Jigsaws and Paintings



Am I fooling myself to imagine that you learn anything about a great painting by doing a jigsaw of it?   Of course that isn’t why you are doing it, an activity I rediscovered in the long winter evenings in Yorkshire but let creep into other seasons and times.   I wish I had a record of all the paintings I have done puzzles of.   They were a motley crew, many of which I wouldn’t have stopped in front of if I had ever seen them in the flesh. Doing puzzles of them isn’t like copying a painting or drawing a building, true meditations, which Ruskin used in order to know them better. But there are a few paintings I would love to have puzzles of, like Bruegel’s Tower of Babel. That one is fairly easy to find, but it would be tedious to explain here why I don’t just go out and buy them.

Then along comes the coronavirus and makes jigsaw puzzles seem a legitimate means of staying inside, so I order a couple online which include, at long last, that elusive favourite, The Tower of Babel. The others arrive promptly, but the Tower doesn’t, and it takes sleuthing to learn that the order has been cancelled. It seems I’m not the only one thinking of puzzles as a way of passing time.   Puzzles of real paintings are now going for 40 to 60 pounds, which probably explains why the one I ordered for £15 is never going to arrive.

DSC04671 copy

Two of them slipped under the wire though, one a Bruegel, perhaps the one I know least of all, a painting that the foreign-born director of the Detroit museum discovered unrecognised in a London shop? or gallery? in a year (1930) when the Great Depression had probably dealt a blow to the market.   So it’s one of those works which almost got away. When it was ‘found’ (i.e. recognised for what it was via an unlikely encounter) it got spirited to an unlikely, distant place.

What all this has to do with the painting is doubtful, but I like the thought of its return to London (in the immaterial form of a jigsaw) from which it had set off on the last stage of its journey.

Is anyone going to agree with me that there is something mysteriously attractive in this process of taking a composition apart and putting it back together, not in a studied or appropriate way but arbitrarily, by chopping it into 100s (1000 to be exact) of mechanically gnarled or irregular pieces which have nothing to do with any natural process of disintegration or decay? When canvases or wooden panels rot or suffer serious mistreatment they do not emerge as a lot of equal-sized fragments that can be joined together again by dumb persistence.

DSC04683 copy.jpg

Still, one could argue that this contrived unrecognisability produces interesting effects in spite of itself. In a sense all the new shapes produced by the mincing of the image do not exist in reality, outside the project of the puzzle, but trying to recognise them becomes an absorbing pursuit for as long as it takes to rule out all the false resemblances and recognise the true ones, those which will return you to the starting place that only a calculated perversity ever deprived you of.

The earnest puzzler never (or at least seldom) thinks he or she is the victim of a cheap trick. While the puzzlement lasts, the searcher believes in the problem and never gives up (until he does, temporarily) trying to recognise the unrecognisable, sharpening or blurring his eyes in one direction or another.

Some forms are easy to recognise, some are difficult, and some are impossible and need luck to end in the right place. For a long time I was satisfied with the quality of the reproduction of Bruegel’s painting my puzzle had employed. Then I stumbled on a detail of it in the catalogue of an exhibition it hadn’t formed part of. This was an eye-opener.

detroit illus det ctr.png

It seemed that the painting had been cleaned since the puzzle was created, revealing plenty of detail indecipherable in the puzzle. What I thought was a post with a jug nailed to it was actually a peasant taking a long drink. Smaller figures that had seemed just blobs wore interesting expressions and became distinct characters. The trees which punctuated the middle distance became teasing obstructions closing off our view of figures behind them and reminding us our vantage wasn’t as comprehensive as we thought.

detroit expressions.png

The amazing intricacy of interlocking couples was much easier to decipher. The title, Wedding Dance, had a meaning in human pattern much more gripping than we had grasped until now. At the right edge a mysterious figure replaced an impenetrable gloom. I felt I had seen him before, a supernatural intruder from a Victorian tale.   Should I just leave the mystery unsolved, which so far had nothing to do with anything else in the picture?

detroit myster fig.jpg

Now the bride and groom could be singled out, facing each other but dancing with other partners. Blank faces became expressions, women’s aprons became mountain landscapes, drawing showed beneath and through the paint over the whole surface, and the increase in incident, and in features of line and shape, was indescribable. I found myself poring over the newly penetrated surface over and over again.

Screen Shot 2020-04-07 at 16.16.09.png

I’ve forgotten to say that after finding the detail in a book I went to the website of the Detroit museum and was rewarded with a hi-res image that opened up all this further wealth, where the paint is mostly much paler and more transparent so you feel you are looking deep into the painting, and getting closer to the moments when Bruegel was adding paint to his drawing without obscuring it.


In the end I credit the puzzle for its way of slowing me down and making the forms so familiar that I knew them inside out, at which point I had the luck to find there was more still in the re-united image, cleansed, clarified and revealing a whole other reality below the old surface, like seeing the sea bottom beneath an intervening depth of sea-water.

A Newly Discovered Bruegel

Bruegelsanmartin copy.jpg

A few years ago I stumbled across a reference to a new Bruegel which had been found in an obscure Spanish collection and, soon after its discovery, ended up in the Prado.

The first question was: could it be real? Could a very large painting by this painter go unnoticed for all those years?  Its subject was unheard-of and the composition inconceivably grotesque—it showed a tangled mountain of people glued together in an acrobatic mass. There were lots of them, of all different ages, trying to get their hands on wine squirting from a huge red barrel in a tiny stream, all the figures pushing forward a wide variety of containers, pitchers, bowls, hats, broken and intact, some just potsherds, the vessels a digest of the extreme human variety that jostled for space.

I was convinced almost at once of its authenticity and its large contribution to our knowledge of the artist. The painting is full of memorable poses, which fix themselves in the mind as weird but true snapshots of human types caught in extremis, stretched to the limit in pursuit of a clear goal near at hand. Typically, some of the best are seen from behind, a condition often treasured by Bruegel because it guarantees unselfconsciousness and thus a kind of authenticity. Maybe that is the main secret of the strange subject, that it combines people revealing themselves exuberantly while packed into unheard-of nearness, more like a nest of writhing snakes than any previously-known depiction of a human gathering.

Bruegel st martin detail.jpg

Bruegel has set himself an impossible, and, we might have thought before seeing how he would set about it, absurd, challenge—to build a multi-storey building consisting of human forms with no superstructure for them to cling to except the cradle on which the barrel is raised.

Bruegel uses a shifting perspective as he did in the Vienna Tower of Babel in order to show densely crowded figures viewed from above extending laterally and viewed head-on extending vertically. As in the Suicide of Saul it seems the most natural thing in the world for whole ranks of figures to be making the same gesture in series, reaching frantically upward to hold out their bowls toward the source of oblivion.

This is furthest from a still or quiet crowd–most of them are frantic–but there is also a complete spectrum of those turning away from the scramble because they are busy drinking, have already passed out or have noticed another goal, the knightly figure in the lower right corner, who is distributing something more valuable than cups of wine. St Martin on horseback has attracted a small crowd of cripples and the destitute anxious to get a piece of the voluminous cape he is slicing up with his sword.

In the distance are magical glimpses, caught as if through keyholes, of a rider at a gate and a scattering of tiny figures in the open space at the foot of the castle on the horizon. The most convincing and precious features of these sketched-in elements are the delicacy of the drawing and the transparent thinness of the paint.

One of the best discoveries of the magical enlargements on the Inside Bruegel website is seeing how often Bruegel puts the paint on so thinly it is like drawing itself and lets his underdrawing show through, invariably carried out with great confidence, without slips or mistakes.

bruegel wine of st martins day.jpg

The Wine of St Martin’s Day is painted on linen with something like tempera instead of oil, a technique known from both the beginning and the end of his career in the Brussels Adoration and the Naples Blind Leading the Blind. It looks (and is) fragile and evanescent, the colour more transparent and fleeting than usual. Why he used this frail medium in his largest painting by far – 2½ times the size of the otherwise largest Procession to Calvary — seems impossible to know.

The subject is the least substantial:  an experience of passing intoxication, another instance of religion subverted by folk indulgence, human beings behaving with the carelessness of may-flies, aptly captured in the dodgiest, most ravishing form, a work that is at once the painter’s most daring and most throwaway.

bruegel st martins day.jpg