day lazzaroni living in illegally built high-rise housing that continues to creep up the volcano.

“Russian roulette”, as Scarth observes, “is not a game that volcanoes usually lose”, though, incredibly, almost no public attention is paid to civil defence procedures; in fact, many of Vesuvius’s inhabitants have apparently convinced themselves that their volcano is extinct, that it’s merely a mascot, a talisman, an “enormous lucky charm” that watches over the fertile landscape, rather than the ticking time-bomb of geophysical reality. So, in the words that appear scrawled beneath Willie Rodger’s crayon drawing in one of the last rooms of the exhibition, “When Will Vesuvius Blow Again?”. It’s a question that can be answered with surprising precision, according to Scarth, who estimates that the next big eruption will occur some time between 2023 and 2064, and that, given the scale of its expected violence, “over half a million people could be in grave danger of succumbing to a horrible death”.

Such anxiety about the violence of nature has staged a comeback in recent years, with hurricanes and tsunamis (along with terrorism and climate change) replacing the nuclear threat, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that some of the more recent images in the exhibition make visual reference to the clouds of war, with Keith Grant’s “Eruption Column at 20,000 feet, Heimæy, Iceland” (1976), depicting a vast mushroom cloud of churning ash that towers over the lava fields like the aftermath of the Trinity bomb test, while Ásgrímur Jónsson’s “Flight from a Volcanic Eruption” (1945) depicts a column of refugees trudging over the scorched earth as a firestorm rages behind them. These bleak Modernist images come as something of a revelation, most of them having never been seen outside Reykjavik before. Gudmundur Einarsson’s starkly Vorticist “Eruption of Grimsvotn” (1934), for example, is one of the show’s highlights, a tremendous billowing updraught of pure jagged energy, “conveying with sharp diagonals and searing colour the sudden, destructive and overwhelming scream of the mountain as its explodes into smoke and fragments”, as Hamilton vividly describes it in the catalogue.

Finnur Jónsson’s “Lakagígar Craters” (1940), by contrast, depicts a lifeless lunar landscape of fissures and vents that was once the scene of the biggest lava flow in human history, an eight-month effusive eruption that smothered nearly 600 square kilometres of the island, killing around a quarter of the population. It is a place that still haunts the Icelandic memory, though as this exhibition shows, there are plenty of others that do the same: Hekla, Surtsey, Grimsvotn, Heimaey, Eyjafjallajökull, each an illustration of the truism that civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice. It’s a lesson that becomes apparent in the final room of the exhibition, where images give way to the thing itself, in the form of a neat grey pile of gritty ash from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption: a million fragments in a glass vitrine, a glimpse of what the world is made of.

Richard Hamblyn

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