Capturing the southern light

For the first-time Australian visitor to Antarctica, the light there is something quite new. We are a temperate and tropical people, used to a high sun and rapid transitions from light to dark. Even Tasmanians can find the low, slanting light of continental Antarctica a disconcerting experience.

For Australian visual artists the experience of Antarctic light is magnified many times above the norm. From the perspective of technique, the process of adaptation manifests itself in many ways. As a landscape artist John Caldwell, who went south in 1987, was confronted with a much larger range of colour — purples, pinks, oranges, golds — than he’d expected (white, and more white). For Frank Hurley, experimenting in 1911–1914 in the still-young medium of photography, one of the big issues was exposure, getting used to the highly-reflective surface of snow and ice — as it was for countless photographers down the years, following in the master’s footsteps.

There are other aspects to an artist’s experience of the far south, suggested in the growing catalogue of Antarctic art. This is nature on a vast scale. Whoever ventures into the ice cannot fail to be struck by this scale, and by the basic, elemental quality of the landscapes and seascapes, utterly indifferent to human presence.

Poets and other literary travellers were perhaps the first to try to give expression to the Antarctic experience, but it was the mapmakers who first put it into visual form. At first it was entirely imaginary, driven by a human need to represent something in the unknown southern regions that their map readers could relate to — fabulous lands covered by luxuriant plant life and inhabited by savage peoples. Their drawings fed a public craving for knowledge that finally bore fruit from the 15th century onwards in the voyages of Europeans around Africa and South America, finally reaching what we now call Australia.

If there is a history of humanity’s vision of the Antarctic, James Cook’s circumnavigation of the continent in the early 1770s marked a turning point. For the first time, a professional artist was able to provide people with a reasonable facsimile of what the place actually looked like. William Hodges sailed with Cook aboard Resolution across the Antarctic Circle and deep into the pack ice, recording by watercolour, oil and pencil the extraordinary landscape, birds and mammals of the Southern Ocean’s sea-ice zone. His fellow mariner, Resolution’s master William John Gilbert, provided competent support in the form of skilfully-drawn sketches.

The example of Cook set a precedent. All the great national voyages through the 19th century carried competent artists and illustrators who paid for themselves by providing illustrations essential to the promotion of the voyages’ achievements in books and exhibitions. By the turn of the 20th century the traditional forms of visual art were being supplanted by photography. Robert Scott’s final Antarctic expedition in 1910 took not only the watercolour artist Edward Wilson but also the professional photographer Herbert Ponting.

For Douglas Mawson, new technology took precedence over tradition. Though the Tasmanian Charles Harrisson was a gifted watercolourist his main role was as a bird biologist. There was no fully professional artist aboard Aurora in 1911 — unless we include the Sydney-based photographer Frank Hurley, who undoubtedly considered himself an artist. Even more than the outstanding photographs of Ponting, Hurley’s images would transfix the world. His successful initiation into Antarctic photography at Cape Denison was followed up by one of the most famous expeditions of all, that of Shackleton’s Endurance, made so by Hurley’s unforgettable images of the stricken ship in the winter darkness, in the grip of Antarctic ice.

The visual representation of Antarctica in the 20th century is dominated by photography, at first black and white, then colour images, and finally movie film and video. Since the first Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) in 1947, photography has been a major preoccupation of Australian expeditioners. The output includes much fine professional work from the likes of Jutta Hosel, Laurence Le Guay, Robert Reeves, Peter Dombrovskis, Rowan Butler, Keith Taylor, David Parer, David Stephenson and Grant Dixon. Add to this the late Wayne Papps, who until his untimely death in 2003 was producing outstanding digital work based on a couple of voyages and visits to Casey and Mawson stations. And, of course, the colossal archive of amateur Antarctic photography, represented in large part in the image library of the Australian Antarctic Division.

George Davis, Graham Thorley, Nel Law and Ray Honisett were among visual artists who painted the Antarctic landscape early in the era of permanent national Antarctic programs, following World War II, as was Sidney Nolan, who visited McMurdo Base (US) in 1964. Shelagh Robinson, ANARE Club stalwart and amateur artist who visited Casey in 1976, organised a number of exhibitions of Antarctic art in Melbourne, mainly featuring the work of former expeditioners. Watercolours by Steve Harbour (Mawson) and David Everitt (Davis), cartoons and drawings by Phil Vardy (Davis), and the drawings and paintings of Peter Gibson (Wilkes, Mawson and Casey), John Reid (Macquarie Island), Trevor Tierney (Davis), David Ashton (Macquarie Island), Gary Bradley (Davis and Mawson) and Robinson herself are among the amateur work which deserves recognition.

Relocation of the Australian Antarctic Program’s headquarters from Melbourne to Hobart saw a revival of the practice of sending artists south. ‘Stephen Walker, Bea Maddock, Jan Senbergs and John Caldwell took the voyage south in the 1980s, with some outstanding results in sculpture, painting and prints. The program was expanded to take in writers, composers, performance artists and others under the broad umbrella of the ‘Antarctic Humanities Program’. Writer Tim Bowden, sound recordist Ron Minogue, painters Clare Robertson and the late Aboriginal artist Lin Onus, photographers David Stephenson, Denis Crawford, David Neilson and Grant Dixon, printmakers Sally Robinson, Jörg Schmeisser, Caroline Durré, and stamp designer Janet Boschen were among those venturing into the ice from the late 1980s through to the turn of the millennium.

The big shift in Antarctic art in the 21st century has been the advent of digital technology. No longer is the station darkroom (if it still exists) in constant demand from hoards of eager photographers. Digital still images can be relayed within minutes from any Antarctic station (and most field camps) to any part of the world. While traditional media remain, today’s professional artist in Antarctica is more likely to be working in Photoshop or FinalCutPro as in oils or watercolours. Alongside the prints of Lisa Roberts, the paintings of Sue Lovegrove or the idiosyncratic forms of Stephen Eastaugh and Maria Buchner are the online diaries of Alison Lester, the digital sounds of Philip Samartzis and the mixed-media performance art of Tina Evans.

But Antarctic art is nothing if not democratic. For every finished professional work of art there are tens of thousands of amateur photographs and hundreds of amateur video productions. These are the work of Australians from all walks of life who, like everyone who ventures into the ice, are awestruck by the splendour of this or that ice landscape, the quirky behaviour of an Adélie penguin, the thrill of the newly-arrived snow petrel, the exquisite beauty of an icicle or a night sky… the list is endless. Among these images there’s plenty of dross, but there are also artworks that stand comparison with the much smaller body of work by the professionals. In their quest for the outstanding image, these ordinary expeditioners are today’s torch-bearers in the spirit of the pioneers, Hurley and Ponting.