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Friday, January 5, 2018

Painting bombogenesis

We went from idealizing the arctic to seeing it as a metaphor for mortality. What changed?

Bombogenesis, by Carol L. Douglas
Cameras lie about blizzards. It’s hard to shoot a picture of falling snow through glass, because the glass is usually covered with snow. Even when one goes outdoors, the freeze-frame nature of photography tends to lighten the apparent fury of the storm. What the person sees is a dimly lit maelstrom. What the camera records is lighter, higher in contrast, and less ferocious.

Yesterday I tried several times in vain to photograph the storm. Finally, I decided to paint a quick study out my studio window. It’s a lie, as much as my camera was telling lies. There isn’t as much contrast in the trees. They’re really a hazy shape in uniform grey, the only difference being that the spruces read cool and the maple trunks slightly warmer. But I think I caught the blurriness.

Same view, sunnier day, by Carol L. Douglas
It’s still dark as I write this, but what I imagine I’ll find after bombogenesis has ended is a series of snow ridges between my house and garage. That is in some ways a better image of the raw power of wind-driven snow. Poke them with a shovel and you’ll find they are not soft and fluffy at all. That’s why I used them for Winter Lambing. I’ve shown you the painting many times; below is the reference photograph, taken at the intersection of Routes 31 and 98 in Orleans County, New York.

Reference photo for Winter Lambing.
The French Impressionists painted hundreds of images of snow, or effets de neige. They may have been influenced by a series of cold winters in France. Among the best are Claude Monet’s The Magpie and Van Gogh’s The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in the Snow. The Canadian Group of Seven believed the Great White North was the seat of Canada’s power, so they frequently painted snow. Lawren Harris’ early Winter Woods, is an example of their idealism.

The art world of the 19th and 20th centuries was fascinated by light in all its forms. There’s no better reflector than snow. But even before that, going right back to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, snow was a powerful symbol in western art. Caspar David Friedrich, for example, used it to represent mortality.

Doe drinking in the woods, by Carol L. Douglas
As arctic exploration increased with settlement in the Americas, the arctic became the focus of our obsession with snow. The search for the Northwest Passage drove American exploration for several hundred years. It is a treacherous and inaccessible region, and thus a spark to the imagination. Painters like Frederic Edwin Church and William Bradford went shipboard to create a visual image of the arctic. Writers like Mary Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Edgar Allen Poe memorialized it in fiction.

“There are no tales of risk and enterprise in which we English, men, women, and children, old and young, rich and poor, become interested so completely, as in the tales that come from the North Pole,” opined journalist Henry Morley in 1853.

Light snow above the Arctic Circle, by Carol L. Douglas.
But this was a fiction of a vast, empty, benign, landscape. The loss of the Franklin Expedition sobered artists and writers alike. Sir John Franklin and his 129 men left England aboard two ships in May of 1845, intending to traverse the Northwest Passage. When they weren’t heard from by 1848, search parties (a total of twenty altogether) were sent out after them. Over the following three decades of searching, a morbid, sordid tale emerged. Both ships had been trapped and ground up by sea ice. The crew was poisoned from the lead solder in their ration tins. Sick, lost and cold, they ultimately resorted to cannibalism. All 129 men were lost. After that, representations of the arctic began to acknowledge the danger of bitter cold and ice.

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