Icebergs in Art

Artist Bill Russell writes about the historical and artistic depiction of icebergs and its symbolism for Climate Change today.

The Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich, 1824 depicts a shipwreck in the Arctic. It’s painted with a fearsome dynamism that portrays the North as a bleak and fearsome place.

For over 200 years, icebergs have inspired artists with their otherworldly and sculptural presence, most notably by Albert Bierstadt, Lawren Harris, Casper David Friedrich, Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Cole and Rockwell Kent. Their depictions have allowed us to marvel at their mysterious majesty and learn something about their origin. What message do icebergs in art contain? Are they essentially a memento mori given the impending global climate crisis?

19th Century Romanticism Landscape Painters:

The Icebergs by Frederic Edwin Church, 1861
Icebergs by Albert Bierstadt 1883

Not only did Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Edwin Church travel west in their own artistic variation of America’s Manifest Destiny, they portrayed the North as a vast place to possess, for adventure, as well as redemption.

Sealers Crushed by Icebergs by William Bradford, 1866

William Bradford, known for his paintings of ships and seascapes, made research expeditions in 1869 and 1871 to Arctic regions to study, sketch and photograph icebergs for use as reference material for his paintings, which he lectured widely about. Bradford wanted to study nature under it’s “terrible” aspects.

20th Century Modernist Landscape Painters:

Icebergs Davis Strait by Lawren S. Harris, 1930

Icy landscapes were Canadian painter Lawren Harris’ ministry. His icebergs were both ethereal and spiritual and typical of his painterly stylizations that reflected his belief in the transcendental. In this modern period, Harris’ paintings imbue icebergs with a more metaphorical meaning.

Early November, North Greenland by Rockwell Kent, 1933

In 1929, Rockwell Kent traveled to Greenland to meet the people, learn the culture, write narratives, and paint the mythic iceberg. He described two distant glaciers as “curving highways of pale jade,” with the force of primordial symbols. Iceberg as metaphor becomes an appropriate subtext in Kent’s work.

Contemporary Works and Climate Change:

Last Reach by Bill Russell
Last Reach by Bill Russell 2021

In the 21st Century, icebergs have become an omen of our planet in distress. Global warming is causing the melting and break-up of glaciers, ice sheets and sea ice along the Antarctic continent, in the Arctic Ocean and across Greenland. As a result, icebergs are being released into the seas at a greater rate, where their fate is to drift, shatter and melt. Contemporary artists are including a climate change message in their depictions.

One painter in particular, Diane Burko, a self-proclaimed ‘artist activist,’ brings an informed message of global warming in her painting of melting glaciers. She communicates in paint what words simply cannot. Her large-scale paintings show receding glaciers over time and multitudes of cleaving icebergs, compelling the viewer to scrutinize the realities of climate change. While there’s an inherent beauty in her art, it also carries a darker message.

Petermann Glacier, 2009 to 2011 by Diane Burko 2013

We are all bearing witness to the trauma of global warming. Can studying icebergs and the science of their formation help assuage the angst we feel? Psychologists have shown that by studying the facts of climate change, we can encourage a behavioral change. But can painting an iceberg be a coping strategy?

left to right: Spires, Swimming in the Bummock, Floating Offspring, Memento Mori by Bill Russell 2021

Climate change is a major theme in my own art, most recently in a series of 50 icebergs I painted. I researched the work of the above mentioned artists and others, in order to educate myself on the history and stylizations of icebergs in art and how they managed to portray icebergs in both serious and aesthetic ways. I also studied how global warming has expedited the creation of more icebergs.

Contemporary artists are incorporating depictions of icebergs as a metaphor for the existential threat we face. While no one wants to be confronted by sobering content that makes them feel uncomfortable and turn away, perhaps it’s the artist’s role to not turn away from the horrific. Artists from Goya to Turner to Picasso depicted disasters and catastrophe, in order to inform people of the reality of the adversities we face in the world.

In 2018, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson made the penultimate expression of climate change with his installation of 30 icebergs from a Greenland fjord in front of London’s Tate Modern, in order to raise awareness about the urgency of global warming.

Ice Watch Installation by Olafur Eliasson 2018

His goal, he said at the time was, “to provide people with a tangible encounter with the consequences of their actions (by letting) them see and feel what we are losing,” and that viewers “will feel, and not just intellectually know, just how thin the ice we’re standing on is.”

“…recognizing that art’s claim to moral purpose relates to our proximity to the event, but also our own capacity for action or inaction - whether seeing others’ suffering will rouse us to the indignation and action, or instead desensitize us, reinforcing our indifference.” -Susan Sontag, from her essay Regarding the Pain of Others

Art is a powerful tool to communicate the science and the urgent story of climate change in a way that can resonate, educate, and motivate people. It’s up to each of us to choose action over indifference and to see the message in art. Artists have a crucial role to play in sounding the alarm and making art that resonates with people. For years artists have painted icebergs and provoked emotions. Artists today must also inspire action through their work, with the hope that this can help secure the wellbeing of our planet and a more sustainable future.

Bill’s Bio: Bill is a painter, illustrator and designer based in Marin County, California. He earned his degree from Parsons School of Design in New York. He was an Adjunct Professor of Illustration at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, as well as a staff artist at the San Francisco Chronicle. He completed artist residencies at Recology and the Kala Art Institute.

View more of Bill’s paintings at BillRussellFineArt.com.

Read about Bill’s painting The Deluge that addresses climate change and sea level rise at ArtistsandClimateChange.org.

Email Bill here.

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Bill Russell

Bill is a web designer, illustrator, painter and visual journalist.