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The Sobriety of the Winter Landscape

Finding seasonal peace in visual art

“Come, see the north wind’s masonry.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Media enforce winter’s reputation for misery and loneliness — music in particular. Few songs, apart from holiday tunes, lighten the season. Muddy Waters sings of the ‘Cold Weather Blues’: “So cold up north that the birds can’t hardly fly / I’m going down south / And let this winter pass on by”. Leonard Cohen opens ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ with a bleak, dark December morning in New York. The starkest visual in Anatomy of a Fall includes Sandra Hüller’s husband’s body, bloody and sprawled on a blanket of snow in the French Alps. Winter is, as Robert Frost reminds us, the darkest evening of the year.

It’s widely concluded that the best of winter will occur indoors. Looking out from a six-by-six window, hot chocolate in hand, you listen to Tchaikovsky and Nat King Cole. The fire thaws your hardened spirit. We’re told more to make something of winter and less to embrace it for its beauty. We must ski, and sledge, and ice skate, and throw snowballs. Through this season we communally persevere and brace ourselves for the lows. Only then can we emerge in April ready to revere the budding flora. 


But I’ve long had a soft spot for the clarity of the barren and frigid natural landscape. My affinity for the winter scene supersedes any love of snowsport. It came most forcefully with an exploration of winter landscapes in visual art — perhaps my foremost prescription to those struggling to see the physical poetry of the colder months.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1963 Winter Road I presents an abstract, vast, and snowy plane. Only a curving brown road disrupts it. O’Keeffe confronts the viewer, immediately and bluntly, with the subliminal nature of extreme snowfall. Overwhelmingly so, it covers the intricacies of the earth’s surface. It extends for miles and wipes the mind of excess visual queues. O’Keeffe gives us a lone path. Snow, she paints, simplifies. 

Rockwell Kent’s 1921 The Trapper captures the gravity of merging winter colour. Snow, sky, moon, clouds, and shadows are fused by the cerulean and ice blue, greyish yellows, and pinks of snow. The mountains melt together, and a figure witnesses the endurance of snowfall. Although less frequent than in summer, the light of wintertime is the brightest of the year. Snow reflects the sun, and the whole world momentarily glows. 

Andrew Wyeth’s 1989 Snow Hill depicts individuals dancing together around a winter maypole on a sheet of snow. The horizon line camouflages with the grey sky; the uniformity of colour and value isolates the playful figures. Details of personhood are therefore immediately noticeable, like the strips of artificial colour cutting the background and the Kuerner farmhouse at the bottom of the hill. Wyeth reminds us that if we’re lucky (and it is lucky), snow falls over one evening, and schools, employers, and authorities instruct us to stop our livelihood — first, for our safety and liability, and second, for time to relish the ephemeral natural gift.

In St Andrews, the gift of snow is infrequent. We cannot rely on its fall to find beauty in winter’s landscape. The earth adorns itself for three seasons straight and proceeds to undress. Exposed and vulnerable for months, our world in this time presents itself most honestly. 

A couple of pieces taught me to appreciate the vulnerability of the earth’s barren state. Polish painter Stanisław Wypsiańkski’s 1894 Planty Park at Dawn offers a tonalist visual of the unfruitful treeline leading to Wawel Castle in Kraków, a tribute to his divided country. Wyspiański’s nation, then absorbed by Prussia, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian empire, is weary, yet alive. Viewers face the visual sobriety of a natural and national perseverance.

James McNeill Whistler does the same in his 1876 Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow. I enjoy Whistler’s similarly tonalist evening. London fields the hits of the season, and an unaccompanied figure walks on guided by the glowing light of street lamps and warm interiors. These two canvases, communicative of t

he stripped-down look of winter, focus the eye. The overwhelming physical and mental blue of winter’s solitude creates the cleanest of visuals. 

A winter scene is soberingly uncomplicated. What we brand as the world in comatose is still alive, and, not just alive, but worthwhile. These paintings forced my recognition of this fact. If wondering at the natural world is a prerequisite to humility and inner peace, then we cannot take a break from this practice in the throes of the lowest season. Find what lies underneath, even in the absence of snow.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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