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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.