The climate change clues hidden in art history

  01 June 2020    Read: 2156
 The climate change clues hidden in art history @Kunsthistorisches Museum

Art historians are exploring their collections through a climate lens, revealing overlooked connections between our past and present, writes Diego Arguedas Ortiz.

As the 1850s were drawing to a close, the artist Frederic Edwin Church was navigating off the Canadian coast of Newfoundland in preparation for his next painting. The search for the Northwest Passage had captured the public’s imagination for much of that decade and Church – America’s best-known landscape painter – was also lured. He chartered a schooner to approach the sea ice and spent weeks among the frozen blocks before returning to his studio in New York with about 100 sketches.

Church’s monumental painting The Icebergs was presented in an exhibition in New York in 1861, just 12 days after the start of the American Civil War. Its original and more politically-charged name (The North) reflected the time’s views on the Arctic and on ice itself.

The Icebergs by Frederic Edwin Church – America’s most famous painter – reflected 19th-Century society’s view of the Arctic (Credit: Dallas Museum of Art)

It was sublime, untamable. The icebergs’ sharp features offered no resistance. A book published to coincide with the exhibition, by a friend who went North with Church hammered that point home: “After all, how feeble is man in the presence of these Arctic wonders.” Before the painting was exhibited in London two years later, the artist added a broken mast that dominated the centre of the scene, a reminder of humanity’s fragility.

“That’s kind of the opposite of what modern paintings of ice are saying,” explains Karl Kusserow, the John Wilmerding curator of American art at the Princeton University Art Museum. “Later pieces of art are about the ice melting because of what we've done to it.”

Kusserow is talking about works such as Ice Watch, an installation by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, in which more than two dozen blocks that had already been lost from Greenland’s ice sheet were placed in London and left to thaw, so that passersby were reminded of the melting, fragile Arctic. “It’s a kind of a flip-flop,” says Kusserow, “using that same kind of metaphor; this element of ice.”

Only one-and-a-half centuries have passed between the two pieces – a blink of an eye for a species like ours and even less so for the planetary cryosphere – but the relationship between humanity and ice is radically different. In Church’s time, the greenhouse effect had barely been suggested by scientists such as Eunice Newton Foote and John Tyndall, who coincidentally attended the painting’s preview party in London. In 2020, we are certain we are literally melting the planet’s ice.

In Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson, ice is a metaphor for the damage humans have inflicted on the Earth (Credit: Olafur Eliasson/Minik Rosing)

As scientists, policy-makers and members of the public attempt to make sense of the climate crisis, art historians poring over artworks are finding all sorts of answers (and a handful of new questions) about how our relationship with nature has changed, about past and present societies’ ideas of climate and even about the physical changes of our planet.

A changing relationship

One of the central conclusions art historians have made is that our conception of nature has been dramatically altered in the last century. If you visited the Princeton Art Museum for its 2018 exhibition Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, you might have caught glimpses of this transition (albeit one that’s messy, non-linear and far from finished) from immutable to frail nature.

The exhibition, co-curated by Kusserow, followed a journey of more than three centuries of American art. Nature’s Nation ranged from works such as the panoramic Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt, a celebration of nature’s power in the US during the 1870s, to its 21st-Century reponse, Valerie Hegarty’s Fallen Bierstadt, which portrays a very similar monumental landscape in decay, as if consumed by time or fire.

Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt, is a celebration of nature’s power in the 1870s, and was part of a 2018 exhibition Nature’s Nation (Credit: The North Carolina Museum of Art)

“There’s a 180-degree switch from a world that we have no control over, to one in which we are actually controlling the fate of the planet, and recognising that we’re not doing a very good job on it,” says Kusserow.

He argues that a noticeable transition, at least in the US, occurred during the 1960s, propelled by the counterculture movement and books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – whose first chapter is also a speculative fiction short story. The following decades saw artists producing work that was self-conscious about environmental issues and moved beyond romantic representations of the natural world.

One of those pieces is Ocean Landmark, a concept-defying installation by Betty Beaumont, built between 1978 and 1980. It falls into the relatively compact field of ‘land art’, which is made directly in the landscape, sculpting the land itself.

Partly sponsored by the US Department of Energy and the Smithsonian Institution, Beaumont took 17,000 neutralised coal fly-ash blocks and dumped them 3 miles (5km) from the coast of New York. The coal reached 70ft (21.3m) deep and rested on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, where it became a hybrid between sculpture and artificial reef. Yet its remoteness and the decision to create art for nature also says something about its time.

Ocean Landmark, built by Betty Beaumont between 1978-1980, is a more self-consciously environmental approach to landscape art (Credit: Betty Beaumont)

“The reason why I like this piece is that it’s something you can’t access. Because it’s underwater, it’s always going to be elsewhere. It shows we can connect with the environment, but without claiming it as our own,” says Francesca Curtis, who’ll be presenting a paper on this piece at a conference on art history and climate change organised by the Courtauld Institute of Art in mid-2020. “The ocean space is there, and it exists, but it’s not for us.”

Ocean Landmark also challenges the concept of nature as something opposed or at least different to culture. The artwork is the reef, which is now considered a fish haven by the US government. “You can’t separate the idea of the environment from all the political problems that exist today, precisely because of things like climate change,” says Curtis, a PhD student at the University of York’s History of Art department.

The tip of the iceberg?

As the 20th Century presented graver and graver environmental challenges, and the anxieties around waste management, nuclear energy and air, water and chemical pollution became multiplied, that boundary between nature and culture blurred.

Half the world away from Ocean Landmark, a cadre of Indian artists have been reflecting and producing work about one of those meeting points between the natural and the human: farmers’ suicides. Art historian and educator Preeti Kathuria has been following this field’s development since the early 2000s, including the work of artists such as Kota Neelima, the collective The Gram Art Project and the duo Thukral and Tagra, and will also present her work at the Courtauld’s conference.

Indian duo Thukral and Tagra have been creating climate change works for six years, including a series of flying houses, Dominus Aeiris (Credit: Thukral and Tagra Studio)

She has noticed the transition even in the last couple of decades. As the impacts of climate change become more striking, so have artists’ approaches. Kathuria suggests air pollution as an example in which changes in the city are forcing artists to react. “Suddenly, we cannot survive without air purifiers,” she says. “We never needed air purifiers in Delhi. The problem is now coming face-to-face, so naturally the response of the artist has become much more direct.”

Scientists and artists have also studied artworks to aid them in their reconstruction of past weather and climatic conditions. This is partly because of a “climate consciousness” that modern viewers have, says the art historian Theo Gordon, a postdoctoral fellow at The Courtauld Institute and the organiser of its upcoming conference.

Do we limit ourselves to an artist’s contemporary intent or do we try to see other things in the work of art?
“The way we are thinking about the climate now in increasingly alarmed terms is historically specific,” says Gordon, referring to the way people in 2020 interpret climate-related information, including art. That is, Church’s contemporaries in 1860 would not have represented the idea of ‘climate’ with the same emotional baggage as we do, which in turn prompts new questions about how to view these pieces. Do we limit ourselves to an artist’s contemporary intent or do we try to see other things in the work of art? Is an iceberg just an iceberg, or is it a metaphor for how a society sees ice?

Some fields provide straightforward answers. Paintings and sketches allowed researchers in Switzerland to understand how the Lower Grindelwald Glacier, located in the Alps, behaved after 1600 and before photography was invented. The researchers happily agreed in an academic paper published in 2018 that “with a huge number of high-quality pictorial documents, it is possible to reconstruct the (Little Ice Age) history of many glaciers in the European Alps from the 17th to the 19th Centuries.”

Paintings such as this one from 1774 allowed researchers to understand how the Lower Grindelwald Glacier behaved before photography was invented (Credit: Alamy)

Simply put, if you compare the past extent of glaciers in older paintings with current observations, you can tell how long a glacier was before we started warming up the planet. In turn, that can provide answers for how quickly we might lose ice in the future.

In a similar fashion, scholars from Greece and other countries suggested in a 2014 study that the colours of sunsets painted by famous artists can be used to estimate pollution levels in the Earth’s atmosphere for the past five centuries.

“Nature speaks to the hearts and souls of great artists,” said researcher Christos Zerefos, professor of Atmospheric Physics at the Academy of Athens in Greece, when the research was published. “But we have found that, when colouring sunsets, it is the way their brains perceive greens and reds that contains important environmental information.”

A 2014 study suggested that paintings including JMW Turner’s The Scarlet Sunset could be used to estimate pollution levels for the past five centuries (Credit: Alamy)

If you go further back, as the German historian Wolfgang Behringer does in his book A Cultural History of Climate, you would notice that prior to the 1500s there are very few occurrences of snowy landscapes in Western European art. Behringer suggests that the lower-than-usual temperatures during the so-called Little Ice Age plunged European artists like Pieter Bruegel the Elder into a new branch of landscape painting: the winter landscape.

This subgenre includes works such as Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow, a 1565 oil-on-wood detailed depiction of an idyllic winter scene. But beyond the snow, it’s the little details that reveal the cultural and social dimensions of how people were living with the idea of changes in their climate.

Art offers a window into our past, present and future climate that science alone can never offer
“The hunters have all these dogs behind them,” says George Adamson, a historian and geographer at King’s College London, who believes that artworks help us understand how past societies dealt with meteorological events. “I count 12 or 13 dogs with them, so it’s obvious they’ve got out for a big hunt, but they have one fox on their back.”

Those winter landscapes left a bleak impression in the 1500s, he says. But take a look at the next time temperatures slightly dropped in Western Europe, after the 1700s, and you’ll see a different perception of a blanketed field. “When you see snow scenes again in the 19th Century, they tend not to show quite so much hardship. In fact, you get the more romanticised view of the countryside”.

It has been suggested that the 1500s Little Ice Age-inspired artists to paint winter landscapes, such as Bruegel's The Hunters in the Snow (Credit: Kunsthistorisches Museum)

Adamson makes a crucial, nuanced point: the elements we see in a painting don’t make up a climate on their own. These are meteorological conditions, pictures of weather and a time and place. It’s rather the cultural ways in which humans live in those climates, and their representations of them in art, that we should be observing.

For instance, the best representation of our current emergency is not in temperature charts or in the upwards concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. The climate crisis, and what it means to us in 2020, is better explained with youth strikers’ signs, the debris left behind after a cyclone and the sketches over wildfire emergency maps. To fully understand a climate, even in a painting, we need the cultural artefacts; one must observe the shoes and the dogs.

“Those elements can probably tell you more about climate than a thermometer does,” says Adamson. Art offers a window into our past, present and future climate that science alone can never offer, precisely because it reflects our frustrations, hopes and anxieties about nature. It helps understand something an iceberg survey alone will never accomplish: whether ice is a victim or a villain.



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