“The water is calm and dark, almost inky, with a lilac shimmer on its surface, and on either side of us the cliffs rise high above our masts, their splintered sides hung with gauzy whisps of vapour that float motionless in the cold, sunny air. The side of the bergs near us are of a transparent leaden colour, dusted with snow. Occasionally we pass greeny-blue clefts in the cliffs, which seem to lead far into the berg to fairy chambers in the white palaces.” So wrote the artist and explorer William Burn Murdoch on Christmas Eve, 1892, from the depths of the Antarctic, where he had gone as a scientific assistant on the exploratory Dundee Antarctic Expedition. If the main aim of the expedition was to investigate the Antarctic for whaling possibilities after European ships had decimated the Arctic populations, Burn Murdoch was there in a scientific capacity. But he was also one of the early artists of the Antarctic, capturing in his watercolours, and his diary, the enduring lure of the poles which Frances Walker and James Morrison have explored in recent work.

Some century after Burn Murdoch made the trip south, Frances Walker made her own trip to the Antarctic, the resulting paintings full of that otherworldliness Burn Murdoch alludes to, but also the brutal edge to survival here. Her Antarctic Suite, a living bequest to the McManus, is a series of six large scale Antarctic oils on marine ply, reunited here with a seventh from a private collection. They, along with the Arctic paintings and sketches of James Morrison, are at the heart of this fascinating new exhibition on polar art and exploration – and its connection to Dundee - at the McManus.

Morrison and Walker span the poles, here, although they are at opposite poles literally and figuratively, if both evoking the scale of the poles and the essence of the sublime. Morrison, on his three trips to the Arctic, painted much “en plein air”, emerging from his tent in Otto Fiord, Ellesmere Island (Canadian Arctic) in the morning and painting until nightfall, polar bears notwithstanding, whilst Walker, on board an Antarctic survey ship, found herself physically unable to sketch due to the extreme cold. Relying on her eidetic memory, the ability to record in fine detail a visual image in her mind, the artist spent her time looking, recording, photographing, writing in her diary, retreating inside the boat to make sketches, then refining it all in her studio in Aberdeen. It recalls the experience of Edward Wilson, the polar explorer and artist, who found his end in a lonely tent with Captain Scott and Henry Bowers in 1912. “In a wind, sketching is quite impossible,” he notes in his diary, “but on a calm day with plenty of time one can manage, although it is not easy to draw quickly in fur mitts.”

Wilson painted the Discovery – Scott's first polar expeditionary ship, now moored in Dundee – in her winter quarters in McMurdo Sound, a poignant image given his eventual fate. Amongst the other early works on display are some photographs by Herbert Ponting from Captain Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, whose artistic composition of the icebergs and landscapes recalls Burn Murdoch's “fairy chambers in ...white palaces.” There are diaries here, excerpts from historic journals and those of Walker and Morrison. And alongside the painted depictions of penguins and polar bears, ice bergs and wooden ships, there is an Emperor Penguin, too, albeit a stuffed one, taken peremptorily from the ice during the Dundee Antarctic Whaling Expedition of 1892, to present to an awe-struck world. Throughout, McManus curator Susan Keracher has worked with Simon Cook, a glacial scientist at the University of Dundee, and Camilla Nichol, Director of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust to bring in the science of the changing landscape of the Arctic, the evidence of climate heating referenced throughout the exhibition.

For perhaps the most interesting thing, here, is that that fresh wonder at the polar regions, whose great ice landscapes presented such awe and fear, and such polarisation between life and death to the early explorers, still have that same hold over us now. In 1818, Captain John Ross, sent north to search beyond Baffin Bay for the possibility of a north west passage wrote, “It is hardly possible to imagine anything more exquisite than the variety of tints which these icebergs display: by night as well as by day they glitter with a vividness of colour beyond the power of art to represent”. Looking at Walker and Morrison's large scale paintings today, that same vividness, now disintegrating before our eyes as the climate warms to life-threatening levels, is apparent, a clarion call, as the McManus hopes, to protect this fragile Earth.

Among the Polar Ice, The McManus, Albert Square, Meadowside, Dundee, 01382 307200 www.mcmanus.co.uk Until 8 Mar 2020, Mon – Sat, 10am – 5pm, Sun 12.30pm – 4.30pm

Don't Miss

The Scottish Colourists make their debut in the Lake District for this first time showing of masterpieces from the Fleming Wyfold Collection, which will be exhibited in Kendal alongside works from Abbot Hall Art Gallery. Highlights include works by S J Peploe, J D Fergusson, F C B Cadell and George Leslie Hunter, alongside works from subsequent generations of British artists who were influenced by them. What more excuse do you need for a quick autumnal jaunt down to the Lakes?

Colour and Light: The Art and Influence of the Scottish Colourists, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria 01539 722464, www.abbothall.org.uk Until Jan 2020 Mon - Sat, 10.30am - 5pm, Adults £7.50, Children/students free.

Critic's Choice

Now three years old, CAMPLE LINE, a contemporary art venue nestled in between fields and a joiners yard in the rural south west, opens its Autumn programme with a group show of international contemporary work alongside the most recent film from Rosalind Nashashibi, shown this summer in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival.

Entitled “From narrow provinces”, this group show will include artists Ruth Laskey, Aleana Egan, Rana Begum, Claire Barclay and Alison Turnbull, all artists whose work investigates process and materials. There is a sense of labour inherent in much of the work, whether in Laskey's intricate woven structures or Egan's cardboard wall-hangings, “strung together with thick coatings of paint and polyester filler”. Barclay is represented here by some of her printmaking made using cut paper shapes, a departure from her practice which she has called “very intuitive.”

Alongside, Rosalind Nashashibi's superb two-part film (Part One: Where there is a joyous mood, there a comrade will appear to share a glass of wine, 2018/ Part Two: The moon nearly at the full. The team horse goes astray, 2019) will be shown in consecutive tranches over the next few months. An exploration of the art of storytelling, of memory and community, it continues the interest in community ties – and barriers – that has characterised Nashashibi's earlier work. Also showing are Electrical Gaza (2015), filmed amongst communities in the Gaza Strip, and Vivian's Garden (2017), filmed in the connected houses of mother and daughter artists in Guatemala.

From Narrow Provinces,CAMPLE LINE, Cample Mill, Thornhill, Dumfries and Galloway, 01848 331000 www.campleline.org.uk

12 Oct until 14 Sat 14 Dec, Thurs - Sat, 11am - 5pm or by appointment