Thursday, 5 August 2010

Volcanoes and the Sublime

Iceland speaks and modernity falls silent. Eyjafjallajökull throws up vast amounts of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, Europe’s air space is closed for weeks on end, and Londoners and other city dwellers can blessedly hear bird song again.

Iceland therefore features prominently in the Compton Verney art gallery’s exhibition devoted to ‘Volcano: Turner to Warhol’, though Mount Vesuvius is probably the single most depicted volcano in this spectacular show. The twentieth-century Icelandic painters on display here are particularly impressive. Finnur Jonsson’s bleak Lakagigar Craters (1940) is like an eerie landscape from Tolkien’s Mordor; Asgrimur Jonsson’s Flight from a Volcanic Eruption (1945) makes powerful use of the techniques of German Expressionism; and Gudmundr Einarsson’s Eruption of Grimsvoth (1934) has something of the horror of a nuclear mushroom cloud to it.

The sublime is, as one would expect, the dominant aesthetic category of this exhibition; its old counterpart, the beautiful, doesn’t get much of a look in. And this breathtaking exhibition can thus serve as a necessary rebalancing of our aesthetic responses to that great Icelandicist William Morris himself.

I feel that the Morris of ‘the beautiful’, of gentle Willow fabrics and genial upper Thames landscapes, is too easily, too cosily, available to us; and thus we need to remember that he is also a bold practitioner of the sublime, of the jagged, the disruptive, of that which terrifyingly jolts us out of our everyday certitudes. Dizzying precipices, razor-sharp lava-fields, raging rivers that might sweep all one’s pack-horses instantly away – all these, as in the Icelandic Journals or the late romances, are as much part of Morris as the chirruping reed-warblers of the Thames at Kelmscott.

Our own ecological predilections have produced too gently ‘English’ a Morris for us, so let us be sure, in the light of these tumultuous volcanic images at Compton Verney, that we also celebrate him as a dangerous and unsettling devotee of the sublime.


mo said...

"a dangerous and unsettling devotee of the sublime" That's the Morris for me!! Great essay Tony!

Gary L. Aho said...

Hi Tony,
I liked what you said about Morris and volcanos. I'm editing the IJ for the on-line edition and so have looked again at his descriptions in IJ and in several of his poems. Wawn also has interesting things to say about Morris and Icelandic landscapes.
Gary Aho