Hunter in the Snow


Calvo Serraller, Francisco

In the film version by Andrei Tarkovski, the only artistic icon to be seen on the run-down space station orbiting the planet Solaris – that strange psychic mirage which science fiction writer Stanislav Lem imagined in some unknown intergalactic location – was a reproduction of Pieter Brueghel’s famous painting, Hunters in the Snow (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), one of a series of twelve works dedicated to the months of the year, commissioned by banker Niclaes Jonghelinck in 1565. Apparently, this landscape was the result of the profound impact produced upon the Flemish artist during his journey across the Alps on his return from a long trip to Italy between 1551 and 1553. Though I risk seeming longwinded in these ramblings, which take me from Tarkovski’s film, shot in 1972 and based on a novel published in 1961, to a painting from 1565 and probably inspired by the artist’s experience in 1553, I would, nevertheless, like to point out how successively remarkable the existence and persistence of snow pictures are in each of the aforementioned cases.
The painted icon of snow found among the belongings of those who orbit Solaris, an incandescent planet whose deserted appearance only revives with the psychic phantoms of its observers, can be considered an effective metaphor to talk about the unfathomable voyage to the deepest roots of “I”, our utter solitude inhabited by mysterious images. It is as if the Russian filmmaker, who was a great admirer of the mystic Rublev’s radiant golden paintings, had chosen Brueghel’s Alpine landscape covered in a cold blanket as a symbol of man’s frigid search alone before his final cosmic meltdown, which in reality is a voyage to the end of the day, in which – like Icarius – the fragile wings of his snowy heart are burned by fire. On this note, Brueghel also dedicated another equally well-known composition to this unfortunate mythological flyer. Here, the only thing to be seen of the fallen flyer are his tiny legs in the surf of a sunny bay in which no one, either from the sea or from the nearby coast, seems to notice the fate of this unexpected castaway fallen from the sky.
Whatever Tarkovski’s reasons were for choosing Brueghel’s snow painting, except for symbolic motives, there are undoubtedly few paintings in traditional art that represent a snowy landscape as a glimmering white mass with such existential presentiment. In this way, it can be said that, during the Renaissance, Landscape was invented at the very moment when Nature was observed for no other purpose than to enjoy its beauty. In our time, however, it has been covered with a white shroud so that its contemplation would not distract us from the total freedom of Art, the only landscape idolised in our definitively secular society. I am obviously exaggerating, but it is still curious and meaningful that the first landscape artists of our time, starting with the “outdoor spirit” of the Barbizon School, should show such a strange predilection for the subject of stark fallow fields in the harsh winter, and that in that cold northern direction, they should end up covering them with snow. In this sense, perhaps there is a tacit wink of complicity between the work which Courbet painted in 1867, Les Braconniers, Ornans (National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome), and the abovementioned work by Brueghel, although in that case, I suspect that Courbet adopted the effects of Nature but discarded the chilling spirit which shimmers in the Flemish forerunner. At any rate, though Courbet painted many snow pictures, making use of the harsh Franche-Comté winters, they hardly compare to the overwhelming number that Claude Monet, the high authority on snowy landscapes, painted of the subject; not in vain did he show us the iridescent mass of colours hidden within white.
This is not, however, my aim here because - having begun with the unusual dialogue undoubtedly created between the mystical Tarkovski and the perhaps not at all mystical, but rather existential, Brueghel – I do not intend to conclude with a sumptuous white fusion. Not if my excursion started where it did and, above all, not if my destination is the snow painted by Ángel Mateo Charris, an artist who is perhaps not mystical, nor do I know just how existential he is, but who is, in my opinion, decidedly melancholy. Therefore, if I am to take the correct path here, I must retrace my retrospective steps and point out another precedent: the frighteningly sublime frozen sea in a work by Caspar David Friedrich, significantly entitled, The Polar Sea (The Shipwrecked “Hope”), painted between 1823-24, and preserved at the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. Almost all the works by this romantic Prussian artist exude symbolism, mysticism, existentialism and, of course, melancholy. He not only painted a number of snow pictures proportionate to those of Monet, but also, even his representations of fertile summer landscapes startle and chill us to the bone.
Is it really necessary to go round and round on this subject to such an extent in order to come to Ángel Mateo Charris, for as much as he is not only an artist who pictorially frequents the snow, but also has recently gone so far as to embark on a journey beyond the North Sea for the benefit of this undertaking? Though I do not wish to exasperate, I believe that it is, indeed, necessary to delve deeper into the issue, for in this investigation or – why not? – “hunt through painted snow”, we must not forget that hidden card which the mystical, symbolic, existentialist and melancholy supreme-suprematist Kazimir Malevich, that one missing player at our immaculate card table, pulled from his sleeve and flashed before our eyes.

In 1918, Malevich painted White on White, the climax of non-figurative art, and the starting point for a whole string of avante-guard works in white, such as the Achromes series which Piero Manzoni started in 1957; the white paintings on a subtle geometric framework by American artist Agnes Martin in the early 1960’s, or, in the following decade, those of another American, Brice Mardin, in this case creating a velvety white…Created for mystical or conceptual reasons, these white, or blank, paintings are just a few examples that illustrate the radically modern gesture of taking painting back to that terrifying starting point which has always frightened any creator, on canvas or paper. White is composed of all colours, and represents light, the origin of creation, which explains its symbolic relationship with purity. It is also essentially preliminary, nothingness, which Mallarmé, however, in his fascination with its creative potential, referred to as “the musical void”.
At any rate, it is now time to ask ourselves in what way the colour white is related to the snow, apart from the obvious answer. In the dramatic comedy entitled Art, by Yasmina Reza, which has recently achieved resounding international acclaim, we are witness to a heated discussion between three friends regarding a white picture that one of them has purchased for a significant price. At one point in the intense controversy, the angry owner of the piece in question gives his fiercest opponent a marker so that he can draw whatever he wishes on the polished surface, and the latter draws a skier, which he then explains in the following manner: “Below the white clouds, the snow falls. Neither the white clouds nor the snow can be seen. Neither the cold, nor the white brilliance of the sun. One solitary man with skis glides along. The snow falls. It falls until the man disappears and becomes invisible once again. It represents a man who crosses a space and disappears.”
At some unknown time, Ángel Mateo Charris, whose work, in principle, does not seem to differ greatly from the figurative action and reasoning used by the impromptu artist in Yasmina Reza’s play, decided to embark on a journey to the Arctic Circle in search of, as the artist himself admits, “an erased landscape that would assure me an immersion in White.” Moreover, on his return, while painting the pieces that the experience had inspired, he wrote the following reflection in his notebook: “White has an insatiable appetite and devours everything it finds. A great snowfall covers my studio. And though the day dawns clear and cloudless, and the wind clears objects and figures away, another heavy fall of incredibly fine white snowflakes comes and wraps everything in its ghostly tones once again.” And this other reflection: “In the saturated and the neutral, white must always win the battles. The dark force, its kindred spirit, always finds the right time to make its appearance.” For some reason, the first thought reminds me of the sacred white whale in Moby Dick, while the second one brings to mind that curious Central European superstition in which a bride dressed in white will have good luck if she meets a blackened chimneysweep and gives him a hug. In either case, a white picture will always be under the threat of someone armed with a black marker…
Ángel Mateo Charris has explained his motives for his Arctic expedition, which in some ways remind me of the short story by Maxence Fermine entitled Snow, in which the protagonist, young poet Yuko Akita, discovered the purity he was looking for in his verses during his stay on Hokkaido island in northern Japan, covered entirely with snow. For Akita, snow not only possessed, indeed, the great purity suited to his poetry, but it was also related to painting as it covers the earth with its blanket. Moreover, for its constant transformations, it is similar to calligraphy; its slippery surface can be associated with dance, and finally, for its sing-song melting in the spring, it is related to music. The beautiful poems created by this lover of the snow were all, as could be expected, of a gleaming whiteness. However, the moral of this brief fable arose when an old poet asked Akita for an explanation as to the reason for the absence of colour in his verses, and the latter, at first surprised but later sad, must set out on his ultimate poetic search: that of discovering all the colours hidden within white.
During the 1870’s and 1880’s, Claude Monet, and later, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, all insisted on the same mad passion for painting snow. As mentioned earlier, no Western landscape artist until that time had ever shown the slightest interest in painting a winter waste land covered with a white shroud, except when they found themselves compelled to do so for strictly allegorical reasons when representing the subject of the four seasons. But what the ecstatic Impressionists discovered in the snow was the iridescence of whiteness and its splendid brocade tail of misty emanation, streaked with muffled reverberations of unexpected light. In other words, the densely brilliant polychromes of white.
Does the story end there? Quite the opposite: this is where it begins to move forward and backward, since any step which moves us takes us back to the origin of that by now forgotten story which stimulated our expedition. For this reason, I started this text in pursuit of the tracks which Ángel Mateo Charris has left in the snow be means of that strange historical wandering which has taken me, in turn, from Tarkovski to Brueghel, from Friedrich to Malevich, from a nineteenth century Japanese poet to the Impressionists, but above all, from the dreaded immaculate white of the canvas to that desperate, mystical, symbolic and melancholy action which is involved marking its surface: that peremptory signal which changes the faded white of an ending into a new beginning.

For several years now, I have followed Ángel Mateo Charris’ artistic trajectory with admiration. Within his work, there is an impenetrable complexity buried below its polished surface. Every now and then, a radioactive charge emerges from the depths, carrying the latest fragment of a story connected by images, an idea, a nod, a simple spark…which gradually starts to dirty that snowy white final coat of paint, transforming its white brilliance into a trampled field, with footsteps in all different directions that make it impossible to follow any tracks. It is then that the purifying mantle of a new snowfall covers this colourful field to bring back the calm and silence. In this sense, he has always seemed like an artist who was constantly advancing toward his origin, which is, moreover, how hunters in the snow orient themselves. On the other hand, together with his ironic attitude and melancholy temperament, this is also one of his most definitely modern features – his way of constantly going back to the beginning in order to start again at that musical void which leaves Art blank. He likes to go cross-country, crossing time, history, genres, feelings, doing and undoing landscapes, burying and unburying memories. He is, in short, a crucial painter. To a certain extent, he is at once all three of the friends who argue about the white painting in Yasmina Reza’s dramatic comedy, but above all, he is the owner of the piece, and the character who sketches with the black marker, the one who rescues the blank interval from the void with the fleeting appearance of a skier who speeds past almost unseen, leaving behind space, a timeless and speechless void.
One might ask why Ángel Mateo Charris has gone to such extremes, going from warm southern Cartagena to the Arctic, superimposing, like the director of Solaris, a charred desert landscape on a frozen snowscape, those two white platforms of pure space, in which the hermit seeks the chillingly pure sensation of nothingness. I am tempted to assert that what Ángel Mateo Charris is searching for, deep down, is the extreme experience of silence, in the darkness of which creation’s first ray of light shone. I am reminded of the Shimamura which is finally absorbed by the Milky Way in Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, but also of the pathetic lovers in Millennium Mambo, by Hou Hsaio Hsein, who leave the imprint of their faces in the snow, and above all, of the verses by Ingeborg Bachmann: “Ever since names cradle us in things/ we make signals, a signal comes to us, snow is not only the white charge from above/ it is also silence, that comes upon us”. Yes, indeed, there are so many things buried within that incessantly recommenced prehistoric snow called painting!




In the book Blanco. Ayuntamiento de Madrid y Diputación de Cádiz. Madrid, 2003.