An Arctic Poetics

Gabriel Chazan
Oct 10, 2020 · 4 min read
Olaus Magnus — On the Varying Shapes of Snow. Published in 1555 in “Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus”, book 1. Source Wikimedia Commons.

Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of Image
by Christopher P. Heuer
Zone Books, 264 pages, $32.95

By Gabriel Chazan

In his 1555 book on the Arctic, the Swedish bishop Olaus Magnus included a peculiar full chapter on the shapes of snowflakes. As illustrated in Magnus’s book, the snowflakes become a moon, a bird, a triangle, a hand, and a flower. Magnus wondered at the variation of these arctic snowflakes as “a matter for amazement rather than inquiry why and how so many shapes and forms, which elude the skill of any artist you chose to name, are so suddenly stamped upon such soft, tiny objects.” The art historian Christopher P. Heuer, considering Magnus in his recent book Into The White, notes that these snowflakes are framed as “defying scrutiny because they are diverse.” No single image can begin to capture the arctic or these snowflakes. This Arctic sense of opacity is notable in almost all the stories in Into The White: here is a visual culture around the Far North in which there is sometimes little to be seen or what can be seen is only fragmentary, as in a floating iceberg. Heuer takes “the visual poetics of the Far North” as a central focus, directing most of his inquiry toward Renaissance accountings and visuals but drawing on more recent artworks as well.

The wider questions Heuer asks about scale, colonialism, climate, and capitalist accumulation, among other things, remain entirely relevant, yet are grounded strongly within a particular moment’s intellectual and artistic world.

Beyond Magnus’s snowflakes, Into The White contains diverse other moments of Renaissance images of the Arctic and its strange relation to visuality. Heuer rigorously situates his discussion in a broader historical moment, often against the Reformation image debate and iconoclasm. Heuer draws on a wide range of material including print culture, texts and paintings. It’s the rare art history text that is equally interesting historically and conceptually: the wider questions Heuer asks about scale, colonialism, climate, and capitalist accumulation, among other things, remain entirely relevant, yet are grounded strongly within a particular moment’s intellectual and artistic world.

As climate change grows ever more catastrophic, Heuer’s recognition of the artificiality of separations (both temporal and spatial) takes on a new urgency.

By shifting the central point of reference to the Far North, even such seemingly similar materials as Holbein’s The Ambassadors and a “cache of Renaissance engravings” can become different and newly strange. The Ambassadors, with its central globe tilted toward the North, becomes an allegory for travel and movement in its very elusive form with the hidden skull which the viewer must move to see: “one must, before the picture, travel.” The engravings were found in 1871 on “a deserted beach on the remote island of Nova Zembla,” as a “mass, caked with gravel, ice and moss” left from a shipwrecked expedition in 1597 and then restored at the Rijksmuseum. Where Heuer goes in his consideration of these prints is riveting. Prints are often thought of purely as images, rather than objects: through this strange icy mass, their objecthood is once again foregrounded. They are not images showing the Arctic, yet are now somehow of the Arctic. As Heuer writes, “the Nova Zembla engravings summon the issue of where it is — literally and figuratively — that art, in fact, belongs.”

This issue of where art belongs is, of course, not restricted temporally to the period Heuer focuses on. What is particularly striking to me in Heuer’s book is the cross-temporal approach he takes. In drawing on modern and contemporary art, Heuer does not only ask how art of the past can illuminate our moment or has ‘influenced’ artists now but also what contemporary artists’ practices can reveal about the past. For example, in 2012, when the contemporary artist Siân Bowen exhibited the Nova Zembla cache alongside her own work, she sent her own books to Nova Zembla to be “physically buried in the soil and abandoned.” As climate change grows ever more catastrophic, Heuer’s recognition of the artificiality of separations (both temporal and spatial) takes on a new urgency. In Heuer’s telling of the 1500–1700 period, the Arctic could already be found as a global sensibility. “Maybe today, ‘Arctic’ is better imagined as an artistic condition, practice, or mode, rather than a physical place or cold feeling,” Heuer writes. In Into The White, one can begin to imagine what this artistic condition might be.

Gabriel Chazan is an art historian and critic. He is currently a PhD student at UW-Madison. He writes regularly about books and art on The Expanded Field.