This Photo Friday features “The Icebergs,” painted by Frederic Edwin Church in 1861, on permanent display at the Dallas Museum of Art. “The Icebergs” draws on a combination of influences: Church’s real-life observations during his month-long voyage in the North Atlantic Ocean, accounts written by other explorers, and the mysterious, ethereal quality of the Arctic. At a Sotheby’s auction in 1979, the painting sold for $2.5 million, the most any American painting had sold for at public auction at the time.
Peder Balke (1804 – 1887) is often known as the “Painter of Northern Light.” A painter firmly rooted in the Romanticism movement, which flourished from 1800 to the 1860s, his landscapes and seascapes portray the power and majesty of nature. His work depicts the wildness of Norwegian seascapes and the potential nature has to destroy.
Balke’s talent has recently been rediscovered by collectors and museums alike. A collection of his work is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City until July 9, some of the paintings featuring depictions of glaciers.
Edward Theodore Compton, usually referred to as E.T. Compton, was a German painter, illustrator and mountain climber who lived from 1849-1921. He is best known for his paintings and drawings of alpine scenery, many of which also contain glaciers.
Born in London, Compton’s family moved to Darmstadt, Germany, in 1867, for him to continue his education. He was also a skilled mountaineer, making 300 major ascents during his lifetime, mostly within Europe. For example, he made the first documented ascents of 27 mountains, including Torre di Brenta in the Italian Alps and Grossglockner in Austria, which he climbed at the age of 70!
Apart from oil and watercolor paintings, Compton also produced numerous illustrations of alpine scenery. Many of his works help to document the days of early alpinism, showing what mountains and glaciers looked like in the past.
Mia Baila has been painting glaciers in Alaska since she first saw them in 2008. In an email to Glacierhub, she wrote that she describes these paintings of glaciers as “Portraits of Ice,” and wrote that the process of representing a glacier in a painting is similar to the process of capturing the uniqueness of a human face. She also described the challenge of painting ice: “With some glaciers, the ice is so twisted and convoluted that it’s as though I am finding my way through a maze or labyrinth as I draw and paint on the canvas. With others, the ice is smoother, and less complicated, yet no less challenging.”
Baila writes of the loss of glaciers to climate change: “I am very aware that as I make these paintings of the glaciers, most of my glacier subjects are melting. At some point in time, when the glaciers themselves are very much diminished, or completely gone, my paintings will serve as a record of the beauty that is here now.”
The paintings below are of glaciers in Glacier Bay, including Margerie Glacier, as well as College Fjord and the Mendenhall Glacier. Her website can be found here and she can be followed on facebook.
Scientists have long used historical photographs of glaciers as a source of data. They provide evidence on the size of glaciers in the past, and in this way allow researchers to establish the pace of glacier retreat. In recent years, an Italian artist—who grew up among glaciers himself—has found a new way to work with these photographs and to demonstrate a different kind of meaning.
The painter Rudolf Stingel comes from the town of Merano in the Italian Alps, close to the borders with Switzerland and Austria. Since his childhood in the region, the glaciers on the high peaks near his hometown have shrunk significantly. Stingel has developed creative possibilities from this loss. He has blown up old black-and-white photographs of the mountains to an enormous size, up to fifteen feet wide, and used them as the basis for immense landscape paintings.
An exhibition of Stingel’s work was shown at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City earlier this year. These paintings capture the stern snow-covered peaks, and other details such as the folds and cracks and discoloring that have developed as the photographs age. Stingel let the paintings sit on his studio floor, so they aged as the original photographs aged, acquiring scuff marks, drips from other art projects, and bits of debris. The final products, such as the ones illustrated here, are striking and absorbing.
Where scientists treat photographs as a record of another object – such as a glacier – from the past, Stingel forces us to recognize that photographs themselves are objects. To convert a photograph to a set of data is as much as intervention as to transform a photograph into a painting.
Nothing can stop the progress of time; photographs age, just as mountains do. To work with an old photograph, whether as a scientist or as an artist, is to select a way to change it. This process involves the chance of fate, whether in the inevitable aging of an archival photograph, however well curated, or in the random events in an artist’s studio.
Stingel’s work has long played with issues of individual and collective memory. He has produced paintings from reworked personal photographs from different periods of his life and approached a geological kind of intervention when he covered the floor of his studio with Styrofoam and then walked across the surface wearing boots that he dipped in a liquid that partially dissolved the surface, leaving something like the fossilized trackway of a prehistoric animal.
In these earlier works, Stingel has shown us that no object can preserve the past, and that even our memories change, as we re-record them. And now he shows us how irrevocably the glaciers are vanishing. Neither photographs of them nor the paintings of the man who had walked among them as boy can preserve them perfectly. All we can see is their fading—and our wish to still be able to see them as they were.