Souls Aflame: Boy Blowing On an Ember to Light a Candle

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Boy Blowing On an Ember to Light a Candle, El Greco, 1570
Souls Aflame : Fire in Art
Curated By LIBBY ROHR

"The works must be conceived with fire in the soul but executed with clinical coolness."
-Joan Miro

As a species, we’ve long argued that fire and art are two primary factors that separate us from beasts. Two qualities all our own, one primal in nature, the other a part of high society. Both utterly fascinating and both decidedly markers of what we would call civilization. For my final project, I’ve decided to unite them in this collection titled Souls Aflame. The above quote by Miro captures what I hope to show through these works, especially in relation to how master artists tackle the depiction of the wild power of flame in a way that captures its essence within the capabilities of the human hand. By making fire a central subject, naturally we’ll come face to face with the most passionate of art in a variety of different ways. 

I’ve chosen to begin this grouping with an El Greco painting. What better place to start than with a picture of a young man, fanning a small flame? The fact that it comes from such an influential artist is just a bonus. Nearly 30 years after this was created, El Greco repainted this scene, adding a dimly-lit, smirking figure on one side and a chained monkey, a symbol of vice, on the other. This later version was said to be a moralizing painting warning against the dangers of lust, symbolized by the fanning of the flame. However, this original looks far more innocent in nature. Unlike the other, the boy's face is more round and childish, and his expression is that of simplicity and naïvité. In the classic El Greco style, this painting emits a mystic element that only intensifies with focus. Because of the angle of the boy's face, we don't see the big eyes and thin bone structure that we associate with his figures, but we see his style in the fabric and brush strokes in this work.

The use of chiaroscuro lighting enhances the mystery and intensity of focus for this work, as well. The color in this painting is a reflection of the flame. All other hues are tinted with the gold of the growing light so the entire painting takes on the sparkling glow. Yes, it’s realistic of candle light, but the metaphorical resonance of this detail is too significant to be missed. Ideological and cultural revolutions often come from this metaphorical place of the fanning flame. The symbolism of youth fuels the representation of ambition until it’s big enough to light the candle and exist on its own. Drawing from the embers of the generation before them, they make it their own and expand on their own inferno from the dying knowledge of the past. Simply in metaphor, this painting is incredibly rich. It's a revolution of youth in itself. Like any good revolution, it's incredibly captivating and conveys the passion and optimism of fire, lighting the way for other works to follow.

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