Winterreise - Artist's Statement

Aktualisiert: Feb 20

1: Short Project Description

Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey) is a cycle of 24 poems on themes such as loneliness, heartbreak, melancholia and numbness, symbolised by an increasingly weary yet restless wanderer travelling in winter. They were originally written by German lyricist Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), while Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828) adapted them in his art songs, though in a different order. For this sequence of etchings I am using the order Schubert chose, because the songs are more prominent and they are what initially fascinated me and inspired much of my own work. With the etchings I aim to illustrate mood and emotions as effectively as possible while focussing on landscapes with a visually not clearly defined character in it. The imagery connects back to the art of the Romantics but also extends it towards other stylistic elements, which is fitting because the Winter Journey acknowledges and faces the conflict of its own Romantic nature. This may be what drew me to it many years ago, as opposed to many other, purely Romantic works. The lonesome protagonist wanders endlessly through winter while all dreams and longings gradually make way for resignation and numbness.

The reason I want this project to have this format is because of the aesthetic of etched lines, their texture. In contrast to pencil and pen lines, these lines are both expressive and fine, and the little inconsistencies on the etched plate add a subtle chaotic feeling. A combination of chaos and commitment, quite Romantic in itself. The etchings are 40 x 30 cm in size.

2: Research and themes

The Winter Journey as a theme has been explored in the visual arts many times already, yet there are countless different stylistic approaches. The subject of each illustration is often chosen differently as well, then visualised somewhere on the scale between pure abstraction and strict realism. This sequence of etchings is characterised by a strong emphasis on sublime landscapes in which the protagonist seeks refuge while also trying to escape them.

2.2: Overall design choices

The Winter Journey’s protagonist is meant for the reader/listener to identify themselves with. For this project the character and his looks are secondary, vague even, because the viewer should experience the mood for themselves with as little distraction by characterisation as possible. In accordance with my own and the general interpretation he is male, though he is first and foremost a person who experiences this solitary journey for us which expresses much more than only a mourning over a broken up relationship, since the reason as to why someone would embark on this kind of journey is very individual and can originate in situations other than this one. I personally relate very much to the Winter Journey, even though I cannot relate at all to the character's past. Thus, I have not included any detailed depictions of the protagonist or his beloved, as this would only add something which would not contribute to illustrations intended to show the journey itself. This decision is a crucial part of what makes this project my own.

Throughout the journey the images become calmer, ultimately concluding in very plain compositions. This is to reflect the character's increasing numbness and resignation, and his determination to walk through a world which no longer seems to hold anything to look forward to.

The first sixteen illustrations feature more wind, hills and trees to better express the emotional, turbulent start of the journey where the protagonist is often still dreaming and looking back to a brighter past while facing the cold in the real world. The sixteenth poem, Last Hope, is the last to feature trees in its illustration. Trees are parts in a landscape with which a viewer can get a feeling of the scale of things and identify themselves. Trees, or forests as a whole, also inspire imagination, mystery and fairytales. Taking them away will then lead to a stronger sense of loneliness, stillness and desolation.

2.3: Interpretation of the ending

Müller's order indicates the wanderer's fate being that of a street musician, which was widely criticized, while Schubert designed the order of the songs in a way which leads the listener to conclude that the journey ends in death (Nonnenmann et. al., 2006, p.228), and I used to interpret it this way as well. But, as Andreas Dorschel argues in his article Wilhelm Müller’s "Die Winterreise" and the Promises of Salvation of the Romantic Era (1993, translation of the title is my own), it does not quite fit well with The Inn in which death is not granted. There is no refuge granted in dreams (Dream of Spring), arts (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) and beauty (The Mock Suns) either. While I like the clearer narrative in Schubert's order, I find that the original ending adds a meaning which goes beyond the vision of a Romantic death. This is what makes the cycle so honest and timeless. A common criticism of Romanticism is that, while moving away from classicism, artists also stray from reason and reflection. However, the Winter Journey is a special case. While still expressing the narrative in a very Romantic way, what actually happens is that the desired Romantic salvation in death eludes the protagonist again and again, until there remains nothing but resignation. It asks what lies beyond the dreaming, which is a truly contemporary issue.

2.4: Influences

Stylistically the images are mostly a combination of Romanticism and Japanese art. The motifs are clearly Romantic, while the way they are composed is heavily inspired by Japanese woodcuts.

2.4.1: Romantic landscapes

Romantic art is known for showing scenery in a mysterious, awe-inspiring way, while still using many of the classical techniques of realistic rendering. I myself studied and use those techniques, though I like to stylise them further. Nonetheless, that which makes a landscape Romantic - “mystery, abnormality and conflict” (Newton, E., 1962, p.54) - is a main pillar of my work and it is not necessarily bound to style. Landscapes today have become something very personal. The feelings which landscapes can express are very relevant in the sense that they both connect to a longing within many people and reflect the creator's personality due to their individual design and an unprecedented freedom in stylistic execution. In Individual and Landscape – Origin and Development of Landscape Painting (1984, translation of the title is my own), Matthias Eberle gives a detailed explanation of what 'landscape' really means. Nature becomes landscape as soon as the viewer engages with it, looking to connect with nature aesthetically by putting together fragments of nature which now form a new entity (landscape), which again is, through interpretation of the individual, a fragment of the whole, even though that whole may not anymore be reality's nature at all (p. 25-38). Landscapes can be impressive and absorbing while being put together from seemingly insignificant fragments of nature. Regarding this illustration project itself, meaning the landscapes, I am trying to find its position within contemporary aesthetics in art. In From Romanticism to Critical Theory – The Philosophy of German Literary Theory, Andrew Bowie connects the aesthetics of the Romantics such as Novalis’s to those of modern philosophers like Adorno:

“Clearly any sense in which works of art are bearers of truth must rely on their transcending of inner subjective intention. Novalis maintains that ‘The artist belongs to the work, and not the work to the artist’ (Novalis 1978 p. 651), precisely as a way of coming to terms with the fact that the truth of the work must be more than what gave rise to it in the first place. Adorno’s whole project of rendering art a source of insight into aspects of modern society which are not adequately articulated in more discursive forms depends upon the ability to move from what is the product of the individual to a significance that transcends the individual.”

Andrew Bowie: From Romanticism to Critical Theory – The Philosophy of German Literary Theory, 1997, p.292

Having read this, I wondered how far this project would be able to reach out to our society beyond my own intentions. I asked my followers on Instagram what they think makes landscapes based on Romantic ideas relevant in today’s society. The general consensus was that there is still the same primal longing for a connection with nature, which landscapes can successfully express. Especially today, considering the life in cities and the current environmental crisis, people fear they are becoming alienated from nature and try to reconcile with it. And, instead of humanising nature by making it our own, Alison Stone argues in her article Alienation from Nature and Early German Romanticism (2013) that Romantic philosophers Schlegel and Novalis even offered a more “natural” approach to reconnect with nature:

“The Romantics think of reconciliation as including a dimension of alienation, in the form of an awareness that nature is greater than and exceeds the understanding of human beings, insofar as we are merely limited parts of the all-encompassing whole that is nature.”

Stone, A., 2013

The primordial mystery of nature drives science and technology onward, but it also is what draws us back to it again, even in our era. Nonnenmann et. al. also emphasised in Winterreisen – Komponierte Wege von und zu Franz Schuberts Liederzyklus aus zwei Jahrhunderten – Teil II: Neukompositionen (2006) the timelessness of winter as a means of conveying emotions:

“The specific iconography of winter or travelling in winter can be found in all epochs and arts as an expression of crisis in the sense of age, dying, death, darkness, silence, numbness, cold, loneliness and depression. Phenomena which, while epoch-specifically connected to individual or societal situations, describe basic anthropologic constants.”

Nonnenmann et. al. 2006, p. 397, translation is my own

What is most interesting to me, however, is how the significance of these aesthetics has changed. They only make a tiny part of all which is art today. Romantic ideas still have a place in our society because of these primal feelings, yet now they have both a broader selection of possibilities in terms of artistic expression and a smaller impact on the general understanding of art as a whole due to post-modern individualism and plurality (heterogeneity in style). If art only has truth if it transcends itself towards questions of its contemporary environment, this challenge is either easier or more difficult than ever before, depending on the point of view. In this case, its immediate type-specific meaning to people of our society may be clear in its form but not in its range. It may very well be the case that the majority of art enthusiasts today would disregard Romantic aesthetics as an irrelevant relict of the past and not worthy of pursuit for any serious contemporary artist. I encountered the following statement in the landscape artist Robert E. Newell’s article Landscape; Drawing and the Morphological Sublime, in which he proposes an original, new definition of his work after evidently showing the conflict he faced:

“One of the problems confronting a landscape painter now, is that the extensive theorization of landscape is dominated by negative critiques of colonialism, masculinism, space and bourgeois hegemony; W. J. T. Mitchell is one of many who sustain this stance: [‘]... there is no doubt that the classical and romantic genres of landscape painting evolved during the great age of European imperialism now seem exhausted, at least for the purposes of serious painting. Traditional eighteenth and nineteenth century landscape conventions are now part of the repertory of kitsch, endlessly reproduced in amateur painting, postcards, packaged tours, and prefabricated emotions[’] ([1994] 2002). The effective conclusion of these negative critiques of ‘landscape’ is that if not quite dead, it deserves to be dead.”

(pp.1,2 of the article)

I actually heard comparable expressions in various contemporary art classes, which showed a fear of students becoming not only too Romantic but also too illustrative in the sense that the pictures showed something which could be real. Modernism has now taken on the previous role of classicism by clinging to its principles, often still proclaimed to be revolutionary even today, while post-modernism has long since begun. Post-modernism salvages and unites all forms of aesthetics through plurality. Nothing is new anymore except the combination of all which is old. And by now, modernism is old.

An artefact which successfully creates a synergy or dialogue of various styles is very much representing post-modern aesthetics (Welsch, 1990). Its individuality or personality which emerges in the process is also a main criterion by which today’s art is being judged. In other words, an artwork with Romantic traits that draws from the infinite palette of now accessible styles is as post-modern as it can be, and deserves to be valued as such.

2.4.2: Japanese art

As I predicted in my project proposal, Japanese woodcuts have proven to be a main source of inspiration for me at all times. There is a lot of aesthetic ‘power’ in big shapes and gradients.

"Belonging to the most important compositional means which were reinterpreted in the West are the division between background and foreground through flat shapes, the steep look upwards or downwards, the disregard of classical perspective, the radical cut of main motifs by the image border, the division of shapes by diagonal elements, the simplification of shapes through big, compact plains and a strong emphasis on outlines or the use of empty spaces, the asymmetrical arrangement of objects, a decorative framing and extreme vertical or horizontal formats." Sandra Gianfreda: Faszination Japan, 2018, p.83/84

While I looked for more inspiration in Japanese art, I wondered how these artists approached their work and what kind of philosophy supported their creativity. I've already been quite familiar with Romanticism since high school, and, looking at Japanese aesthetics, I noticed that they gave me such a feeling of familiarity because they have similar themes and an appreciation of landscapes like the Romantics do. The reason why I often even tend to prefer their style is that they also emphasise and take away certain aspects of Romanticism in a way that I personally enjoy very much. Thematically, there is, just like in Romanticism, a focus on nature and the common every-day life. However, the individual's surroundings are much more important than its affection by it. This is what the Japanese take away - and gain - when compared to the western Romantics. The influential poet Matsuo Bashō (1644- 1694) explained:

"Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one - when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural - if the object and yourself are separate - then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit."

Bashō: The Narrow Road to the Deep North & Other Travel Sketches, 1966, p. 33

Form-wise, these aesthetics do not waste anything on exaggeration where it isn't needed. They go into the opposite direction, creating a mysterious sense of beauty by concealing things and leaving them in the dark. When feelings suddenly are expressed, they (at least to me) are much more impactful, because they come unexpectedly from within such a compact and reduced form such as Haiku poems. Woodcuts are similarly reduced, only consisting of outlines and gradients which are just the right amount of information needed to convey the image.

The Japanese philosophy of Ikigai ('reason to live') is something I looked into on the side, listening to an audio book (Ken Mogi: The Little Book of Ikigai, 2017) while working, but it turned out to be just as inspiring to me as the art. Creativity and flow are seen as a substantial puzzle piece to a fulfilled and purposeful life, along with following principles such as being in the here and now and appreciating the little things.

3: Changes from the Proposal to the Major Project & adjusting to the pandemic

While creating the images, I have found that I leaned more and more towards Müller's initial meaning of the ending. While Schubert's order and the tone of the songs clearly show that he intended the character to seek and eventually find death, the words still imply something else. I therefore see my work as being a synthesis of both versions, keeping Schubert's order but staying true to the meaning of the poems. Especially with the last illustration I hope to set a contrast to common visual interpretations such as hurdy-gurdy playing skeletons - which I admit was also one of my first ideas. I'm not a fan of using metaphors. I understand their appeal, but metaphors first require reason, words and, most importantly, time to be interpreted. All that would only distract from what I want to show with my art: the first impression, honest and lasting forever. That's what I want to give the viewer.

Etching as a process has been very challenging but all the more rewarding. One etching takes approximately one and a half full-time week to make, with about one part of the time being straightforward handicraft and the other being drawing and making artistic decisions. Hours just fly by because of the many times one has to clean the plate, wait for the acid, wait for the ground to dry, clean the ground brush, while the waiting times can be used to work on multiple etchings at the same time. After working from one step to the next, looking at a finished plate and knowing that it will print a big number of consistent looking pictures is an amazing feeling.

As I was unable to continue etching due to the corona virus pandemic, I kept making sketches and drafts for the remaining 13 etchings in pencil, but still, four months of full-time work were lost. In July I was lucky to find a press for sale and seized the opportunity so that I may continue this project and also make many more in the future independently.

4: Artist’s Bio

Inken Stabell (*1996, Berlin) is a German illustrator and fine artist proficient in both modern and classical ways of drawing and painting. Having specialised in poetic and melancholic scenery, Inken's artworks have been exhibited internationally and licensed as album covers and book illustrations. Across different traditional media including watercolour, etching, charcoal and oil paint, the landscapes and seascapes form a body of work which is consistently characterised by its depth and mood. Its ultimate meaning is its own immediate impression on the viewer, carefully built with honest craftsmanship. It is an independent and autonomous aesthetic experience, not bound to places, working anywhere in any format, digital or in exhibitions.

Inken is an accomplished printmaker who creates beautiful large scale tonal etchings that evoke emotions and a sense of longing. Having improved at this craft for four years, she has now set up her own etching studio in Berlin.


5: Bibliography & References


Bashō, M., Yuasa, N. (tr.) (1966): The Narrow Road to the Deep North & Other Travel Sketches, Penguin Books Ltd, London.

Eberle, M. (1984): Individuum und Landschaft – Zur Entstehung und Entwicklung der Landschaftsmalerei, Anabas-Verlag.

Gianfreda, S. (2018): Japanisch inspiriert... Kunst in Frankreich nach 1860 in Bensch, E. (ed.): Faszination Japan p. 80-87, Kehrer Verlag, Vienna.

Mogi, Ken (2017): The Little Book of Ikigai, Quercus Publishing.

Newton, Eric (1962). The Romantic Rebellion, Longmans, London.

Nonnenmann, Rainer et al. (2006): Winterreisen – Komponierte Wege von und zu Franz Schuberts Liederzyklus aus zwei Jahrhunderten – Teil II: Neukompositionen, Florian Noetzel Verlag, Wilhelmshaven.

Academic articles:

Dorschel, A. (1993): Wilhelm Müllers "Die Winterreise" und die Erlösungsversprechen der Romantik, The German Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 4, From Goethe to Thomas Mann and Beyond (Autumn, 1993), pp. 467-476, published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Association of Teachers of German

Stable URL:

Accessed: 07-11-2019 16:24 UTC

Stone, A. (2013). Alienation from Nature and Early German Romanticism, Published online: 19 September 2013, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

6. Appendix: Translated poems (shortened to only show the relevant parts for the illustrations)

1. Good Night

As a stranger I moved in, As a stranger I depart again.

A shadow of the moon travels As my companion with me, And on the white blankets I seek the deer’s track.

I write in passing On your gate: Good night, So that you may see, Of you I have thought.

2. The Weathervane

The wind plays with the weathervane On my sweetheart’s house. There I already thought in my delusion, It was mocking the poor fugitive.


3. Frozen Tears

Frozen drops are falling Down from my cheeks. Has it slipped my mind That I have been weeping?

Ah tears, my tears, And are you so tepid, That you freeze to ice Like cool morning dew?

And you are yet drinking from the spring Of the chest so burning hot, As if you wanted to melt away The whole winter’s ice!

4. Numbness

I search the snow in vain For her steps’ trace, Where she, in my arms, Strolled the green meadow.

I want to kiss the ground, Break through ice and snow With my hot tears, Until I see the earth.

Where can I find a blossom? Where can I find green grass? The flowers are dead, The meadow so pale.


My heart is as if dead, Her cold image frozen within; If my heart ever melts again, Her image, too, will melt away!

5. The Linden Tree

At the well by the gate There stands a linden tree; I dreamed in its shadow Many a sweet dream.


Today, too, I had to wander Past it in the depths of night, Then even in the darkness I shut my eyes. And its branches rustled, As if they called to me: Come here to me, friend, Here you’ll find your rest!

The cold winds blew Straight into my face; The hat flew off my head, I did not turn around.


6. Water Flood

Many a tear from my eye Has fallen into the snow; Its cold flakes absorb Thirstily the burning woe.

When the grasses want to sprout There blows along a mild wind, And the ice breaks apart And the soft snow flows away.

Snow, you know of my longing, Say, where goes your course? Just follow after my tears, The stream will soon pick you up.

You will travel through the town with it, Merry streets in and out; When you feel my tears burn, There is my sweetheart’s house.

7. On the River

You who rushed so cheerfully, You bright, wild river, How still you have become, Give no parting word.

With hard, stiff crust You have covered yourself, Lie cold and unmoving Stretched out in the sand.


My heart, in this stream Do you now recognise your image? Under its crust Does it tear and swell so, too?

8. Looking Back

It burns under my soles, Even though I tread on ice and snow; I don’t want to catch my breath again Until I no longer see the spires.


How differently you received me, You town of inconstancy! At your shining windows sang The lark and nightingale in competition.


Whenever that day enters my thoughts, I want to look back once more. I want to waver back again, Stand still before her house.

9. Will o’ the Wisp

Into the deepest chasms A will o’ the wisp lured me; How I find a way out, Does not weigh heavy on my mind.

I’m used to going astray, Every path leads to the goal; Our joys, our sorrows, All a will o’ the wisp’s game!

Through the mountain stream’s dry channels I calmly make my way down, Every stream will find the sea, As every sorrow does its grave.

10. Rest

Only now I notice how tired I am, As I lay myself to rest; The wandering kept me going On inhospitable paths. My feet did not ask for rest, It was too cold to stand; The back felt no burden, The storm helped blow me on.

In a charcoal burner’s small house I have found shelter. Yet my limbs won’t rest, So much do their wounds burn. Like you, my heart, in strife and storm So wild and so bold, Feel only in the silence your worm Stirring with burning sting!

11. Dream of Spring

I dreamed of colourful flowers, The way they bloom in May; I dreamed of green meadows, Of cheerful bird calls.

And when the roosters crowed, My eye was awake; It was cold and dark, The ravens shrieked from the roof.

Yet on the windowpanes, Who painted the leaves there? You probably laugh at this dreamer, Who saw flowers in winter?


12. Solitude

Like a dreary cloud Moving across the clear sky, So I travel my road Through bright, happy life, Lonely and without greeting.

Oh, that the air is so still! Oh, that the world is so bright! When the storms still raged, So miserable I was not.

13. The Post

Over from the road A post horn sounds.


The post has no letter for you, Why do you urge me so strangely, My heart?

Of course, the post comes from the town. (…)

You want to take a look over there, And ask how it is going, My heart?

14. The Old Man’s Head

The frost has sprinkled a white sheen Over my hair. There I thought I had already become an old man And was very pleased.

Yet soon it melted away, I have black hair again, So that my youth horrifies me - How far still to the grave!

From dusk to dawn Many a head turns old. Who believes it? and mine has not On this entire journey!

15. The Crow

A crow has with me Flown out of town. Has been, until today, always Circling over my head.

Crow, strange creature, You don’t want to leave me? Probably hope to prey soon On my body here?

Well, I won’t be much longer Holding onto my walking staff. Crow, let me finally see Loyalty unto the grave!

16. Last Hope

Here and there on the trees A coloured leaf can be seen, And I stop in front of the trees Often, lost in thought.

I watch that one leaf, Attach my hope to it; When the wind plays with my leaf, I tremble head to toe.

Ah, and if the leaf falls to the ground, My hope falls off with it; I myself fall to the ground, Weep on my hope’s grave.

17. In the Village

The dogs bark, the chains rattle, The people sleep in their beds, Dreaming up things they don’t possess, Refreshing themselves in good and bad.

Just bark at me, you vigilant dogs, Don’t let me rest during slumber time! I’m finished with all my dreams. Why should I linger among the sleepers?

18. The Stormy Morning

How the storm has torn apart The sky’s grey robes! The tattered clouds flutter Around in matte strife.

And red fiery flames Drift between them; That’s what I call a morning Truly befitting my mood!

My heart sees on the sky Its own image painted - It’s nothing but the winter, The winter cold and wild!

19. Illusion

A light dances friendly in front of me, I follow it here and there; I follow it gladly and notice That it lures the wanderer.

Ah! Who is as wretched as me, Will gladly fall for the colourful trick, Which, beyond ice and night and fright, Shows him a bright, warm house And a kind soul within. For me, only illusion is a win.

20. The Signpost

Why do I avoid the paths Where the other wanderers walk, Seek hidden trails Through snowy, rocky heights?

I have committed no crime That I should hide from people, - What foolish longing Drives me into desolation?

A signpost I see standing Unmoving before my gaze. A road I must walk From which no one ever returned.

21. The Inn

On a graveyard my way has brought me; Here I want to move in, I thought to myself. You green mourning garlands must be the signs, Which invite weary wanderers into the cold inn.

Are even in this house the rooms all taken? I’m exhausted enough to collapse, am mortally wounded. Oh, merciless inn, yet you turn me away? Well, onward then, just onward, my loyal walking staff!

22. Courage

When the snow falls into my face, I shake it off. When my heart speaks in my chest, I sing brightly and lively.

Don’t hear what it tells me, Have no ears; Don’t feel what it complains, Complaining is for fools.

Merrily into the world Against wind and weather! If no God wants to be on earth, We ourselves are gods!

23. The Mock Suns

Three suns I saw in the sky, Have stared at them long and hard; And they also stood there so stubbornly, As if they didn’t want to leave me.

Ah, my suns you are not! Look into someone else’s face! Yes, recently I had three as well; Now the best two have gone down.

If only the third would follow after! In the dark I will feel better.

24. The Hurdy-Gurdy Man

Ove there behind the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man And with stiff fingers he plays as he can. Barefoot on the ice he wavers back and forth And his plate always stays empty.

No one likes to listen to him, no one looks at him, And the dogs growl around the old man. And he lets everything happen as it will, Plays, and his hurdy-gurdy never stands still.

Strange old man, shall I go with you? Do you want to play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?

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