The representations of the polar bear : from the wild bear, to the threatened bear

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.

The earliest depictions of bears by indigenous peoples

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.

Polar bear, walrus ivory, Okvik art, 100 B.C. – 200 A.D. This tool, carved in walrus ivory, is a barbel. It was used to prevent the harpoon from coming out of the animal.
Polar bear, walrus ivory, Inuit art, 100 B.C. J.C. – 300 A.D.
Polar bear, walrus ivory, Ipiutak art, 100 B.C. – 500 A.D.

The first western engravings

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.

The white bear, 1816, Jacques de Seve

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.

Engraving, Specht, 1884

The bear in modern Inuit art

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.

Engraving, Lipa Pitsiulak, XXe siècle
Dancing bear, Inuit art, 2001

The stylized bear of the 20th century

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.

Ours Blanc, François Pompon, 1922

In his line, other sculptors such as Alexandre Zankoff, have represented polar animals by erasing their wild aspects.

Polar bears, Alexandre Zankoff, XXe siècle

The polar bear synonymous of sweetness

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.



Kyriakos KAZIRAS -


Kyriakos KAZIRAS -


Kyriakos KAZIRAS -