Darkness and light shade two visions of winter

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Darkness and light shade two visions of winter

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“Winter Landscape” (1811) by Caspar David Friedrich, Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

After writing “Good night” on the door of his lover’s house, a man steps outside into a cold, dark night. His lover has just had a change of heart, and he leaves quietly, setting off on his own. Walking on desolate winter roads, he shudders from the bitter chill that torments his body and soul. From time to time, he gets lost in sweet memories of warm days, but is always brought back to reality by the sharp wind and barren landscape that surrounds him. Seized by visions of death, his soul gradually works its way toward madness. When he arrives at the village outskirts, he finds an old hurdy-gurdy player and, lacking any destination of his own, decides to travel with him for a while.

This is a summary of the famous song cycle “Winterreise” (1827), or “Winter Journey,” by Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

Frankly speaking, song cycles are difficult and somewhat boring to me compared to the drama of operatic arias. However, I keep returning to Winterreise again and again.

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“Winter Landscape” (1811) by Caspar David Friedrich, Oil on canvas, Staatliches Museum, Schwerin

One of the reasons I keep going back is that I am fascinated by the album cover art.

The paintings used for the Winterreise album covers I introduce here were done by the same artist, German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). And they are just a few examples of the numerous Winterreise album covers that have been created using Friedrich’s paintings.

Why is Friedrich so popular among those who design Winterreise album covers? Is it because he was a German artist in the Romantic era in which Schubert also lived? Is it because he frequently painted desolate and mystic winter landscapes that were distinct from the cheerful and boisterous winter paintings of his Dutch contemporaries? Is it because Friedrich’s paintings frequently featured a lonely wanderer? All of these reasons, I think, are true.

In Friedrich’s winter landscapes, quiet tombs frequently appear. These range from prehistoric dolmens to cemeteries attached to churches.

The paintings evoke a sense of alienation from secular society, which is full of life but also replete with noise and vulgarity. They contain a sense of sad freedom and the cold stability that such alienation can arouse, while also eliciting a fundamental sense of loneliness.

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“Winterreise” album covers

The Winterreise poems by the German poet Wilhelm Muller (1794-1827), on which Schubert’s song cycle is based, describes the narrator’s feelings of alienation after his lover changes her mind and his desire to come to rest in a graveyard, which he calls “a cold inn.” These ideas are very much in accordance with the sensations Friedrich’s paintings arouse.

Friedrich painted many winter landscapes, but the ones without tombs are perhaps the most desolate and gloomy of them all.

For example, in “Winter Landscape” (1811), which is housed at the Staatliches Museum in Schwerin, Germany, the sky is dark like despair and the field is white like a shroud. There are two trees with bare branches and tilted trunks, which seem to be on the verge of collapse. Scattered here and there are a number of trees whose trunks have been cut off, leaving only the stumps. Walking among them is a wanderer who leans heavily on a stick. We cannot see his face but it is well represented by all of the things in the painting.

There seems to be no resting place for the wanderer - even the coldness of the graveyard is absent from the scene. He will likely have to keep wandering indefinitely, pulling his tired legs along with him through biting winds that sweep the ground under the low, dark sky.

I think this painting, among Friedrich’s many winter landscape paintings, matches Schubert’s Winterreise the best. Winterreise is full of relentless despair and finishes not with the hero’s death but with his departure for an indefinite period of wandering.

Surprisingly, the Winter Landscape in Schwerin, Friedrich’s darkest painting, is not the only painting with this name. The artist also painted another “Winter Landscape” in the same year in a similar size. It now hangs in the National Gallery in London and is one of the artist’s brightest paintings.

Whereas the trees in the Schwerin painting are bare or have been reduced to stumps, the London painting has handsome fir trees that stand straight and tall, with green leaves set against white snow.

There are also differences in lighting in the two paintings. In the Schwerin painting, the sky is dark and overcast; in the London painting a delicate light spreads across the sky, which seems to be enveloped in a mist that hangs like veils.

In the background of the painting in London, there appears the silhouette of a Gothic church. The church, with its holy and mystic atmosphere, looks like the shadow of the tall evergreen tree in the foreground.

In front of the cluster of fir trees, a man prays before a crucifix. Is he the wanderer from the Schwerin painting, who has now found a restring place? He is leaning back against a boulder, instead of kneeling, so he must be too tired to kneel for his prayer, or it could be that his legs are injured. However, the soft light surrounds him like a blessing and even the white snow has a warm and cozy feel.


By Moon So-young [symoon@joongang.co.kr]
Related Korean Article

안식조차 허락되지 않은, 고독한 방랑자의 절망


한 청년이 변심한 연인의 창문에 “잘 자요”라고 써놓고 길을 나선다. 그는 황량한 겨울 길을 걸어가면서 정신과 육체에 닥친 이중의 혹한에 몸을 떤다. 잠시 동안 따뜻했던 날들의 달콤한 추억에 빠졌다가 차가운 현실로 돌아오기도 하고 다음 순간에는 죽음의 환상에 사로잡히기도 한다. 그의 절망적이고 혼란스러운 영혼은 점차 광기를 띠게 되고, 결국에는 한 떠돌이 악사 노인을 벗삼아 정처없이 머나먼 길을 떠나게 된다.

오스트리아 작곡가 프란츠 슈베르트(1797~1828)의 그 유명한 가곡 연작 ‘겨울나그네’(1827)의 내용이다. 솔직히 음악에 조예가 깊지 않은 나로서는, 드라마틱한 오페라 아리아가 아닌 독일 가곡은 좀 재미없고 어려운 대상이다. 하지만 아예 들어볼 시도도 하지 않은 다른 독일 가곡들에 비해 ‘겨울나그네’는 자꾸 시도해 보게 되는데, 그것은 사실 음악 자체보다도 그 음반 커버들에 매혹되었기 때문일 것이다.

여기 ‘겨울나그네’ 앨범 커버들(사진 1, 2)에 쓰인 그림들은 모두 동일한 사람-독일 화가 카스파 다비트 프리드리히(1774~1840)-이 그린 것이다. 게다가 이들은 프리드리히의 그림을 사용한 수많은 ‘겨울나그네’ 음반들 중 겨우 일부에 지나지 않는다.
이렇게 ‘겨울나그네’ 앨범 커버에 유독 프리드리히의 그림이 애용되는 이유는 무엇일까? 프리드리히가 슈베르트와 같은 시대, 같은 사조, 가까운 공간에 살았던 게르만 낭만주의 예술가라서? 또는 프리드리히가 겨울 풍경을, 그것도 네덜란드 화가들의 유쾌하고 시끌벅적한 겨울 풍경과는 전혀 다른, 황량하고도 신비로운 겨울 풍경을 많이 그렸기 때문에? 아니면 프리드리히의 그림에 고독한 방랑자가 자주 등장해서?… 아마 이런 이유들이 모두 복합적으로 작용했을 것 같다.

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