Winter Journey stands as a critical work within Henry Koerner’s diverse and complex oeuvre. Composed of 15 individual panels, it is highly sophisticated in both form and content, drawing from a diverse range of artistic sources to express themes that are deeply personal and yet simultaneously, entirely universal. Born in Vienna in 1915, Koerner was profoundly affected by the events of the Second World War. Thus in the post-war period, he began to create compositions that synthesized realistic representation with elements of the surreal—the aesthetic for which he is arguably best known today—to express the anxiety and uncertainty felt around the world at this time.
Koerner executed Winter Journey between 1951 and 1952, at which point he had developed a reputation in the United States and abroad as an insightful chronicler of the human experience. However, the onset of the decade instigated a transitional moment in his personal life and career. Faced with negative critical and popular reception of his work for the first time, Koerner created Winter Journey, communicating his own feelings of trepidation through these images of the travels of an anonymous wanderer. Though storytelling nearly always played a fundamental role in Koerner’s work, particularly in the paintings he produced just after the war, his narratives became increasingly complex in the later years of his career, beginning with the present work.
The subject of Winter Journey draws from Koerner’s own experiences touring the United States by bus as well as an 1827 song cycle by Franz Schubert entitled Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey). A set of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller set to Schubert’s music, Die Winterreise tells the story of a wandering journeyman who encounters joy, love, anguish and eventually death during his travels. Koerner found great inspiration in the cycle’s themes of exile and wandering. A talented singer himself, he often performed it for his friends and family, and reportedly hummed it to himself as he traveled. Each of the panels relates to a different section of Die Winterreise and to a different moment in the protagonist’s journey, though they are not arranged in any chronological order or linear sequence with the exception of the largest central panel, which is widely considered to represent the end of the traveler’s long journey. For example, the depiction of ravens following a bus on which the man rides in the top left panel references song number 15 of Die Winterreise: Die Krahe (The Raven).
The painting’s unique structure represents the first time Koerner employed the large-scale, multi-paneled format that began to dominate his work in subsequent decades. Stylistically, it is characterized by a much more painterly manner of execution, diverging from the exacting application that he had previously utilized. This new approach emerged from the artist’s engagement with watercolor, which he initiated in this period and would use almost exclusively the following year. After executing preparatory sketches for the painting with this more spontaneous and mutable medium, Koerner then arranged them in a grid on the floor of his studio based on the “visual and poetic connections” he saw among them. Though Schubart’s work is a clear influence on Winter Journey, the painting is also strongly autobiographical, featuring scenes from Koerner’s own travels and landmarks that held significance to him. Several of the panels depict Koerner’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York, for example, while in another the artist portrays Smithfield Bridge in Pittsburgh, the city he would make his home in 1952.