Saturday, April 21, 2012

Winter Tales

Paris, 2012

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.

Paris, 2012

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".

Monet, 1869
And winter provided Munch with the opportunity to paint, well, what else, but Munch (did he ever paint anything else?); the gnarled Norwegian winter landscape as a self portrait, a mirror of the anguished state of mind of the self-obsessed artist.

Munch, 1900

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
In Fritz von Uhde's painting "A Difficult Walk (Walking Towards Bethlehem"), we are reminded that in late 19th century Europe, after decades of industrial progress, Mary and Joseph still walked the streets of winter looking for a place at the inn. 

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.


  1. As governments cut back on essential services, more and more people are going to become homeless. While that might be miserable in summer, it is life threatening in winter.

    What a nightmare! Can't they provide shelter for every citizen, at least overnight.

  2. We had a similar pattern in London too except that now it is not like spring, it is terribly cold. It always makes me uneasy when vulnerable people succumb to the cold. With recent cuts in UK, more and more vulnerable people are receiving less care and assistance while we pay millions for royal weddings, diamond jubilees and Olympic games.

  3. Thanks for your comments Hels and Emm. The severity of this past winters killed hundreds in Europe, especailly in the Ukraine. Although Paris has always had homelessness, I was shocked at the numbers and state of the people this February. There are presidential elections today in France, but I'm not sure if the plight of the most vulnerable has been a big issue.

  4. its shocking how people still suffer in hard weather in countries that should be able to prevent it.

    Looks like a wonderful exhibition. i think paintings can offer such an interesting historical insight into social history