Vanishing ice through artists' eyes

| 9th May 2014
Fourth of July Iceberg, 2008, Twillingate, Newfoundland. Photo: Barbara Matilsky.
Fourth of July Iceberg, 2008, Twillingate, Newfoundland. Photo: Barbara Matilsky.
This chronicle of over two centuries of melting Alpine and polar ice, seen through the works of contemporary artists, is at its best both powerful and provocative, writes Martin Spray. But he wonders - is art really such an effective force for environmental protection?
Through the centuries artists have demonstrated the limitless potential of alpine and polar landscapes to convey complex feelings, ideas, and messages.

Walking through an English forest during a recent winter, I overheard a young boy talking to (I suppose) his grandparents. "It's so beautiful! ... It's exciting."

I felt rather sad. There had just been a quick snow flurry, which left about a third of the ground powdered white.

The boy, about six or seven, had apparently not met 'real' snow: snow that entices first-footprints, snowballs, and sledging; that invites a close examination of its silently falling flakes, or makes one listen to the narnian music of snow-gravel sissing through the branches of conifers; snow that is a component of our romantic yuletide celebrations.

It's so beautiful - but we're glad when it's gone. It is best kept, we may suggest, to calendars, Christmas cards, and the coffee-table.

And then again, I have never met real ice ...

One of the most remarkable books I've read (not from the coffee-table) describes an aside to the doomed slog to the South Pole in 1912 by Robert Falcon Scott and colleagues.

That tramp is an outstanding effort (or folly) of the 'Heroic Period' of Polar exploration: a fascinating period that makes me very aware that I, too, haven't met real snow, or other forms of ice.

But the aside: If The worst journey in the world by Apsley Cherry-Garrard is a misnomer, I can forgive its miniscule exaggeration. Three men on a winter journey to collect penguin eggs, for research into bird evolution at the British Museum, haul a sledge over the ice and snow... and then go back for their second one.

It is below -60° Fahrenheit (-50° C.): "From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. there was enough light to see the big holes made by our feet. After lunch [...] we carried a naked lighted candle ... Three frozen men and a little pool of light ... We were very silent, it was not easy to talk."

Later, the canvas cover of an improvised shelter gave way to the wind, "flapped into hundreds of little fragments in fewer seconds than it takes to read this. The uproar of it all was indescribable ... ". [1]

The first scenario (and I am thinking of England) is of a charming and usually mild seasonal hazard. The other is of a persistent, deathly, awful, ice-bound grimness. Or, they were.

With a changing world climate (even if it's only a blip), the first is increasingly a seasonal hap-hazard, and the latter is - for want of a better description - shrinking.

The concensus - art can help us realise the need for climate action

The organisers of the exhibition and the book, if not most of the artists, assume the consensus position of definite, manmade, global warming, that we must do something to ameliorate the changes, and that art can help us to, if not do so, at least open our eyes to the need.

We know that glaciers are retreating, ice-sheets and sea-ice are thinning, mountain-tops are casting off their icy duvets. I am not convinced that we know why, though I see the Hand of Man in it, and am convinced that (for other reasons as well) we need to act.

Through the centuries artists have demonstrated the limitless potential of alpine and polar landscapes to convey complex feelings, ideas, and messages.

Vanishing ice may help. It "introduces the rich artistic legacy of the planet's frozen frontiers now threatened by a changing climate", and looks at their impact on artists.

The exhibition and book display work by a hundred or so artists, and are concerned with the graphic arts and photography, and a scattering of sculpture, and work based on representations of scientific data, such as those from ice-penetrating radar.

It is clearly presented, fairly thorough, and quite attractive enough for the coffee-table - although for clarity I would have preferred a few more of the illustrations printed full-page.

An artistic journey through time

Its chapters include the 'Voyage to glacial peaks' - when Europe and then America became enthralled by alpine landscapes, such as William Turner depicting snows and atmospheres in the Alps (1802); and Lawren Harris presenting Isolation Peak in the Rockies in fascinatingly simple geometry (1920).

Another is the 'Allure of the poles', the exploration of Arctic and Antarctic - with Abraham Storck painting whalers (1690) and C. D. Friedrich painting icescapes (1823-24) in the North; William Hodges, sailing with James Cook, depicting sailing vessels and icebergs (1773); Frank Hurley photographing Shackleton's ice-bound Endurance (1915); and Xavier Cortada 'ice painting' mixed-media impressions of (2007) in the South.

This is the bulk of the catalogue. References are fairly thorough, and, though no index, there is a checklist with details of all items in the exhibition. [2] The artists are woven into an outline history of explorations and discoveries. A timeline provides context from 1600 to date, which is useful but perhaps not in the clearest format.

Before this is 'Elegy: the open Polar sea', a theory that has "periodically tantalized mariners" since the 17th century. Searching for and not finding open sea-routes occupied considerable numbers of minds and bodies, especially in the 19th century.

However, warnings from environmentalists that the Arctic ice is, indeed, vanishing, have become shriller in the past half-century. "Since 1979, the Arctic has lost 44% of its summer sea ice". We need caution here, though: for instance, research suggests that mediaeval European explorers, then much more sophisticated Orientals, made use of ice-free Polar waters. [3]

Does art really help to boost environmental protection?

Before these chapters, 'From the sublime to the science of a changing climate' briefly surveys a wide range of collaboration between artists and scientists investigating the planet's geography and geohistory.

"Through the centuries", writes Matilsky, "artists have demonstrated the limitless potential of alpine and polar landscapes to convey complex feelings, ideas, and messages."

This exhibition and book certainly suggest that, though this does not make them unique. An important message, I am sure, still to reach many scientists (of various sorts) is that an artist's eyes, and mind, can be important aids to communicating with the lay public.

Barbara Matilsky knows the field, and produced one of the most useful books on artists' environmental involvement, Fragile ecologies. [4] Nonetheless, I think one should be wary of implying that an artist's - even an eco-artist's - involvement with a subject as an artist will boost the chances of protecting it.

It may. But I wonder about cases where it may not. "Jo is worried about the survival of polar bears in the face of climate change. She wants to use her talent as an artist to try to influence people to her point of view. She paints a picture of a family of hungry-looking bears on much-broken ice, with an oildrum floating nearby, and hopes whoever sees it will think: ‘What beautiful creatures: we must help them.'

"Two people stand before her impressive painting. Neither sees the oildrum as untoward. The first says: 'I wouldn't like to meet those fellows without a rifle!' The other says: 'Wow! One of those would make a fantastic rug!' Jo, meanwhile, reads about revised predictions of the collapse of Greenland's ice sheet, and can't sleep for worry. She starts another picture ... " [5]

Powerful, provocative ... and ambiguous

I hope this book helps. It should not become just a coffee-table flip-through. It contains some images we might now consider sentimental -others perhaps cryptic. Few catch the awful grimness depicted in The worst journey. Some, however, are powerful and provocative. For me, two get close to speaking of the ambiguity of our presence in these awesome regions.

Anne Noble's print 'Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica' (2005) is of an innocently placid sea, a backdrop of icebound hills, "seemingly inaccessible" but rather gentle-looking, and a foreground setting of plastic chairs and tables with white, unruffled tablecloths and jugs of water, arranged on the deck of a cruise ship. No one is in sight; the sky is slightly mellowed; the viewer is, as it were, separated from almost picturesque Nature by a float-by piece of civilization.

Jean de Pomereu's photograph 'Fissure 2 (Antarctica)' (2008) is just that: a crack in the ice, of which he says "To me, the ice crack represents and embodies the first fissures in this world of stillness and silence: The first dramatic sign of the coming breakup of the sea ice."

Yes - but then I remember Cherry-Garrard's flying-away shelter, and stories of the wood-walled Heroic ships waiting until they could batter through the coastal ice.



The book: 'Vanishing ice - Alpine and Polar landscapes in art, 1775 - 2012' is written by Barbara C. Matilsky and published by University of Washington Press / Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, Washington, USA, 2013, paperback, 144 pages, RRP $39.95 / £24.13, ISBN 978-0-295-99342-3. Available on Amazon.

The website: has all the artworks reproduced as well as the timeline, all illustrated text panels, etc


  1. Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922; 1970) 'The worst journey in the world', Penguin.
  2. For information on the exhibition see
  3. Gavin Menzies (2002) 1421. 'The year China discovered the world', Bantam Press.
  4. Barbara Matilsky (1992) 'Fragile ecologies. Contemorary artists' interpretations and solutions', New York: Rizzoli.
  5. Martin Spray (2006) Can art save the polar bear?

Martin Spray
 is an editor and writer for Ecos - A review of conservation
He retired early from the University of Gloucestershire, England, because of Parkinson's disease. He taught aspects of ecology, landscape architecture, environmental philosophy, and professional ethics, and has contributed to a wide variety of conservation, landscape, gardening and education magazines and journals. 



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