The North Pole Comes to Salem
The North Pole is melting. Whether you embrace the scientific consensus that global warming is a man-made phenomenon or want to believe that it’s just a natural phenomenon, the Arctic ice cap is demonstrably melting away, leaving polar bears stranded miles from the seals they hunt to live. The melting ice will eventually lead to a rise in sea level, further disrupting the comfortable littoral lives we lead along the coast of New England. The same forces of global warming are at work in the Antarctic, where ice sheets the size of Rhode Island have calved off in recent years.
Mindful of the distant events taking place at the top and bottom of the world, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, has mounted a major exhibition entitled To the Ends of the Earth, Painting the Polar Landscape (November 8 through March 1, 2009) which features more than 50 19th and 20th century painterly visions of the bleak, majestic and otherworldly majesty of the poles.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is Frederic Edwin Church’s symphonic, seven-foot wide “Aurora Borealis, 1865,” a visionary painting very much in keeping with Church’s Romantic search for the sublime. Whether he was painting the Hudson River Valley, the wilds of Maine, or the icebergs off Labrador and Newfoundland, Church was always looking to evoke the hand of God in Nature. A century and a half later, we are left to ponder whether the colorful displays we see in the northern skies are divine illuminations or the polluting handiwork of man.
To the Ends of the Earth also features paintings by George Marston, who accompanied Sir Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic in 1908 and 1915; polar landscapes by William Bradford, “the quintessential Arctic painter;” and, of course, more modern, though no less heroic images of the frozen northlands by Rockwell Kent, whose world wanderings took him to Alaska in 1919 and Greenland in the 1930s.
As a living supplement to historic interpretations of the polar regions, the Peabody Essex Museum’s Interactive Art & Nature Center is hosting Polar Attractions (through June 7, 2009), an exhibition of works by more than 30 North American artists that present contemporary takes on the place of the poles in our universe and our imaginations. Divided into thematic sections related to Ice, Landscape, Wildlife, and Human Interaction, Polar Attractions includes, among other wonders, color photographs by John Paul Caponigro, Camille Seaman, and Gerard Lemmo; representational paintings by Mary Edna Fraser; and artwork by Native Alaskan and Canadian Inuit artists.
Should these images of the remote polar regions spark your interest in the history of polar expeditions, you might also want to pay a visit to the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where the centennial of Admiral Peary’s 1908-09 expedition to the North Pole is being marked by a series of exhibitions and events as well as a blog devoted to Peary’s journals.
As winter returns to New England, the ice caps continue to melt, and polar bears start looking hungrily in our direction, it is the perfect time for an artist voyage To the Ends of the Earth if not the end of Earth.
Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, MA, 978-745-9500, Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, Hubbard Hall, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME, 207-725-3416.