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Nick Coleman, standing before Bruegel's 'The Hunters in the Snow' (1565), in Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

Journey to an inner landscape

Essay | 18 minute read
A writer, struck by the reproduction of a Dutch painting at the age of three, and again at ten, makes a trip across Europe to see it in the flesh at the age of 57

Only a second ago, a thin black bird launched itself into the frigid air from the high branches of a tree.

That was a second ago. The bird has since travelled a couple of metres from its perch, maybe three, and now, as it dives, it offers to cut the line of the horizon like shears.

Detail, ‘The Hunters in the Snow’

At the door of the inn, a few yards down the hillside from the tree, a gust of icy wind has frozen the moment, flattening the flames of an outdoor pig-roast into angry yellow sheets. Woooooogh! The blaze is so sudden and so violent that a potboy ducks – and heaves a table quickly out of harm’s way – while a small, thickly insulated child turns her back on the wind to press her face into the warmth. Nothing else exists for her except the warmth.

Meanwhile, closer to, three heavy-legged huntsmen trudge wordlessly through ankle-deep snow ahead of an entourage of hounds, their weapons hard on their shoulders, their thoughts dead to everything now but the comforts of home and hearth. These lie ahead somewhere in the expanse of the winter valley opening out before them in a vast geometry of grey, brown and perfect white; a valley busily alive with folk at their labours and at their leisure. The hunters have trapped only a single mangy fox between them, which they must share, and they have nothing to say to one another. Their footprints mingle with the smaller punctures made by the dogs. In the distance, a chimney fire flares in the same gust that is scorching the pig on the hillside. Tiny figures run with ladders.

Detail, ‘The Hunters in the Snow’

Closest of all, a bramble coils out of the blanketing white like a spring, defiantly alive. Life is going on everywhere, despite everything.

Memories of Dr Ogden’s waiting room in 1964 are thin too. I was only three. I remember very little of being three, but I do remember The Hunters in the Snow at Dr Ogden’s and the whitewashed partition wall that divided the waiting room from his surgery. The top nine inches of the wall were fitted with frosted glass panes that let light through diffusely onto the heads of those perched on chairs in the room below. A small reproduction of Hunters hung on that partition wall beneath the glass, almost as if it were another kind of window into another kind of world – a darker, colder, harder, much more exciting world.

I sat on my chair against the opposing wall and stared at the picture, my feet nowhere near touching the ground. I thought about what went on behind it, on the other side of the wall in the surgery – but also behind the painted surface in the world of the picture. I did not wonder about who painted it, or why. And I certainly did not concern myself with what he, the painter, was trying to say with his painting. I think I had no awareness of the presence of an artist’s hand at all. But I did wonder what must it be like to be in a painting like that.

I suppose I tried to enter the painting somehow.

It certainly entered me.

And so it went on. My next proper sighting of Hunters was on the wall of a dentist’s waiting room, in a different town, at least five years later but probably more. I didn’t like the dentist – who likes dentists? – so it was some kind of a distraction to have the painting there, hanging slightly skew-whiff in his ante-chamber as if it were a window back into life from this present world of churning fear. It was a bigger reproduction this time, maybe two feet by two and a half, and I scrutinised the image harder and perhaps not quite so freely as before, but with just as much involvement. I had a little context for it by then.

By then I knew that The Hunters in the Snow was a painting by a 16th-century Dutchman called Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I’d seen reproductions of others of his oil-on-board paintings, which as often as not featured crowds of dumpy peasants cavorting in market squares and getting up to pranks with pigs and kitchen utensils. The pictures were often themed around conspicuous consumption, or so it seemed to me: the pleasures of getting fat and rolling around in the street. Partying. There were haggard peasants in some of the pictures too but mostly the peasants in the ones I’d seen were upside down and fat.

However, I did not like any of the other Bruegels as much as I liked The Hunters in the Snow. Hunters possessed a quality that no other painting I’d ever seen had. It described a particular tension – a held moment in time and space that could never be repeated and could not have been perceived as such by the people represented in the picture, even as they lived it. I saw in the picture the snatch of interrupted time: the breath of the universe held for a moment, yet visible like winter breath. And the tension spoke. The hunters, the potboy, the black bird, the bramble, the dozens of tiny distant figures capering on ice and snow, the blanketing quiet… It spoke to me even as I reached into it and was caught up by it and held in its icy grip. For all its harshness, the world of the painting was somehow more vivid, more responsive than my own, as well as more tensile. My world was the saggy world of dentists and doctors, school and church, the back seat of the car and the front seat of the bus into town. My world was not harsh and uncomfortable and suddenly flaming. People did not run with ladders. My world was not implacable and hungry. I did not leave prints in snow. For the most part, it was not all that cold. We had storage heaters in several downstairs rooms in our house.

When I was three and then again when I was perhaps ten, The Hunters in the Snow described to me the complex tensions implicit in life, as if the moments of tension in life were the telling moments, the ones you lived for. I had no idea then that this was what the picture was doing, but if I reflect on those memories now, I can feel that my original excitement in the painting was the excitement of arousal – of physical, nervous, imaginative, dynamic arousal in experience. Of the feeling of being sprung. I projected myself into the painting and onto that white, brambled hillside because there appeared to be so much stored energy in it. The painting contained its subject as a bramble contains energy.

For me, The Hunters in the Snow was never a cliché. And it still isn’t one.

I am not an ambitious man and I was not an ambitious child.

I do not recall ever being filled with an overpowering desire to become any particular kind of person, not even an engine driver. Certainly not a policeman. I did not aspire to a role in life that was glamorous or authoritarian or totemic. Nor did I yearn to achieve. “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” is the question asked by all uncomfortable uncles, and I never really had an honest answer to it; not one I could get behind fully.

Besides, all my infant aspirations, such as they were, had been stymied by disillusion. At five or six I wanted to be a soldier when I grew up, until it was pointed out that the life of the soldier would certainly require me to perform duties more onerous than putting on a fetching red tunic to change the guard at Buckingham Palace; as a soldier I would not only run the risk of being killed but would also be obliged to kill other people – and I would find that I got to do neither of those things while wearing a red tunic, which made the prospect even less appetising.

I then changed tack and decided that I rather fancied being a historian. Well, that little fantasy lasted for as long as it took to dawn that, to earn their status, historians didn’t just sit around reading history books, talking about history with other historians (I imagined lots of excellent jokes in the style of 1066 And All That) and gazing ecstatically at crusty items dredged out of the ooze of time. Historians also had to do research and write papers and secure funding and teach students and wear corduroy jackets with patched elbows. Additionally, they’d have to be fully conversant with the origins of the First World War. I still wouldn’t mind being a historian, actually, but I know that I do not possess the right stuff to be one.

Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of 1066 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

So ambition and aspiration were never invisible playmates of mine. All I have ever wanted really is to be thought a good sort and that I perhaps contributed in some small but valuable way to the common weal, without having to kill someone first or make them unhappy in some other way.

And so, in the interests of consistency and healthy psychological integration, I have always deflected questions about what I’d like to do/see/experience/achieve before I die. I have no idea. I don’t care. I don’t do bucket lists. All I want out of life really is to be okay in the moment and then to see what happens next.

And then a friend died. She died unacceptably young, quite needlessly and with shocking suddenness. And in the aftermath, while the universe was still holding its breath, my wife looked me hard in the eye. Through her own choking, she asked me what I’d like to do in life while there’s still time. Come on, Nick, there must be something…

“I don’t do bucket lists, you know that.”

“No, I know you don’t. But just tell me something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done yet. Don’t think of it as a bucket-list thing. It doesn’t have to be aspirational or impressive. You don’t have to tell anyone about it; we can just do it. It can be completely inconsequential. Or it can be weirdly consequential in ways that no one else could possibly ever understand… Just think of it as the fulfillment of a longing.”

And I blurted out that I’d like to see The Hunters in the Snow.

It’s in Vienna, at an imposing imperial gallery called the Kunsthistorisches museum, not far from the Spanish Riding School close to lots of well-appointed modern galleries bursting with Klimts and Schieles.

It occupies a room that is full of other major Bruegels – more, I believe, than at any other single location – which you reach by ascending a magnificent marble staircase. The room is muted and stately and the walls are painted a silken grey. This is no dentist’s waiting room – it is one of the great rooms of the world. Hunters hangs in one corner, flanked by two other pictures from Bruegel’s beautiful “seasons” series, which documents the turnings of the year and arguably represents Western art’s first attempt to get to grips with the representation of weather in a focused and painterly fashion: The Gloomy Day (Early Spring) and The Return of the Herd (Autumn). Nearby hang The Conversion of Paul, Christ Carrying the Cross, Children’s Games, The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, The Tower of Babel, Peasant Dance and Peasant Wedding. The paintings span the decade of the 1560s, during the long ache of the Netherlands’ subjugation by the Spanish empire. There are many backs turned in the pictures. Cruelty and indifference are other great Bruegelian themes, along with the partying.

We only entered the room after standing on the threshold for what seemed like an aeon – but was probably four seconds. And as I made the crossing from marble onto parquet I blushed. I blushed like a teenager. I felt my skin prickle and my heart drum, as my breath became shallow. I felt a tiny lurch of nausea as I scanned the room. Hunters was in the far corner, glowing whitely and greyly and, though it felt improper to do so, I allowed my gaze to be dragged over to it briefly, even though at that distance the painting was no more distinct to my cataracted eyesight than a postcard on a pinboard on the far side of a large metropolitan kitchen. But it held me. It held me like a vice.

I held my nerve. We went round the room in the right order, moving clockwise, absorbing the seething surfaces of Children’s Games, Carnival and Lent, Babel and Paul as we came to each of them in turn, spending appropriate amounts of time with each, trying not to shortchange the paintings, nor allowing attention to wander. And when we came to it, I was transfixed by the russet beauty of The Return of the Herd for longer than seemed possible given its position on the wall right next to the greatest artwork in history.

But I did not betray the moment.

And eventually we got there.

‘The Hunters in the Snow’ (Photo by: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)

I cannot, of course, describe how it felt finally to stand in front of The Hunters in the Snow, any more than a footballer can express usefully to a television camera “how it feels” to have just won the League. I could describe what went on in my body as I stood there, I suppose, but that wouldn’t be very edifying and might even ruin your morning. Equally, I could give voice to the surge of emotions that threatened to overwhelm the functions of my body. But that’s not going to do much for you either.

So what did I see?

Well, I saw the same image that I had pored over for fifty years on and off. I saw the potboy. I saw the child. I saw the hunters and the skaters and the curlers and the old lady on the bridge with a bundle of sticks bigger than her body. I saw the people running with ladders and the gouts of flame, both near and far. I saw the thin bird and the bramble and the impossibly jagged skyline. I saw the tensioned geometry of grey, brown and white. I saw everything as I had always seen it, but bigger and more vivid than ever, it being on the wall in front of me and inhabiting its true dimensions for once, about four feet by five, as if it really felt no compulsion to defer to its environment any more, or its artistic context or even its place in cultural history, let alone its place in the history of pictorial cliché.

And for the first time I saw the artist’s hand.

The light is even and diffuse in the Bruegel room at the Kunsthistorisches but not so soft that it blurs the grain of individual brushstrokes. And it cannot conceal the visibility of the relative depths of layered paint (some of it thin as mist) and the tiniest flecks of painterly imprecision. The marks made by the artist are just that, marks. But they are also soundings. There are scuffs and smears on the surface, and little accidents, or so it seems; and areas where less attention has been paid than to others. You can see the drawing underneath. You sense the action of the extended arm and the appraising eye. And you can see where the painter has really been. Somehow the calves of the trudging hunters seem to have been of less importance to Bruegel in the moment of rendering them than the snow collecting in the louvres of the church steeple a mile away. The thin, angular, not terribly avian bird in flight is still a cipher of blackness and concision and the will to escape stasis, but its plunge from the tree is heroic in this frigid air, which is so much colder in the paint in Vienna than it is on the page in my precious Bruegel book at home.

It freezes the blood.

Children – small children – spend an inordinate amount of time during their infancy gaming themselves, asking questions about what is “outside” and what is “inside” and about what the outside world is in relation to their inner one. They have an acute but inexpressible sensitivity to the differences between the two worlds, and they have a remarkable capacity for blurring them too – for bridging the sense of the self and the sense of the bigger world that contains the self. You don’t have to study the theories (and the supporting research) of such authorities as the psychoanalysts Melanie Klein or D.W. Winnicott to know that this is true. You just have to remember what it is to play.

Yet one of Winnicott’s most important child-developmental insights (he was also a qualified paediatrician) focuses on the very earliest days of the baby’s ex-utero life in the world. It concentrates on the time before the infant has developed an ability to play, before it has made any unconscious recognition that its needs are only met by “outside” intervention. Winnicott conceived that the completely dependent, brand-newborn child perceives the world to be his and his alone, and that it is his to such a degree that he is the author of it and all the objects in it. The breast, the milk, the warmth, sleep, the nurturing coo of voices, the tender, loving touch… All of these benisons are created by the will of the child, who, as yet, knows nothing of the world and its contrary, difficult, implacable outside-ness; its coldness and its indifference.

Winnicott calls this developmental state “subjective omnipotence” to make the distinction between it and the dawning realisation that grows in every child, as it begins the long separation from Mother, that the child is not the maker of the world and that to survive in it the child needs to negotiate.

Subjective omnipotence?

Yes please. What a feeling that must be. Can there ever be a more satisfied way of being? How can we not relish a proposition that declares: I am in the world yet the world is called into being by my will, with the sole purpose of satisfying my needs.

Not surprisingly, says Winnicott (and Klein and their lineages of likeminded expert folk), what happens next in life to the infant, over the subsequent weeks, months and years during which it develops relationships with mother, father, siblings and other “objects”, is crucial to the shaping of the mature individual. You need to feel securely omnipotent to get yourself going in the world. But, get off on the wrong foot after that moment has duly passed, and the chances are you’ll stay on the wrong foot…

Here’s another question: what happens to that feeling? Where does “subjective omnipotence” go, once it has been crowded out and debunked by the growth of knowledge of the world as it really is? Does it melt, like snow? Does it disperse like smoke? Do we simply forget about our temporary omnipotency once we no longer enjoy its privileges, as a mother forgets the pain of childbirth? Or what? Could it be that some stray wisps of it linger in the unconscious mind in the form of undirected, melancholic longing?

I stood in front of The Hunters in the Snow in March of this year, at the age of fifty-seven, and felt like a kid. But I also felt like a very old man, one who has been around long enough to know when a moment has passed but also knows a melancholic longing when he feels it. And I stared and stared at that painting. I scorched it with my eyeballs, as the pig outside the pub on the hillside is scorched by the flames. I willed myself into the picture, as I willed myself into it as a three year-old and then as a ten year-old. I wanted to feel the cold and the curious sensation of the universe holding its breath and to witness the snaggy spring in the bramble to which the hunters and their dogs are so utterly indifferent. I wanted to see the people actually run with ladders.

And of course I was quite unable to enter the painting. It’s a painting. You can’t enter paintings. They are flat illusions conjured by talented individuals to fool the brain and stir the heart in curious ways. It is not possible to enter even the greatest painting in the world.

But I’d be lying if I were to say that I didn’t, just for a moment, register the faintest flicker of a feeling – almost a memory, really, a lost memory retrieved from a place located in the very outskirts of consciousness – that the world represented in this extraordinary painting was mine, and that I had created it, to meet my needs and no one else’s. And that now I was in front of it I might at last see it for what it really is.

Just for a moment.

 Nick Coleman is the author of ‘Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life’, published by Jonathan Cape. Also, ‘The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss’ and the novel ‘Pillow Man’.

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