Flashes To Ashes: Fire in British Art. 1692-2019

Flashes to Ashes is a major exhibition at the RWA (Royal West of England Academy), Bristol, from June to September 2019, curated by artist Rachael Nee RWA, art historian Professor Christiana Payne (Oxford Brookes University) and curator Gemma Brace (University of Bristol) and brings together a number of important historical, modern and contemporary artworks on the theme of fire, including work that incorporates fire in its making process. It will examine how artists’ approaches have changed over time, recording historical, religious, domestic or natural events as well as exploring fire as a material phenomenon informed by contemporary themes and issues, combining art and science.

Focusing mainly on British artists (or work produced in Britain), Flashes to Ashes includes significant artists such as J.M.W Turner, Joseph Wright of Derby, William Blake, Cornelia Parker, John Latham, Susan Hiller, Douglas Gordon and Jeremy Deller, alongside established and emerging contemporary artists, covering a broad range of approaches and concerns in a variety of media; such as painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, moving image and installation.

Fire was arguably the first technology driving the progress of civilisation through science, industry and technology. Harnessing fire has brought technological advances of cooking, pottery, metal and glass and onwards to the steam engine to drive the Industrial Revolution. As a political tool fire sends a visceral message with shocking finality. It has been used on and against the human body, from martyrs burned at the stake to desperate acts of self-immolation. Cities and homes are razed, we see objects loaded with symbolism such books and flags set alight with regularity.

As a figure of speech, Fire pervades our language; we talk of burning desires and blazing rows and we light the candle from both ends only to suffer from burn-out. Both linguistically and physically it is dualistic; a Janus headed element conveying both the positive and the negative.  It expresses concepts on a human scale, such as warmth, anger and passion alongside more universal themes of destruction and creation, heaven and hell. It creates an irreversible transformation, things cannot be unburned. It has a life-cycle that is a metaphor for our own; spark, flame, smoke and ash. It has tongues, it licks, it dances, it consumes.

Fire is also a prolific story-teller (and fundamental to many religions and mythology). Prometheus stole it from Zeus to give back to humanity, fire-breathing dragons protect piles of gold, the phoenix regenerates from the ashes after living five hundred years, a giant wicker man goes up in flames. There is the quiet flame of contemplation and reverie with the ritual use of candles across many cultures as signifiers of absence, the soul, loss and transcendence.

Fire fascinates and mesmerizes, yet, following on the theme of duality, it is also ferocious, terrifying and untameable; the horrors of Grenfell Tower, incendiary bombs, arson and immolations. Fire seeks to address a number of these themes, tracing its representation and materiality throughout British Art across the last four centuries, showing that fire continues to be welcomed and feared in equal measure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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