RECLAIMING THE NORTH
Contrasting views offered
Sir John Franklin and his crew vanished sometime after July 1845.
Despite being relatively long in the tooth, the 58-year-old Arctic explorer had been given command of the British Admiralty’s latest expedition to locate a Northwest Passage. The two ships he was commanding, The Erebus and Terror, were last seen by whalers in Baffin Bay that July.
The disappearance was an embarrassment for the British Empire, which would expend endless resources, manpower and lives on further expeditions in an attempt to discover what happened to Franklin and his crew. (The Erebus was finally discovered at the bottom of Canadian waters in 2014; the HMS Terror in 2016.)
But a curious thing happened to artwork depicting Arctic exploration after Franklin vanished. Images of the Inuit, once a staple of art chronicling the Empire’s Arctic expeditions, quickly faded from public record. In other words, when Franklin literally disappeared, the Inuit symbolically disappeared right along with him.
“If you want to define your country by its heroic actions, engaging in heroism in a place where people are thriving and living already doesn’t really help your case,” says Travis Lutley, co-curator of a new Arctic-based exhibit at the Glenbow Museum. “As we see after Franklin’s disappearance, the Inuit are essentially removed from the official visual record. While they appear frequently in expeditions and imagery beforehand, aside from a few instances, they are largely erased from the imagery.”
Explorers on expeditions in the years following Franklin’s disappearance even consulted the Inuit in hopes they would provide eyewitness accounts of what happened to Franklin and his crew. But this testimony was largely ignored because it didn’t fit into the heroic, mythologized image of 19th-century British explorers that the Admiralty was keen to sell to the public at the time. The Franklin disaster was a major blow to the ego of the Empire, so acknowledging a people who not only survived but excelled in the Arctic during that period didn’t really fit the script.
Which all fits nicely into one of the major themes of The Arctic: Real and Imagined Views from the Nineteenth Century, which runs until Jan. 6 at the Glenbow Museum. On one level, it explores the overlap between the British Empire’s 19th-century expansion into the Canadian Arctic and the Romantic art movement. The pieces are largely drawn from Glenbow’s archives and include both original art and reprints that were published in books and periodicals of the day and based on work brought back by amateur artists who served on the expeditions.
There are also intriguing artifacts on display, including a mysterious anvil block from either the doomed Terror or Erebus that the Glenbow purchased from a British museum back in the 1960s.
But a key part of the exhibit is to explore Arctic imagery and the differences between the real and the imagined, the practical and the highly romanticized. So curators consulted Sophia Lebessis, the Inuit owner of Transformation Fine Art, and James Kuptana, an Indigenization strategy specialist at Bow Valley College. Both provided commentary for many of the pieces and input on how the Inuit should be represented in the exhibit.
So, upon entering the space, attendees are greeted by two contrasting sights. First, there are enlarged images of massive ships trapped in the ice and battling the stormy, unforgiving Arctic climate. Alongside those pieces is an Inuit kayak from the period, which represented “a more practical, proper way to be navigating the seas in the Arctic,” Lutley says.
“Arctic voyages and expeditions really said a lot about conflicting world views,” he says. “There’s an Inuit world view, which is one of harmony and striving for harmonious living with your environment; and a colonial world view, where you are engaging in control and establishing dominion over land and people. We see that in the artwork and in history we see that conflict come together quite sharply in the Arctic.”
So while much of the British art on display was initially created to factually document the expeditions, the exhibit shows an interesting evolution in the work and how it came to represent the English national identity in the 19th century.
“There was a conflation of observation and romance,” Lutley says. “A lot of the artists that are addressed in the exhibition were officer artists who were required, it was their duty, to observe and report, both in a narrative and in image. You have this duty to report, but these individuals were also influenced by the artistic movements of their time. You have this British tradition of pictorialism evolving into this very romanticized way of making an image. You get to see this blend early on and the full-on romantic imagery after the disappearance of Franklin’s third expedition.”
The latter may be best represented by American artist Henry Collins Bispham’s 1865 oil on canvas, Dr. Kane in Search of Sir John Franklin, which comes from the Glenbow collection.
It depicts Elisha Kane, who led an 1853 expedition in search of Franklin. He is perched upon the cliffs and peering through binoculars amid the hostile climes of the Arctic. It was all part of depicting the Arctic as dangerous and desolate, an appropriate backdrop for the heroic adventures stories that attempted to recover both Franklin’s trail and colonial pride.
“That’s not the whole story of the Arctic, of course,” Lutley says. “But it really coloured our perception, a non-Inuit people’s perception, for generations as this place of desolation. Of course, it’s vital and it’s beautiful and full of life as well.”
As we see after Franklin’s disappearance, the Inuit are essentially removed from the official visual record.
Travis Lutley, co-curator of a new Arctic-based exhibit at the Glenbow Museum, says “Arctic voyages and expeditions really said a lot about conflicting world views.”