Seurat by Jigsaw Puzzle

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Can’t Say As I Ever Did

by Emily Hipchen

Emily HipchenCARROLLTON, GA—(Weekly Hubris)—2/14/10—This past Christmas, after a long and difficult fall, I wanted to do jigsaw puzzles. Plural. They’re a comfort, all those pieces that definitely fit, nothing left out to worry about the meaning of. Every piece accounted for, in exactly and only one correct space. Tucked inside those straight, right-angle edges and tidy corners.

Having no puzzles in the house, Chuck and I set out to buy them. Only because they are the puzzles of Christmases past did I get a Charles Wysocki image, of a flower garden in front of a pale white music-teacher’s house. Wysocki’s too sentimental for my tastes, though he hits my mother’s perfectly—which is why she always bought them. I got a second puzzle, a picture of a hummingbird in flight, his beak cramming into a fuchsia foxglove blossom, his wings blurred grey at the edges. More nostalgia, this time for our summer here and our six or seven feeders full of sugar water hanging in thick clouds of aggressive ruby-throats.

It’s spring when we see the first one, around March 15th, though these are always the famished men with their black-red necks, fresh from Mexico and looking for nesting sites. They’re skinny as children, these birds, and suck up such gallons of sugar water that they bloat out in a few days and start to look like steroidal, wrong-colored bumblebees. The women come a little later, all green and a little meatier, a little less aggressive. The men dance for them, in huge sweeps high above our hickories and poplars. They make infinity signs tipped on their edges, for love. In September, the birds crowd the feeders so thickly that we refill them three times a day and they wait for us hovering around our heads like humming hats, in a kind of chaotic order, the big ones first, nearest. They would lick our fingers if we held them out, I think.

They’re gone by the first of November, and we rip out the zinnias to put violets in, with their closed necks all yellowed over.

Seurat’s famous, pointillist “Sunday Afternoon”.

Seurat’s famous, pointillist “Sunday Afternoon”

The third one I choose is an image of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, this in the tradition of my childhood puzzles of great art, Burne-Jones, the Mona Lisa. I pick Sunday Afternoon because I dislike the other options; they seem more cloying, more like something Thomas-Kincaiders would hang over their mantles. Non-art options are always scenes of Europe, and Chuck picks up a picture of a German castle hopefully. But I like the colors in Sunday Afternoon and we buy that instead.

It’s only when the puzzle’s dumped out of the box and the pieces are turned over that I remember how often I saw the original just a few years ago. I’m startled by my forgetfulness given that I saw it three or four times a year, every year, when I lived outside of Chicago. That when I saw it, like everyone, I stood in front of it a moment, puzzling over it. I’m sure people stood there much better informed than I, pondering its themes, or remembering trips to Paris, or thinking of its moment in art history. I always looked at it and thought about the effort it took. All those dots. All that jabbing. All that careful standing way back to make sure the tiny splotch of zinc yellow was in exactly the right place for precisely the right effect. It is a miniaturist’s mind working a giganticist’s medium—the painting is large, takes up its own wall in fact, with a bench or two dedicated solely to it. I couldn’t imagine the accommodations such a mind would have to make to create such a picture, and that mind craving instead all the time a little slip of ivory, a Vermeer-y gem-like light. I couldn’t imagine working against my inclinations for so long, for two long years, on such a thing—the intellectual commitment of it in the face of the obstacle of personality. Sunday Afternoon interested me, therefore, as a psychological perversity, as an object of hard and laborsome work. I never looked at it long.

I passed Sunday Afternoon on my way to the only work of art I wanted to see, usually: Van Gogh’s bedroom. It amused me and reassured me, the way the edges of things wandered, the closed-in of it, the colors that glowed like candle-wax. I loved the orange-red of the bedspread, loved it like a favorite possession. I wanted to recreate that room in some future house of mine, the blue walls, the green light out the window, the yellowish affront of the footboard. I sat in front of that painting, looking, calming myself, desiring. Sunday Afternoon was a signpost on the way, only.

Here at home, faced with a thousand bits of Seurat, I sort the pieces that reproduce in fragments Seurat’s statement and masterpiece, locating the edges, which Chuck helps me fit together. Moving my hands this way settles my mind like knitting does, or stirring pots, or patting babies. I start putting in the water, so different in color from anything else that it’s easiest. I notice shapes, holding shapes in my hands. I think, look at the wedge of this, the way this moves the eye horizontally. I become aware of composition, in composing the river. And in thinking about composition, I begin to wonder about the figures and their argument, to discover for myself that the painting has something to say, that it talks in its little dots, about important things.

I’d never seen, all those years ago passing in front of the original, how gradated the figures are, how marked by class, and how much hostility there is for the figures on the left, how much pathos in the top-hatted man to the right, how much sadness in the sitting woman by the water.

I discover this because the painting’s in pieces: I see it first in a section of one man’s nose, made of a rare and careful line. Then, in the marble expressionlessness of the woman’s eye, which I assemble from two pieces, one with a piece of her ear. The color of the working-man’s skin tells me something when it’s set beside a piece of the woman’s face. The monkey on its leash, a different sequence of dots than the frolicking beribboned dog, the woman’s other, less exotic pet. The orange butterfly flies maybe more freely than anything in the picture, except it’s the same orange, exactly, as the little girl’s dress. I confuse them, in fact, thinking a piece of the butterfly belongs to her clothes.

Doing this puzzle I forget about pointillism, the labor of it begins less to perplex than to awe me. I forget Seurat’s particular mind, his particular task. I fit together this puzzle, look for and at bits of things muddled up unnaturally against other bits from across the picture, I notice what I wouldn’t and didn’t see in the painting whole at the Art Institute. As I hang these newly-contextualized pieces into other pieces in the straight frame of the picture, I begin instead to wonder what exactly they are to each other, these people, their dogs and monkeys, their trumpets and fans, the water and the trees, the artist, the reproduction, the puzzle cutter, me.

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About Emily Hipchen

Emily Hipchen has been exiled to many locations, including but not limited to her current one, a small town about 30 miles east of the Alabama state line. She has many day-jobs. When she's not teaching writing and literature full-time, she edits two journals, writes grant proposals, publishes award-winning essays in creative nonfiction (and a book, Coming Apart Together: Fragments from an Adoption [Literate Chigger, 2005]), writes scholarly articles for conferences and publication, and runs an academic program. At home, she’s in charge of the dogs, the cooking (locavore vegetarian), the blogging, and the heirloom-rose-snobbery.
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