Hats off to Barbara Matilsky for generating a show that brings into focus the context and history of art as it relates to climate change. And what range of imagery has been brought together of alpine serenity, of sailing ships caught in the arctic ice, of caribou herds seen from the air, and the ice melt.

We sense the way the polar and ice capped world was seen at different times, in different places in this survey. Edwin Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864), with its polar bears chewing on the remnants of a shipwreck locked in ice, has a haunting quality, and the savage message of the fate of the Franklin expedition that remained in the British public’s mind is most clear. Dutch Whalers In Spitzbergen (1690) by Abraham Storck captures what is essentially a brutal action yet it still has the picturesque style, and a French painting from the 1841 Salon of Greenlanders Hunting Walrus does the same, though nature here is dominant, threatening and all powerful. American Frederick Edwin Church’s painting The Icebergs (1861) presents nature as serene, almighty and an embodiment of God’s great artwork. Canadian Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris’ more modernist Isolation Peak, Rocky Mountains (1930), hints at a theosophist’s sense of the greater vision.

Alongside all this beatific aesthetic painting hang the more contemporary C-Print photos, multimedia works that add a touch of urgency and reality to the global warming phenomenon. Melted 4 (2008), a watercolour by Cynthia Camlin presents a view of ice melt as it creates caverns in the ice. Subhankar Banerjee’s Caribou Migration from Oil & the Caribou (2002) is beautiful. Caribou appear like ants on a broad white landscape, their migration patterns like a fine drawing. With Above and Below Cararra nunatac, Sky Blu, Antarctica, 2006–7, an inkjet print, Chris Drury juxtaposes two images, one above the ice with the SkyBlu refuelling station visible and one below, that presents depths and surfaces in intriguing new ways that reflects technology’s echogrammatic and epigrammatic “reading” of extreme weather landscapes. Unseen and seen are presented as one.

One of my favourite Vanishing Ice works is Frank Hurley’s 1915 photo of Endeavour trapped in the ice at night and Gustave Dore’s more fanciful and imaginative The Ice Was All Around, an illustration for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1877). The artist duo Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick’s Currency Balloon, from eisbergfreistadt, (2008), an archival pigment print is pure pulp make believe fiction, a theatrical re-enactment of any expansionist artist/explorer’s way of seeing and doing things… The money plastered onto this balloon expresses greed and avarice. Currency Balloon is as contemporary as art can be, for a while, until it too, is replaced. Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey’s Ice Lens, Svalbard archipelago, 2005, an ice carving captured as an archival inkjet print, is a light lens made of nature and seems a little self evident and obvious. Why not just enjoy un-carved light on ice? Anne Noble’s Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica (2005) with its plastic deck chairs looking on to an icy landscape is all about the commoditized travel/tourist trap syndrome in far away, previously inaccessible places.

While the earth’s climate has changed since it all began, as Rachel Carson made clear in her writings Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us so long ago, curator Barbara Matilsky and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection have succeeded in presenting a most marvelous and engaging look at those vanishing icy realms. 

McMichael Canadian Art Collection
January 31 — April 26, 2015