Why do human beings love fire? Why do we find it hard to look away from even the smallest candleflame? Many anthropologists put it down to simple inheritance: the hominids who became our ancestors were those most susceptible to fire’s charms, for all its peril. Fire gave us cooking and tool-making; it freed us from the tyranny of the sun, allowing people to gather and work after dark; the ability to control it conferred status and thus, a foundation for more elaborate social structures. It was both an everyday tool and a terrible supernatural force to worship and wield against enemies. Small wonder that, thousands of years later, we seek its likeness in artworks of all kinds, from the hellish radiance of Francisco Goya’s El Incendio to the smouldering poltergeists of The Sims.
Artworks like these may explore and even celebrate fire, but they also illuminate our distance from it….