Stanford art history scholar explores nature and culture in frost and forests

George Philip LeBourdais, a doctoral student in Stanford's Department of Art & Art History, applies his research on Arctic artistry and ecology to curate an exhibition on how trees inform human judgment and imagination. The exhibition opens April 15 at the Cantor Arts Center.

Photo of cedar

Among the items in “Arboreal Architecture: A Visual History of Trees” at the Cantor Arts Center is this photo, “Dying Cedar,” by Anne W. Brigman. (Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Richard W. Lyman) (Image credit: Courtesy Cantor Arts Center )

As this planet orbits the sun, drawing its inhabitants closer to Earth Day, a Stanford graduate student plots a course for museum-goers that will bring them face-to-face with the surprisingly human elements of nature.

A doctoral candidate in Stanford’s Department of Art & Art History, George Philip LeBourdais has partnered with the Cantor Arts Center to present the exhibition Arboreal Architecture: A Visual History of Trees in the museum’s Lynn Krywick Gibbons Gallery, opening April 15.  

The exhibition gathers an eclectic range of artwork that spans thousands of years from the museum’s collections, including a sixth-century Egyptian medallion, a lukasa memory board from the Republic of Congo and a lithograph of a tree colored in by young Leland Stanford Jr.

LeBourdais organized this new exhibit to investigate “the tree-like structures of knowledge that help us make sense of the world by providing visual models that teach basic ideas like growth and connection,” citing the idea of the “family tree” as a popular example of the concept.

Arboreal Architecture serves as a natural extension of LeBourdais’ ongoing scholarship to explore, from an art historical perspective, the line between nature and culture as both “chasm” and “bridge.”

LeBourdais is studying the photography, painting and travelogues of William Bradford, the renowned 19th-century marine painter and photographer. He is primarily researching the visual odyssey captured in Bradford’s book The Arctic Regions, Illustrated with Photographs Taken on an Art Exhibition to Greenland.

To LeBourdais, ice excels as a primeval subject for artists to reflect the needs and challenges of humankind. His dissertation posits that icy landscapes, especially as represented by Bradford, “became ciphers for addressing crucial issues of the late 19th century, including race and slavery, the speed of industrial capitalism and the effect of one social being upon another.”

LeBourdais said he sees Bradford’s visual work as a multi-layered representation of international cultural and natural dynamics. For instance, as a Quaker and an abolitionist, Bradford’s direction of the photographs taken of Greenland Inuit peoples and their white Danish colonizers demonstrates to LeBourdais a “consciousness of domestic issues [of slavery and racism] and the search for instructive parallels.”

Similarly, while LeBourdais acknowledged that scientist Ernst Haeckel was the first to coin the exact term for the “pivotal and subversive notion” of “ecology” in 1866, the art history scholar said he believes that ecological ideas in America stemmed from the work of artists like Bradford and writers like Henry David Thoreau, who made the aesthetics of ice accessible in ways they had not been before.

LeBourdais said he hopes his research will encourage audiences and museum visitors to see ecological ideas that are at the core of making art.

As both the exhibit and LeBourdais’ scholarship aim to demonstrate, understanding the historical dialectics between nature and culture plays a major role in shaping modern humanity’s self-awareness, as well as its inclination to preserve or abandon nature’s monuments.

Idealization of the Arctic

LeBourdais described Bradford as the protagonist in the story his research tells.

At a time when peers ventured into the wilds to make a profit from government-sponsored claim-staking and cartography, Bradford organized the first expedition to Labrador and Western Greenland solely for the purposes of art.

Not only an artist but also an adroit socialite, Bradford convinced a New York financier to fund the expedition and the creation of a sketch-and-photograph book that became The Arctic Regions. Bradford was promised $150,000, which in 1869 was a sum equal to millions in today’s currency.

LeBourdais has examined multiple copies of the book as part of his research. Each is a hefty gilded tome, measuring over two feet across ­– four feet when unfolded.

Images include landscape photos of snow-blanketed coastlines, glaciers and icebergs as well as portraits of native Greenlanders and Danish colonists at work and in ceremonies.

LeBourdais said he sees the The Arctic Regions as a “survey, trying to give people an accurate representation of the arctic as a space, with real inhabitants, strange landscapes, local fauna – the bite of reality.”

It also represents a pinnacle of accomplishment in photographic persuasion: “The historical prick of feeling that this camera, this negative, was in front of something that once was and is no more … that sort of evidentiary power, contested and imperfect though it is … really shaped the Arctic for both Americans now, and certainly for Americans back in the 19th century, as photography continues to do for us today,” LeBourdais explained.

Art from Bradford’s expedition earned him international requests for exhibitions and substantial support from no less than England’s Queen Victoria, laying the groundwork for a novel political and public idealization of the Arctic.

Just as Bradford pioneered photography as a core medium for representing the Arctic, his artistry distinctively primed audiences to embrace the nascent ideologies of ecology and conservation, LeBourdais said.

Ice as primeval subject

LeBourdais began honing his academic focus with his master’s thesis on 19th- century Alpine photography, specifically the first photographically documented ascent of Mont Blanc in 1860. He felt drawn to research this expedition due to the combined romance of early photography and exploration of the wildest frontiers.

Detailing the camera technology employed by Alpine teams, LeBourdais noted, “The cameras themselves were huge wooden contraptions. The negatives were enormous glass plates. The emulsions were chemicals that had to be boiled up at high altitudes – extremely flammable things. All these had to be carried by teams, beasts of burden.”

The photographs from this snow-blanketed scenery that include people form stark silhouettes, “in a sense, creat[ing] a void – where the human figure should be, there’s a pool of dark negative space.”

This visual paradox further spurred LeBourdais to research how and why the representation of ice and the Arctic uniquely pushes creators and viewers of art to determine where they stand against the vast backdrop of nature.

In addition to the traditional tactics of delving into archives and exploring maritime museum collections, LeBourdais uses modern technology to conduct his research. Google’s Ngram Viewer tracks public awareness of the Arctic by measuring the incidences of words like “iceberg” and “glacier” in Google’s database of the written word. During the late 19th century Arctic expeditions, a spike in icy word usage followed each expedition. LeBourdais added each crossover to his collection of evidence supporting the Arctic’s power to harness national enthusiasm.

As it happens, the man who founded LeBourdais’ current campus was himself a keen enthusiast of Bradford’s work. “Bradford’s paintings for railroad tycoons like Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford demonstrate his patrons’ interest in scenes that perform the mastery of human industry over nature, however exaggerated and tenuous that mastery often was,” LeBourdais said.

In support of the project, LeBourdais was awarded a Mellon Curatorial Research Assistantship, part of the Cantor Center’s Mellon Foundation grant to enhance the training of doctoral students in Stanford’s Department of Art & Art History.

 LeBourdais previously co-curated the 2014 exhibition Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums at the Cantor Arts Center. 

Arboreal Architecture: A Visual History of Trees will be on view at the Cantor Art Center until July 20, 2015.

Media Contacts

Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu