FIRE AND ICE: A History of Comets in Art by Roberta J.M. Olson

FIRE AND ICE: A History of Comets in Art

Email this review


This handsome survey of pictorial renditions of comets--from ancient times to the present--was conceived several years ago when Olson noticed that the Star of Bethlehem in Giotto's ""Adoration of the Magi"" looked suspiciously like a comet. Further research revealed that Giotto's ""star"" was probably the dramatic 1301 ""apparition"" of Halley's comet; and this discovery led to a broader search for other comets in art. That Giotto's comet hovers over a scene of joy is highly unusual. For most painters before the modern era, a comet in the sky was the visual equivalent of Irwin Allen's name on a movie marquee--disaster beckoned. A coin struck to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar bears his profile on the obverse and a blazing comet on the reverse. Durer's well-known etching ""Melancolia I"" includes a comet as the herald of madness. Depictions of earthquakes, plagues and revolutions, and artistic renderings of Biblical disasters (the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane) were typically embellished with comets. Olson notes that by the 19th century, however, comets were often shown in a more jocular light, as in the illustration that praises the heady ""comet wines"" of 1811. When the old view of comets as harbingers of doom does resurface, it is often to satirize the ignorance of the masses. (Old lady in a Daumier etching: ""Ah, comets. . .they announce all kinds of bad things. . . poor Madame Galuchet died suddenly last night."") Olson's illustrations and text document the transition between satire and abstraction that marks the evolving use of comets in late 19th-century and early 20th-century art: Van Gogh, Kandinsky, and Mire all perceived the decorative possibilities of comets. Finally, Olson also includes several splendid photographs, including the famous one of Halley's taken in 1910 from Mount Wilson--which is likely to be a more inspiring view than any we will enjoy next year. (Scientists are already predicting that the 1985-86 apparition will be hard to see in Northern latitudes.) This is that rara avis: an affordable, beautifully illustrated picture book with a solid and informative text.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Walker