How a 19th century volcanic eruption altered art across the world
Anthony Smith on how a volcano influenced global art
Ihad previously started to write an article for this month’s magazine when reflecting on a news item caused me to put it to one side and look at something not usually associated with art: volcanoes… one in particular.
The news (now old, I’m sorry) that Anuk Kracatau, or child of Kracatau, a volcano that most in the west know as Krakatoa (Indonesia), had erupted underwater causing a landslide and a tsunami brought back memories of the history of this island and the influence it had on artists here in the late 19th century.
I have been privileged to be close to a number of volcanoes in Indonesia, sometimes unknowingly, such as when I was asked if I’d like to go to some hot springs in the mountains. Travelling though the mountains and the incredible rainforests that are part and parcel of Indonesia, we finally came upon a clearing where a large and obviously successful business had developed around these hot springs.
The odour of sulphur was quite obvious but I really didn’t give it a second thought until later in the day as we drove back along a road on the other side of the mountain when I saw smoke billowing out of the active volcano whose springs we had been bathing in. Oh joy!
But to see a volcano so close is awe-inspiring, if somewhat frightening and confronting. You do think about your mortality.
But back to Krakatoa. The year was 1883 and the story is wellknown – but let me recap. The volcano started to spew steam and ash for some months before finally exploding and virtually destroying itself in the process on August 27.
The eruptions were felt around the world, even here in the UK where a series of three large atmospheric pressure readings were recorded in London. But what has this to do with art?
Well, the amount of dust sent up into the atmosphere was so dense that it caused almost three days of darkness near the volcano and sent a cloud of ash and smoke high into the atmosphere. These particles travelled around the world changing the colours of both sunrise and, particularly, sunset.
I remember well seeing works from this period many years ago and commenting that the artists had been a bit extravagant with their use of red, orange and purple, even artists whose works were very accurate to life. It was only many years later that I read about the colour change to the sunsets in particular that I understood the significance of what had been recorded.
It is said too that Edvard Munch’s Scream depicts his memory of the sky at this time, although painted many years later.
It really is fascinating that a geological event on the other side of the world could have an effect here, not so much of the horror and devastation, but on artists who were accurately capturing the beauty and essence of our countryside and skies.
ABOVE: I Gusti Agung Ketut Wiranata