The Year Without a Summer
How a volcanic eruption inspired Frankenstein, the opium trade & artist Courtney Blazon
May 9, 2021
I occasionally review books. Sometimes, these are books I’ve been waiting anxiously to read. Often, they are books I know little about before an editor ships them to me. This was the case in August 2019 when an editor at Prairie Fire sent me a copy of The Year of No Summer: A Reckoning by Rachel Lebowitz (Biblioasis, 2018).
In The Year of No Summer, as I wrote in my review:
“. . . Rachel Lebowitz weaves history, mythology, folklore and personal experience into a vibrant lyric essay. Letters from the frontlines of World War I, grim tales about famine, Greek legends, reflections on tourism, museums, and motherhood are all narrative threads, drawn together by Lebowitz to craft a richly textured analysis of the events that followed in the wake of a rarely discussed meteorological event.
In 1815, Mount Tambora, an active volcano in Indonesia, erupted. At least 71,000 people died in what was the most devastating eruption in recorded history. The stratosphere was so filled with ash that it altered weather patterns throughout the coming year. North America saw snowstorms in June. Crop failures led to widespread famine in Europe, and a typhus epidemic ravaged Ireland. People, desperate for reassurance, turned to religion as demonstrated by packed churches and the flowering of new cults.”
The far-reaching effects of the Year Without a Summer (or 1800 and froze to death as it is sometimes called) continue to interest me long after I submitted my review of Lebowitz’s book. (You can read the full review on the Prairie Fire website if interested.)
In this issue of Sift. Shift. Lift. I set out to satisfy my curiosity about the eruption of Mount Tambora, the climate disaster that followed, and its relationship to gothic literature, the opium trade, sanitation breakthroughs and more seemingly disparate ideas or events.
Want to join me? We will sift through the historical record, allow artists to transport us to the turbulent years that followed the eruption of Mount Tambora, and lift up organizations that try to predict and mitigate volcanic disasters. We’ll also drop by the studio of artist Courtney Blazon to learn more about her 2016 solo art show The Year Without a Summer.
Got your coffee? Let’s go.
Find out how the eruption of Mount Tambora upended politics, trade, culture and society.
Have you got half-an-hour? In this GeoGraphics video, Simon Whistler provides an entertaining and enlightening overview of the eruption of Mount Tambora and its profound impact on the world.
Gillen D’Arcy Wood, a professor of Environmental Humanities and English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, writes frequently about the Year Without a Summer. Most notably, he is the author of Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World (Princeton University Press, 2014).
If you don’t have time to read his critically acclaimed text, check out this article:
“Frankenstein, the Baroness, and the Climate Refugees of 1816” in The Public Domain Review (June 15, 2016). It places Mary Shelley’s novel within its political, cultural and environmental context, and explores the fate of thousands of climate refugees (and one woman’s remarkable mission to serve them) in the wake of the volcanic disaster.
Spotlight on Courtney Blazon and her solo art show “The Year Without a Summer”
Courtney Blazon is an artist and illustrator living and working in Missoula, MT. She is a graduate from Parsons School of Design, where she received her BFA in Illustration. She's shown in Montana at the Missoula Art Museum, Holter Museum of Art and Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art, and outside of Montana, she has shown in Seattle, Portland, New York, Philadelphia, Baton Rouge, San Francisco, Jackson, Wyoming, and most recently, in Billings, MT at Northcutt Steele Gallery. Her work has been featured in New American Paintings (Western Edition), Studio Visit Magazine, and juxtapoz.com. She is the co-organizer of the popular Montana MADE Fairs (under the umbrella of Handmade Montana), a series of art and craft fairs started in 2007. She is a past recipient of a Montana Arts Council Artists Innovation Award. She is represented by Radius Gallery in Missoula, MT.
In 2016, Courtney Blazon’s solo show The Year Without a Summer showed at the Missoula Art Museum. I was curious to learn more about the impetus for this show, her creative process, and any lessons she may have learned by immersing herself in this dramatic and influential historic event for more than a year. I reached out to her via Instagram and she kindly agreed to indulge my curiosity. Here’s what she had to say.
SM: Tell us about the Year Without a Summer project.
CB: In April of 1815, the volcano Tambora erupted on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. It is considered the third largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. Aside from causing total devastation to the surrounding area, this eruption had global repercussions as volcanic gasses caused a worldwide aerosol cloud that clogged up the sky—in the year that followed, climate anomalies were recorded around the world. The volcanic winter and subsequent effects on European and North American crops caused 1816 to be known as the “Year Without A Summer.”
SM: How did you become interested in the Year Without a Summer, and what inspired you to create your solo show around it?
CB: I became interested in the Year Without a Summer after reading the book Tambora by Gillen D'Arcy Wood. It really served to show me the amazingly far-reaching effects the events of the eruption of Tambora in 1815 had on the entire world. I’d been searching for a subject I could dive into to create a large body of narrative drawings for my first museum show, and once I entered the world of Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, J.M.W. Turner and more, I knew I’d found something I could really sink my teeth into!
SM: What themes do you explore in the series? Did these themes emerge or evolve as you worked through the series or were they set before you began to create?
CB: One of the very important themes I explore is connection/interconnectedness. A natural disaster that happened in Indonesia in 1815 can be traced to the birth of modern climate science, the birth of modern meteorology, the opening of the Northwest Passage, the advent of the Chinese opium trade, the birth of gothic horror and American westward expansion. This theme emerged and evolved in the initial research/development stage of my process. The more I read and absorbed, the more I could see that this period of time was one of the most dramatic, exciting, and complex periods in our collective history. Because of the size and complexity of the drawings I was creating, two of which were 8 feet long, I had to craft very tight and focused sketches, so the evolution and discovery phase of my process really happened in the R & D phase, and once I got to the final drawings, it was purely about execution.
SM: Did the process of creating this series shift your world view in any way?
CB: This series completely shifted my world view. There are so many connections between the climate crisis that occurred because of the eruption of Mount Tambora and the man-made climate crisis we are experiencing now. I began to see things as more of a continuum, if that makes sense. We are a society of people who have “been there before.” The struggles we once had are the struggles we still have, though modernity has shifted what that looks like. I even made a piece about our current climate crisis, using the device of the seven deadly sins. Now, if I’d been making this body of work closer to our current COVID-19 crisis, the connections would have been obviously surrounding pandemics, as the eruption of Tambora led to two cholera outbreaks, most severely in India and Europe.
SM: How would you like viewers to respond to the art in this series? Do you think art can transform the viewer and/or the artist?
I am happy to allow the viewer to respond any way they feel compelled to respond to this series, as I know art is consumed on multiple levels. In an ideal world, I would like my art to be seen in its purest context; as a body of historical drawings that show a narrative of an important and topical event. I would like the viewer to come away with some knowledge of Tambora and its effects, and to see a connection to our current state of affairs. But if the viewer chooses to only look at the images and draw their own internal conclusions, I hope that my work conveys some of the ideas I have strived to portray.
I know I have been transformed by art, both as a viewer and as an artist. I believe that anyone can, if they open themselves up to the possibility. This can be emotionally, intellectually and even physically.
SM: Is there a piece that best represents the far-reaching impacts of the fallout from the eruption of Mount Tambora?
CB: There are really two pieces that represent the far-reaching impacts of Tambora’s eruption. They are the two eight-foot drawings I created: “Détails sur La Fin du Monde” and “The Poetry of the Seven Sorrows.” They are both geographical portraits of the world in the months following the eruption.
“Détails sur La Fin du Monde” by Courtney Blazon.
“Détails” narrates the early months following the eruption and the subsequent ‘Year without a summer’ of 1816, starting in Indonesia as the Raja of Sumbawa loses his daughter to disease from poisoned water; to China where crop failure was forcing farmers to turn to opium production; to India, where Cholera was beginning its brutal spread; to Switzerland, where Mary Shelley and Byron were ushering in the advent of Gothic Horror; all the way to America, where Thomas Jefferson’s meticulous daily weather record keeping gave insight into the drastic changes the world’s weather was experiencing.
“The Poetry of the Seven Sorrows” by Courtney Blazon.
In ‘Poetry’, which starts in America and ends back in Indonesia, to the scene of the eruption, the narration centers on the events that stretched into the subsequent decades past 1815-16, but trace their origin from that period. This includes westward expansion; the birth of climate science; the eruption of cholera in Europe in the 1830s; the food crises raging in Switzerland and Italy; the invention of the first bicycle in Germany, the start of the Opium Wars, and the opening of the Northwest Passage.
SM: There are several portraits in the series. How did you decide who to illustrate? Can you tell us about one of these subjects and how you approached their portrait? (Side note: I was delighted to see the portrait of poet Li Yuyang.)
CB: It was super hard to decide who to illustrate, but I ultimately went with the people who were most interesting to me as characters, or who were linchpins in my narrative. For instance, I focused a lot of my energies on Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and their cohorts, so it was natural for me to create narrative drawings plus portraits about their lives. I also created a large portrait of Benjamin Franklin because he accurately understood the impact volcanic activity had on climate way back in the late 1700s, in a paper he submitted that was completely dismissed. The smaller portraits I did were meant to portray the poets, the painters, the scientists, the military, and the journalists who were an inextricable part of the fabric of the Year without a summer. (Li Yuyang is one of my favorites. His poetry is really one of the only ways we have any idea of what life was truly like for the rural people of China’s Yunnan Province. Further evidence of the importance of the arts on history!)
SM: When I started to research the Year Without a Summer, I was struck by the incredible impact the eruption of Mount Tambora had on the environment, society and culture. There are a lot of references to its impact on literature, especially English literature. It also had a significant impact on painting, especially landscape paintings by artists like Constable and J. M. W. Turner. I noticed that you created a portrait of Turner. Can you tell us a bit about the influence the Year Without a summer had on art?
CB: The impact of the eruption of Tambora on literature was enormous, as it was on painting, specifically landscape paintings. The landscape paintings from this period have the highest concentration of red paint in them of any period in history, for the simple reason that the skies throughout the world were red, a chemical response of the volcanic gasses which were blanketing the sky. Turner, the ‘painter of light’, could not have been creating paintings at a more fortuitous time. The skies were phenomenally strange and unpredictable. Weather records throughout the globe suggest it was not unusual to experience a 85 degree Celsius day that ended in a 20 degree Celsius blizzard. In this period, Britain experienced fewer than a handful of days in which the sun was even hazily spotted, and this is the reality of what Turner was recording. The most important thing about the art being created at the time is that it isn’t wild fantasy or imagination. It was a record of the world Turner was witness to, and we are lucky to be able to get a glimpse of the ways the Tambora eruption had turned the world on its head.
Q9. Has this series and the research you did influenced your approach to art?
CB: This series, and the immense amount of research I did for it, have forever changed my approach to art. I think it’s expanded my ability to seek out the beautiful connections and links that tie the world together and to make work that is full of the past, present, and future. In a more practical way, it’s given me the confidence to know I can tackle a subject matter that is incredibly complex, and allowed me to hone my methods for organization and creation.
SM: What are you working on now? And, where can readers learn more about your art?
CB: Currently, I am working on three different projects, in addition to my paid work as an illustrator and commercial artist. I have been working on a series of drawings based on the area of Missoula, Montana (where I reside) that attempt to recreate the area of the town in the late 1800s called the Badlands, which were ruled by a Madam named Mary Gleim. This is following a residency I had last summer at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. I am also slowly working my way through a large series of drawings based on the life and works of poet Sylvia Plath. Lastly, I am in the development stages of a body of work that is about the mundanity of personal memory and the role our senses play in cementing these memories in our minds.
Learn how climate disaster changed—and continues to shape—the world of art.
“The world of art changed in 1816. Paintings representing the brightest of skies of the European landscape now revealed the dark sun that seemed to take heat away from the world. Artists of this time did not understand why, but the atmosphere they were trying to depict was darker than that of the past. The dawns and sunsets that were the main focal points of their art and provided light and hope became redder and darker. A sense of perpetual darkness is shown, even with the light of the sun or the shine of the moon depicted in the skies above.”
Read more about the relationship between art and the eruption of Mount Tambora, and learn how scientists and historians rely on paintings from this period to inform their research:
Hubbard, Z., 2019. Paintings in the Year Without a Summer. Philologia, 11(1), pp.17–33.)
Courtney Blazon is not the only living artist mining the events resulting from the Year Without a Summer in their work. Listen to this five-minute interview with Canadian artist Elise Rasmussen, who travelled to Lake Geneva and Mount Tambora to learn more about the relationship between the “environmental anomaly that may have led to the creation of Frankenstein.”
Google “Year Without a Summer” and it won’t be long before you find references to Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness” and Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus, which she wrote when she was just 18 years old.
If you have an hour to spare, listen to Frankenstein, an episode of the BBC show “In Our Time.” Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Mary Shelley’s Gothic story of a monster brought to life. (May 16, 2019)
Read “Year Without a Summer: The climate event that helped create Frankenstein and the bicycle” by Chris Townsend in The Paris Review (October 25, 2016) or “How a Volcanic Eruption Gave Birth to a Monster” by Gillen D’Arcy Wood in Nautilus (December 31, 2015).
Watch this video of Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness.”
The eruption of Mount Tambora didn’t only impact English literature. It had a significant influence on the work of Chinese poet Li Yuyang, who founded what became known as famine poetry.
If you have 48 minutes, listen to “Mount Tambora and the Year Without a Summer” by Marissa Rhodes (May 13, 2018).
Just as the Year Without a Summer influenced contemporary artists, it left its mark on classical music, notably Schubert’s “Winterreise.”
Read “How the Year Without Summer Gave us Dark Masterpieces” by Ian Ritchie in The Guardian (June 16, 2016).
Listen to more recent songs inspired by the catastrophe.
The folk song “1800 and Froze to Death” by Pete and Karen Sutherland. (Scroll to the bottom of the article to find two different recordings of the song.)
“1816, the Year Without a Summer” by cello rock band Rasputina.
Discover organizations that predict and respond to volcanic disasters.
WOVOdat is a comprehensive global database on volcanic unrest aimed at understanding pre-eruptive processes and improving eruption forecasts. It is brought to you by the World Organization of Volcano Observatories (WOVO).
For more than three decades, countries around the world have called upon the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) to contribute expertise and equipment in times of crisis.