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Winter wonderlands: writers on their favourite artworks

Ali Smith, Julian Barnes, Ai Weiwei and others choose seasonal scenes.

By New Statesman

Sue Prideaux

Winter Night in the Mountains (1914) by Harald Sohlberg

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) was a Norwegian painter working in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Impressionism hit Norway in the 1890s but, fjords and mountains being more sublime subjects than bars and boulevards, Norwegian impressionism was always less Zola, more neo-romantic. Sohlberg studied under three Norwegian greats: Harriet Backer, Erik Werenskiold and Eilif Peterssen.

Both his technique and his artistic mission changed on a visit to Copenhagen when he saw the paintings that Paul Gauguin had sent back from Polynesia to his Danish wife, who exhibited them there. Gauguin’s non-realistic treatment of scale, revolutionary use of multiple-point perspective and evocative use of flat colour that ignored impressionist colour theory was heavily influenced by Japanese prints. Gauguin’s pictures inspired Sohlberg to find his own fairy-tale, non-realistic idiom, blending naturalism with symbolism. Idealistic and mystically inclined, Sohlberg was in despair at the Industrial Revolution sweeping through rural Norway, harnessing her waterfalls to hydroelectric schemes, feeding her forests to sawmills and her people to factory work. Gauguin’s heartfelt depictions of indigenous Polynesian culture vanishing beneath similar capitalist pressures encouraged Sohlberg to retreat into the introspective task of recording Norway’s magical and incomprehensible side before it vanished altogether.

This painting was inspired by a ski trip in 1899, in Norway’s remote Rondane mountains, a last wilderness, ancient abode of gods and trolls, home to wild reindeer and their herders. The area was rich in legends and folk tales, including “Peer Gynt”, the story that inspired Ibsen. The Rondane mountains became Sohlberg’s symbol of unspoilt Norway and a recurring theme; each picture might take years to build up from careful glazed layers, achieving an enamelled, glowing luminosity that leaves the viewer, like the artist, transported by awe at the sublime grandeur of nature.

Ali Smith

Catterline in Winter (1963) by Joan Eardley

Catterline in Winter by Joan Eardley. Image by National Museums Liverpool / Bridgeman Images / DACS

It’s a picture of dark weighed against light, and vice versa. The tension between the two sends elements and opposites hurtling into symbiosis. It sends how we live – that string of cottages – into a huddle for warmth, for the fun or the terror of the collide, the braced concertina of the slide down the icy slope.

Is it night or day? Is that a sun or a moon? When you look closely at that disc of light in the grey it reveals planetary nature as a vital blur, and as something always on the move, the life in it won’t settle to neat geometry. It’s in mid-trajectory, descent and ascent both at once in the slingshot of the dark, sending tiny splinters of itself out into new constellations. The sea and sky are the same thing under it, no place where one ends and the other begins.

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In the bleakest midwinter the frozen grass in the field is almost alight, a conflagration of shards of unexpected colour warming to something resembling harvest, a burning frost, and this warmth gestures towards the topmost cottage on the weather-hurtled street, which happens to be number 1 South Row, one of the houses the painter Joan Eardley lived and worked in, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in the Scottish north-east coastal village of Catterline. That distant end house sends out a haze of faint light or heat like something is opening round it. Maybe the street isn’t on a downward slide after all, maybe it’s shoving upwards towards that warm outbreath.

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What to say about Eardley? She was born in Sussex in 1921 and died in Killearn in 1963. She studied at Goldsmiths then at the Glasgow School of Art and first came to Catterline to paint in 1951; after that she lived between Glasgow and the fishing village, a place that embraced her and the female partners she lived with. The villagers got used to seeing her out painting in all weathers, her Lambretta loaded with boards, and if by chance a storm was brewing in Catterline and Eardley wasn’t there a villager would phone her Glasgow number to tell her and she’d get on the bike and head for the coast.

Her paintings send you reeling with the power, the colour, the calm, the beauty, the fused dark and light of how things really are.

Here’s a rough dark winter at the end of a road that becomes so bright it’s near luminous.

Katie Kitamura

Blotter (1993) by Peter Doig

Blotter by Peter Doig. Image by National Galleries of Scotland

I’ve lived in New York for about 15 years, which is not particularly long by the standards of the city, but long enough in this time of rapid alteration to have seen the winters definitively change. My first winter, there was a snowstorm that dropped over a foot of snow on the city during the time that I was inside a bar having a drink; by the time we stepped outside the streets were impassable to cars and we walked down the centre of the road in the particular hush of snow.

It hasn’t snowed like that for years. Instead, there is torrential rain and flooding in the summer, the new extremity of climate change. I now have a peculiar feeling when I look at images of snow – when I look, especially, at paintings of snow, such as Blotter by Peter Doig. I feel a sharp sense of loss, one that is foreshortened (has it really only been 15 years since those days of snow?) and whose acceleration only points to the scale of what is now gone.

At first glance, the beauty of this painting, this image of a single figure – a child, you imagine, from the posture and garb – in a pristine landscape, seems simple enough. But with a second look, the image begins to shift. The figure, face cast downward, perhaps gazing at its own reflection, begins to dissolve into the ripple and refraction of the icy surface. The painting captures the tension between the natural landscape and the blot of human presence, in all its narrow introspection.

But it also reminds me that nature is a category invented by the human, and that part of what the painting depicts is an internal landscape. I first encountered Blotter some decades ago, and I remember being struck by the dazzling technique, the hallucinatory surfaces, the perfect evocation of the privacy of childhood, memory and the natural landscape.

Now, many years later, the painting is inscribed with a loss that runs far deeper than nostalgia. In it, I can feel the various meanings of the past, as it exists in the imagination of the present. The vibration of deep longing and catastrophic regret. The astonishment at the smallness of the human – that hunched and gloved figure on the ice – and the extent of its impact on the world it inhabits. When it comes to the climate, when it comes to winter, the past is a moving target: always shifting, taking on new, increasing meaning.

Julian Barnes

Red Army Marching in the Snow (1927-28) by Arkady Shaikhet

Red Army Marching in the Snow by Arkady Shaikhet. Image by estate of Arkady Shaikhet / Nailya Alexander Gallery

Arkady Shaikhet (1898-1959) was one of the finest photographers of the early Soviet period, during that decade or so when artistic individualism and modernism were largely permitted. Working photographers relished extreme angles, sharply contrasted lighting, wide frames and photomontage, while the Revolution provided them with new subject matter: factories, railways, tractors, housing blocks, electrification, five-year plans. Photography has the advantage of seeming to convey an immediate truth (though it is also the art form which is most easily manipulable), and many of the images of the time capture the optimism of both the photographers and their subjects. Photojournalism, art photography and propaganda overlapped as the new world crashed into the old. Shaikhet’s most famous image is an illustration of this: Lenin’s Light Bulb: Peasants Turn on the Electricity for the First Time (1925).

[See also: How Eric Ravilious found the soul of England]

His Red Army Marching in the Snow (1927-28) is a supremely beautiful image: the high camera angle, the long shadows criss-crossing both the line of skiers and the tracks of previous passers-by, the bare trees, rickety fences, ski-poles echoing both the fence posts and the thin branches of the trees. The vertical viewpoint also strangely seems to bring sound into the picture: the sound of winter silence, half-broken by the soft swishing of the skiers and perhaps some distant bird-call. The little group of bystanders are also our representatives, watching the column of soldiers go by from a different angle. We can only see a selection of them: there could be dozens, scores, hundreds of these ski-militia preparing to confront some opposition to the fledgling Soviet Union.

But to the contemporary eye this image inevitably comes littered with commentary. For a start, Shaikhet was born in the Kherson Governorate of what was then the Russia empire. He served in the Red Army during the Civil War, and later his photojournalism included coverage of the liberation of Kiev (as it was then) from the Nazis. Now the Russian empire is back, and the two armies are digging in around Kherson. The ironies are as sharp as frost; so too is our certainty that there will be no equivalent images of calm beauty coming to us from this year’s winter war. And as I write this, the first snow has just fallen in Kyiv.

Claire Keegan

The Hunters in the Snow (1565) by Pieter Bruegel

The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel. Image by Alamy

Maybe it’s because I was brought up on a farm that the paintings of Pieter Bruegel, known as “peasant Bruegel”, have appealed to me, but I’m sure it has more to do with the motion, activity, so much life carrying on, an understanding of community – and always when I look at his paintings I see more. There’s the storybook aspect, a feeling of another world and its customs, a season, the folklore, people set upon time and the sensation of entering something lively and occasional – but something very serious, too, is going on.

The Hunters in the Snow was completed in 1565. Some critics seem at pains to note the sensation of cold in the piece, and although one can clearly feel the winter with snow on the ground and the rooftops and the bare trees, there’s heat here too: the sweat of the hunters having trudged up the hill, returning from their unsuccessful outing with their scolded-looking dogs, past the place where others are tending a huge fire at which a small child is standing dangerously close to the flames. I imagine their feet being cold, but surely these hunters must be hot under their overcoats? And there are children and other figures skating on the pond, women pulling others along on a sleigh, another figure carrying a huge pile of kindling across the bridge, all of which suggests heat to me, and some hunger and longing for hot plates of soup afterwards.

Just as Madame Bovary feels like a work of art which is held perfectly in balance between what is deeply serious and what is majestically comic, here too the plight of the hunters is tempered by the festivity of the town at play down below, with the skating figures enjoying this winter’s day before the sun fades and drops.

What a delightful painting. And delightful is the word which brings out the childishness, the play. I certainly didn’t ever expect it to become the cover of my book but, like the loveliest wrapping paper, it became the cover image for Small Things Like These. They say Protestant art sought to depict everyday scenes and everyday people so it was sweet to wrap my criticism of Catholic Ireland up in this Bruegel, with the crows perched on the bare trees and one quick-minded fellow flying off. No doubt he sensed these hunters had brought home little and his chances would be improved by spreading his wings and setting his sights elsewhere.

Geoff Dyer

When the West With Evening Glows (1901) by Joseph Farquharson

PNJF2J Farquharson Joseph – when the West with Evening Glows 2

Various attempts have been made to formulate something akin to a universal rule of aesthetic value in the visual arts – Clive Bell’s “significant form”, Bernard Berenson’s “tactile values” and so on – but only my criteria have proved watertight. They can be stated quite simply. First, I can only love paintings that have appeared on book covers. Second, ideally my initial sight of the work would have been on a book cover rather than the other way round (though some paintings can be suddenly upgraded after a belated appearance on a book jacket). Third – and there is no way to avoid the incessant repetition of the word – ideally the book would be a Penguin and, even more ideally, a Penguin Modern Classic.

 Joseph Farquharson’s When the West With Evening Glows is on the cover of my out-of-print Penguin edition of Thomas Hardy’s Selected Poems. The picture’s deep metaphoric resonance is achieved by sticking closely to a literal representation of an actual scene. To make an obvious point: the snow in this very snowy scene is no longer falling, and there is no suggestion that there is more on the way. The snowstorm is in the past and, in keeping with this, it’s not just a day that is ending in the west – the year itself is drawing to a close, even if the scene itself was painted in January. This is consistent with the way that winter is felt to be the year’s final season; nature’s new year does not begin until spring when these bare trees come back into leaf.

One could go further and say that although the painting is dated 1901, what we see is the 19th century coming to an end. Time and place converge on a distant sunset that draws nearer with every minute and every step. But the elegiac is rarely just backward-looking. The bird-pecked footsteps in the snow lead to the future, from Hardy to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. We’ve all been – and are heading – there, en route to “the sure extinction” of Larkin’s “Aubade”.

When I wrote that the painting was on the cover of a book by Hardy I should more accurately have said that the cover shows a detail of the picture. The actual painting – which I’ve never visited at its home in Manchester Art Gallery – is wider (in landscape rather than portrait format as they say in photography) so the perspectival convergence is far stronger.

This brings us to my fourth and final rule which this picture effectively dramatises. At some point I hope always to come across a given work of art, in a gallery, to see how it compares with the original (“original” in the highly specific sense, meaning as reproduced on a book cover). From this we can derive a rule of life and living that has, like Farquharson’s painting, wider implications. In the interlude between seeing a book cover and the painting itself resides much of the meaning and purpose of life. I have many paintings to see – and galleries to visit – before I sleep.

Ai Weiwei

Boyarina Morozova (1887) by Vasily Surikov

Boyarina Morozova by Vasily Surikov. Image by Alamy

I first saw this painting in my father’s Russian art catalogue when I was a child. I immediately felt very touched, though it bore little relationship to my own life. Some aspects of it were rather new to me – specifically, the image of an aristocrat being arrested and dragged away on a crude sled. “Aristocrat” was a mysterious term when I was growing up, and carried myriad meanings.

I grew up on the edge of the Gurbantünggüt Desert in Xinjiang, known locally as “Little Siberia”, where my father had been exiled. In Little Siberia the snow lay knee-deep, and the temperature reached -30°C in winter. After it snowed, there were no other colours – just white. Every week I had to walk 30 miles on roads that were completely covered by snow to get to
school and back.

Feodosia Prokopiyevna Morozova, who was arrested in 1671, was one of the best-known members of the Old Believer movement. The Old Believers were Eastern Orthodox Christians who resisted the reforms of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow in the 1650s and 1660s, choosing to maintain their own liturgical practices.

Surikov manages to capture both a moment in history and the reality of people’s living condition. On her way into exile, surrounded by supporters, Morozova raises two fingers to the sky – the Old Believers’ way of making the Sign of the Cross. For me, the most intriguing detail in the painting is not the beggar sitting on the right-hand side, making the same two-fingered gesture, but rather the back of the boy running away – the one on the left side of the canvas.

Edmund de Waal

Quattro Stagioni: Inverno (1993-95) by Cy Twombly

Quattro Stagioni: Inverno by Cy Twombly. Image by Cy Twombly Foundation

This is a painting of winter, part of the cycle of the four seasons that Cy Twombly created towards the end of his life. It is now part of the Tate collection though not currently on display. He titled it “A Painting in Four Parts”: themes are reprised, words scribbled and repeated across the four canvases.

Inverno is romantic, a winter landscape of thinking aloud, of thoughts checked and then resumed, hesitancies and the rush of ideas. There are horizontal brushstrokes that recall the small images of ships from the other paintings in the quartet, which relate to Egyptian funerary boats, symbolising the journey through the underworld. Some painted gestures resemble clouds. But as with all his paintings, images and scribbled words are transitory, glimpsed before being subsumed under the mass of marks and erasures.

Here we sense all of Twombly’s inscribing, daubing and scratching, the sticking and tearing and collaging. This work is a glorious list of transitive verbs, a celebration of the present moment. I’m here, says this art, here and now. But it brings into this moment a sense of time, stretching from here back through history to grave-goods, inscriptions on tombs, snatches of remembered poetry, songs of farewell.

This is a picture of winter, of ending. The boats disappear stage-right. The white paint ghosts things, turns them spectral. Images are fragmentary, battered, a bit lost, more beautiful for having been used, forgotten, re-found. A friend recalls “Cy’s hands holding the white wax sticks like a conductor’s wand, moving as if by magic and describing a soundless track in the imperceptible attempt to describe a sound.” And perhaps part of the attraction of this is that at speed there comes a kind of blur, yet another kind of whiteness. White noise. Winter.

[See also: Picture books of the year]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special