The climate change clues hidden in art history

As the 1850s were drawing to a close, the artist Frederic Edwin Church was navigating off the Canadian coast of Newfoundland in preparation for his next painting. The search for the Northwest Passage had captured the public’s imagination for much of that decade and Church – America’s best-known landscape painter – was also lured. He chartered a schooner to approach the sea ice and spent weeks among the frozen blocks before returning to his studio in New York with about 100 sketches. Church’s monumental painting The Icebergs was presented in an exhibition in New York in 1861, just 12 days after the start of the American Civil War. Its original and more politically-charged name (The North) reflected the time’s views on the Arctic and on ice itself.

As the 20th Century presented graver and graver environmental challenges, and the anxieties around waste management, nuclear energy and air, water and chemical pollution became multiplied, that boundary between nature and culture blurred. Half the world away from Ocean Landmark, a cadre of Indian artists have been reflecting and producing work about one of those meeting points between the natural and the human: farmers’ suicides. Art historian and educator Preeti Kathuria has been following this field’s development since the early 2000s, including the work of artists such as Kota Neelima, the collective The Gram Art Project and the duo Thukral and Tagra, and will also present her work at the Courtauld’s conference.

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