Fire, by Giuseppe Arcimboldi (1527 ca- 1593), oil on panel, © The British Library Board (11048399)

A conference convened by The Centre for the History of Emotions and the Australian Centre, School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne  includes two keynotes who will speak on fire and visual and material culture.

Dates: Thursday 5th December and Friday 6th December 2013, ‘Fire Stories’.

Venue: Alan Gilbert Building, Grattan Street, the University of Melbourne.


About the Conference | Fire Stories

Humans have struggled to control and harness fire since its discovery tens of thousands of years ago. This conference will address emotional responses to fires in literature and history, looking particularly at how the fleeting destruction of a blaze is conveyed in narrative terms. Participants will be invited to consider a dialogue between ancient and modern representations of fire (including the mythical) and the affective responses that they evoke. Speakers are also encouraged to address the role that fictional representations of burning landscapes or cityscapes can play in the aftermath of a major disaster.

Small Fires, Big Meanings: Imagining the Beacon Fire |  Professor Alan Krell, the College of Fine Arts, UNSW

Functioning variously as guidance, warning and inspiration, the Beacon Fire may also be turned to ill use. Embodying fire’s paradoxical character, the beacon fire lends itself to multiple representations in text and image, the subject of this paper.  From the lingering evocations of the Greek tragedian, Aeschylus, describing the progress of the beacon fires that carried news of the fall of Troy, to the thrilling spectacle provided by the film director, Peter Jackson, who describes another type of ‘progress’ in his Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), the beacon fire flares triumphantly. These grand scenarios are countered by the prosaically patriotic lighting of over 4000 beacons (around the globe) to celebrate the British Queen’s 60 years on the throne (2012). By contrast, the celebrated English artist, Turner, offers an unusually intimate visualization of a beacon fire in his little known painting from c. 1840, The Beacon Light. The signal fire in William Golding’s book, Lord of the Flies (1954) is a barometer of the emotions and hopes of the boys on the island, while the so-called seventh wonder of the World, Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria (destroyed), has given rise to countless images verging on the monumental sublime.

Alan Krell is an associate professor in the School of Art History and Art Education in the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales. He is the author of Manet and the Painters of Contemporary Life (1996), The Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire (Reaktion Books, 2002) and Burning Issues: Fire in Art and the Social Imagination (reaction Books, 2011).

Performing Fire in Material Culture, from the heavens to the hearth |  Patricia Simons, the University of Michigan

The hearth is the locus of sociability and of decoration in a home’s chief room, as witnessed by numerous items of material culture. Two related themes are my primary focus, one amorous, one physiological, each connecting actual fire with heated bodies. Narratives of sexual encounter and fiery passion were a favorite theme for Renaissance and Baroque fireplaces, from their carved pairs of lovers to amorous couplings in paintings displayed above. Decoration also addressed fire’s menace, making of the narrative a virtual apotropaic episode. Medieval and Renaissance aeolipiles, which blew steam onto fires to fan the flames, were usually male figures with exaggerated features accentuating their masculinity, their servile status or their African race. Features like dark skin or male genital arousal were associated with physiological heat and masculine spiritus (spirit or breath), and thus were particularly appropriate for objects that produced or exacerbated fire. The performance of fire in material artifacts thus tells stories imbued with contemporary notions regarding key aspects of human nature such as creativity, power, physiology and passion.

Patricia Simons is a Professor in the Department of History of Art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is author of The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe: A Cultural History (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and co-editor with Bill Kent of Patronage, Art, and Society in Renaissance Italy (Clarendon Press, 1987). Her numerous essays analyzing the visual and material culture of Early Modern Europe have been published in anthologies and peer-review journals such as Art History, I Tatti Studies, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Renaissance Quarterly and Renaissance Studies, ranging over such subjects as female homoeroticism, the visual role of humour and the visual dynamics of secrecy and of scandal. Her interest in the contemporary art of her homeland has, most recently, led to an essay on the activist Australian artist Deborah Kelley.

The conference is presented in conjunction with the symposium ‘On Species’. You can read about the other keynote speakers and see the full program for the conference and symposium here.