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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen J. Pyne’

The saga of how one of the most famous paintings of a forest fire was created and what happened to it resembles at times an international spy thriller. An article in Forest History Today (“Untamed Art,” Fall 2008) by historian Stephen J. Pyne tracked that mystery but had no ending because no one could say where the original painting then was. Nearly a decade later, he picked up the trail.

It’s the archetype globally for most prints, and probably most paintings, of a forest fire. But the reproductions come themselves from earlier reproductions. The original, Lesnoi pozhar, is a mammoth painting created by the Russian artist, A. K. Denisov-Uralsky, around 1900.

The story, briefly, is this. Alexei Kuz’mich Denisov-Uralsky was born in 1864 in Yekaterinburg, grew up in the family trade crafting displays of semi-precious stones, then moved into painting, particularly scenes from the Urals; for years he was the very epitome of a starving artist. He obsessed about painting fires on the landscape, from grass fires to crown fires. His breakthrough came in 1900 with an exhibit, “The Urals in Art,” in which he displayed his climactic effort, Lesnoi pozhar, or “The Forest Fire.” More triumphs followed. He agreed to contribute the massive painting  (198 by 270 cm; 78 by 106 in.) to the Russian exhibit headed to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

The Russian pavilion, however, was dismantled shortly before the fair opened out of pique over American support for Japan in the Russo-Japanese War. Instead, the 600-piece exhibit was displayed on consignment to a Russian entrepreneur named Edward Grunwaldt.  Denisov-Uralsky’s masterpiece won a silver medal and was reproduced in color by several newspapers under the title The Untamed Element. The reproductions were themselves reproduced, copy after copy, for advertising, fire prevention posters, calendars, and simply as prints. Reproductions appeared in silk tapestry and on porcelain teacups. (Today you can find reproductions on eBay or printed on items for sale on Etsy.)

Through various frauds and incompetence, virtually every piece of Russian art entrusted to Grunwaldt disappeared. The artists got nothing and heard nothing. Somehow Lesnoi pozhar ended up in the hands of Adolphus Busch, the beer magnate, who in 1926 hung it in the foyer of a hotel, The Adolphus, he was refurbishing in Dallas. In 1950 it was relocated to the hospitality room of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in St. Louis. Then, in 1979, for reasons that are still murky, August Busch decided to donate the painting to the U.S. government, which, through the vehicle of the National Endowment for the Humanities, repatriated it to the Soviet Union. Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin alluded to plans to send it to a museum in the Urals. In fact, it had again vanished.

The original during the repatriation ceremony in 1979. From left to right: James Symington, a former congressman from Missouri, who assisted in arranging the hand-over; Joseph Duffy, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who acted as an intermediary agent between the Busch family and the government of the USSR; and Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador. (Courtesy Robert Williams)

In 2014 the Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts hosted a major exhibition on Alexei Kuz’mich Denisov-Uralsky, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth. It tracked down many of his fire paintings, but was unable to locate Lesnoi pozhar. The Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., refused to comment. No art or political authority in Russia knew where it had gone. Months after the exhibit had ended, however, word came that the fugitive painting may have been located in the basement of a museum in Tomsk. A photograph and measured dimensions suggest that it is in fact the elusive original. As yet no one has positively identified it nor restored it, but the curator of the Yekaterinburg exhibit, Ludmila Budrina, is confident this is the original.[1] It seems Lesnoi pozhar has passed yet another way station on its long odyssey homeward.

Stephen J. Pyne is the author of numerous books on the history of wildfire around the world. His most recent publications are Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America and its accompanying series “To The Last Smoke.” An excerpt from Between Two Fires is available in FHS’s magazine Spring 2017 edition of Forest History Today.

NOTES

[1] Ludmila Budrina wrote an update on Denisov-Uralsky’s fire paintings: “Wildfire in A. K. Denisov-Uralsky’s Canvases: Destinies of the Paintings,” Quaestio Rossica No. 2 (2015): 41-51.

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My Google news home page has a “Forest Service” section, which captures any article that has that phrase in it. Usually the article is about the U.S. Forest Service but it will also grab items about state or other national forest services too. Consequently, nearly every day there is a news item about fire somewhere in the world. Sometimes it’s about a wildfire currently burning or the aftermath of one; other times it’s about the progress of a prescribed burn or a notification that one is about to be getting underway. It makes fire seem ever-present.

With all that news about fire, one might ask if America has a fire problem. In his new book, America’s Fires: A Historical Context for Policy and Practice, Stephen Pyne says that America doesn’t have a fire problem — it has many fire problems. How this came to pass is examined in this newly revised and updated version of his classic work on the subject.

The policy of fire exclusion through most of the 20th century seemed successful at first but eventually led to larger, more intense, and damaging fires. By the mid-1970s, federal agencies had pulled back from the fire suppression model and embraced a mix of fire practices, including forms of prescribed burning and let-burn policies. The 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park placed fire issues (also discussed in a recent issue of Forest History Today) before the public in unprecedented ways, advertising the ecological significance of free-burning fire and the dilemmas of trying to manage it. Further complicating the fire scene is an increasing population, a growing wildland-urban interface, drought, invasive species, global climate change, and an incomplete institutional arrangement for managing the variety of fires that exist.

In this latest Issues Series book, Steve Pyne — the world’s foremost fire historian — reviews the historical context of American fire issues and policies that can inform the current and future debate. The resulting analysis shows why it is imperative that the nation review its policies toward wildland fires and finds ways to live with them more intelligently. Want to know more? Buy the book — don’t wait for the movie!

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We’ve asked Stephen Pyne, an environmental historian who has written about fire around the world, to offer his thoughts on the bushfires in Australia. As of this publication date, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island had burned and the death toll neared 200.


Black Saturday: The Sequel

The fires are a horror, even by Australian standards, which is saying much.  But for those of us who have long admired Australia’s gritty resolve in the face of conflagrations and have regarded it as a firepower for the caliber of its fire sciences and its bushfire brigades, the recent spectacle arouses dismay and sadness as well.

This is not the first such eruption.  Australia has filled up the weekly calendar with Red Tuesdays, Ash Wednesdays, Black Thursdays, and so on.  The chronicle is having to appeal to holidays like Black Christmas and renumber its sequels.  Black Saturday II is a monster: the bad bushfire on steroids.  But it is not an alien visitation.  It is a recurring nightmare, at times worse, at times less savage, and Australians seem unable to do anything but fight and flee, and curse and console.

***

The reason for the fires is simple.  Australia is a fire continent: it is built to burn.  To this general combustibility its southeast adds a pattern of seasonal winds, associated with cold fronts that draft scorching, unstable air from the interior across whatever flame lies on the land.  At such times the region becomes a colossal fire flume that fans flames which for scale and savagery have no equal elsewhere on Earth.

But even heat waves do not kindle fires of themselves, and cyclonic winds do not drive fire in the same way they do storm surges.  Fire is not a physical substance: it is a reaction.  It feeds on the vegetation, and whatever climatic forces exist must be integrated into that combustible biomass.  Fire, that is, synthesizes its surroundings.  Understand its setting, and you understand fire.  Control that setting, and you control fire.

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