If you have any interest in squinting into hockey’s past, I’m going to suggest you get on your way to Lisbon, where an important exhibition opened this week devoted to paintings depicting the early days of the long European struggle to figure out how to play Canada’s national, natural-born winter sport before we could get around to it.
That’s now exactly how the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga is framing it: in fact, “Rubens, Brueghel, Lorrain: Nordic Landscapes from the Prado Museum” somehow gathers a wide variety of hibernal works from Spain’s national gallery without mentioning hockey even once. (The catalogue does usefully explain that in the 16th and 17th centuries, while Italians considered “Nordic” any painters from beyond the Alps, they were mostly talking about the Dutch.)
Those of us who insist that there have to be hockey players in the paintings of old wintry Europe know well enough that it’s never in the foreground. In dim weather, under smoky January skies, it’s there, no question, somewhere through the trees, behind the vendors of vegetables, beyond the gambolling children, off away past the birds of distraction, watch out for the rutting couple in the hayrick. So much the better if you have a superior jeweller’s loupe, or even a medium-good one. That has to be a hockey stick, doesn’t it, way back at the back of Joost Cornelisz Droochsloot’s “Winter Landscape With Skaters” from circa 1632?
In the painted past, we maintain, the hockey is approaching from a great distance, skating hard to make it out of the background, never quite getting there.
What we know with certainty is that mankind has been hitting balls with sticks – well, they always did. For as long as we’ve been able to rummage up something sticklike with which to smack anything resembling a ball, we’ve done that, wherever we’ve been, in all weathers. The big question for the game’s historians — sometimes it seems like the only one – is when did the smacking turn into hockey? The Society for International Hockey Research has thought a lot about this, both as a collectivity and in its individual members.
I’m one of those, I should probably say, without claiming to be anything more than an attentive student of the diligent work that others have down. Members of SIHR’s Origins of Hockey committee, for instance, whose findings, widely considered the last word on how hockey happened, you can browse here. Or the two eminent Swedish researchers, Carl Gidén and Pat Houda, whose exhaustive Timeline traces the ubiquity of stick-and-ball games through history.
On the subject of paintings like the ones now on display in Lisbon, what they’d tell you is not to get your shinpad in a knot. That’s probably not how they’d put it: what they do say in their Timeline is that often, when you’re looking at old paintings in which skaters appear who seem to be wielding hockey sticks, sorry, those are just walking sticks.
Of Dutch paintings like the ones in the Prado’s Lisbon exhibition, they have this to say: kolf. And since that’s exactly what it sounds like — a Low-Country progenitor of golf — it’s not a team-oriented stick-and-ball game and is therefore excused from the hockey/shinty/bandy conversation. Gidén and Houda: “The only kolf player wearing skates appears on [sic] the often used engraving from ca. 1625 by Romeyn de Hooghe (1645-1708) named ‘Kolver het ijs’ (‘Kolver on ice’).” Also: kolfers whack balls at targets rather than chase them with the idea of scoring goals; there’s never more than a few participants gathered together at a time: don’t be fooled.
Still, though, I don’t know. It’s hard to give up the where’s-Waldo compulsion to search for far-off ancient hockey players. Hendrick Avercamp’s “Winter Landscape with Iceskaters” (c. 1608) is as busy a canvas as you’ll find, full of what the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam calls “daring details,” including men urinating and a couple copulating in a hayrick. I can’t, myself, spy any hockey, though there are some definite ice-golfers in Avercamp’s “Winter Scene on a Canal,” and also in “Winter Landscape on the River Ijssel near Kampen.” “A Scene on the Ice Near A Town” has a Jacques Lemaire look-alike in the near-middle distance, where he may or may not be working on his face-offs.
Avercamp loved the ice. He couldn’t stop painting it. An essay I’ve read about him and his 17th and 18th-century Dutch colleagues talks about ice representing the slippery nature of the human condition. Avercamp, Aert van der Neer, Adam Silo: the precision with which they catch winter’s haze, the thin light of a frigid sun, can only be described as chilling — though it’s worth noting that they always worked indoors, to keep their paints from freezing.
I’ve given myself ice-cream headaches squinting into the distance of “Hunters in the Snow” (1565) by the Flemish master Pieter Breugel the Elder. (The original hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.) There’s such a familiar feel to the scene, it could be Magog or Jasper we’re looking down on. It’s the snow, of course, that that makes it seem so local, that and the rinks. Though the rinks — this is where the scrutiny comes in, the leaning in to gaze past the nominal hunters headed home with their dogs into the dimming distance, where two sizeable rinks have been scraped clear of snow so they can fill with skaters. They’re just packed. But is it skating rather than merely sliding? Anyone see a wrist shot down there?
It’s almost impossible to tell. A passel of poets has been moved to verse by this painting, including Walter de la Mare and William Carlos Williams, but they don’t talk about the possibility of hockey, or care. The poems don’t help.
In the Lisbon exhibition, there’s a copy of another great 1565 snowy Brueghel, “Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap,” rendered by his son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger in 1601 or so.
We’re closer to the ice, this time, looking down on a bend of frozen river where curlers and kolfers frolic alongside unwitting birds about to be crushed to their deaths.
It would be easy to wit, you’d think, that trap, but I suppose not for hungry Dutch wintertime birds. I don’t know what they are, coots, maybe, wigeons, buffleheads, which is to say koet, smient, buffelkopeend. The trap looks like a massive borrowed door balanced on a big stick, the idea being that the line tied to the stick that trails up between the houses — somebody’s on the end of that line, ready to tug and murder the birds, instantly transforming them from feeders to (comprehensively flattened) foodstuff. They have no idea what’s coming, the birds: you don’t have to squint too hard to see that.
After the drama of the bird trap, the stored energy about to be unleashed, the imminent annihilation, the action on the ice is a bit of a letdown. Like Messrs. Gidén and Houda, the Prado’s notes mention that from many towns, kolf was eventually banished, for all the damage to limb and property it did. Brueghel’s practitioners look to present no such threat.
What’s worth noting, though, is that in defiance of the strictures of the SIHR Timeline, at least one of Bruegel’s kolfers here is on skates. No squinting necessary: at the Prado website, you can zoom right in past the coot that, so far, has avoided being crushed to do your studying. There’s no doubt a good explanation that fully and finally dismisses the notion that what we’re seeing here is a revolutionary moment in the history of hockey. Maybe the guy on skates started the day kolfing. Or was out for a skate when he ran into his friend, who was the original kolfer and he — our guy — just borrowed his stick for a minute.
Here’s where history happened. Faced with another, third guy, there to the left, with a stick of his own, our skater had a choice: whack his ball into the distance at some target he couldn’t even necessarily see or take shots on the goalie at hand. Never mind that goalies didn’t exist at the time, or that hockey would take a few more hundred years to evolve into its robust Canadian self: the choice wouldn’t have been a hard one to make. That’s not my opinion: I’m just telling you what’s there in the painting.
The exhibition in Lisbon continues through March 30, 2014.