Views of Solitude: Christiane Pflug

Christiane Pflug, Cottingham School in Winter I, 1968. Oil on canvas, 110.5 x 100.5 cm. Gift of Dr. Michael Pflug, Toronto, 1982. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Christiane Pflug Photo: NGC

We come to the state of isolation from many directions, sometimes individually and sometimes as a group.  In 2020 we find ourselves looking through windows to the world outside, day after indefinite day, as if caught in a painting by Christiane Pflug.

Pflug literally raised the act of looking through windows and doors to the outside world to an art form, and she used the same perspective many times to stoke rich feelings of isolation, of emptiness, of longing for something. Her paintings are unsettling, because isolation is often unsettling. Yet for some loners isolation is a favoured state, whereas most of us perhaps enjoy it in small doses. Who hasn’t wished for “a few minutes for myself” on a hectic day? Most of us choose how we see isolation, just as we choose what we see when we look through a Pflug window to the world outside.

Cottingham School in Winter I, in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, was painted in 1968, nine years after the Berlin-born artist arrived in Toronto with her two young daughters (her husband Michael finished a medical internship in North Africa and joined them a year or so later). From inside their house in Toronto, the view looks over a tidy neighbourhood packed full of low buildings and high rises, parked cars and communication towers, with no human figure in sight. It could have been painted yesterday, and not 52 years ago, so current is the scene. Suddenly, most of us have unexpectedly become familiar with seeing usually bustling streets and parks and neighbourhoods now gone quiet.

Pflug led a difficult life, yet one can see much brightness in her paintings: a Canadian flag flaps jauntily, a reminder both of warmer outdoor gatherings to come, and of the strength of Canadian unity as the nation comes together for the common good. The full parking lots hint of activity, of pupils in classrooms, and of adults working behind all those other windows in those other buildings, of people brought together purposely, and physically. Above all, a hazy blue sky seems to spread good cheer, despite it being a winter’s day. 

Such a positive interpretation may not have surprised Pflug, who was methodical in her work. She took months to complete a painting and the process was so intense that she once wrote, “I’m beginning to understand Sisyphus better and better.” An artist so exacting must have considered every reaction by viewers, that despite the isolation that imbues her paintings, they will sometimes be seen and felt as quietly joyful, even serene.

In these times, Pflug’s art can speak even more eloquently to more people, as we all strive to cope with a degree of isolation we’ve not felt before. It is Pflug’s gift in these anxious days, to contemplate as we gaze out her window, longing to be out there in the world, and be together again.


For details of works by Christiane Pflug in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the collection online. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

Christiane Pflug

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