Plzeňské sympozia

Eva Bendová – Pavla Machalíková –Tomáš Winter

Volcanoes, explosions and lava in modern Czech art

pp. 280–295 (Czech), Summary 292–293 (English), 294–295 (Deutsch)

This paper analyses the meanings behind the depiction of volcanic eruptions in modern Czech art, particularly in key works of art from the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. In an early gouache by Josef Führich Výbuch Vesuvu (Eruption of Vesuvius) we are presented with the conception at that time of an eruption as a light show and an attraction. A search for the artistic models inspiring this first rather monumental conception in Czech art demonstrates both the European artistic conception and the popularity of the subject. The catastrophic events are presented here as a grand, calamitous but remote natural force. A different understanding of the phenomenon emerged in the conception of landscape painting at that time, based on the idyllic and heroic landscape tradition. Here the volcano was read as an element that injected a disturbing or indeed a threatening tone into the symbolically conceived landscape. Examples of this depiction, associated with the symbolism of an insecure idyll or  a foreboding of impending catastrophe, can be found in the cycle of landscapes entitled Čtyři denní doby (Four Periods of the Day) by Karel Postl and in a painting by Bedřich Piepenhagen Motiv z Itálie (Motif from Italy). We also meet with another (unique) symbolic depiction of a volcano in 19th century Czech painting in the work of Václav Mánes Prchající Neapolitáni před sv. Januariem (Neapolitans Fleeing Before St Januarius, also known as Erupting Vesuvius). This example is notable because here the volcano appears in a historical picture, which was at the top of the genre hierarchy at that time. One level of meaning in the picture highlights the motif of intercessory prayer aimed at averting disaster (with the Neapolitan procession and reverence for Januarius, who had it in his power to halt the impending eruption). A second meaning of the picture involves a reading of the threat of eruption as a kind of political allegory.  Last but not least, even in this case of a historical figural scene, the issue remains implicit of the relationship between man and nature in all its elemental force. The volcano, a natural calamity, can be seen here as a threshold, a watershed event, which is not only of a destructive nature, but also contains a creative potential. The symbolism of the volcano changed significantly during the 20th century. A volcanic landscape, often with a smoking crater, came to be a frequent subject in Jan Zrzavý's pictures from the first two decades of the twentieth century. An even more fundamental transformation in volcanic symbolism came with Rok 1939 (1939) by Jindřich Štyrský. The volcanic eruption emerges here as a metaphor for subconscious creativity and imagination, as well as a symbol of the society-wide disaster that had not, of course, been caused by the elements themselves, but by man.   

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