A portrait of winter

Thomas McMullan

Thomas McMullan on the seasonal masterpieces that make the most of chillier temperatures

10 December 2018 14:47

Until the spring buds show themselves, the next few months belong to winter. As a season, it’s a slippery time for an artist to capture; technically challenging, and often weighed down by Christmas card schmaltz. But it’s also a season with deep resonances, shaking with prehistoric fears for survival, felt as the nights draw in and the air nips your fingers. From piss-made flowers to hunters in snow, here are some of the best winter artworks to see you through the cold times.

‘Hunters in the Snow’, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

Winter hardly featured in Western art until the Renaissance. Since most painting up to that point was religious, and seeing as there isn’t a lot of snow in the Bible, wintry wilds went pretty much unrepresented. Bruegel’s intricate ‘Hunters in the Snow’ is often held up as the first true winter landscape, and an important pivot for North European identity. Part of a series that spans different seasons, it shows the titular hunters returning on an overcast day. People skate on the lakes, birds perch on snow-covered branches. At a glance, it looks like something that you’d find on a Christmas card, but look closer and things aren’t so rosy. The hunters have come back empty handed, the sky is a frozen grey. It’s going to be a long winter.

‘The Skating Minister’, Henry Raeburn, 1790s

The minister Robert Walker seems to come from a different world than the frozen pink wilds that surround him. With his black coat and his black hat, arms folded, mid-movement, he is a strange, forward-pointing shape; skating on the frozen waters of Duddingston Loch. Like the horse in George Stubbs’ ‘Whistlejacket’, the minister appears in sharp focus against uncertain surroundings. It’s an icon of the Scottish Enlightenment; perhaps a symbol of human clarity in the face of nature. My favourite touch is the scarred ice around the minister’s feet, cut by skates into grooves that look like the strokes of a paintbrush.

‘Kanbara’ (‘A village in the snow’), Hiroshige, 1830s

Three villagers are bowed-down by a night of heavy snow, which covers the mountains and their homes in blankets of white. The Japanese artist Hiroshige is best known for his ukiyo-e woodcut prints, and this picture comes from a series made as he travelled along the Tōkaidō road; the main route of transport for old Japan. The picture depicts Kanbara, although there’s some dispute about whether the name is a mix-up (Kanbara is actually in a very warm location). Wherever it is, the night sky seems lit by the fresh snowfall, and the villagers, houses and mountains are all laden with its weight.

‘Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning’, Claude Monet, 1891

The snow is blue. Between 1890 and 1891, Monet set about painting haystacks close to where he lived in Giverny, studying the way light changes across the seasons, between different times of day. In this painting, the colours and hazy distance capture a winter morning; the air itself feels cold. By painting en plein air – ‘in the open air’ – using natural light, Monet was able to paint the impressions as he felt them: the blue cold, bathed in the reddish light of dawn. The haystacks themselves seem like two prehistoric animals, flecks of snow peppered across their long, thick fur.

‘Mid-winter’, Agnes Martin, 1954

This painting pre-dates the grids and subtle colour fields that Martin would be best known for in the 1960s, looking more like the abstract expressionism that dominated the US art scene in the 1950s. The colours are all snow grey and frozen blue, but it’s the globular black shapes that catch the eye; hovering and sinister. The painting could almost be representational, with its horizontal lines of snow and figure-like shape on the right. Above the ground is a dark hole. There is a void in the heart of winter, when the nights are longest and the world seems close to death.

‘Winter 1956, Yorkshire’, Terry Frost, 1956

Nominative determinism at its finest, here, with Frost’s vertiginous winter in the Yorkshire Dales. The British painter had moved from St Ives in Cornwall to Leeds, and was impressed by the space and scale of the north. The story behind this painting goes that Frost and some friends were tobogganing down a steep hill, and he wanted to capture the feeling of careening down through the snow. The black square at the top is said to represent a hat worn by his friend. No word on whether it stayed on his friend’s head as he skidded down the hill.

‘The Sled’, Joseph Beuys, 1969

A wooden sled, neatly loaded with a torch, a folded blanket and a ball of lard. Beuys said his artwork relates to a real-life encounter with the Tatars, after his Stuka plane was shot down during the war in 1943. He was rescued using a survival kit, with felt to keep him warm and lard to give him sustenance; ‘survivor materials,’ according to the artist. In the same year, he made an installation, called ‘The Pack’, with 24 of these sleds pouring from the back of a Volkswagen bus. The fat-loaded kits are like bodies, stripped down to the bare essentials for survival in the snow.

‘Piss Flowers’, Helen Chadwick, 1991-92

Twelve white flowers unfurl, displaying pointed stamen and bumped petals. Chadwick’s floral sculptures look like alien lifeforms, made from casts of the spaces melted in the snow by warm urine. On a residency in Canada, the British artist and her partner travelled to different locations and took turns pissing in piles of snow. By pouring plaster into the results, then casting these in bronze and enamelled white, the artist made these testaments to the passing moment of… passing bodily fluids. There’s a lot about gender, bodies and expression swirling about these sculptures, although they’re also just interesting to look at; all snowy craters and phallic stamen. Try putting that on a Christmas card.

‘Potential Snowman’, Annette Lemieux, 2001

Lemieux’s deconstructed, or preconstructed, snowman consists of three spheres, a small heap of rocks and what looks like carrot – all painted white. Both witty and melancholy, the sculpture is a suggestion of winter fun; clinically abstracted and plonked on a plinth in a gallery. The whiteness of the rocks and the carrot makes the whole thing uncanny, as if it belongs to a fading, misremembered moment. It’s humorous and unsettling, although it doesn’t look like much use for flying to the North Pole for an impromptu party with Santa Claus.

‘The Passing Winter’, Yayoi Kusama, 2005

A mirrored box rests on a mirrored pedestal, a scattering of holes inviting the viewer to peek inside. If they do, they’ll find a blizzard of spots spreading across an infinite space. A Tardis of mirrors, Kusama’s sculpture takes on a different character depending on the light in the room, and whether someone else is on the other side of the box. Dots and mirrors are everywhere in the artist’s work, but this piece is memorable for the surprise that comes from first glimpsing its infinite plane, and for its wonderfully elusive name.

‘Mother and Daughter’, Gregory Crewdson, 2014

A daughter stares across the living room, her mother’s head resting on her lap. The mother’s breast is showing, the door is open and the outside snow seems to bleed into the carpet. Crewdson’s photographs are highly staged tableaux, eerie and dreamlike. Much like a painting by Paul Delvaux, there is something uncanny in the poses these models make, in the muted winter light and in the carefully placed objects that make up the room. There is a suggestion of a story – whose footsteps are those in the snow? – but there are no clear resolutions, only the feeling that everything is not as it seems.