I've certainly noticed some weirding of the weather in recent months. First there was Europe's seemingly endless mild autumn, with balmy temperatures that ran right into December. Even Switzerland experienced a drought - seven weeks without precipitation. Then, suddenly the great freeze descended on most of northern Europe, enveloping the continent in sub-zero temperatures for seven or eight weeks - literally, a cold that killed. I don't think I ever experienced such a prolonged period of sub-zero temperatures in my life. It was followed by what seemed like an early summer in March. For weeks we dined on our patio every evening, enjoying temperatures of over 20 degrees. Spring had been skipped. And then, along came now - a reversion to early spring - in late April! Some sunny spells, lots of scattered showers, and I'm wearing my overcoat again. Of course Chaucer had written of this over 600 years ago:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote
And T.S.Eliot, writing in the shadow of the 20th century's Great War, had warned us that:
|April is the cruellest month, breeding|
|Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing|
|Memory and desire, stirring|
|Dull roots with spring rain.|
But neither mentioned that March is hot, and late April is cold.
In February, during the great freeze, I took the train to Paris for a history conference. It was so cold, they even had to cancel the Ireland-France rugby match because the pitch was frozen - no joke for the 10,000 Irish fans who had made the journey. But what struck me were the homeless in Paris and the soup kitchens on the street. The Canal Saint Martin looks pretty when it is frozen, but the homeless huddled in blankets in doorways showed how brutal urban life can be. On a Saturday night I mixed with the revelers on the Place de la Bastille and noticed an entire family, mother, father and two children, huddled inside a telephone box, wrapped in sleeping bags.. As I returned to my hotel that night I shuffled past a couple of dozen muffled and silent men and women eating soup that had been handed out by volunteers; the temperature was around ten degrees below zero.
A couple of days after returning to Zurich I visited the exhibition in the Kunsthaus "Winter Tales". The exhibtion has been organized in collaboration with Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. I enjoyed it immensely. Not only can the exhibition boast of a number of startling and surprising works, but it possesses a great narrative power that carried me along. Winter was once a time to be feared, with freezing temperatures and food supplies imperiled, but this exhibition lets us see how the dark season was tamed and, especially among the democratic Dutch, how the winter became a time for all, rich and poor, high and low, adult and child, to hit the ice and enjoy skating, either as a participant or just as an observer enjoying the spectacle.
|Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 1601|
During the Enlightenment the act of skating had become a symbol of freedom. The bourgeois citizen could enjoy his leisure time, but it is with the onset of the French Revolution (that brings the middle class burgher to power), that he can really swing his arms in freedom as he skates away on the thin ice of a new age, like a living, dynamic and daring statue of liberty, top hat and all.
|Pierre Maximilien Delafonteine, 1798|
Of course the spectacular ferocity of the Russian winter that ravaged Napoleon's army ignited the interest and retained the attention of the romantics for some decades.
|Boissard de Boisdenier, 1835|
However, by the end of the 19th century winter seemed to have been tamed, providing Monet simply with an excuse to challenge himself and create a study in white, a study of the act of painting itself - white on white, with the single black object, "The Magpie".
Of course history is never linear. No true narrative travels in a straight line. Winter had not been tamed for everyone. Winter had not become simply a playground, or or an excuse to experiment in painting or to indulge in self-analysis. As always, they still had the poor.
|Fritz von Uhde, 1890|
And the poor are still in our midst in the glitzy, consumerist and technologically smart 21st century. In many of Europe's large urban areas this winter, like on the streets of Paris, places at the inn were limited.