Snow in art

For our December cabinet display outside the Art & Design Library we’re displaying some wintry pictures and this is a blog post to go alongside it – to add a wintry commentary of sorts. Specifically, I thought I’d think about snow in art.

It’s snowing as I write this.

A cold wet snow, that’s falling in big lumps. We’re all chills and fevers in our flat; coughs are racking like boots against the (cold) floorboards. We have clammy skin, drippy noses, we’ve had too much tea, too much toast and soup. There is too little light, and condensation is rolling off the window-panes. It’s winter.

When I think about the Scottish winter and snow, and pieces of art that capture it, I think of Joan Eardley – immediately – of course. This year marks the centenary of her birth, and there have been some wonderful exhibitions across the city; please do have a read of our previous blogpost.

I find her the most beautiful and powerful of painters, for the sheer depth of emotion she conveys. In her painting, Catterline in Winter (1963), a row of cottages slips, like they are being tipped from beneath, off a snowy hillside. Above, unflinching, is a cold grey sky. The night has left its thumbprint in the shape of the moon, and we can feel how it lurks, in a vast forbidding way, all around us. There is a wetness in the snow and a bitterness. The picture is also a portrait of her Catterline home as Joan Eardley lived in one of the cottages, the furthest on the left, number 1 South Row. We can’t reproduce the painting here unfortunately but it’s on display in the left-hand cabinet half-way up the stone staircase to the Reference department.

In art historical terms, Joan Eardley’s work nods towards abstract expressionism, expressionism, romanticism, and en plein-airistes everywhere. But really, as an artist, she is herself, and she paints what it is like to be in the fields, and in front of the sea, in all that landscape and weather that’s happening out there. She moved to Catterline, a small village on the north-east coast from Glasgow. She painted outdoors, weighing down her work with ropes and anchors and stones. She wore oilskins. She got very cold…

As a child my family lived in Germany for a while, and I remember how snow happened properly there, every winter. Or at least in my memory it did. My dad gritted and shovelled the path in front of our house with a fluorescent orange snow shovel, and my parents dressed me in a red snowsuit. Which makes me think about the whiteness of snow – and how light and colour sit in relationship with it. 

Claude Monet was a master with regards colour and light on snow. He too dressed for the cold, in English tweeds apparently. I immediately think of his haystacks but he painted many snow-scenes.

Haystacks: Snow Effect by Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He shows so perfectly how snow covers and transforms the forms within a landscape. The haystack is such a strange lump of a shape; we feel how it sits there right from the middle out.

Another snowy treasure – the Limbourg Brothers’ page for February in the late medieval illuminated manuscript, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 
Limbourg brothers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s part of a book of hours, a book of prayers to be said at canonical hours, made between c. 1412 – 1416, by three brothers, Dutch miniaturists, Herman, Paul and Johan. Cover the blue parts of the painting with your fingers and the snow feels so different – colder maybe? The blue is so strong. And precious. There’s an interesting blog from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Limbourg brothers (mostly it looks at their earlier Belles Heures). And another all about the practical questions on drawing and illumination in the middle ages.

Another painting I wanted to mention was the German painter and printmaker, Franz Marc’s picture of a white dog lying down in the snow.

Dog Lying in the Snow by Franz Marc, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The dog was Franz Marc’s own dog, Russi. He paints him (or her?) in non-naturalistic colour; colour-wheel colours, that are pure and un-patterned – the brushwork is less busy than a Vuillard or a Bonnard. And the shapes are very soft and simple. The dog and the snowy ground it lies on are gently modelled and fit together like an interlocking wooden toy. The living creature and its environment are one, and neither seem to threaten.

Franz Marc was a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter group, an art movement important to expressionism. There was no manifesto to the group, and although the work looked in many directions, it shared a commonality in its desire to express spirituality through art. The Blaue Reiter artists were interested in the relationships between art and music and colour; in medieval art and primitivism, children’s art and folk art. And they had a special interest in how colour might convey spirituality and be imbued with symbolic associations. Franz Marc painted many animals. I find them very dignified and beautiful. The poet Mary Oliver, titled a collection of poems, Blue Horses (2014), after Franz Marc’s paintings –

I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us…

To be outside in the snow, and then suddenly inside, in the warm, looking out at the snow… This is a feeling we all feel. We feel contentment and comfort coming indoors after being outside and I associate these feelings very much with memories of winter and childhood.

Jill Barklem’s Winter Story has always sat in my head. It’s part of her Brambly Hedge series, published in 1980, about a community of mice – Mr and Mrs Toadflax and their family and friends.

Brambly Hedge characters,
“Jill Barklem Sneeuw ill pag 4” by janwillemsen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The details, the observation, the miniaturised world… each page is exquisite. She even made working mechanical models for the world that she drew; a mouse mill and a dairy. I think of Shirley Hughes too, and how she manages to capture the glow of windows and doorways and inside spaces, while outside, sits the winter cold. That glowing warmth isn’t budging, there’s no way the cold can get in.

Tove Jansson’s character, the Groke, is a hilly-shaped mound of a creature, that appears in many of her Moomin stories. She’s always seeking out warmth, but anything she touches turns to ice or snow or dies. And then of course there’s Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman for childhood snow at its most magical.

I remember listening a few years ago to a podcast on architectural design, specifically air conditioning in fact. The podcast talked a little about the pleasure we feel in moving from one temperature to another – about the cosy inside space, and the cool summer breeze. And design thoughts on creating a thermally fluctuating space to mimic this pleasure; on ideas about how we perceive temperature, and can we see temperature as more of a sense? Do we need to move away from thermally neutral spaces and recalibrate how we cope with, and sense, our thermal environment? You can listen to the 99% invisible podcast here.

And a few extra thoughts.

On snow, and joy, I’d just like to include Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. It works for me every time.

On beautiful book jackets – Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter.

On frost fairs and the little ice age – the opening scenes in the film Orlando directed by Sally Potter. The young Orlando is a page in the Elizabethan court and falls in love with Sasha, a princess in the Russian entourage, as they skate through one of the Thames’ frost fairs.

Also a London Review of Books article on frost fairs by the poet John Burnside.

On ice skating and painting – Hendrick Avercamp!

On snow flurries – Alexander Calder and explore more on Calder by borrowing a book.

On any snowy painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder.

And lastly, any snowy woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige.

Books on all the artists mentioned are available to borrow from the Art & Design Library, Central Library. Please come and browse or search the Library catalogue online to reserve and pick up from a library of your choice.

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