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Winterreise - Artist's Statement

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Related blog posts: What is etching? (Was ist Radierung?) Winterreise sketches and scribbles (Skizzen) Making-of videos (Videos)

edited August 2021


1: Short project description 2: Research and themes 2.1: Overall design choices 2.2: Interpretation of the ending 2.3: Influences 2.3.1: Romantic landscapes 2.3.2: Japanese art 3: Project creation and adjusting to the pandemic 4: Artist's bio

Winterreise - Inken Stabell

1: Short project description

Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey) is a cycle of 24 poems on themes such as melancholia, loneliness, numbness and heartbreak, 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 ever since I was introduced to them in highschool. 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 quite 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 Romantic cliché dreams and longings gradually make way for resignation and numbness.

I have chosen etching as the medium for this project for several reasons, one being the aesthetic of etched lines, their texture. In contrast to pencil and pen drawings, etchings are constantly prone to inconsistencies at every step of the process. They are the result of chaos and commitment, quite Romantic in itself. The etchings are all 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.

2.1: 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. It is also why I have shortened the quoted poems on my website to only show the illustrated verses.

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, Letzte Hoffnung (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.

2.2: Interpretation of the ending

Müller's order indicates the wanderer's fate being that of a street musician, which was widely criticised, 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), 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 Das Wirtshaus (The Inn) in which death is not granted. There is no refuge granted in dreams (Frühlingstraum [Dream of Spring]), beauty (Die Nebensonnen [The Mock Suns]) and finally the arts (Der Leiermann [The Hurdy-Gurdy Man]) 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 the original Romanticism is that, while moving away from classicism, artists also strayed 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. 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. 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 also had a few symbolical ideas along the way, but they mostly made me feel pretentious. I have personally never liked using metaphors. I understand their appeal, but metaphors first require reason, words and, most importantly, time to be interpreted. It would only distract from what I want to show with my art: the first impression, honest and lasting forever. Thus, the final etching is neutral to both endings, capturing only the atmosphere.

2.3: 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.

2.3.1: 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. Romantic landscapes are relevant today in the sense that they both connect to a natural longing within many people and also reflect contemporary artistic ideas due to an unprecedented freedom in stylistic execution. I would like to use this section to explore how Romantic art can be interpreted in a contemporary context.

The question of how important Romantic ideas are in contemporary aesthetics is connected to the question of how important any artwork's aesthetic can be beyond the original intentions of the artist. 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.”

Bowie, A., 1997

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. Landscapes can establish this connection by building an aesthetic bridge towards the experience of nature. 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 built from seemingly insignificant pieces of nature, but simulate the sense of scale and sublimeness of nature over humans. Today, considering the life in cities and the current environmental crisis, many 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. Nature is a timeless companion to humans, not yet fully understood and ever beckoning us to explore it more. 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, 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 postmodern 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 A. Newell’s article Landscape; Drawing and the Morphological Sublime, in which he proposes an original, new definition of his work after explaining 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.”

(Newell, R. A., 2012, pp.1,2)

I heard comparable expressions in various contemporary art classes in Germany, which showed an actual fear of teachers and students that their art could become too illustrative in the sense that the pictures showed something which could be real. When I asked an art teacher why I wasn't allowed to create a landscape painting without disturbing elements in it, I received no explanation. Ironically this fear of realism comes not from the often proclaimed exhaustion of possibilities in classical aesthetics, but from a lack of them in the academic environment due to the extreme shift towards modernist ideals in the last decades.

Postmodernism is a commonly used term to describe the current time period. In the postmodern age, nothing is new anymore except the combination of all which is old. New combinations of styles which were centuries apart are being developed. Sometimes it is required to look into the details, but the decisions made during the creation process and the differences in the materials used today clearly set apart contemporary artworks from the art of the past. An artefact which successfully creates a synergy or dialogue of various styles is very much representing postmodern 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, a contemporary artwork with classical or Romantic traits that draws from the infinite palette of now accessible styles and knowledge is as postmodern as it can be, and deserves to be valued as such. However (this is coming from a later editing point): Artworks that emerge out of a genuine care for the craft rarely come with cynicism. Due to the accelerated mass exposure to new positions and ideas in the last decade, ironic gimmicks that only exist for their own sake have lost much of their appeal, while the persuit of genuine quality has gained more recognition, especially on social media where two-dimensional artwork has become autonomous again, indpependent from contextual exhibitions. Since irony or cynicism, even nihilism, are an aspect of postmodernism, I wondered if there are any newly established terms to take its place. Especially texts from the pre social media decades on postmodernism do no longer apply well to contemporary times. This lead me to Timotheus Vermeulen's and Robin van den Akker's term of metamodernism, which proposes, among other things, a return to Romantic ideas, now part of positions oscillating between sincere sensitivity, informed naivity and pragmatic idealism. I happened upon the term long after I had finished this project and text, so I will continue exploring metamodernism at a different time and place, as it would go beyond the intended extent of this statement. However, I was positively surprised when I found it, because it describes many of the sentiments I shared with my fellow students at both the atelier school and the university.

2.3.2: Japanese art

Japanese woodcuts have proven to be a main source of stylistic inspiration for me at all times. There is a lot of aesthetic ‘power’ in big shapes and gradients. The following is great summary of what makes Japanese art different:

"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." Gianfreda, S. in Benesch et al.: 'Faszination Japan', 2018, translation is my own

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 highschool, and, looking at Japanese aesthetics, I noticed that they gave me such a sense 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 relate to 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 reaction to 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 is not 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, and they leave space for your own thoughts. Woodcuts are similarly reduced, consisting only of outlines and gradients which are just the right amount of information needed to convey the image.

Comparing this now to old Romantic art and poetry, I find that in the end I enjoy both aesthetics the most when they are combined or alternated within a project, so that it uses direct and reduced forms of expression. 100% of one or the other works fine, but even a mix of 10% theatralic directness and 90% concealed emotions has me much more excited. Not only is there more variety, but also the demand for the viewer/reader/listener to adapt to and analyse or question the placement of such variations. This is easier to discern in poetry and music rather than art, due to the latter being an instantaneous experience. As for landscapes, the ones that are on the Romantic side directly express to the viewer the mystery and awe of nature through dramatic subject matter, composition and mood, rather than stylising the classical aesthetic. The steps for a classically trained artist to achieve a Romantic artwork are therefore focused on shifting their attention towards capturing and making realistically visible that which to many viewers may have been conceiled forever, even if they had been at the very same place that the artwork shows. More stylised landscapes, such as the Japanese ones, rely on the viewer navigating their own way through the artwork by putting together all the compact shapes that form a complete experience of a landscape in the viewer's mind, with the perceived essence of the landscape being more important than its realistic portrayal. The process of stylising something is similar to what Bashō explained in the above quote. It only works if the artist is so familiar with the subject matter that the steps of stylising (reducing) it do not result in the essence of the artwork differring from the essence of the subject matter.

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. I also fully agree with the work ethic of dedicating oneself fully to achieving the best possible outcome of an undertaken project and investing the required amount of practice and time, even if it is only to satisfy one's own expectations while it may make no difference to others. In a way, it is straightforward perfectionism. I know that I am very perfectionistic, but I also know that I become unhappy if I settle for 'enough' knowing that I could do better if I invested more time and energy. I cannot simply ignore that urge. Doing and being just 'enough' won't make me grow. The so often promised peace of mind coming from that sentiment I much rather get from knowing for certain that I did do my best when I could.

3: Project creation and adjusting to the pandemic

Etching as a process has been very challenging but all the more rewarding. It is like drawing but literally everything of it is prone to unexpected effects and errors that need to be accepted and worked with. The surprises and the problem solving are addictive to me. Whenever I am planning an etching, I sometimes get bored of it at this stage already due to me assuming that it will turn out as planned. But after every proof print, the excitement is back as if I am starting from the beginning. Before I started making etchings, I used to work mainly in watercolour, ink, acrylics and pencil, always spontaneously combining these things to achieve results that I couldn't have predicted during the sketching stage. There is also a special kind of thrill in having to nail a drawing on the first try, knowing that it can only be fixed at the cost of not being able to go back to the look of the first pen or brush strokes. Etching is quite similar in that regard. While polishing and re-etching the plate allows one to fix any mistakes, it usually takes so much more time than rethinking the image completely. One Winterreise etching has taken on average 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, 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 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 was able to 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.