Artist's Statement: Winterreise - A sequence of 24 etchings

View the artist's Winterreise project at

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 poet 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 fairy tales. 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 Era1 (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)2  - 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 Painting3 (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,4 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.

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 Romanticism5 (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.” 

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: Neukompositionen6 (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.”

What is most interesting to me, however, is how the significance of these aesthetics has changed. They only make up 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,7 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.”

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."8

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 their 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."9

Form-wise, these aesthetics do not waste anything on exaggeration where it isn't needed. They go in 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,10 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 weeks 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.

1 Dorschel, A. (1993): Wilhelm Müllers "Die Winterreise" und die Erlösungsversprechen der Romantik, The German Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 4, Wiley

2 Newton, Eric (1962): The Romantic Rebellion, Longmans

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

4 Bowie, A. (1997): From Romanticism to Critical Theory – The Philosophy of German Literary Theory, p.29, Routledge

5 Stone, A. (2013): Alienation from Nature and Early German Romanticism, Springer

6 Nonnenmann et al. (2006): Winterreisen – Komponierte Wege von und zu Franz Schuberts Liederzyklus aus zwei Jahrhunderten – Teil II: Neukompositionen, p.397, Florian Noetzel Verlag

7 Newell, R. (1994): Landscape; Drawing and the Morphological Sublime, pp.1,2, Journal of Visual Art Practice

8 Sandra Gianfreda (2018): Faszination Japan, p.83/84, Kehrer Verlag

9 Bashō, M (1966): The Narrow Road to the Deep North & Other Travel Sketches, p.33, Penguin

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

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