To celebrate Slow Art Day I give my reactions to the Bruegel painting, 'Hunters in the Snow".
Stendhal, the French author, fainted the first time he laid eyes on Santa Croce in Florence. The "Stendhal Syndrome" as it is now referred to, is an overwhelming emotional reaction which sometimes accompanies the viewing of great art. The opposite reaction might be called "The Mona Lisa Syndrome" which is the disappointment many feel in front of this small dark portrait about which they have such great expectations.
Several years ago I went to see my favorite work of art, 'The Hunters in the Snow' by Bruegel now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. I had known it only from reproduction. In anticipating my response I wondered whether I would be like Stendhal and faint in front of the masterpiece. My son promised to stand behind me when I first encountered the work, should he need to catch me. Of all the possible reactions I imagined, I didn't expect to experience the one I had. I entered the room, found the painting, noticed it was larger than I had thought and then... I couldn't see it. It felt like there was a curtain between my eyes and the painting. It communicated nothing to me, I felt no relationship to its story or its characters. I almost couldn't see the colors or surface as though I was wearing dark glasses. Other Bruegel's in the room were powerful and compelling. "The Gloomy Day" seemed to smell of loamy soil and an approaching storm. The yellow coat of a man in "The Conversion of Saul" made my heart thump, but "The Hunters in the Snow" was invisible to me. After six hours in the museum we left with no change in my response. The next day I returned to the museum and at last, the painting opened to me, the surface receded and the distance mountains shivered in the winter light.
The whine of tired dogs, the pitchy smell of wood smoke and the crunch of brittle snow fill the air. Dark trees etch into the grey green sky as ice skaters group and scurry across the frozen river. The hunters tramp through the crusted snow, pushing their exhausted legs toward home and warmth. Outside a nearby inn a glowing fire melts the ground snow as peasants singe boar bristles in the flames. Nostalgia pulls on my memory, but for what place and what time? The scene is timeless and could be anywhere. It is said to be one of the earliest depictions of pure nature without religious overtones nor moralizing principals. Bruegel's love of life, his catalog of human events and emotions, are here before us. How does this painting make me feel so much that is so hard to put into words?
The second day I was finally able to see the painting as paint. The snow is not white but a warm grey brown. The figures are dark and mysterious, mostly silhouette, rounded though few details show. The yellowed branches in the foreground are far more important in the true painting than I had thought as they establish the plane on which the viewer stands, everything else sliding down the hill into deep perspective. The figures on the ice become progressively more transparent as they recede. Black birds rend the air, creating motion. The geometric shapes of snow topped roofs lend abstraction. But all of these elements do not explain the hold this painting has on my soul.