New England winters, especially in the final weeks of the season, can be difficult and unpredictable. Snow and ice can stick around intermittently until May. But the warmer weather also creeps into the airstream, bringing with it the breath of spring. Longer days melt the dirty, brownish snow, leaving puddles and slush everywhere. Sleds and shovels stand forgotten in doorways or in the darkness of sheds. Heavy winter boots are exchanged for galoshes, and scarves are left hanging over the backs of chairs. A forgotten glove sits in a drawer, looking for its mate.
When one does go outside for a walk in the late winter sun, the air can still tingle the exposed face and hands. Nevertheless, the sun, with its light getting stronger by the day, feels good, and one is happy to be in its glow. Amid the heaps of snow left by plows and shovels, stand, here and there, figures in the distance. You’ve seen them, to be sure: those snowmen abandoned to the elements and their fate. The magic that accompanied their creation has worn off and dispersed into the air. The corncob pipes and coal eyes, the carrot noses and buttons that made up their personas falling in a puddle of cold water on the ground. Bright red and blue scarves now look like nooses around too thin necks. They are shadows of themselves at this time of the year. They are thin, awkward, and forgotten, these Giacometti snowmen.
Alberto Giacometti was born in the Swiss town of Borgonovo in 1901. This mountain village situated in a southeastern corner of Switzerland, steps away from the Italian border, looks as if it belongs in a fairy tale. But as idyllic as it looks, Giacometti did not stay there long. Like most artists of his generation he moved to Paris. That was in 1922, and by 1947 he had developed his “signature look” into the well-known, tall, extremely thin sculptures one sees in museums all over the world. His figures are stripped of all ornamentation, leaving only hints of the human. What comes across from his sculptures is the restlessness of a spirit that resides in the body. To gaze at a Giacometti sculpture is to come face to face with the essential, inner coil of the body that is slowly eaten away or worn down by the restlessness of the soul.
The snowmen left behind toward the end of winter always reminds me of a Giacometti sculpture, only much weaker. The magic of new fallen snow has been blown away to reveal the nub of the snowmen’s inner, frozen soul. And yes, snowmen have souls; just ask the millions of children who build them if you in doubt about the validity of such a statement. I don’t believe that Giacometti ever worked with snow, but if he did his work would look just like the abandoned snowmen left standing in the late winter sun.
There is something incredibly sad about the end of winter, especially in New England. We spend so much of our time here waiting out the cold and the snow, only to abruptly lose and grow impatient with that sense of magic that fell through the cold air with the first snowflakes. As spring comes slowly to our doors, we turn our backs on winter. Yet, these Giacometti snowmen are still standing, refusing to give up the ghost until the last possible moment.