Souls Aflame: The Battle of Cesme at Night

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The Battle of Cesme at Night, Ivan Aivazovsky, 1848
Souls Aflame : Fire in Art
Curated By LIBBY ROHR

Here it is, the token war painting in the collection of works about fire. It's got it all. A massive naval battle, exploding ships, gratuitous billowing smoke, the cover of nightfall, a full moon, and yet there is nothing ordinary or average about this work. Ivan Aivazovsky was born in Crimea, and raised up with ample education for a working class boy. From his youth, he showed promise in the field of art and eventually grew famous for his seascapes, such as this one. He had a particular talent when it came to recreating the shimmering of light on water, so expertly exemplified in this work. At the end of his life, much of his work trended towards war scenes. It's the strength of nature and humanity combined at their most intense and most chaotic states. Compared to the peaceful glow of the Yves Klein painting, the last installment of this collection, Aivazovsky's work is everything it wasn't. It's the inferno we all know and in some ways adore. As human beings, a part of us is attracted to the power, the chaos, and the intensity present.

The annihilation shrouds the full moon, covering it from view, and trashes the otherwise pristine nature of the ocean. A mountain landscape is nearly invisible in the background. The clouds encircle the scene of war, drawing the gaze to the battle itself, and creating an arc-like composition. The intensity of this work showcases the emotion of the romantic movement he was a part of, and the perfect movement to include in a collection of works in relation to fire. At the time when Aivazovsky painted this, a series of revolutions were breaking out in Russia, which might have inspired his series of warfare themed paintings, even thought the Battle of Cesme nearly a century before.

Some inferno paintings showcase the power of nature, others exemplify humanity's capacity for devastation. As warfare has modernized, we as a species have tried to harness the power of fire and explosions. We see this in The Battle of Cesme at Night, the pinnacle of destruction lighting the night up in this electrifying red-orange. With debris, refugees, and smoke, carpeting the natural beauty of the landscape, it shows the pain of war and human recklessness.

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