Awe of the Arctic dazzles as visual history

Great news for Arctic aficionados who can’t get to New York City between now and July 14. The art exhibition at The New York Public Library, The Awe of the Arctic, has been turned into a spectacular hardcover book. Curator Elizabeth Cronin provided me with an advance copy when I visited the show itself and I can tell you that this wide-ranging survey of how the Arctic has been visually defined and depicted over the past 500 years is nothing short of spectacular — both in real life and in print.

Over the past 25 years — first sortie: 1999 — I have spent more time than most “southerners” in the Arctic. And probably, while ransacking books and collections for interesting stories and arresting images, I have seen more Arctic illustrations than is perhaps good for me (it fosters a painful yearning to go north). The cover image on this new opus, for example, Sledging Over Hummocky Ice, by S. Gurney Cresswell, is one I included in my book Fatal Passage, though I had but a flimsy excuse. I just loved it! Turns out, Cronin did too: “That’s why I put it on the cover.”

Here we find not just historical paintings but woodcuts, engravings, lithographs, contemporary photographs, halftones, digital prints — you name it. And the image to the left? Well, I  have visited Radstock Bay more than once, but I have never seen it depicted from the angle chosen here, in this “pigment print” by Sebastian Copeland (British,  b. 1964).

The Arctic has inspired any number of gorgeous illustrated books. But this one, co-published by The New York Public Library and Hatje Cantz, is a ground-breaker — the first to survey 500 years of Arctic imagery. If you go online, it’s easy enough to track down. And in my view, it’s well worth the effort.

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