A frustrated attempt to describe an iceberg opens Into the White, Christopher P. Heuer’s fascinating book on the Arctic as seen and imagined during the European Renaissance. In a pamphlet produced after he journeyed with Martin Frobisher to the Far North in 1578, sailor Thomas Ellis struggles in four captioned illustrations to describe a “monstrous peece of yce.” Upon first glance, it appeared a certain way; however, “In coming neare unto it, it appeared after this shape;” later it “opened in shape” and then shape-shifted again as Ellis’s ship sailed away. Ice, sea, and fog swirl about, refusing to hold still to be portrayed. Blink, and the view changes. Or perhaps, it was misremembered?
This mercurial Arctic matter posed significant challenges to the gridded fixity of Renaissance representation, and thus yielded numerous muddled accounts like Ellis’s. At the same time, Heuer argues, the Arctic’s denial at being depicted was grounded in many of the same uncertainties—distrust of sensory experience, the questionability of visual representation—that led to widespread Protestant disinvestment from the image.
Into the White unfolds over seven chapters, each efficiently yet learnedly presented and amply illustrated, often with obscure sources, such as a sixteenth-century Norwegian clergyman’s doodle of the Northern Lights. Heuer conjoins such visual sources in discussion with canonical works like Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s winter scenes and popular woodcuts to piece together a comprehensive picture of how the Arctic manifested across European visual culture.
The first chapter introduces the book’s arguments about how Arctic encounters tested Renaissance image theory, specifically in regard to perspectival scaling, cartography, and naturalistic description. The Arctic’s supposed brutality, emptiness, vastness, and chill were conditions that denied the “humanist contingency between subject, object, and image” undergirding these pictorial systems. Heuer examines images not only of, but also in the Far North, revealing the Arctic to be an active agent in representation, with the power to metamorphize both the image and matter of art.
Chapter Two provides a history of European understanding of the Far North from antiquity through the early Renaissance. Themes of Arctic elusiveness appear already among the ancient Greeks, for whom the region was a vague “over there,” rather than navigable land or sea, a realm beyond the horizon, denoted only by its unseen location beneath a northern constellation of a bear, either Ursa Major or Ursa Minor.
In the third chapter, Heuer delves into the various Arctic rejections of European visual systems of perspective and cartographic projection. The Arctic also troubled the epistemological tool of the list. Not only do the ever-changing Arctic ice and atmosphere deny linear perspective and coastline tracing, but also the Arctic’s supposed barrenness denied Europeans the ability to catalog heaps of natural and manmade splendors found in other, warmer locales, such as Brazil.
Chapter Four focuses on European efforts to picture the indigenous people and fauna of the Far North, as attempted pictorial veracity often crashed against home-grown notions of wildness. During the sixteenth century, wildness and savagery were states of being often defined specifically in terms of images, as characterizations frequently lobbed from either side of the Reformation divide. Heuer demonstrates how European depictions of indigenous persons were circumscribed by and drawn into this debate.
The fifth chapter focuses on a treatise on the Far North by Swedish Bishop Olaus Magnus (1490–1557), Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, an eclectic natural history cum Catholic counterattack against the Reformation in Northern Europe. Contrary to the European tropes of emptiness, Magnus presents the Far North as a place with its own visual richness, encompassing great varieties of snow and crystals, animals, runes, ancient monuments, and celestial phenomena.
Chapter Six circles around a bundle of Netherlandish etchings and engravings found in 1871 on the island of Nova Zembla. The prints were abandoned items from Willem Barents’s 1596–1597 expedition to the Arctic, originally taken along as items to trade. Frozen together for over four hundred years into a single clump, the prints provide a starting point from which to consider coldness as a condition in and of art, from chilly winter landscapes to the conglomerate of prints with their now-distorted and fractured lines, frozen into the land itself.
The final chapter leaps forward to the Soviet Union’s twentieth-century Arctic adventures. The Arctic was site to the full range of Soviet dreams, from utopian pursuit of emancipatory technology to the nightmare of the gulags. El Lissitzky and Sophie Küppers produced montages combining Arctic photographs and maps with pictures of domestic and bureaucratic interiors in Moscow, deftly presenting the Arctic as apiece with the Soviet home and state. To Heuer, the montages represent a modernist return to the sixteenth-century sense of the Arctic as both possibility and terror.
Although focused on a marginal area within Renaissance studies, the book offers novel perspectives on several questions central to the field. First is the evergreen topic of vision and visuality. Magnus aside, it is amusing to read the repeated Renaissance-era remarks about the Arctic’s emptiness against the abundance of visual data documented by Europeans: all variety of land and sea animals, kayaks, icebergs, figurines, sleds, clothing, weaponry, minerals, tattoos, Northern Lights. Heuer’s book reveals the gap between seeing and describing to be especially wide in Renaissance reckoning with the Far North.
The intertwining of Renaissance Arctic rhetoric and Reformation theories of the image is perhaps surprising, but nevertheless compelling. The relationship between viewing and believing images fell under significant scrutiny during the sixteenth century, and the arena of the Arctic posed major challenges to those attempting to see and portray. How could viewers put any stock into reported visual phenomena that resisted normative pictorial systems like perspective? And if perspective was a wicked beguilement in any case, what other visual methods of conveyance could viewers invest in? Both the Arctic and the Reformation posed these questions.
Finally, Heuer raises the critical relationship between imagery, environment, and capital accumulation that we reckon with still today. Early modern voyages to the Arctic were, after all, attempts to chart new trade routes to the Far East and muscle out competition for access to consumer goods, claiming outposts and exclusive rights to passage along the way. As the Arctic continues as a site for accelerated—and ultimately catastrophic—competition for natural resources, we might search for ways of representing that originate, materially and conceptually, from something other than a will to plunder.
Wesleyan University, Davison Art Center