Munch’s The Scream

More on the Iceland volcano, from an op ed piece in the New York Times by Simon Winchester, author of Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. Winchester compares our current struggles with a volcanic ash plume over Europe with the 1883 eruption on the island of Krakatoa between Java and Sumatra. More fierce than our current problematic cloud, Krakatoa’s dust permeated the stratosphere of the whole planet and the effects were seen nearly everywhere.

That ash also impacted the course of art:

Painters in particular did their best to capture what they saw. An obscure Londoner named William Ascroft, astonished by the nightly light show along the Thames, turned out a watercolor every 10 minutes, night after night, working like a human camera. More than 500 Krakatoa paintings survive him. “Blood afterglow,” he jotted down on one canvas, noting the magic done by refractive crystals of dust; “Amber afterglow,” on another.

Grander artists, like Frederic Church of the Hudson River School, were spurred to action too. In December, four months after the Javanese blast, Church hurried up from Olana, his Moorish castle near Poughkeepsie, to Lake Ontario, and one perfect evening caught the vivid crepuscular purples over the ice on Chaumont Bay, knowing full well — as science already did — that it was a volcano 10,000 miles away that had painted the sky for him.

And one even more famous painting speaks of Krakatoa as well: recent research suggests that Edvard Munch a decade later painted “The Scream” while remembering a night in Oslo that had been much affected by the volcanic dust. Indeed, the climatic records show that the swirling orange skies behind the terror-stricken face match perfectly those recorded that winter in southern Norway.

So far most of the images I have seen associated with Eyjafjallajökull have been the dramatic photographs of the northern lights filtered through the light dispersing ash. Who knows what is yet to come.


Northern lights amplified by Eyjafjallajökull’s spill off (Photo: (c) 2010 “Ice”)

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