Archive for the ‘Winter’ Category

Poetry and music – Vivaldi’s Winter

Friday, January 9th, 2015
Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi published his famous group of violin concertos, The Four Seasons, in 1768 at the age of forty-seven. They were what was known as “programme music”, or music written to depict specific scenes, which was looked down upon by some at the time. But Vivaldi’s compositions rose above the typical programme music of the day, creating a quartet of classics that are still heard today.

What makes them so popular? They are certainly catchy, though there is also a note of melancholy that runs through each of them, especially in the slow movements. And of course, nature is a theme that resonates with nearly everyone. Many composers have written pieces inspired by nature, but somehow The Four Seasons has captured the public’s imagination like none other.

Each composition is accompanied by a sonnet, written by Vivaldi himself, which describes the scenes depicted in the music. Below is a translation of the Winter sonnet, along with a video of the great violinist Itzhak Perlman playing the concerto. See if you can recognize the scenes as they are brought to life in the music.

Winter – Concerto in f-minor

1. Allegro non molto
Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;
running to and fro to stamp one’s icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.

2. Largo
To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.

3. Allegro
We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home despite the locked and bolted doors…
this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.

You can read the text of all four seasons, along with the original Italian, here.

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Haystacks in the snow

Sunday, December 21st, 2014
Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun), 1891, by Claude Monet

Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun), 1891, by Claude Monet

In 1891, an exhibit by Claude Monet in the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris included a series of 15 haystacks. It was unusual at the time for an artist to exhibit so many paintings of the same subject at once, and it was a conscious effort by Monet to make viewers focus on what he was most interested in, the variations of light and color in nature.

In honor of the first day of winter, here are some of the winter haystack paintings. Many painters of the time would sketch outdoors and create the final painting in the comfort of their studio, but not Monet. He would set up his big canvas and paints outside in all seasons, even the freezing cold. Talk about becoming one with nature!

Over his career he made at least 140 winter paintings outside, which is a level of dedication that I think few artists today could match. These tiny reproductions cannot replicate the beauty of the originals, but you can click on each image to see a larger version of the painting. You can learn more about Monet’s haystack series here.

Grainstacks, Snow Effect, 1891, by Claude Monet

Grainstacks, Snow Effect, 1891, by Claude Monet

Haystack, Morning Snow Effect, 1891, by Claude Monet

Haystack, Morning Snow Effect, 1891, by Claude Monet

Stack of Wheat (Snow Effect, Overcast Day), 1891, by Claude Monet

Stack of Wheat (Snow Effect, Overcast Day), 1891, by Claude Monet

Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning, 1891, by Claude Monet

Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning, 1891, by Claude Monet

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The long cold winter

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

“Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

It’s been a long winter. Cold, snowy, windy, the kind of bone-chilling weather that makes you want to hibernate.

Many artists have painted snowy landscapes through the years, but few measure up to the classic “Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Bruegel was a Renaissance painter from the Netherlands, who lived between 1525 and 1569. This magnificent painting is 63 inches wide (160 cm), and manages to portray an entire village in all its lively frozen detail. This is one town that did not hibernate.

You can see this painting even closer with the Google Art Project, where you can zoom in really close on the detail. Here’s the link. The site has hundreds of other paintings that you can view up close, it’s an amazing virtual museum.

I’ve been neglecting this blog for a while, but now that spring is on the horizon, I plan to get back into the swing of things. I’ve got some great posts planned for the coming weeks, so check back again soon!

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Premier Automne – First Autumn

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Premier Automne, directed by Carlos De Carvalho and Aude Danset

Premier Automne, directed by Carlos De Carvalho and Aude Danset

Premier Automne is a brilliantly animated short film directed by Carlos De Carvalho and Aude Danset, produced by Je Regarde. It is stunningly beautiful, and explores nature both visually and thematically. But I don’t want to summarize the story if you haven’t seen it yet, because the discovery and mystery of each moment is what makes it so compelling.

Watch for yourself, and then I will share some thoughts below. (Watch on Vimeo for a larger picture, it’s worth it.)

There are so many ways to look at this film. As a simple human drama, it’s the story of two people eternally set apart from each other by the laws of nature. And yet they are both lonely, are both drawn to one other. Both inhabit a world completely foreign to the other, and frightening as well, even as it seems perfectly natural to them.

There is an overtone of death throughout the film, echoed in the darkness that surrounds their world, and yet there is also life below the surface, waiting to spring forth. In most stories, the protagonists manage to overcome their problem in the end, but this film is much more open-ended.

Life and death, summer and winter, boy and girl. There is a lot to think about here. How do you interpret this film?

For those of you who like to go behind the scenes, here is a link to the production blog, and here is a video about the making of the film.

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The Snowflake Man

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Wilson BentleyWilson Bentley was a Renaissance man. He had no formal training in science or art,  yet he had a talent and a passion for both. In 1885 he became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal, and would go on to photograph more than 5000.

His story is just as inspiring as his work. His father, a farmer, did not appreciate his son’s scientific ambitions, but his mother encouraged him. Bentley later recalled, “When the other boys of my age were playing with popguns and sling-shots, I was absorbed in studying things under this microscope: drops of water, tiny fragments of stone, a feather dropped from a bird’s wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower.”

But it was snow that fascinated him most, and he spent over a year experimenting with a bellows camera and microscope trying to photograph the elusive crystals. Once he succeeded, it was thirteen years before he published his work in Popular Scientific Monthly and caught the attention of the scientific world. Photograph by Wilson BentleyYet he never sought to make a profit from his work, and sold prints of his photographs for pennies because he wanted people to enjoy them.

He wrote, “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

It is all too true that often the most beautiful things in life are with us for the shortest time. Luckily we have the photographs of Wilson Bentley to preserve at least some of them.

Photographs by Wilson Bentley

Photographs by Wilson Bentley

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The following video report gives a brief overview of his life:

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The story of Wilson Bentley has inspired other artists as well. He was the subject of the Caldecott Award-winning book Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian.

Snowflake Bentley book

He also inspired an award-winning solo theater production, created by Sarah Frechette of Puppetkabob. Using Czech-style marionettes, miniatures, pop-up paper art, music and live storytelling, she brings Wilson’s story to life. You can learn more about the making of her production here.

Snowflake Man by Sarah Frechette

You can learn a lot more about Snowflake Bentley and his amazing work at the official website.

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A tree for all seasons

Friday, March 18th, 2011

When people think of looking at trees, March is not usually the month that comes to mind. At least in the northern climates, March is a month when the world seems colorless, trees are bare, and the ground is either frozen or soggy. We are exhausted from winter and just want to see spring.

But I think winter trees, stripped of all their leaves, can be really amazing to look at. You can see all the twisting branches, the intricate patterns. Light falls differently in the winter, weather changes often, and nearly every day creates a different view.

A Swedish photographer named Stefan Jansson photographed the same tree every week for a year, to observe how it changed. The results are truly remarkable, as you can see the tree as it passes through variations that most of us don’t even notice. Look through the slideshow above or view his whole set of photos on Flickr to see the amazing variety from this one tree.

So don’t wait until autumn – trees can be appreciated all year long, if you just take the time to look.

Katy and the Big Snow – a children’s classic

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Katy and the Big Snow

All this recent snow has reminded me of one of my favorite picture books from childhood, Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. Though not as famous as some of her other books, I think it’s one of the best books about snow, and one of the best picture books ever made.

The story is deceptively simple – a city is buried in a blizzard of snow, and a tractor named Katy saves the day by plowing everyone out. But there are many remarkable things about this book, starting with the design. Burton was a designer and printmaker as well as an author and illustrator, and she uses pattern, shape and simplification to turn every page into a visual marvel. Take the city itself, designed as a map so intricate yet so understandable because of its simple design.

Katy and the Big Snow sample

This map becomes even more amazing when you realize that it is a template for all the scenes later in the book. When Katy plows out the railroad station, you can go back to the map and see how it matches up. Burton even adds a compass to many of the pages to help readers see where they are.

There is also a wonderful use of white space to emphasize the blanket of snow that envelopes the city. As the intrepid tractor plows through the snow, we see the city emerge from the whiteness. She plows each section of the city, eventually uncovering the entire map that we saw at the beginning of the book.

Katy and the Big Snow

There are many other layers to this book, for instance how it shows all the different parts of a city (fire department, water department, telephone company, etc) and how they work together. And it has great little details like the milk truck and bakery truck resuming their deliveries after Katy clears the way.

The repeating swirls and curves of the city establish a visual theme that is carried throughout the book. Even more so than The Little House or Mike Mulligan, this book uses the kind of decorative borders and patterns that Burton excelled at in her printmaking and fabric design. The simple palette of white and blue, set off with highlights of red, yellow and green for the buildings, makes for a vivid and memorable design.

Katy and the Big Snow

There are almost no close-ups in this book, something which goes against all the “rules” of book illustration that say you must vary your perspective. And yet it works here because it lets you follow Katy’s progress as she plows out each section of the city, and you can see not only where she is at that moment, but also the places she previously plowed out as they resume their business. Burton had an instinctive eye for how to tell a story visually, and how to show only what was necessary.

The story itself contains themes of patience and hard work. Katy is too big to plow during light storms, but when the big blizzard hits, she comes to the rescue and saves the entire city. The fact that Katy is a female tractor is never mentioned, which in itself is a quiet but powerful message about equality. Almost sixty years after its publication, children’s books about trucks and machines are still overwhelmingly aimed at boys, which is too bad. Katy was a pioneer, just like her creator, carving out new paths in storytelling and bookmaking. This is a true classic, far ahead of its time; and in some ways, ahead of ours.

The Winter’s Wind – a poem by Keats

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

As the new year begins, I present for you a poem by John Keats, inspired by a cold winter’s wind but encompassing so much more.

The image I’ve chosen to accompany the poem is a famous one by Casper David Friedrich called “The Wanderer Above the Mists”, painted around 1817. Obviously the artist is captivated by the misty mountains, but then why place a person in the very center of the image, blocking our view? And we can’t see his face, we can only wonder at who he is and what he is thinking. It’s this kind of mystery, along with the expert composition and technique, that make the painting great. There’s a bigger idea at work here, a puzzle that the viewer must unravel.

The poem is also open to interpretation, but I won’t even try to analyze it. I’ll let the poet speak for himself.

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O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind,
Whose eye has seen the snow-clouds hung in mist,
And the black elm tops ‘mong the freezing stars!
To thee the spring will be a harvest time.
O thou whose only book has been the light
Of supreme darkness, which thou feddest on
Night after night, when Phœbus was away!
To thee the spring shall be a triple morn.
O fret not after knowledge. I have none,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge! I have none.
And yet the evening listens. He who saddens
At thought of idleness cannot be idle,
And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.

– John Keats (1795-1821)

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The Snowman

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Snowman coverWinter is just about here, with snow already falling in colder climates. Winter can be harsh and brutal but also peaceful and stunningly beautiful. It’s a season that inspires artists, writers and filmmakers. For the next couple months here at The Untended Garden, I will be focusing on art and storytelling that deals with snow and winter, starting with a modern classic.

The Snowman is a wordless picture book written and illustrated by Raymond Briggs. It tells the tale of a boy who builds a snowman who comes to life one night. The snowman explores the boy’s house with him and later takes the boy flying through the air. The magic of the book lies not only in the story, but the wordless images, arranged in a sequential, comic book style that lets you experience each scene moment by moment.

It’s this visual storytelling that makes the book perfectly suited for animation, and in 1982 the book was turned into a film by British director Diane Jackson. This is that rare case where a film adaptation enhances the original story without losing the intent or charm of the original. In particular, the journey through the air is much more elaborate in the film, flying over cities and oceans to the polar regions and back, and the gorgeous music by Howard Blake perfectly sets the mood.

I’d like to call your attention to the animation itself, which is all drawn by hand. This film was made thirteen years before Toy Story revolutionized the animation industry. Today, 3D computer animation is king, and everyone marvels at the amazing feats it can accomplish. But computer animation is limited by computer models and logic, it has to obey certain rules. Hand-drawn animation is limited only by the artist’s imagination. Notice in the film how the mountains shift perspective and seem to melt into each other – this is purely an artistic vision of a landscape in motion, and wouldn’t work in a computer-animated film, yet it perfectly fits the magical impossibility of the story, and evokes a world where anything can happen.

It just goes to show, whether in books or films, a pencil is still often the most expressive tool of all.

Spring is just around the corner

Monday, February 15th, 2010

wintertrees

As a gardener and nature-lover, spring is my favorite season. But I’m in no hurry to shake off winter just yet. True, it’s got snow, and ice, and freezing temperatures (at least up north), and everything seems dead and bare. But it also provides a nice break, a time for thinking and looking inward.

In many ways, I find it the most inspiring season of all because of its minimalism. It doesn’t overwhelm the senses with color, it’s not splashy or teeming with distractions. In the winter, a twisting tree branch or a peach sunset can be a small masterpiece. A single red cardinal is like a miracle.

And knowing that nature is only sleeping, that life is still there hidden beneath the bark and under the ground ready to sprout again, can give you a feeling of hope that anything is possible, that any difficulty or situation can be overcome.

So while I’ll be happy when spring arrives, I will still savor the end of winter while I can. For I know that it’s only a temporary situation, and spring is just around the corner.