Monday, December 21, 2009

Northern Solstice

Circumpolar winters are hard on people, body-and-soul hard. Even at the southern edge of the Arctic region, we go to work in the dark and come home in the dark, with at best only eight hours between sunrise and sunset.

I always recognize a certain something in the art and literature of Nordic countries, a relationship to snow, dark, and cold that is absent from the winter scenes of more southerly climes - and a take on life that contains both joy and a certain resolute bleakness.

The work of Edvard Munch captures the northern mood. Living north of 60 hardens Norwegians to the rigours of winter, the biting cold and the seemingly endless dark.

There are two Munch paintings called Starry Night, one from 1923-24 and and one from 1893. There is a wild variety in the colouration of images pulled from internet sources, but the two below epitomize for me two of the moods of winter found in Munch.

The later painting (1923) captures the brilliant, almost buoyant effects of a winter night in the snow. One feels exhilarated, can imagine being outdoors, and being captivated by the glorious colours. The lights of town and home in the distance are the security that makes staying outside energetic and fun. I can hear the ring of the steel blades of skates in this painting. It all sparkles.

The older painting (1893) portrays the weighed down, it's-still-winter mood one often has at the solstice and on into January, even February. The stars may be out, but the dark is heavy and foreboding.

Throughout the winter, the white changes from the stark white of a new snowfall, through the "brown sugar" stage, to the brown and dirty break-up stage - perhaps winter at its most depressing: like Munch's painting Winter Landscape from 1918.

Usually by the time mud appears in the snow, spring is near. People here begin to shovel the snow from their lawns onto the street to speed things up. As spring comes closer, sprinklers appear in the snow on lawns all over the city. I've seen this nowhere else, but understand the rush to spring.

The light of spring and the breezes of the new, fresh season are a joy, really, and relief that we survived yet another winter.

Munch's painting Spring (1889) says it all. By the time we reach the shortest day of the year, it can't come too soon.



ONE of THE GUYS said...

Poignant writing! You really describe the paintings and the feeling of winter so well.

Now I need to go drink some hot tea!!

Simon said...

You are right Munch evokes the gloom of Winter.I yearn to live in the country again, where you can see the skies and hear the birds.Living in a town you just have to wait for the sun to return, it's not nice.

ChrisJ said...

@ONE of THE GUYS, Thanks. Yes, hot tea, cocoa, coffee - especially after skating.

I agree. Any season is nicer when one is closer to nature.

angelshair said...

Amazing! This is an aspect of Munch work I never thought about!!
I love all the paintings you presented. And yes, I think I will go for the hot cocoa :).

ChrisJ said...


Good idea about the cocoa.

One probably has to have lived far north to see that something in Munch's or anyone else's work.

Hels said...

I absolutely think you are onto something here, especially in the use of words like "body-and-soul hard", "endless dark", "biting cold" and "resolute bleakness". I knew that Munch was in and out of sanatoria for alcoholism and depression, but I always assumed it was a personal failing, and not a national condition.

My family originally lived in Northern Russia, before they moved to the Ukraine. Now I think about it, they were all depressives AND big drinkers of spirits. But oh were they creative. Each sibling and cousin was very talented in creative indoor pursuits, especially music and literature.

ChrisJ said...


I also think the midnight sun in summer has something to do with it all as well.

Anonymous said...

Chris - the only other place that resembles a northern winter is Sajama in Bolivia. It is on the altoplano and just as bleak as a northern winter landscape. But the creativity it pulled from my camera is the best of my entire port folio. cheers viv

ChrisJ said...

Interesting - maybe it's the bleakness that fosters creativity wherever it is.

William Duncan said...

That's why I moved to Brazil to get away from the long winters in England!Great work!

ChrisJ said...


You are quite right, but we also don't have some of the unpleasant critters (4- and 8-leg varieties) of warmer climes!

Thank you for commenting.