Before spring 2020, there was Paradise by Jan Brueghel the Younger.
There are dozens of Brueghels who make up the Flemish and Dutch painting family of the 16th and 17th centuries. There was a Brueghel famous for birds-eye depictions of peasants. There were baroque flower Brueghels and Brueghels who only painted on copper panels and others who dedicated themselves to garlands. There was a Pieter who came to be known as “Hell Breughel” as he often depicted fire. And then, of course, there was Jan the Elder, most notable for his mastery of landscape paintings.
Following the death of Jan Brueghel the Elder in Rome, Jan the Younger took over his father’s studio. Raised in the afterglow of the Elder’s creative success, the son frequently copied his father’s works directly, replicating their subjects and compositions, even tracing his signature. While similar at a glance, it is easy to spot the replicas: they are notable for being far inferior. The brushstrokes of Jan the Younger are quick and sloppy, and his colors are poorly mixed, even garish. With every iteration of one of his father’s masterpieces, his patience seemed to dwindle. But who can blame him? The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
There is only one painting by Jan the Younger that matters now—a copy of one of his father’s. The Elder’s original is dark and subtle. It depicts a lush alcove beside a quiet stream. The image boasts a diversity of species: birds, monkeys, lions, deer, and cows. It’s difficult to pinpoint the time of day as the work collectively approximates dawn, dusk, afternoon, and night. Its landscape is neither orchard nor forest nor jungle, but a fluid cross-between. Technically specific and thematically abstract, the painting escapes time and place, tending instead toward an affective, vague longing. The work is Earthly Paradise, currently housed at the Prado Museum in Madrid.
When Jan the Younger replicated Earthly Paradise, he did so poorly (as was his mark). To compensate, he hurried in a handful of extra turtles and birds, perhaps believing that these additional creatures would divert the viewer’s attention away from the rudimentary color palate of his poorly mixed greens. His painting glowed a toxic shade: vivid and simplistically green. In a final flourish, he struck out the first word of his father’s title, and thus, he bore Paradise: a brutalized masterpiece, a replica, an act of rebellion.
You were born into Jan Bruegel The Younger’s painting. You grew up under that tree (pointing), and later you looked out from the frame and begged me to release you from Paradise. I told you I’d spend the night thinking about it.
It was my first job out of college. I was a security guard at Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, Germany, where Paradise was held. Like almost everyone before spring 2020, I loved Paradise. I would walk the hallway of Flemish masterpieces and pretend to trip a bit, falling toward Paradise until my nose was within an inch of the canvas. Before the alarm sounded, I would catch myself and draw away from its surface. This was filled with risk, yet my stealth rewarded me private intimacy with the painting. I became obsessed by these brief encounters with Paradise. Soon, I longed for more. I wished to enter the frame.
The word “paradise” does not derive from the Old Testament. It is an ancient Persion noun, meaning simply: an enclosure. The world consists of “pairi” (“around”) and “dheigh” (to mold, or form, or shape). In its earliest iteration, the word paradise was a perimeter, a malleable boundary—a framework.
Returning from Persia in 360 BC, the Greek soldier Xenophon recounted his voyage in a book of semi-fiction called the Cyropaedia. In his written account, Xenophon misused the ancient word “paradise”: he deployed it not as the outer limit and crumbling stone wall of a stately garden but instead as the lush land, plants, and trees he found in the garden’s center. It is within his mistranslation that our contemporary understanding of paradise is rooted. Yet between these disparate meanings: paradise as perimeter, and paradise as garden, we locate the integrity of the term. Paradise has always been an elusive destination, a place that does not exist absolutely but rather as an encapsulation of various longings. It is not a location that one expects to find, yet it lingers in anticipatory discovery. Its promise seduces us, so we fumble feverishly toward it.
Years after Xenophon, it is said that Adam and Eve deserted paradise by departing a garden. Yet the word paradise was not designed as a location from which one could leave and return, but rather a boundary that enclosed: a definition of structure. To desert paradise, then, was to reject the existence of perimeters. It was, perhaps, to dissolve.
Jan Breughel the Younger may not have anticipated that his legacy would rest in green. On the canvas of the replica of his father’s painting Earthly Paradise in the year 1620, the painter mixed complex aluminosilicate minerals with copper, and then lead, and finally tin, until what oxidized on the surface of Paradise was a green hue so hideous that scientists would later claim it matched no living plant nor animal on earth. It was the very opposite of what was natural. Reduced to color data, the green was unlike anything else on the entire spectrum of visible light. It sickened us. And yet, like an illness, it spread from the palate of our Flemish painter into the world. The green began appearing elsewhere at rapid rates. We could not escape it.
Working with cinematographers, we engineered a system of “Post-Processing Life,” which allowed us to remove the color wherever it appeared in the world through functions of the computer. We believed we had solved the problem. We no longer had to look at the awful green.
But like many things more complex than they first seem, unprecedented issues arose. Peering through the holes left by the green, we began to detect ruptures: places where life entered unauthorized, abstract from its contexts. Everything came and went freely through the absence of the green. Removal of the green led to the disintegration of its perimeter.
And then… well shit. There was you.
In spring 2020, when the Gemaldegalerie shuttered, I lost my job, and with the museum’s closure, I lost my ability to visit you during the day. With those visits, I lost the agency to fall toward Paradise precisely, stopping a nose-distance from the canvas. Fearful that I might lose sight of Paradise entirely, I searched the galleries remotely, navigating them with my computer mouse. It took me hours to find you.
By this time, you were exhausted. You didn’t have symptoms, but you seemed ill. “It’s the green,” you said, “it’s making me sick.” Jan the Younger’s Paradise was the only place on earth where the vivid green remained. Elsewhere, we had expunged it, compulsively extinguished it from the face of the planet. But Paradise was where the green originated, and after heated debates with conservators about the pros and cons of altering the painting and removing the green through “Post-Process,” we reached a stalemate. No one could decide how to proceed, and so we left the green inside the painting, and Paradise remained intact.
But then things changed. You gave me those eyes that make my knees wobble and you said, “please, get me out,” and because I was young and bored, locked inside my house and jobless, visiting you on the internet, I said, “fine.”
We both knew there was only one way to save you. Switching my machine on, I copied the protocols outlined by the cinematographer-engineers and went about selecting the sickly hue. The machine drew outlines around the green bits for us to see. It was incredibly precise. I took a deep breath, exhaled through my nose, and clicked “remove.” The machine asked me if I was sure I wanted to proceed, and without giving myself time to reconsider, I shut my eyes and clicked “yes,” go for it.
We were nervous. The whole world was tense that spring, so in fact, we felt consoled. We had ruptured a hole in Paradise, and in vain, we believed we had fixed a problem. We had set you free.
The word “fiction” shares its original meaning with the Persian “paradise.” It emerges from the Latin “fingere,” which means “to form” or “to mold around.” It, too, is an enclosure.
“Fiction,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”
As Ingrid Daemmrich observed, “like a spider’s web, the paradise motif begins by fastening itself firmly to the structure of mythology. But it refuses to remain attached. It dissolves into a multitude of ambivalent alliances that it plays off one another.”
Removal of green from Jan Breughel the Younger’s painting Paradise had this effect of dissolution. Yet it’s difficult now, in retrospect, to separate the final days of Paradise from the beginning of spring 2020 itself, into which all of us dissolved.
Out you came from the replica of Earthly Paradise, and you stood beside me, and together we peered through the computer down the hallway of the shuttered museum. We felt glad to have ruptured Paradise by the removal of that green, and it took us a while to realize what else was slipping through the crack.
“The turtle is gone,” you said quietly at first, and I said, “Fine, it looks more like Jan Breughel the Elder’s original. Let it be.” But we felt uneasy.
The next morning, the lion had left too, and some of the birds, and a bit of the blue sky, which was the only color in the painting that had been truly beautiful. All we could do was watch them leave, one after another, the animals and then the fruits, the water in the stream, and the edges of the canvas itself. The picture dissolved entirely through the hole left by the green.
When Paradise was gone, we no longer missed it.
Alone in our apartment, we paced the length of the floor and snacked on old crackers we found in the backs of the cupboards. Our loss was so complete we didn’t know how to mourn it. Everyone stayed indoors. When green appeared, we deleted it with “Post-Processing,” and often, without our realizing it, other things slipped through.
Where Paradise had dissolved completely, fiction grew resolute. As Woolf had predicted, the spiderweb remained attached, lightly but firmly, at four corners of life. Through cracks in the green, familiar things left and new things entered, and after a few years, we lost the discrepancy.
Due to a lack of funding, the Gemäldegalerie did not re-open, and though there was a rumor of a painting that had disappeared, there were rumors about everything, and so, no one cared.
That spring, from the comfort of our homes, we mixed green and painted it over objects, and then we smudged them out, ruptured holes, and climbed through them. We were driven by a resolution that things could not slip through the cracks if we preceded them, folding our own bodies through the holes, shedding ourselves. Decades later, we’d recall the season feverishly, as if, perhaps, we’d been searching for something angelic.