Whether it flows slowly down a mountainside or coats an entire continent a mile deep, ice is visually striking. For centuries, artists have tried to capture the elusive beauty of ice – blue-green translucence, whimsical melted forms, transformative immensity. They have traveled to extreme environments in the mountains or at the poles to paint, draw, photograph and film ice-covered landscapes.
The scope of their work has broadened human understanding of our planet from a scientific perspective, as glaciers have become the barometers for the global biosphere. An exhibition opening in November at the Whatcom Museum will showcase the confluence of science, culture and art in ice-covered landscapes. Called “Vanishing Ice,” the five-month exhibition highlights the cultural value of the frozen environment in the face of climate change, but as curator of art Barbara Matilsky pointed out, climate change is not the main focus.
“It’s more about the beauty of the ice and its effect on the history of art, culture and the collective consciousness,” Matilsky said.
The exhibition spans centuries, continents and styles – from William Bradford’s arctic paintings in 1867, to Frank Hurley’s photographs of the Endurance caught in Antarctic
sea ice, to contemporary films, photographs, paintings and sculptures of alpine glaciers.
More than 90 pieces of artwork have been selected, and curators and exhibition designers are busy working out the flow of the gallery. “It’s broken down thematically, geographically and chronologically,” Matilsky said. “You’ll enter the gallery and see the mountains, then move on to the arctic and Antarctic sections.”
While showcasing the art, Vanishing Ice will also present layers of information in a variety of media to help visitors grasp the history of alpine and polar regions and their significance for Western culture. Additional components of the exhibition include a 144-page catalogue, circulated by the University of Washington Press, and a website.
Beyond the exhibition, Vanishing Ice aims to become a community-wide forum. Organizations from Seattle to Bellingham are partnering with Whatcom Museum to
extend its reach. Some 25 environmental, arts and business organizations have signed on to offer climate- and ice-inspired programs over the course of the exhibition.
“The whole community has rallied behind the idea,” Matilsky said. Since Washington has more glaciers than any other U.S. state except for Alaska, Bellingham is an appropriate venue for the exhibition. A section of the gallery will be devoted to Washington, featuring local artists such as John Scurlock, whose image comparing Easton Glacier on Mt. Baker in 2012 to a similar image from decades earlier was the inspiration for the Mount Baker Experience spring 2013 article “Glacial Retreat.”
Matilsky first began work on an exhibition about frozen landscapes in 2005. “I wrote my doctoral dissertation on French landscape painters, and studied artists who went to the poles and the mountain glaciers for inspiration. Later I came across contemporary artists who were going to the same places, and I saw the opportunity to compare the historical with the contemporary,” Matilsky said.
She began compiling a list of artists whose work focuses on icy landscapes, and it
quickly became apparent that ice has played a monumental role in shaping Western consciousness about nature. The task of compiling examples of that influence from
around the globe has been similarly monumental.
“You have to get loans for every work, then figure out insurance, shipping, design, layout, the amount of space needed and how it will be displayed. It’s very complex,” Matilsky said.
The results are far-reaching. The works portray not only frozen landscapes, but also the wildlife affected by those landscapes and, significantly, the human relationship to those environments, including those of northern native peoples.
While the exhibit clearly displays the amount of melting that has occurred over the last two centuries, “it’s not a didactic show that hits you over the head with climate change,” Matilsky said. “It’s about the human connection to the ice, and how losing these landscapes would be a loss not only for the environment and wildlife, but also a major loss to culture.” X