The Taming of the Cold

The KHM explores how artists bridled the wildness of past winters – a feast for the eyes and a prelude to Christmas

On The Town | Roxanne Powell | December 2011 / January 2012

The days are growing shorter. It is already getting dark as I leave the office; the air stings my face and I wrap up my woolly scarf tighter as I head down the street toward my tram stop on the Ringstrasse. It’s almost winter; what did I expect? Suddenly, the warm aroma of roasting chestnuts surrounds me, and I smile in spite of myself. In Vienna, it’s not all slushy streets and frostbite. On every available city square, Christmas markets have been set up. In front of me, my eye on the Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum) that greets the chilly season with "Winter Tales – Depictions of Winter in European Art from Bruegel to Beuys" ("Wintermärchen – Winter-Darstellungen in der europäischen Kunst von Bruegel bis Beuys"). This seasonal retrospective, from 1450 to today, boasts more than 180 portraits of pink cheeks, merry feasts and snow-covered landscapes from across Europe.

My own rosy cheeks were ready to escape the icebox outside and find solace in the KHM; I flashed my ticket to the museum attendant and made my way up the imperial staircase. The lovingly detailed design and rich decoration were close to overwhelming, and I paused half-way up the stairs to take it all in. Everywhere I looked, opulent marble patterns, intricate gold-leaf mouldings and refined painted ceilings lavished the eye. Every niche, every crevice had been beautified. The only unadorned surfaces were the wooden framed windowpanes, surprisingly plain in the surrounding splendour.

In contrast with the monumental foyer, the exhibition was set in a labyrinth of narrow galleries and small, side rooms, and packed with visitors, many of them Viennese. On the walls and display cabinets, winter in all its diversity whispered and sang. It was impossible not to stop, as most visitors did, in front of one enormous painting: "The Hunters in the Snow", by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1565, is said to be the earliest European large-scale depiction of winter. It is the epitome of the idealised winter, with its snow-capped peaks, the dark fur of the hunting dogs and black tree trunks setting off the whitened earth, the brazier’s fire providing comfort. Less than 40 years later, Pieter Bruegel the Younger produced the much smaller "Landscape with Bird Trap", viewed as the first "purely" winter landscape in European art history, having neither religious nor historical character.

Poor Bruegel! These pictures are everywhere, on so many Christmas cards, they seem part and parcel of European cultural identity; but in person, their impact is larger than life. Our forebears lived in extremes: hot and cold weather, rich harvest and famine, opulent wealth and dissolute poverty. But these Bruegels marked a turning point in their image of winter, making its sheer beauty palpable for the first time. Eighteenth century painters moved even further away from negative depictions of winter. The focus turned to seasonal amusements, both indoors and out, as if we had overcome nature and no longer had to fear its power.

Watching the overflowing tables at family feasts, my stomach began to growl; food had pride of place in the exhibition. Because of its scarcity in the bad old days, and because at some point, winter became a time for feasting and revelry – until Lent, of course. Which reminded me that the Punsch season was upon us.

On my way home, I treated myself to some grilled chestnuts near the Volkstheater. The chestnut man reminded me of Old Father Frost and the many "Winter Tales" personifying the season as a bearded old man, more often than not warming his hands above a blazing brazier. So little had changed, indeed, the striking juxtaposition of fire and ice emphasised the harshness of the winter. I thought back to the exhibition, and the (paradoxically) warmest winter painting of the lot: a Dutch sunset above a frozen river with skaters, infusing a desolate landscape with a glowing beauty.

So dear reader, let us not fear the depths of winter; without fail, it brings people together around a steaming hot mug or a lit-up Christmas tree, skating hand-in-hand across the ice, as coloured lights flicker against the night sky.


Winter Tales

Through 8 Jan. 2012

Kunsthistorisches Museum

1., Maria-Theresien-Platz

Tue.–Sun., 10:00–18:00; Thu., 10:00–21:00

(01) 525 24-0

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