Interview with Russell A. Potter, December 2008

Posted on Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008 at 3:27 pm | See all Human Interaction, Landscape Entries.
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Russell A. PotterRussell A. Potter, Ph.D., is a scholar of postmodern theory and the history of British exploration of the Arctic in the 19th century. He believes the visual impact created by paintings like those on view in To the Ends of the Earth, Painting the Polar Landscape dramatically shaped the human response to little-known areas of the world. Below, he discusses artistic frontiers of the future and the role art plays in cultural understanding.

Were the 18th- and 19th-century artists who visited the Arctic presenting a realist vision of the environment or a world seen through a romantic lens?

Both, really. The dawn of the heroic era of polar exploration coincided with the peak of the romantic landscape era, with icebergs becoming more or less a floating version of the same sort of sublimity conveyed by mountains or storm clouds. Like mountains, they could be painted from observation or fancy, or some combination of the two; Friedrich’s famous Sea of Ice was in fact a greatly magnified version of ice jams on the River Elbe, not far from his front door. Yet as the century progressed, particularly following the invention of photography, there was an increasing demand for the new species of realism the public had glimpsed in the “sun-painted” pictures of Daguerre. For some artists, such as Turner, this development liberated them from realism; for others, such as Bradford with his team of photographers, it almost yoked them to it.

What motivated these painters in the last centuries to reach for the extremes? Was it a desire to profit from public fascination with the unknown?

Certainly the 19th century was a time of enormous activity — and enormous competition — in the arts. An exotic subject, be it an Arabian market, a jungle, or a polar ice floe, was one way to gain notoriety. Some of the art critics of the day complained about this unseemly striving for novel subjects, but for artists such as Church or Bradford, the attraction of the geographical reach became essential to their reputations and was perceived as an integral part of the larger human desire to explore the remaining unknown regions of the earth.

People had no personal experiences with which to compare the earliest views of the poles. They had to accept what they saw on canvas as accurate. Do we still imbue artists with this special trust?

Even more so, I think. We need to trust them to bring before us not only accurate pictures — the realism of which we can, if we wish, verify more readily than our ancestors — but true pictures, pictures that transcend the limits of our technological abilities. It’s a special trust on both sides.

In what ways, specifically, do we rely on artists today to expand and democratize our world view?

When it comes to cultures with which we are less familiar, we still often find that it’s in the visual arts that we most readily perceive our human commonalities. With exhibitions such as Breaking the Veils: Women Artists of the Islamic World or the Power and Glory collection of Chinese art from the Ming dynasty, we see again the ways in which the public’s interest in the art of distant and seemingly exotic places and times offers an opportunity for profound cultural encounters that, in the end, dispel presuppositions and replace them with a more complex appreciation.

Do you think the images on view in To the Ends of the Earth, Painting the Polar Landscape could help publicize the effects of global warming? Should they be used for that?

Yes, indeed they can and should, though that’s only a portion of what they convey. If nothing else, the knowledge that so many of these natural landscapes may soon be permanently altered, or even lost altogether, adds a certain poignancy to all of these images. More than that, these images demonstrate the centrality of the polar regions to our inmost visions of our home planet, to our very sense of who we are.

Above: William Bradford (1823–1892), Sealers Crushed by Icebergs, 1866, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

You’ve said that “poet, explorer, daydreamer and day laborer found curious common ground” among the bergs and ships featured in massive 19th-century panoramas of the North Pole. In what ways do paintings of the extreme polar limits perform a similar role today?

In many ways, it was the spectacular art of the 19th century — not only panoramas but large easel paintings such as Géricault’s Medusa or Church’s Icebergs, which were shown to the public for a modest admission price — that paved the way for our modern notion of the museum. Museums today see art, entertainment and education as intrinsically linked modes, with the combined capacity to bring together viewers of all backgrounds. And today, just as then, the polar regions are a place that the vast majority of people have never seen in person, which have the potential to provide, once again, glimpses of an undiscovered country.

In what ways have artists played similar roles on other frontiers, such as the American West or Oceanic regions?

When it came to the American West, there was a deep linkage between the massive canvasses of artists such as Bierstadt — whose works closely paralleled those of Church and Bradford in the era of their popularity. These helped shape a sense of a uniquely American landscape, whose vastness and majesty served to underwrite our national identity. In Oceania, there remained the pull of the exotic, as in the work of Gauguin — though this, too, eventually gave way to a broader vision of the human and cultural landscapes of the region.

The remaining frontier is space. What should we expect to emerge in the art world?

The impetus for art to move into space is there and growing. A few years ago, I lent images of some Arctic engravings in my own collection for a book, Our Changing Planet: The View from Space, which was put together by Claire Parkinson at NASA. They were used to illustrate the vast changes in our conception of the Arctic, contrasting the fanciful views of the 19th century with some really quite stunning images of the polar regions from space. And yet these quite different views seem to me to illustrate a common human desire — to envision the farthest regions of the earth, the solar system and the universe itself. Someday, before too long, we may well have artists in space who, like Church and Bradford, make it their goal to see and depict distant planets in person.

New forms of transportation and new technologies take more people to environmental extremes. Will we continue to rely on artists to interpret these regions for us, or can we now do it ourselves?

We can indeed now join the ranks of “extreme tourists” and jet about the world between the summits of the Himalayas and the shores of the Barents Sea. Yet when it comes to the world around us, whether the most obscure or most familiar regions, we can no more “do it for ourselves” than could the people of past eras. We will always need what art alone accomplishes: revealing to us not only what we see but the manner of our seeing, the interplay between object, eye and self that makes vision possible.

As our photographic capabilities increase and we can see images of the planets and beyond, will the role of painters be diminished?

Not in the least. Indeed for artists such as Vija Celmins, images generated from new technological sources — in her case, the Hubble Space Telescope — have become a vital new source of inspiration.

Frederic Edwin Church painted his masterful Aurora Borealis after reviewing sketches made by explorer Isaac Israel Hayes. How might the canvas be different had Church painted the lights after his own voyage to Labrador in 1860?

The Church/Hayes relationship was a complex one. There’s some sense that Church tutored Hayes, and certainly the painting by Hayes that Church used as his source was already, in a sense, influenced by Church. Church then “borrowed” the aurora from one he’d witnessed over Mount Desert Island, in Maine; in a sense it was in fact the one part of the painting based on direct observation. What fascinates me is to see Church, who had staked such a claim to painting the ice “from life,” a few years earlier, happily revert to a kind of pastiche with Aurora, which in many ways even more vividly channels the remote majesty of the Arctic regions by drawing on imagery only an explorer could have provided.

How did the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition in 1845 affect the art produced during that time?

In the first few years after Franklin sailed, a broad tone of optimism prevailed, and most scenes depicting the north remained within the realm of the picturesque. It wasn’t until a few years into the 1850s, as it became increasingly clear that few, if any, of Franklin’s men could possibly still be alive, that art took a darker turn. Icebergs grew malevolently dark; shattered masts and timbers crept into the landscape, and finally — in 1864 — Sir Edwin Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes depicted a pair of polar bears chewing on the bones of the unfortunate sailors. A line had been crossed; the polar regions would never again be gazed upon impassively, or admired without fear.

A professor of English at Rhode Island College, Potter is author of Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818–1875. He contributed an essay to the exhibition catalog for To the Ends of the Earth, Painting the Polar Landscape, which is on sale in the Museum Shop.

Potter is a panelist for PEM’s Masterpiece Lecture “What Is American about American Landscape Painting?,” on Saturday, January 24.

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