Through the Flames of Fumage: History of Art and Fire

Tom de Freston

Art reflects method. Where there is a masterpiece, there are hundreds of hours of planning involved to ensure everything goes according to plan. Some use fire to curate this planning and eliminate imperfections. Fire tames frayed edges of cut fabric, and releases bubbles from paint and resin.

 

Other artists do not use fire as a medium—fire is the medium. It does not contain itself within the margins of a canvas and can destroy the entire work if the artist fails to work with its unpredictable, free-flowing wisps. If approached properly, a masterpiece born from the flames of creation, destruction, and temperament. This art form is not new, as our ancestors used it in cave paintings from thousands of years ago, but we see the flames of inspiration reaching as far as the Surrealists movement in the 1930s and into mixed media today.

Early Fire Art and Indigenous Technique

Early humans used fire as one of the few ways they could communicate and express creativity along the walls of caves. PLOS-One released a peer-reviewed study in 2022 that investigated the use of fire for cave art carvings from 15,000 years ago. These plaquettes had pink heat auras around various stones that indicated heat damage to the rocks around the time of carving. According to the researchers at York and Dunham Universities, this technique was used by the Magdalenian people, with carvings dating back to over 25,000 years ago. The heat damage likely came from a torch held closely to the rock so they could properly see their work.

 

While the use of fire in the fine art space is taking the world by storm, it is not new and has been used by indigenous cultures for centuries. In the Arctic Circle, artists use fire to manipulate pigment’s texture along ceramic tiles. Fresh ink is poured onto the tile, and once flames come into contact with it, the fire’s pattern almost becomes imprinted on the surface, immortalizing the unpredictable beauty of blazing light.

Paalen
Wolfgang Paalen, 1936
Wolfgang Paalen, Les_étrangers, 1937
Wolfgang Paalen, Les étrangers, 1937

Artist Shauna Liora learned this technique from indigenous artists in Inuvik and put a modern spin on it by painting in front of the flame-imprinted ink. Many of her works navigate the sacrifices of firefighters as they tackle enormous infernos and jeopardize their lives to tame them before their community burns to the ground. The first responders ascend the flames on ladders as infernos engulf the background. Liora drew from personal experience and has a deep connection with emergency services, as she spent over a decade in the Canada Task Force and in Search and Rescue.

New Beginnings and Conversational Ends

Responding to fire disasters by turning to it for inspiration in art continues to strengthen communities worldwide. Artist Shelley Zentner created art from the ashes of a local fire to raise funds for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. It’s not uncommon for artists to use ash as pigment for paintings, but the location of and use of this ash symbolizes the strength of Zentner’s community by providing new life and meaning to the remains of a tragedy. The fire brought destruction, but its ashes gave way to resilience.

 

While some include fire as an engulfing conclusion for a performance installation, artists use fire as a medium by privately creating and burning art to symbolize the circular nature of creation. For artists such as Tom de Freston, a studio fire became his muse. The studio was packed to the brim with hundreds of paintings he worked on alongside Professor Ali Souleman and filmmaker Mark Jones to illustrate the tragedy of warfare and displacement. These paintings aimed to translate Souleman’s experiences of warfare and destruction in Syria during bombings in the 1990s. These paintings were to be on Souleman’s perception of the tragedy and would allow the viewer to understand it through his eyes for the first time, as the professor lost his vision in the midst of the chaos.

Wolfgang Paalen, Fumage, 1938, Candle smoke on paper
Wolfgang Paalen, Fumage, 1938, Candle smoke on paper

His art on the tragedy of war and chaos now serves as the foundation for flames of creation, destruction, and unpredictability. They connect the professor’s message to their context—the fire removes visual experience from the viewer, which provides an opportunity for them to encounter Souleman’s experiences of blindness during turbulent times. These canvasses once offered refuge for memories. Now, much like the canvas, those memories exist in the minds of him and the artist, and viewers can only now understand fragments of the past along the charred frames.

Surrealists and Fumage

Artists in the 1930s used smoke and soot from open flames to capture the wistfully unpredictable nature of fire within their pieces. Fumage is a technique popular among surrealist artists in the ‘30s that creates art with flames—mainly by lighting a candle and manipulating the soot and ash emitted from it onto a piece of paper. This adds an element of natural development to the overall work, but it also runs the risk of an entire canvas bursting into flames while making it

 

This technique derives from early surrealist painters aiming to capture the trauma of rebirth and creation. Wolfgang Paalen was an Austrian-Mexican painter in the Surrealist movement from 1935 until 1942. In many of his works, he simply lets the fire speak for itself on a blank page and then paints over the smoky forms that result. His fascination with fumage and his rise to fame from it directly ties to the tumultuous affair between his wife, Alice Rahon, and his then-colleague Pablo Picasso. His perception of their story and his first long depressive episode gave way to the Austrian-Mexican artist’s first masterpiece in the surrealist style.

Burned art materials
Burned art materials

Paalen’s inspiration for using fumage to explore the evolution of the human condition derived from learning of Alice Rahon’s affair, which ended in 1936, and he began thinking about the chaotic nature of creation and change within a person’s life and about how scary childbirth could be from a newborn’s point of view. His painting Forbidden Land was the first time Paalen displayed his fumage technique, with the lower section enveloped in wispy black smoke.

 

This painting represented a shift in ideology among surrealists as more artists turned toward Otto Rank’s theories on the trauma of birth, which focused on the infant’s psyche immediately at birth. This differed from Sigmund Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex, or Freud’s belief that children were unconsciously aroused by their parents, which Paalen exclusively defended 30s and 40s. He literally forged the paradigm shifts in fire, immortalizing the changes in art and social science within the smoke of the foreground. His words spoke of psychoanalytic antiquity, but his paintings illuminated the symptoms of change.

 

Paalen’s surrealist work with fire inspired artists for generations to look to open flames as media. Steven Spazuk is an artist based in Canada who uses fumage to explore the complexity of humanity and nature’s relationship. He achieves this by painting figures in acrylic and then “smoking” the pages and canvasses on top, scratching the soot away in layers to achieve a transparent subject with a fluid background.

Unpredictable Circularity

Fire and its destructive properties inspired  Tom de Freston, whose paintings for the survivor of bombings were burned to incomprehension but provided a new depth for the art’s purpose, and became fresh starts and reimagined representations of warfare. The ash from local fires became sought out by artists such as Shelley Zetner, who used them to strengthen the community and raise funds for fire rescue education and outreach in the Lake Tahoe area.

 

Artists look to fire for more than ash for pigment or as a secondary tool for perfecting their art—fire is the muse for exploring the circularity of life. Early humans used fire to illustrate small scenes along the walls of caves, preserving one of their only outlets for describing their lives for tens of thousands of years. Cultures worldwide use it to capture the ever-changing shape of flames uniquely. Artists such as Wolfgang Paalen used fire to produce soot, illustrating trauma and chaos through unpredictable smoke patterns, inspiring artists for generations who continue to use the technique to explore sustainability within the Anthropocene. Fire does not simply symbolize an end to experiences but a memory’s beginning and every instance of change in between.


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