Tom Sutcliffe: The cold comforts of snow

Click to follow

I can't imagine what can have prompted it but I found myself thinking about paintings of snow the other day. The crude question that swam into my mind was this: if you were to try and write a cultural history of the snowy landscape, what would it tell you? Is our current pleasure in winter snow scenes (a pleasure that can even make a photograph of snowbound traffic on the A3 teeter ambiguously between a Christmas card and reportage) a human constant? Or is it something that we've arrived at only relatively recently, once the threat of winter weather receded a little? And how far back would such a history go? Logic would tell you that there must have been, at some point, the very first snow painting – but how far back does that moment lie, and would the instinct that moved the artist's hand have been admonitory, or wondering, or excited?

I'm sure there are art historians who could answer this question far more effectively than I can, detailing with precision the connection between the February panel from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and various Flemish winter landscapes, and continuing with a close reading of Impressionist winterscapes. Were the Limbourg Brothers first on the scene, with their lovely image of a winter landscape, complete with wood-choppers, stabled sheep and snow-dusted beehives? Or are there earlier medieval artists who responded to the exciting inversion of the normal pictorial rules – an image in which the sky is darker than the ground and all kinds of vivid contrast come for free. I take it this is at least one reason for the persistence of snowscapes ever since; that what makes them exciting to us as ordinary joes makes them doubly and trebly so to the artist. It's certainly the reason that amateur painters like them – because the effects of snow are so forgiving. It isn't that it's easier to paint a great painting if there is snow in the frame... just that a bad one somehow looks less bad, thanks to the blurring effect of all that pallor.

One trajectory I think you would have to include in any history of the snowscape is temperature, which it seems to me runs paradoxically at odds with our increasing control over the environment. Winter in the 15th century could be a fearsome business. And yet one of the things that appeals to us about early winter landscapes is the sense of warmth they give off. In the Très Riches Heures, the foreground is filled with the image of three women hoiking their skirts up to warm their legs by the fire. Even in Breughel's Hunters in the Snow, an outdoor scene, there's a bonfire burning in the near foreground, as if to suggest that there's a reprieve available. And since winter paintings are almost invariably looked at from places far warmer than those they depict, it isn't surprising that they can generate a sense of comparative contentment. It's the reason that kitsch painters, such as the American Thomas Kinkade, are fond of snowbound cottages – a couple of dabs of yellow paint in the windows and you can get a sense of welcoming warmth. "The title for this tiny painting was originally Cookie Baking," writes Kincaid about one of his ghastly confections – a title that captures the icing-sugar sweetness sometimes detectable in even great snow paintings.

If you want to feel a chill, you'll have to wait for Caspar David Friedrich, a painter who usually refuses to provide a brazier on which to mentally warm your hands. Look at Winter Landscape with Church or, even more brilliantly glacial, Graveyard Under Snow, in which the veiling effect of snow, its ability to mask the harsh edges of life, is starkly repudiated by the open grave in the foreground, a smear of brown soil. Oddly, that's a colour you find in quite a lot of Impressionist snow paintings too, which are far more truthful about snow than many of their predecessors. Edouard Manet's The Effect of Snow at Petit-Montrouge and Monet's Snow at Argenteuil are what you might call slush paintings – not immune to the visual charm of snow but candid about what it does to your boots. These aren't pictures in which a linen tablecloth has been laid prettily across the landscape, they're paintings that make your toes feel cold. Is it too fanciful to suggest that you can only paint like that if you're reasonably confident that you can get warm whenever you want to, and that winter is only a symbol of death, not the thing itself?

Gitmo's most wanted

I was startled to learn from a television programme the other night that the books most requested from the Guantanamo library are the Harry Potter novels. The television reference was a bit sketchy on details, not making it clear whether it was the guards or the detainees who had a passion for Hogwarts, but a bit of digging on the web reveals that it is the prisoners who find solace in the world of J K Rowling.

Naturally, they identify themselves with the good guys, seeing Guantanamo as a real-world version of the fortress of Azkaban. A 2007 report suggests that Bush takes the role of Voldemort in most incarcerated readers' imaginations, though the fact that Barack Obama's 'Dreams from My Father' comes third on the most borrowed list (after 'Don Quixote', which you'd need to be in Guantanamo to complete) suggests recent readers will find a new role for the Commander-in-Chief who presides over their incarceration. Now, two questions remain: what kind of books did the inmates turn down in favour of Harry Potter (we can't know how much of a choice they had), and is their taste for childlike escapism shared by prisoners in Her Majesty's jails? I can feel a Freedom of Information request coming on.

In Mona Lisa news this week: the revelation that Leonardo's model may have been suffering from high levels of cholesterol. An Italian academic has convinced himself that the painting shows a xanthelasma, or subcutaneous blob of cholesterol, in the hollow of her left eye, which, combined with a fatty lipoma on her hand, he takes as evidence that she was cruising towards cardiac arrest. And it's true that there does seem to be a blob of some kind in the shadows on the side of her nose. What the story really illustrates, though, is the potent status of this painting as a flypaper for the speculative mind. Just before Christmas it featured in a story about a scientific explanation of the enigma of the Mona Lisa smile, and I very much doubt that we'll see 2010 out without another theory about her. The crude assumption is that it's the enigma itself that generates the interest. But the truth is that it's the celebrity that draws the theorists. And with every headline the incentive only increases for the next scientist to saddle her up again for a gallop across the unproveable.