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18 april 2016

I've never seen an active volcano. I plan to travel to Iceland in a few weeks and I hope I don't see one then. I have a better chance of seeing one there than almost anywhere else, but watching smoke spew and lava stream is not really on my life list, and still less do I want to be cut off from the European continent by a great cloud of soot and ash.

I like my volcanos good and dead. But as James Hamilton points out in his art-history essay Volcano, it's risky to pronounce a volcano deceased. Vesuvius was thought of as a late volcano till it erupted and buried Pompeii.

Pompeii, as the most literary and artistic of historical eruptions, figures largely in Hamilton's study. On the geological scale, though, Hamilton shows that the rumblings of Vesuvius have really just been luckily (or unluckily, depending on where you were standing) timed to meet with literate and artistic observers. Humans' evolving technological ability to capture and record the dynamics of volcanic eruptions have given precedence to volcanoes within our perception. Even the few decades that separated 1883 Krakatoa from the even more powerful eruption of nearby Tambora in 1815 led to scientific and literary observations that made Krakatoa iconic while Tambora languishes forgotten. The appeal of Etna and Vesuvius lies in their proximity to humans rather than their inherent awesomeness.

Hamilton sees the history of volcano painting as an oscillation between the spectacular and the subdued. His book grew out of an exhibition called "Volcano: From Turner to Warhol," and expands those parameters to consider art images of volcanoes from prehistoric times into the 21st century. The scariness of the volcano is there from the start, in a massive fulminating mountain that overshadows an ancient Anatolian city, in a wall painting from Çatal Hüyük. But later artistic traditions would add the sublime beauty and even the banality of the volcano. When when you live under the volcano, the constant fuming becomes as mundane as any other background noise. "Security is loud," said Emily Dickinson of Etna, a mountain she'd never seen (and somehow placed next to Naples).

Artists who stress the awe-inspiring aspects of eruptions often miss the fog for the flame. Hamilton quotes the Duke of Wellington on paintings of Waterloo: "Not enough smoke" (118), and the same is true of volcano pictures. Realists and impressionists gave the public more subdued, and evidently more accurate, views of volcanoes as the 19th century wore on. Of course, symbolists and expressionists went back in for pity and terror in a big way. The erotic side of volcanoes is never far from the surface. In the 20th century, the smoke of an eruption often took on mushroom-cloud effects that hinted at nuclear-cataclysmic associations.

Volcanoes may even lie in the background of some art we would normally never associate with them. Hamilton speculates that the lurid sky in Edvard Munch's Scream is indebted to the worldwide dust cloud that emerged from Krakatoa.

Icelandic art figures prominently in Volcano, as one might imagine, with volcano paintings by Ásgrimur Jónsson and Guðmundur Einarsson getting lots of attention. But most remarkable among the Icelandic artists discussed here, for me, was Johannes S. Kjarval, who was interested less in eruptions or vistas than in the texture of weathered lava. Kjarval chose the least conventionally picturesque aspects of volcanos, and treated them with pointillist care, leading to weird, meditative treatments of surfaces, halfway between abstract expressionism and art photography.

Icelandic artists were as it were on the spot; British and other world artists often traveled long distances to see Vesuvius and other attractions, sometimes even hoping to wait out the mountain and experience an eruption live. American Frederic Church was somewhat extreme in his volcano tourism, visiting remote South American ranges in search of the liveliest volcanos.

As I said, that isn't for me. My favorite volcano is Capulin, a cone that rises neatly out of New Mexico scrubland, like a huge ant mound. Capulin is "young" – a mere 60,000 years old – and "extinct," and given a head start by road, you can climb it and look down into the bowl of its crater (superfluously, because "crater" means "bowl"). Capulin represents a peculiar type of volcano that rises out of the earth on its own in the middle of nowhere. Or rather does so continually over millennia, as the plate it rides on passes over a hot spot and new volcanos come up and weather away. Geologists seem convinced that Capulin will be the last volcano engendered by its particular hot spot, though really in the very long run it's anybody's guess. We still know next to nothing about the earth a few miles below its surface, and are left to infer its workings from the havoc it wreaks on our home ground.

Hamilton, James. Volcano. London: Reaktion, 2012.