Published December 11, 2020 on Degree Critical.
There were days of doing nothing. Days of naps and existential crises, and other blissful days of reading and watching movies. Seasons changed as we stood still, the dark days of winter spent under blankets turned into the clear morning air of spring, and then afternoons of basking under the hot June sun. The days came and passed and then one uneventful day, we started solving puzzles.
I spent most of the pandemic lockdown (thus far) in Markham, a suburb of Toronto, where I went to stay with my husband’s family in March. The two weeks I planned to spend turned into months, then to a passive ambiguity, and then time lost its meaning anyway. My new Canadian home was a place of purgatory, a state of in-betweenness where decisions and actions meant little. Markham was also a place of safety and care, a warm family home far away from the ill crowds and high death counts of New York. I cherished the peace I felt in Markham in those long days, the conversations shared with my mother-in-law Lynne over tea, the stillness of the Northern landscape within the nearby ravine and its frozen Rouge River. These moments eased the fear and uncertainty of the earlier months of the lockdown.
One day a moment came when we had exhausted every other option to find comfort in doing something. Relaxation turned into agitation. And then Lynne dug up a 1000-piece puzzle from the basement. It had a landscape painting on it, a serene scene of mountains and a lake in tones of blue, white, and black. Even though I had once seen it at the Art Gallery of Ontario, it was only after a conversation with my husband and Lynne that I realized it was a Lawren S. Harris painting, Lake and Mountains (1928). Harris’s art was a surprisingly pleasant find for me when I was introduced to his work years ago during my first visit to Toronto, even though, as a member of the so-called “Group of Seven,” he is one of the most renowned artists in Canada. Active during the 1920s and early 1930s, the Group of Seven artists were the pioneers of a new Canadian school of art that focused on landscapes of the “True North.” The movement was essential to the way Canada represented its land—the eternal, terra nullius nature of the North, endless and indifferent to humanity. First formed in Ontario, the group later traveled across the nation. It was during these years Harris’s landscapes became more and more abstract and simplistic. His color palettes transformed into muted, grayish tones. His depictions of lakes, mountains, trees, and even strings of light became clean lines and color ranges. Lake and Mountains represented these abstracted characteristics, with the two-tone clarity of the colossal mountain forms and the almost uniform stripes in the sky. While I sat down for hours under the faint light of the dining room trying to solve this thousand-piece jigsaw, I realized that the subtle gray tones of Harris’s clouds, wavy blocks of the lakeshore, and tiny differences in hues of brownish and bluish blacks started to mean more and more to me. I looked with utmost attention to the smallest crack in the almost century-old paint, reprinted on the cardboard puzzle piece, so that I could match it with another one. Slowly, over hours, I built the artwork on the dining table and within my memory. One cloud’s brushstrokes were slightly different from the other, the turquoise of the water was different from the turquoise of the sky; steadily, I began to appreciate them all.
The puzzle that followed was a better-known work, famous for its complex detail: The Tower of Babel (c. 1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The painting laboriously illustrates the eponymous Biblical story, where humankind builds a tower “that reaches to the heavens” [Genesis 11:4]. The hubristic pursuit is at first successful because of the harmony and understanding among the people, before God confuses them and takes their mutual language away, scattering them around the world. The painting depicts a massive tower, as grand as the cities surrounding it, touching the clouds. The building is unfinished, and dozens of people can be seen working on the many-storied, incomplete building with their ladders, work tools, and wheelbarrows spread around. A couple of towns, wooded areas, and a pier on the waterside encompass the humongous structure; so massive that a part of it seems sunken. The humans, along with their artefacts, seem like tiny miniatures next to the Tower.
Mostly known for his work on village life, landscapes, and religious works, Pieter Bruegel the Elder was one of the most significant artists of the Flemish Renaissance, a prominent painter of Antwerp during the 1550s and early 1560s. He painted The Tower of Babel for the respected Antwerp banker art collector Niclaes Jonghelinck. Bruegel adopted his remarkable technique of composition and perspective from Hieronymous Bosch, the Flemish Gothic master from the prior century, painting The Tower of Babel with scrupulous care and mastery. Measuring only 45 x 64 inches, the relatively small size of the work makes its meticulous detail even more exceptional. The painting likely lived in the dining hall of Jonghelinck’s residence, where he hosted banquets for the purpose of convivial discussions, mostly encouraged by works of art. A direct opposite of the Tower’s story, the artwork helped Jonghelinck find harmony in the Antwerp community.
I spent many hours looking at every little figure and archway of The Tower of Babel’s even smaller reproduction, divided into a thousand tinier pieces. Unlike Lake and Mountains’ tranquility, this painting openly demanded my full attention to recognize its richness in detail, technical finesse, and layered composition. I discovered little villages, stone underpasses, men of peasantry and men of gentry, hundreds of gradated shades of green and red and everything in between.
Sitting and actively looking at paintings for an extended period of time reminded me of art historian and writer T. J. Clark’s 2006 book The Sight of Death. In this “experiment in art writing,” Clark visited the same Nicholas Poussin painting at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for months and wrote about it every single time, in diary form, noting different details, themes, and components in the painting each time, or the identical ones that felt different other times. In the book’s preface, Clark talks about the beginnings of the project and mentions how The Sight of Death, in a sense, was born from “the horror of times,” and then in the very first pages that he “badly needed something better to think about.”
Just like the original painting did in Jonghelinck’s home, the Bruegel puzzle sparked many conversations in our Markham house, added to our nightly tea sessions and lazy afternoons, and helped me bond with my new family in a uniquely inconvenient set of conditions. Having married into a new family and culture in the midst of a pandemic, I was far away from my adopted home in New York and an ocean away from my fatherland of Turkey. In Harris’s painting I found ways to appreciate the surrounding Canadian landscape as a peaceful environment I came to appreciate, rather than the bleak and cold one it once seemed to me.
The works of Harris and Bruegel in puzzle format filled a void left open after spending five years in New York with the Brooklyn Museum down the street and the Metropolitan Museum a short subway ride away. When was the last time I had spent this much time with a painting? Looking at The Tower of Babel and Lake and Mountains on shiny cardboard pieces for hours on end became a similar experiment for me that Clark’s daily visits to the Getty were for him. In a world of no other way to see art in person, let alone up close, and with no end of that certain horror in sight, I desperately look to the final sentences of The Sight of Death. “Paintings are defenceless, paintings are survivors,” writes Clark. So are we.