Art and Terror in the Arctic

It’s a good thing that August had record temperatures—seemingly endless days over 100 degrees—because I spent a better part of the month reading Dan Simmons’ leviathan of a novel The Terror, a semi-historical account of a failed bid in the 1840s to chart the legendary “northwest passage” through the frozen arctic.

Simmons accomplishes much in his 800 pages—supernatural beings stalking the ice, arrogant British explorers ignoring nature and common sense, a landscape both barren and hostile, sailors succumbing to scurvy and cannibalism—but what stands out is the cold.

A hundred degrees below zero cold.

The painting on the cover of the hardback edition of novel (shown above) goes a long way toward capturing this alien, frozen wasteland and the suffering and wonder it provoked. The painting is Magdalena Bay, by the 19th century French artist Auguste François Biard (larger image). The painting, which is now in the Louvre, shows the aurora borealis from a bay on the Arctic island of Spitzbergen. In the foreground are five figures, presumably explorers, who are either dying or dead:

Biard painted this fantastic, morbid scene after he participated in a scientific expedition to the Arctic in the 1830s (in which nobody died), and he seems to foreshadow, in an oddly Romantic style, the ill-fated journey of the HMS Erebus and Terror in the 1840s (in which everybody died). It is quite easy to imagine that the men in Biard’s painting are the same men who Simmons has dying by the dozens…from exposure, from botulism, from pneumonia, from tuberculosis, from scurvy, and from murder.

In line with the humanistic outlook of the time, the French expedition team aboard the corvette La Recherche, included both scientists and artists. The hope was that the artists would create works that documented the expedition as well as inspired the citizens back home about the value of exploration and discovery. The artists had an implicit pedagogical mission: to teach people that scientific progress is worthwhile, that extending the limits of human knowledge is brave, vital, and beautiful. Of course, Biard’s painting would seem to suggest that it’s also dangerous, and that for prideful men, the drive to chart the uncharted can be pure folly.

There is a contemporary project reminiscent of the Recherche expedition’s melding of art and science: David Buckland’s Cape Farewell Project, which takes photographers, writers, sculptors and other artists on voyages in the arctic. A report on NPR described the origins of Buckland’s project:

Buckland had been talking with scientists about global warming–and he was convinced they needed help to communicate what they knew about the way the world’s climate was changing. Now, after three voyages to the Arctic for his Cape Farewell project, Buckland believes the artists have lived up to his expectations.

While I am a strong advocate of l’art pour l’art, I also believe in art with a mission, and I think Buckland and his fellow artists (which includes notables like Ian McEwan and Gretel Ehrlich) are following a noble purpose. I can only wish there were more collaborative efforts between contemporary artists and scientists. Instead of a teacher aboard the space shuttle, send a sculptor. Forget the reality TV camera crews on Sir Richard Branson’s latest exploit; send a sound artist. Don’t be satisfied with mapping an underground world, design one of your own.

One thought on “Art and Terror in the Arctic

  1. Wow, this is pretty interesting. I have read about some of the arctic expeditions of the 1800s, but never knew about the painting. Too bad those sailors did not take some lime juice along – at least they could have prevented the scurvy, if not the other perils.

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