It’s three weeks now since I returned from a two-week boat trip to Antarctica, and I’m feeling the cold. It’s summer down there and the temperature was never far from zero – a little above, a little below. And when the sun shines it’s bright and clear, and even though you’re at the Antarctic Circle you can wear a T-shirt, provided you apply a gallon of sun oil and stay out of the wind.
It’s the wind and the sun that make the difference. The UV rays are powerfully strong in the unpolluted air, and when the wind blows, as it does every now and then, it’s no gentle breeze, but a fierce horizontal assault, whipping the snow into your face, stabbing the skin like an acupuncturist gone berserk. It’s then that you’re reminded that the Antarctic summer, in it’s angriest moods, can beat the London winter any day.
I took this photo from a kayak in a bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. on one of the calm, sunny, well-behaved days. Apart from the sensational beauty of the mountains and the stillness and serenity of the ocean, the magical element in this whole experience was the awareness that this was one of the very few places left on earth where humans have never been. There are mountains ahead of me, which have seen no human footprint in the whole of recorded time.
Now, I’m back home dealing in a different kind of stillness and serenity – as captured on canvas by the great Danish painter Wilhelm Hammershoi. In 2005 I made a one-hour BBC documentary about this little known early twentieth-century artist, who could paint household interiors and make them quite magical and mysterious. I think he’s terrific and I feel very honoured that I’ve been asked to open a new exhibition of his haunting work at the Ordrupgaard Museum, north of Copenhagen today.
Somehow the silence of Hammershoi’s interiors produce a similar sensation to the vast, untouched exteriors I saw in Antarctica.
If you’re interested the Hammershoi film is on YouTube, or, together with two other films I’ve made about artists, is on a BBC DVD called Palin on Art.
And if you want to experience the beauty, excitement and danger of travel in the Antarctic in all its moods, there’s nothing better than Ernest Shackleton’s book SOUTH, an account of one of the most unbelievably epic journeys ever undertaken.