Frederic Edwin Church, William Bradford, George Chambers

Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865 National Museum of Art, Washington, D.C.The unearthly beauty of Earth’s polar regions has long stirred the imaginations of explorers, writers and artists. Mary Shelley ended her 1818 novel Frankenstein with the doctor’s pursuit of the creature across Arctic wastes, and Edgar Allan Poe included Antarctica in his Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). Competitive exploration—a curious mix of scientific curiosity, nationalism and pure adventure—is captured in the extraordinary 1919 documentary film South, the record of Ernest Shackleton’s 1915 expedition, with breathtaking footage of his ship, the Endurance, being slowly crushed by ice. Werner Herzog’s brilliant recent documentary Encounters at the End of the World continues the tradition, bringing a new urgency to the saga, as this fragile ecosystem is threatened by global warming.

An exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum draws on this context. “To the Ends of the Earth, Painting the Polar Landscape” brings together fifty works from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Aurora Australis (1908) by George Marston, who was on Shackleton’s doomed voyage. Some of the earlier work in the exhibition belongs to the maritime genre, albeit transposed into a more hectic key, given the extreme conditions. British painter George Chambers’s Bark Auriga in Antarctic Waters (c. 1834) lovingly depicts every detail of the big ship’s rigging. William Bradford was a better painter and, as a frequent visitor to the polar regions, a superb interpreter of that extraordinary terrain. The epic Sealers Crushed by Icebergs (1866) plays the hot colors of a burning boat against the surrounding blue-white cold. Icebound Ship (c. 1880) similarly dramatizes the dangers to humans venturing into the often terrifying realm, while Lights of the Aurora (c. 1869) simply acknowledges its visual magic. Beauty seems always on the verge of overwhelming the documentary impulse. David Abbey Paige, a cyclorama painter recruited by Admiral Byrd for his 1933 Antarctic expedition, turned out a series of pastels that are nearly abstract impressions of haloes from airplane beacons.

The star of the exhibition, however, is Frederic Edwin Church, with three of the Hudson River School master’s ice paintings on display. Church took the Romantic sublime far from its familiar territory, the European Alps and the west of the United States, as celebrated by Bierstadt. Church journeyed to the jungles and volcanoes of South America. In 1861, he traveled to Labrador and Newfoundland to paint icebergs and would return to the theme for decades. In Iceberg (1891), a tiny ship is silhouetted against a behemoth of white. While many artists include heroically struggling human figures in such scenes, emphasizing both danger and valor, Church expresses awe at the vision of nature, a force that dwarfs the ambitions of humankind. While understandable in purely nineteenth-century terms, it’s an image that resonates with contemporary ecological concerns. The disparity in scale between human presence and natural splendor is even more dramatic in Aurora Borealis (1865). In this stunning, seven-foot-wide oil, a ship is little more than a dark streak in a sea of turquoise and red-gold. The pyrotechnic fan of colored lights in the sky, rising from a central mass of shadow, is spectacular. We seem to be approaching the end not only of the physical planet but of human experience, foreshadowing the “Jupiter and Beyond” sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi film 2001

After this, the rest of the show seems like an afterthought, although stylized blue illustrative images by Lawren Harris and Rockwell Kent (who chronicled his life in Alaska and Greenland in writing as well as pictures) have an attractive graphic energy. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with essays by PEM curator Sam Scott, Russell Potter and John Paul Caponigro. “To the Ends of the Earth, Painting the Polar Landscape” is on view November 8, 2008–March 1, 2009, at the Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, Massachusetts 01970. Telephone (978) 745-9500. On the web at www.pem.org

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2008, Volume 25, Number 4