Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Bleakest snow scenes? The Victorians did it best!

My intellectual crush on Jonathan Jones can only grow. What else can I do when his most recent blog resonates with my artistic interests even more than usual. However, I do have to disagree with his choice as the bleakest snow scene.

I’ve written more words than I care to think about scenes of ice and snow, spent months of my life studiously dissecting the representation of Victorian polar explorers. These silly men who set the trends for the equally silly Edwardian explorer Robert Falcon Scott have always fascinated me. The most famous and bloody of the Victorian explorers is John Franklin, who through being unprepared to the point of delusion managed to star in a story bursting with death, misadventure, cannibalism and powerful Victorian rhetoric. This gristly story left deep scars on the Victorian psyche, and these scars show in numerous snow filled paintings.

Mr. Jones picks a scene of massacre as his bleakest snow scene. It’s a powerful painting represented a horrendous scene, but can it really match the subtle, painful hints of disaster that appear in Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes? Here Landseer makes masterful use of artistic techniques that we are more used to see manifesting themselves as nauseating Victorian pathos. Russell Potter wrote a brilliant blog post unpicking this interesting painting on Visions of the North.

Honourable mention must also go to Thomas Smith’s They Forged the Last Link With Their Lives in the National Martime Museum. (I’m not sure why they’ve changed the name of the piece since I wrote about it three years ago, since it categorically couldn’t represent Franklin). The painting shows the last surviving men of the ill fated expedition dead and dying in a bleak and hopeless tableaux. Unquestionably, when considering the now generally accepted accusations of cannibalism between the survivors, it does work as a piece of propaganda, but it also shows the end of an almost unimaginably terrible narrative.

For people in the North West looking for a scene of snowy bleakness which could rival the streets of Manchester, a trip to the permanent galleries in the Manchester Art Gallery might be in order. This time not about explorers, but about Napolean’s retreat from Moscow.  A narrative scene over flowing with the futility and bleakness of war, I find Adolphe Yvon’s Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear Guard During the Retreat from Moscow almost mesmerising. The detail is compelling, the moment when you notice the naked corpse - presumably stripped of his clothing by frost bitten comrades - is positively shocking.

So that’s it. Three paintings which both perfectly demonstrate the Victorian taste of macabre scenes set in frosty snow swept wastes and will perhaps lend a little context to our current snowy predicament!

1 comment:

DC said...

Oddly enough, one of my favourite paintings in Sheffield's Graves Gallery is The Execution of Marshal Ney. Even he looks oddly out of proportion in this picture of it.