The Art of Fireworks

Many of us will cap off our celebration of Independence Day by lying back and watching fireworks light up the sky. LACMA is closed today, but you can enjoy our “fireworks show” virtually here.

Fireworks date back to tenth-century China where it is said that a Chinese cook accidentally mixed three common ingredients that formed a black powder and exploded into flames when lit. This process was adapted for both entertainment and warfare purposes by the Chinese. Fireworks flourished for entertainment during the Song Dynasty (960–1279) when grand displays were created to entertain the emperor. Adventurous explorers spread the knowledge of fireworks to the West and Arabs began to create their own techniques.

Tsubaki Chinzan, Portrait of Yue Fei (Song Dynasty), 19th century, gift of Joseph L. Brotherton in Appreciation of George Kuwayama

In both India and China, fireworks were believed to be effective in warding off evil spirits, darkness, and despair, and they continue to be used in many celebratory occasions.

India, Rajasthan, Kishangarh, Krishna and Radha Enjoying a Feast and Fireworks, early 19th century, gift of Jane Greenough Green in memory of Edward Pelton Green

Mahmud (India), Two Women Enjoying Fireworks, 1766, gift of Doris and Ed Wiener

Utagawa Hiroshige, Fireworks at Ryogoku, 1858, The Joan Elizabeth Tanney Bequest

Fireworks eventually spread to the West. Queen Elizabeth I was so enamored with the pyrotechnics that she created the position of Fire Master. The coronation display he created for James II was so pleasing to the king and queen that the Fire Master was actually knighted. King Charles V also took a liking to the bursting flames and made sure to celebrate all of his victories with fireworks.

Kaufmann and Fabry, Fireworks, 1934, Anonymous gift

Early settlers in America brought their versions of fireworks to the new world and used them to commemorate holidays. During the first celebration of Independence Day in 1777, fireworks were used to mark the occasion.

If you don’t yet have your firework plan in place, check out this great guide to fireworks happening all around L.A. so you can continue this centuries-long tradition.

Alex Capriotti

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