“The bears in Storck’s painting are shown ferociously defending themselves from attack, and as a danger to humans but human activity has been far more damaging to life and the environment than anything the polar bears have done over the centuries. “
The illustration here is a detail from the foreground of the painting, and in the larger picture there is a section on the right which shows a large icy mountain (or perhaps this is a huge iceberg) with a wrecked ship trapped in ice. The masts of the many whaling ships rise high into the cold air and the sky is tinged with the pink of the sun. However the whole impression is one of cold, and the bleakness of the scene is added to by the savagery of the killings of whales and bears. There are two walruses just outside of the picture detail to the right hand side, and they too will probably be set upon by the men carrying weapons of all kinds. The whalers are bound to feel the cold and are not wearing fur or even particularly bulky clothing. They need their limbs free to work, killing and butchering the whales, and attacking whatever else comes their way.
The two bears are now their intended prey. Though they must be polar bears, they look quite brown. Michael Engelhard, who has written a book about the so-called Ice Bear1 explains in his article “How Polar bears became the Dragons of the North”2 that many maps and prints were printed in black and white and then hand coloured, and that artisans who did the colouring sometimes made them look like the more familiar brown bears (polar bears don’t change colour in the summer). Perhaps Adrian Storck had looked at a print where this colouring process happened, and the bears looked brown. Strangely though, if we zoom in and look at the stern of the boat slightly to the right of centre, there is a painting of what seems to be a white polar bear.
The bears are putting up a good fight, but are outnumbered, and even though the humans are out of their element, and the bears are at home in theirs, the animals home has been invaded. The bear on the right is shown in a human-like posture, sitting back and looking horrified as s/he bleeds from a wound. Perhaps the whalers are taking no chances, having heard of the ferocity of polar bears, who prefer to be left alone. Accounts like those of Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz’s travels around Novaya Zemlya (in Russia) in search of the Northwest Passage from Scandinavia to Alaska mention a man and bear encounter, where the “beare at the first faling upon the man, bit his head in sunder, and suckt out his blood.”
The scene in the painting is a busy scene of organised work, like an open-air slaughterhouse, yet presented to the viewer as an exotic other-worldly maritime world to be viewed in the comfort of home, warmly heated in far-away Holland, perhaps by someone who benefitted financially from the whaling or fur-trades.
The Web entry on Polar Bears3 is full of useful information about the bears, the threats they are facing due to climate change, their role as top predators (not counting humans) in the Arctic, and their long and important cultural, material and spiritual presence in the lives of peoples living in the region. Since the bears live on sea-ice and hunt for seals, the disappearance of the ice (prominent in the painting by Adrian Storck) would be disastrous for them, and also for humans. Despite their threatened existence, permits to shoot them are still sold by Canada to (mostly American) hunters. Female polar bears are devoted mothers, suckling their normally two cubs for about two and a half years before these have to fend for themselves. However polar bears seem to be finding it more difficult to hunt in recent years due in part to climate change.
Although it is perhaps impossible to feel what animals feel, it’s pretty clear that the bears must suffer horribly when attacked by humans, as do the whales in the painting. When we think about how many have been killed like this over the centuries, and in many cases not for food, it’s a depressing picture, both in the painting and in our own thoughts. One was even killed and stuffed to advertise sweets…Fox’s glacier mints…that my father used to suck. Peppy (the Polar Bear) toured the UK with a few other stuffed bears which had died in zoos.4 You can easily find pictures online of Peppy the stuffed polar bear bear owned by the company.
A much more attractive use of the polar bear and its image in product design is the lovely little perfume bottle designed by the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich, later a pioneer of Suprematist art.
in 1911. The bottle was in the shape of an ice floe and the stopper is a small polar bear.
The bears in Storck’s painting are shown ferociously defending themselves from attack, and as a danger to humans but human activity has been far more damaging to life and the environment than anything the polar bears have done over the centuries. Now the polar bear is seen as a symbol of the threatened icecap and contemporary images often show bears standing on small pieces of ice which have broken away, making it difficult for the bears to rest and to build dens for their newborn cubs. To native peoples in the far north the polar bear symbolises great power, resilience, independence and hunting skills. It can be seen as a powerful spirit, able to camouflage itself and to appear and disappear in its habitat, to which it is perfectly suited….until now. In the association mentioned above between the bears and clear mint sweets, and the perfume bottle, the bear seems to symbolise purity, icy clarity, and “good taste”. The symbolism of the polar bear varies according to different societies and their values. For native people it signifies strength and power and a spiritual connection to humans, and for societies more concerned with commerce and profit, it becomes emptied of its more natural meanings and linked to marketing and design strategies.
I have never felt attracted to hunting as a “sport”, having grown up in an area full of estates where shooting pheasants was commonplace. The birds were tame and had to be forced into the air by beaters in order to be shot by the toffs and their gamekeepers. But reader, when my father was given some of the pheasants by the local Lord as a gift each Xmas, I ate them, picking the lead shot out of the flesh.
The only real personal experience relating to the pain and fear of physical assault (so far, it must be said) are my experiences of surgery…fear of what will happen in theatre despite the kindness of NHS staff, aversion to needles, waking up drugged and in partially-dulled pain and seeing a bag of bloody stuff next to you, but relieved to be alive….and that didn’t happen to the polar bears. It’s not just the physical pain either. You are left with a feeling of vulnerability, lack of strength, and lack of independence, some or all of which may disappear. And if a part of your body has been cut out, it can leave very upsetting feelings. The help and support of dear friends and family members is so important, and never to be forgotten.
If you step onto the ice today, you’re sure of a big surprise
If you step onto the ice today, you’d better go in disguise
For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain because
Today’s the day the polar bears have their picnic
Every polar bear who’s been good is sure of a treat today
There’s lots of marvelous things to eat and wonderful games to play
Beneath the waves where nobody sees
They’ll hunt for seals as long as they please
Cos that’s the way the polar bears have their picnic
Picnic time for polar bears
The little polar bears are having a lovely time today
Watch them, catch them unawares
As they picnic on their holiday
See them gaily gad about
They love to play and shout
They never have any cares
At six o’clock the polar bear mummies
Will take them to their dens
because they’re tired little polar bears
If you step onto the ice today, you’d better not go alone
It’s lovely down on the ice today, but safer to stay at home
For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain because
Today’s the day the polar bears have their picnic.
1(according to web, melody by American composer John Walter Bratton written in 1907, and lyrics added by Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy in 1932.)
(the Gen is short for my middle name, Guinevere). I was born in a small village in central Scotland in 1948. As a teenager I hoped to go to art school, as I really loved the examples of art I was able to find, mostly in books from our local library. However my mother was against this and I was encouraged by her to go to university to study French and German. However I managed eventually to get her to accept my choice of art history and French. I taught art history and then visual culture history and theory until I retired in 2010, when I was finally able to study art and was awarded an M.A. (Distinction) in Fine Art in 2013. So I am now both an art historian and an artist. I like to make work in response to events, people and places of historical, cultural and political interest. I make images, soundworks, and live performances, which often include texts and songs I write myself, or adapt from existing sources.