The Japanese woodcut I’m looking at today is from Kitagawa Utamaro in about 1790. He created five winter scenes to illustrate the 78 poems of Tsutaya Juzaburo’s collection, “Setsugekka”, (which means “Snow, moon and flowers”)
I’ve only seen a trace of snow a couple of times in my four years here in France, so snow doesn’t really feature in winter for me just now. However, there are certainly mists and frosts, both of which can be beautiful.
Of course, I’ve many, many memories of snow from all my years living in Scotland. I can remember one year, a year of my junior doctor training at Stirling Royal Infirmary when the snow fell and the temperatures dropped far into the minus range. The milk inside the milk bottles left on the doorstep (yes, that was a thing…..two bottles of milk delivered early each morning by the milkman) froze, expanding so much that the frozen milk pushed the silver caps up about an inch!
The last place I lived in Scotland before emigrating to France was the top floor of a renovated late nineteenth century textile mill. It had huge arched windows and from three of them I looked out across the Carse of Stirling to Ben Ledi…a shape that became as familiar to me as Mount Fuji is to Japanese people.
In the woodcut I can see three zones – in the distance, snow capped hills and mountains; in the foreground, a frozen weeping willow; and in the middle ground, two people struggling up a slope in the snow pulling a boat over the what seems to be a frozen river. The angles of their bodies and the lengths and taught-ness of their ropes suggests it’s really a huge effort. There’s a third person on the boat, but most of the boat is hidden by something like a tented canvas. It provokes my curiosity (as usual…..curiosity is probably my core characteristic!) and I wonder what lies under the canvas. Slightly further back is another frozen tree, perhaps a pine, and a snow-covered bridge.
It’s strangely still and frozen while conveying movement, effort and action at the same time. Do the people really have bare legs and feet? It looks like that! What an image of determination and co-operation there. No sense of ease, but of will and strength and progress in the face of adversity. But that adversity is also engagingly beautiful…..though I’m happier looking at it than imagining myself as one of the people in the scene!
I also like the fact that the river seems frozen but not quite. I love that moment when you see water just beginning to freeze.
Isn’t water such a curious and amazing element? Combining those qualities of flow and stillness, moving from liquid to solid and expanding as it does so. And when it coats a plant, a flower, or a tree it somehow adds sparkle or even bling!