Saturday, 21 November 2015

In the bleak midwinter..

One of my favourite paintings is Pieter Bruegel's 'Hunters in the Snow', a wonderful evocation of winter and one of the coldest works of art that exist.  So cold, in fact, that you can almost feel the cold air folding out from it into the room.  Not much is known about the painter, his date of birth is unknown; he is mentioned in a list of members of the painters guild in 1551, his first son was born in 1564, his second in 1568 and he died the following year.

The types of painting he produced are mysterious, strange, metaphysical and have informed the modern view of the late medieval world probably too strongly for accuracy's sake.  When you look at his paintings together it is hard not to assume that the painter was a little disturbed.  Paintings such as 'Dulle Griet', and 'The Triumph of Death' have a strong impact and their obsessive tiny details (as seen in Dadd's 'The Fairy Fellers Masterstroke') suggest madness.  But I don't think Bruegel was mad.  You just need a degree in medieval art history to tease out the meanings of the details and interpret them.  So sorry, can't help you there. 

Hunters in the Snow.  Detail of the mountain range.

 But when you look at 'Hunters in the Snow', although I'm sure it's jam-packed with hidden meaning, it's the basic representation that we can all understand and appreciate.  It's apparently one of the most popular medieval images to appear on secular style Christmas cards.  It's a beautifully realised image of three men as they make their way through a snow covered - landscape on a hunting trip.  It's unclear if they are coming back or starting out, they have no animal carcasses with them so they might be starting out, but on the other hand maybe they've been unsuccessful and are returning empty-handed.  The figures are framed between three thin stark tree trunks, and following behind them are about thirteen hounds.  They pass by houses, an inn on their left where the people are burning something outside their door.

The hunters are on the peak of a hill, and are starting their decent.  Below there are a number of large frozen-over fish ponds, offshoots from the nearby river visible in the background, and at the bottom of this hill stands another red brick house, complete with a raised brick arch conveying a road over the pond.  At one side of this house, is a large brick structure that may possibly be a boathouse with a tall arched opening from which hangs a thick mass of icicles.

An Artist with his Patron.  Possibly the main figure is a self portrait by Bruegel.
 I remember these kinds of winters, although the UK doesn't have them any more; when I was a child between the ages of one and ten, the UK had real winters with real bite, the last such winters the country had in the twentieth century.  I remember it would snow in early December, a good fall, and then instead of melting the next day as it always did after about 1970 (global warming deniers take note) it would stay on the ground, freezing hard until a few days later a second fall would cover it.  The temperature would remain constant and there would be a third fall of glittering white snow, frequently with the clear blue sky that always accompanies really cold days.  Its these sorts of memories that come back to me when I see this painting.  Bruegel's painting however has a grey green sky, a great colour choice for representing a certain kind of cloudy sky.

Yes, I remember the kinds of days Bruegel is depicting, although I suspect his winter was harsher than any I ever experienced, the air so cold, it seems to attack you, makes your skin sting and toes and fingers ache, even though the air is still, with no wind.  Bruegal's painting is wonderfully detailed, you need to see it for real or have a very high quality print reproduction to see it all.  It is one of the best landscapes I know, receding back - and back again and filled with lively activity and incident.  Beyond the frozen ponds on which tiny figures skate and play there are more houses and trees, a church and beyond them more tinier figures are hurrying across a bridge over the river, carrying a ladder - the reason?

Hunters in the Snow.  Pieter Bruegel  A painting of space, cold and silence.

On the other side of the river is their house, and other people are in the process of climbing another ladder on to the thatched roof - because the chimney is on fire.  (See top of page)  A little drama all played out in miniature in the background of this painting.  But the painting goes back further, more trees, copses of trees, hamlets, a profusion of churches and to the right a large mountain range projects upwards towards the green sky.  To the left is the distant coast, and some large town, maybe a busy harbour or fishing community with a prominent church steeple.

I suppose if it has a meaning it's something to do with the smallness of human endeavour and the hugeness of the world; although we are close to the hunters and see them looming large in the landscape, all the life around them is there to be seen, so much in fact that they begin to dwindle in importance in their own picture, they become part of the landscape, merely compositional marks on the white.

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  1. Excellent piece. Thus painting in particular has been a favourite of mine for years.

  2. Excellent piece. Thus painting in particular has been a favourite of mine for years.

  3. Thanks David,

    I agree, love all of Bruegel's work, but this is my favourite.