Ice ice baby

By GREG COOK  |  January 6, 2009

The exhibit ranges from a 1779 sketch of Captain James Cook's ships navigating an icy Bering Strait (inked by a member of Cook's crew) to late-19th-century Hudson River School adventure spectacles (like Church's canvas) to Modernist landscapes from the 1930s. They are realist (if sometimes pared down) illustrations, often based on direct experience, of epic adventures (real and imagined) by white guys confronting the earth's limits. One Antarctic landscape here was painted by a stranded member of Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated 1914 Endurance expedition as he awaited rescue. Audiences back home drank up such otherworldly tales — much the way we favor Hollywood action blockbusters or tune in to Deadliest Catch.

Massachusetts native William Bradford voyaged to the Arctic several times in the 1860s and made his name with his icy scenes. His 10-foot-wide canvas Sealers Crushed by Icebergs (1866), which sweeps you up in its scale and drama, is the exhibit's bookend to Aurora Borealis. In the foreground, men transfer gear, crates, and barrels into rowboats as they flee their crunched ship. In the distance, men drag a boat across the ice and a ship burns. On the horizon, tiny ships lie crooked and stuck. In the middle of it all rises a jagged, unyielding icy peak, gleaming blue and green in the sun's spotlight.

In the 1930s, David Abbey Paige's pastels accurately recorded unbelievable halo'd moons, flaring suns, and blood-red clouds. But the 20th-century work here mostly shows the streamlining impulse of early Modernism. Rockwell Kent simplified and flattened the snowy peaks and icy blue waters of Alaska and Greenland into romantic scenes that could double as travel posters. Lawren Harris turned icebergs into strangely mechanical towers in a style that suggests Marsden Hartley or Arthur Dove. These paintings were the last hurrah for avant-garde Arctic art (until our current time) as the tradition of on-the-spot observation was supplanted by abstraction around mid century.

The exhibit, of course, arrives as a requiem: each week seems to bring news that polar ice is disappearing faster than even the most dire global-warming warnings predicted. Before long, Hayes's imagined open polar sea may be reality.

The Museum of Science offers another sort of adventure with "Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids," an exploration of the crossroads of myth and science organized by New York's American Museum of Natural History. It collects intriguing art and artifacts: a 1585 map of Iceland surrounded by sea monsters; folk paintings and beaded textiles depicting water spirits and mermaids; a Chinese-parade-dragon costume made in Hong Kong and used in a performance on the streets of New York. It tells how elephant bones and prehistoric fossils were mistaken for giants, dragons, and griffons. (While you're at the museum, check out the rare, nearly complete real triceratops skeleton that was unveiled downstairs in November.) And there are interesting facts. Did you know that narwhal tusks sold at European markets in the Middle Ages became the standard for depicting unicorn horns?

The presentation doesn't quite come off, however. The show is designed to appeal to both kids and adults; the result is a mundane middle road. It feels a bit padded. And the, uh, life-size models of fantastical creatures are not very fantastic — the unicorn could be any old mare, and the dragon is mundanely earthbound (the "no climbing" sign on its arm doesn't help the illusion). But the giant silver ape and the roc, which looks as if it were about to flap-drop out of the sky and tear your head off, are pretty cool.

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