Ice floe animals have been the subject of many artistic representations since humans discovered them. However, their representation has differed depending on the state of scientific knowledge and environmental issues.
These polar species are many and varied, ranging from penguins to walruses, seals to whales, polar bears to whitecoats or even narwhals to ivory gulls. The Inuit were the first to capture them in the form of sculptures. Subsequently, during the exploration of North America, Westerners in turn seized these figures. The engravings then oscillated between scientific representations of the first naturalists and fantasized representations. The latter were the result of travel accounts, bringing back descriptions of unknown animals with astonishing characteristics.
The exoticism of these polar animals has kept artists particularly attracted to them. Thus, during the 20th century, many sculptors took up this theme, such as François POMPON with his Ours blanc (1922). Likewise, Inuit art developed during the 20th century, focusing in particular on the sculpted figure of the bear or the walrus.
However, the emergence of contemporary environmental issues has profoundly impacted the way these animals were perceived and represented. Threats to the sea ice, due to global warming and the pollution of the oceans, are at the center of artistic work today.
Photographers have seized upon these issues, no longer grasping these animals only as naturalists or biologists but as artists and activists. By capturing the fragility of sea ice animals, they alert them to their fate in the face of the degradation of their environment. Photography therefore appears to be the spearhead of ecological issues for the awareness of the general public.
The fantasies surrounding the discovery of the narwhal best symbolize this state of affairs. Indeed, the narwhal was discovered by Westerners while exploring North America. This animal then became particularly popular because of its horn, reminiscent of that of the mythical unicorn. The length of the latter was unparalleled among known species. These horns were therefore presented in cabinets of curiosities as evidence of the existence of legendary animals.
Today the figure of the narwhal has been debunked. These animals are known, observed, approached and photographed. They live in groups in arctic waters and migrate seasonally to escape the formation of glaciers. Their twisted tusks, once the fruit of legends, are now photogenic and photographed objects. They are captured, protruding from the ocean like sharp pikes.
Ice floes have also long been the subject of fantasies due to the unknown around it. Following the polar explorations, these fantasies softened, although today this vastness of ice still makes one dream.
Pack ice is a layer of ice that has formed over the oceans bordering the polar regions. Due to their immensity and the boreal colors bordering the polar sky, these spaces have always been seen as magical despite their dangerousness.
The photographs of Stephan WILKES faithfully reflect the ice floe, while recalling the myths surrounding it. In these two photographs he sublimates the landscape by bringing together in an image all the moments of the day. This allows him to focus both the essence and the complexity of the subject.
This process also enables him to report on the devastating impact of global warming on the sea ice. His photographs therefore appear as crying testimonies of the ecological emergency.
Polar bears : In this photograph, the pack ice is sunny and the sky is marked with shades of purple. Two polar bears advance on the desert glacier, immense and flat. The vanishing point is the scarlet moon in the center of the image, which at first glance focuses the viewer’s attention. Polar bears seem secondary, melted in the white of the snow. The main thing here is the pack ice. All the elements that are traditionally associated with it are present. The contrast between the warm colors of the sky and the icy white of the sea ice provides a feeling of soothing balance.
The great july melt : Stephan WILKES captures here the effects of global warming on the sea ice.
The day unfolds from left to right, from morning to evening. The vanishing point of the photograph is the sun on the horizon at the corner. Stephan WILKES captures here pieces of disjointed pack ice. The surface covered with water, much larger than that of the sea ice, is worrying. The brightness of the photograph, due to the blazing sun, questions. This image then strikes the viewer and makes them aware of ecological issues.
Paul NICKLEN’s photographs fit into a more intimate register, capturing an iceberg, a waterfall or a lagoon. Through these pieces of ice floes, he manages to transcribe the power, and the strength of polar space. The black shades that contrast with the vivid blues and whites grab the viewer. The latter can then be captivated by the image, see himself projected inside.
Penguins are seabirds, living in the southern hemisphere and unable to fly. There are several species, such as the emperor penguin, the king penguin or the gentoo penguin. Their discovery has given rise to numerous scientific engravings, representing these birds having no equivalents in the rest of the world.
Penguins live and move in groups. This characteristic makes their movements impressive and photogenic. Therefore, whether through the scientific gaze of Paul NICKLEN or the intimate gaze of Kyriakos KAZIRAS, the beauty of these species is recounted.
The animals of the ice floe are not limited to the species that live on the ice. From whales to killer whales and sperm whales, these species are indeed polar animals. Due to their bewildering sizes, their movements are spectacular. When photographers manage to capture a fin breaking the surface of the water or an aquatic ballet, the moment is precious.
The arctic wolf is another polar species. Once photographed, its silky white coat invites the viewer to dream of softness and comfort.
In these areas, there are also huskies, the famous sled dogs. Although not arctic wolves, they live in the same climatic conditions.
The wolf of British Columbia, in western Canada, is a species similar to the Alaskan wolf. Without being an animal of the ice floe, the northern wolf is an animal living in very low temperatures. It was captured by Paul NICKLEN in photographs reflecting his wild state, while emphasizing the softness of his gaze.
The bear has always been an over-represented species in popular culture. In the West it is the figure of the brown bear that was first omnipresent in tales, legends, coats of arms and the arts. The figure of the polar bear was firstly the subject of representations by the populations living in contact with them. It is only after the exploration of these territories that the Westerners seized on this subject.
Prehistoric Inuit peoples, such as the Okviks or the Ipiutaks, were the first to represent polar bears. These carvings were usually made from walrus ivory. They were not very bulky and easily transportable. The delicacy of these achievements still impresses the viewer today.
The first western prints of polar bears follow the discovery of this new species, called ursus maritimus. In these engravings the bears are scientifically depicted in great detail. These representations reveal a desire for accuracy and a desire for documentation. It was therefore a question of making known an animal then unknown by disseminating its image.
Subsequently the engravings were more numerous. The polar bear was then seen as the quintessential wild beast and was portrayed with hostile and ferocious features. With the brown bear already known to be a dangerous animal, the polar bear’s exoticism has heightened the sense of mistrust of it.
Inuit are indigenous peoples of North America and the Arctic regions. Historically these peoples therefore rub shoulders with polar animals. The latter have always been at the center of their arts. During the 20th century, Inuit art experienced a particular rebound, giving it interesting visibility. The subjects represented are mainly animals, see mythological animals. Birds are very present, polar bears too. The latter are represented through several mediums, from engraving to sculpture. It was during this period that the popular figure of the dancing bear developed. It is about representing, mainly through sculpture, dancing bears. The polar bear then becomes a humanized figure, the wild character of the animal is erased.
In the 20th century, sculptors seized on the figure of the polar bear. It was François POMPON who opened this path with his famous Ours blanc in 1922. In this sculpture, Pompon opts for the economy of details, curves and a smooth surface reflecting the light. This has the effect of accounting for the heaviness of the animal while reducing its gait. The latter then seems to wander with disconcerting ease. This depiction of the animal ignores its savagery. Its clean and harmonious lines take it out of time and make it an animal apart.
In his line, other sculptors such as Alexandre Zankoff, have represented polar animals by erasing their wild aspects.
The artistic outlook on polar bears therefore changed profoundly during the 20th century. The wild aspect of these animals has tended to disappear in favor of a more benevolent representation. This new look posed by the artists can be illustrated by the work of Kyriakos KAZIRAS. The latter evokes the polar bear in compositions tinged with white. The bears are captured in close-up, in moments of life. A comforting softness emerges from this work.
The emergence of environmental issues has had a profound impact on the way artists look at polar animals. They are no longer seen only as unknown, exotic, wild species but as endangered species to be protected. The work of photographers then appeared essential. Indeed, the latter benefit from a privileged medium that can reflect the beauty of these animals while demonstrating their great fragility.
Paul NICKLEN’s work is representative of this balance. He captures in his photographs, through his biologist’s gaze, polar bears in their natural environment. They are then captured in motion, in majestic postures. The work brought to the light sublimates these photographs, which can disconcert the viewer. Nevertheless, by photographing them on a melting glacier, in a snow-free landscape or by photographing a gaze, Paul NICKLEN moves the viewer. He invites us not only to see these animals as magnificent beasts but as endangered species. He then underlines the emerging tension between their power and the threats of global warming.
The photographs of Stéphane AISENBERG also follow this trend, by confronting the wild aspect and the fragility of these animals. In his photographs, always very orchestrated, he stages polar animals like a portrait painter. He then establishes an almost intimate relationship between the spectator and the animal. In a face to face encounter, from which he cannot extricate himself, the viewer finds himself confronted with the animals. He must then question his otherness. This allows the photographer to bring the viewer to awareness of ecological issues.
Kyriakos KAZIRAS’s photographs relate a form of humanity to polar animals. They show animals captured in moments of life with behaviors that can recall those of humans. The viewer thus sees a polar bear raising its paw as if greeting it, or even bears appearing to exchange signs of affection. The humanity that emerges from these clichés can touch him, soften him, and move him. He is then led to take another look at these species and finds himself concerned by their preservation.