Galvanizing Glaciology: Thoughts on an Ecocritical Art History

Glaciers are marked by the contours of time. Flow lines and lateral moraines (ridges of accumulated dirt and rocks) demarcate the movement of ice with traces of debris incised into the glacier’s icy surface. Tributaries, rivers, and floods unfurl the flow of the ice into meltwater. As many of the world’s glaciers continue to thaw and no longer reproduce, they have been classed as an endangered species. They are being memorialised rather than immortalised. As Julie Cruikshank wrote over a decade ago, glaciers are “a cryospheric weather vane for potential natural and social upheaval.”[1]

The interdisciplinarity of ice studies in the humanities and social sciences offers alternative ways of framing and engaging the frozen environment. The term cryosphere—first introduced by Antoni Bolesław Dobrowolski in 1923 to describe the frozen-water parts of the Earth—has resulted in several subsequent typologies that draw upon ice and snow as interlocutors between culture and environment.[2] The term and idea cryoscape was first used in 2014 by Marcus Nüsser and Ravi Baghel to consider glaciers as more than physical landscapes and accounts for glaciers within epistemic, social, and cultural practices.[3] More historically specific, Sverker Sörlin looks to cryo-history to denote the historical role of humans in determining the fate of ice in the Anthropocene, while Elizabeth Leane more recently suggests, in relation to Antarctica, the term cryo-narratives as a reference point for broader and more discursive studies surrounding the cultural history of ice.[4] Klaus Dodds and Sörlin, moreover, position such multidisciplinary discussions within the new field of ice humanities (the subject of a forthcoming volume).

A photo of a frozen landscape. The foreground shows an uneven surface of white ice, and there are snowcapped mountains in the background.
Svínafellsjökull, Iceland. July 2015. Photo by Lauren Rawlins
[Image description: A photo of a frozen landscape. The foreground shows an uneven surface of white ice, and there are snowcapped mountains in the background.]

I have an enduring fascination with ice and its recurring role in the history of art. I am fortunate to have published on the Norwegian glaciers Øksfjordjøkelen and Engabreen in the work of Anna Boberg, and the glacier Jostedalsbreen in Johan Christian Dahl’s circumpolar landscapes. In my current research I turn to the animated qualities of ice that emanated from nineteenth-century polar exploration and its ensuing visual culture. Like many, though, I have yet to see and experience a glacier beyond the picture on the page. 

Through the visual study of ice I have, however, become increasingly motivated by the materiality of glaciers, and icy matter more broadly. It is tonally, texturally, and temporally intricate. From the colours to the behaviours of ice, I find glaciers endlessly captivating, as melting, shifting, sliding, and cracking surfaces which humans have explored, exploited, documented, painted, and transformed. In making a glaciological history tangible and visual, I do not seek to simply document ice loss, but look to glacial art history as an opportunity to communicate the elemental qualities of ice, the social and cultural implications of the cryosphere, and the ecological histories of visual culture. While contemporary visual responses to glaciers are often situated as responses to global climate change, presenting a symbiosis of data and aesthetics (see, for example, the work of Diana Burko and Roni Horn), my focus is on the long-standing traditions of glacial representation in the history of art.

A watercolor painting of a glacier. A dark blue river flows upward from the bottom of the frame to the center. Blue and white sheets of ice tower in the background with white mountains in the distance under a green sky.
Carl Johan Forsberg, Pax, 1905. Watercolour and gouache, heightened with white and gum Arabic, on board, 52.4 x 72.4 cm, Stephen Ongpin Fine Art.
[Image description: A watercolor painting of a glacier. A dark blue river flows upward from the bottom of the frame to the center. Blue and white sheets of ice tower in the background with white mountains in the distance under a green sky.]

The large-scale watercolour and gouache painting Pax (1905) by the Swedish artist Carl Johan Forsberg is one such example. Forsberg described this piece as his “capo lavoro,” or magnum opus, following an earlier, and traumatic, experience of the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps in 1903. Forsberg later recalled how “in front of my eye spread the rim of the white glacier, from which the river gets its first nourishment, meandering slowly down into the valley, and at my foot the dark, black-blue surface of the ‘Totensee.'”[5] Ice is distorted and fragmented, creating disparate and angular patterns across the surface of the glacier. Forsberg was regarded as a symbolist landscape painter; Pax, derived from an earlier sketch, was the manifestation of a highly stylised landscape. Yet, even as the painting distorts the Rhône Glacier, a glaciologist might perceive patterns of glacial behaviour in its stylised markings. Meandering supraglacial streams, glacial folding (or ogives), and over-exaggerated crevasses offer points of discussion alongside art historical modes of description. The questions I keep returning to then are: How might we use glaciological inference and relevance within an ecocritical art history? Perhaps more importantly, why should we?

Methodologically, an ecocritical art history mobilises an array of perspectives, interlacing visual analysis, cultural interpretation, Indigenous stories, environmental history, and climate change narratives. To think visually about glaciers therefore requires a level of understanding that traverses disciplines and fields of expertise. I am grateful in this respect to have glaciologist friends who enthusiastically offer their insights and knowledge.[6] Writing about the visual history of glaciers is, for me, a collaborative process. I must adapt scientific terminology to the processes of visual analysis, incorporate western and Indigenous perspectives, and recognise the glacier’s own agency within its respective social, cultural, and environmental contexts. Nineteenth-century painting as an alternative to before/after and repeat photography is already the subject of glaciological research into how to articulate historic glacial fluctuations since the end of the Little Ice Age (between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries century). This notably includes the work of Heinz Zumbühl et al., M. Jackson, Peter G. Knight, and Allison N. Curley et al.[7] Although we must remain circumspect about the scientific relevance of art and visual culture, given that artistic license and exaggeration function alongside observational drawing (as is the case in Forsberg’s Pax), a partial shift from symbolic strategies to scientific familiarity indicates an interdisciplinary turn in art historical visual analysis. 

An ink drawing of ocean waters with a glacier and mountains rising from the coast, under billowy white clouds.
Rockwell Kent, North Wind over Bear Glacier, c.1919-20. Printed in Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (1920) by Rockwell Kent.
[Image description: An ink drawing of ocean waters with a glacier and mountains rising from the coast, under billowy white clouds.]

Just as glaciers are not geographically confined, within art history they similarly stretch across both the northern and southern hemispheres. Artistic depictions are often from the perspective of western men, and by no means comprehensive. But we might look to Rockwell Kent’s abstract renderings of Alaska’s coastal glaciers; to Emanuel A. Petersen’s depictions of Greenland’s outlet glaciers; and to the southern Patagonian icefield entombed in the engravings of Theodor Ohlsen.[8] Across the Atlantic, the alpine environments of France, Switzerland, and Norway manifest in the work of John Ruskin, Ferdinand Hodler, and Anna Boberg, respectively; to Hans Bobek’s photographs of the Elburtz Mountains in north-central Iran; and to the vast peaks of the Himalayas imagined in the work of Nicholas Roerich. Glaciers have been manipulated, imagined, and mystified over the centuries in the work of western and non-western artists alike. Though ice figures prominently within humanities and visual discourse, it is rarely at the centre of its own story. Instead, it acts as the protagonist in a larger, often colonial and sublime, polar or alpine narrative. Ice frequently acts as the stage for intrepid polar exploration, or today, as the setting of global climate change. As Amanda Boetzkes describes, “climate change has ushered in a penchant for a new sublime visuality.”[9] Art historians, including Lisa Bloom, Mark A. Cheetham, Christopher P. Heuer, George Philip Lebourdais, and Boetzkes have all sought to pressure these geographical, cultural, and icy connections.[10]

The social and cultural history of glaciers is also a topic for interdisciplinary literary endeavours. Alongside Cruikshank’s Do Glaciers Listen?, Joan Naviyuk Kane’s collection of poems Milk Black Carbon (2017), Nancy Campbell’s Library of Ice (2018), M. Jackson’s The Secret Lives of Glaciers (2019), Karine Gagné’s Caring for Glaciers: Land, Animals, and Humanity in the Himalayas (2019), and Jemma Wadham’s Ice Rivers: A Story of Glaciers, Wilderness, and Humanity (2021), among others, explore the entangled roles glaciers and ice play in Indigenous living memory and western environmental history. These remarkable women also acknowledge the reciprocal role of culture in shaping the records and histories of glaciers. Of her encounters with First Nations women living in the Saint Elias Mountains in Yukon territory, Cruikshank recollects how glaciers are “easily excited by human intemperance but equally placated by quick-witted human responses.”[11] Forthcoming work by Hester Blum on the temporalities of ice in Ice Ages and Jen Rose Smith on Icy Matters: Race, Indigeneity, and Coloniality in Ice-Geographies present exciting new avenues of research that delve deeper into the intricacies and positionalities of ice. Unlike in nineteenth- and twentieth-century art history, women are now central to glacial image-making, narratives, and futures.

An oil painting of a glacier. The soil in the bottom third of the painting is shades of brown and gray, with the blue and white folds of the glacier flowing over it.
Anna Boberg, Engabreen, Svartisen Glacier, Norway, n.d.. Oil on canvas, 47 x 56 cm, Private Collection, Sweden. Photo by author.
[Image description: An oil painting of a glacier. The soil in the bottom third of the painting is shades of brown and gray, with the blue and white folds of the glacier flowing over it.]

Confronting the fragility of place and community embedded in glacial landscapes, art history details the possibilities of a visual archive. While ice itself acts as an archive of historic climates, the extraction of ice cores reveals past atmospheric gas levels, and receding glaciers and permafrost unearth social and cultural movements and artefacts, visual culture provides a kind of archive that stores and revives visual memories and imaginaries. Forsberg’s Pax is only one example of how glaciology might be mobilised within this context. Incorporating glaciology into an ecocritical art history recognises the immediacy and urgency of our ecological reality. It adds layers to visual interpretation that dissect the sublime, wilderness, or symbolic landscape to instead explore the complexities and possibilities of an interdisciplinary, non-hierarchical, and environmental focus. Such collaborative and cross-disciplinary processes will shift an ecocritical art history beyond the confined parameters of art historical discourse and theory and away from the disciplinary margins.

[1] Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005), 6.  

[2] Antoni B. Dobrowolski, Historia naturalna lodu (The Natural History of Ice) (Warzawa: Kasa Pomocy im., 1923).  

[3] Marcus Nüsser and Ravi Baghel, “The Emergence of the Cryoscape: Contested Narratives of Himalayan Glacier Dynamics and Climate Change,” in Environmental and Climate Change in South and Southeast Asia, ed. Barbara Schuler (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014), 143.  

[4] Sverker Sörlin, “Cryo-History: Narratives of Ice and the Emerging Arctic Humanities,” in The New Arctic, eds. Birgitta Evengård, Joan Nymand Larsen and Øyvind Paasche, 327-339 (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2015); Elizabeth Leane, “The Iceberg and the Ship: Human and Nonhuman Travel in a Warming Arctic,” (presentation, Ice (St)Ages 1: An Irretrievable Loss? Moving Environments, Fleeting Encounters and Performative Gestures, virtual event, May 19, 2021). 

[5] Carl Johan Forsberg, Opera (Stockholm, 1913), as cited by Stephen Ongpin Fine Art, “Carl Johan Forsberg – Pax,” Stephen Ongpin Fine Art.

[6] I was fortunate to be introduced to the Glaciology Research Group at the University of York during my doctoral studies. This has led to long-term collaborative relationships with Dr. Penny How, now with the Geological Survey of Greenland and Denmark (GEUS), and Lauren Rawlins, a PhD student in Glaciology at the University of York, whose informed and passionate insights into Forsberg’s painting helped inspire and shape the direction of this essay. 

[7] See Heinz J. Zumbühl, Daniel Steiner, and Samuel U. Nussbaumer, “19th Century Glacier Representations and Fluctuations in the Central and Western European Alps: An Interdisciplinary Approach,” Global and Planetary Change 60, no. 1-2 (2008): 42-57; M. Jackson, “Representing Glaciers in Icelandic Art: A Spatial Shift,” Environment, Space, Place 7, no. 2 (2015): 65-96; Peter G. Knight, Glacier: Nature and Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2019); Allison N. Curley et al., “Glacier Changes over the Past 144 Years at Alexandra Fiord, Ellesmere Island, Canada,” Journal of Glaciology 67, no. 263 (2021): 511-522.

[8] Thank you to Dr. Miguel Angel Gaete for introducing me to the work of Theodor Ohlsen, an artist who spent ten years travelling through Patagonia, and published his engravings in an album titled Durch Süd-Amerika (1894). 

[9] Amanda Boetzkes, “Climate Aesthetics in the Ablation Zone,” Afterimage 47, no. 2 (2020): 35.

[10] See Lisa Bloom, Gender on Ice: American Ideologies of Polar Expeditions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Mark A. Cheetham, Landscape Into Eco Art: Articulations of Nature Since the ‘60s (Philadelphia: Penn State University Press, 2018); Christopher P. Heuer, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image (Durham, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019); George Philip LeBourdais, “Cryoscapes: Snow and Fantasies of Freezing in the Art of George Henry Durrie,” in Ecocriticism and the Anthropocene in Nineteenth-Century Art and Visual Culture, eds. Maura Coughlin and Emily Gephart, 93–100 (New York: Routledge, 2019).

[11] Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen?, 8.

*Cover image: Emanuel A. Petersen, A Collection of 27 Sceneries from Greenland, n.d. Ink, watercolour, and gouache on paper laid on cardboard, various measurements, Artnet.

[*Cover image description: A series of 27 ink and watercolor drawings of glacial landscapes arranged on a yellow-brown piece of cardboard. The drawings are all rectangles of various sizes.]

Edited by Shelby Brewster, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.

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