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Reading Between the Lines
By Ruan Wright
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Rated "PG" by the Author.
First published in ART TIMES
READING BETWEEN THE LINES
“Such sensitivity, such feeling, such ….”
“Crap!” Bernard Wilson scanned the clique of excited critics with ill-concealed contempt, then glanced back at the object of their effusions. Always, always his paintings failed in his eyes, lacking that indefinable something which, for him, distinguished a great work of Art from a skillfully executed picture. True, it was pretty to look at and had, as the critics had said, sensitivity, but ‘feeling’? No, it was cold – dead. Like an allegory it lived to tell a story but never its own. Its only life was that which the viewer read into it. In the case of present company that was very impressive.
“That tree over to the right, the one with a broken-off branch – there, do you see it? It’s barely perceptible yet I believe it to be the most prominent feature of the painting. The key if you like. It epitomizes the fundamental vulnerability of all existence. Nothing is permanent, nothing immutable, even the oak. The beauty of this valley must be enjoyed before it’s too late. There is such an urgency mingled with his characteristic fatalism and pessimism that give Bernard’s paintings more than mere aesthetic beauty. As in his masterpiece Erotica ad infinitum the cool tranquility which at first seems to envelope the lovers becomes an uncomfortable, sticky stillness reverberating the portentous caws of spectral crows. In the end we look upon it in a dread that had primarily been delight. That is why I so adore Mr. Wilson’s paintings. I always feel that tomorrow I’ll return and they will have changed: the lovers in Erotica will have become misshapen and old; or the pensive calm of this one will have been cruelly shattered.”
Bernard Wilson winced. Every time that bloody Gerald Bramley used his Christian name he insisted on frenchifying it – ‘Berrnah’. Hgh! He was born in Leeds, England and proud of it. And as for Mr. Bramley’s poetic percept of Erotica ad infinitum, full marks for the superlative rhetoric and nil for getting it right. The man really ought to take up poetry. What would he say if he knew he’d entitled Erotica solely with Bramley in mind? Sure, for a while he’d thought it might be the one, the one with a life and vivacity of its own but, as ever, when he came closer to finishing it he realized it was as dead as all the others. He hated the sight of it: a naked couple up to their waists in shimmering blue water, bronzen, healthy, innocent, yet passionate, clear sky, brilliant sunshine – silence. Nothing to tempt or distract them. An enchanted pair on an enchanted island. That was the trouble, they were too stiff, too fixed, rising out of the water sharp and gleaming – Excalibur-like. Lovers without souls. To hell with it! Let the critics say what they liked. If he were to tell them he’d painted the landscape as it is and hadn’t even noticed the tree, they’d all look knowingly and call that his idiosyncratic obstinacy. Who cares! He made money, they made money, everyone was happy.
He delved into his broadest Yorkshire accent, drew out his most brusque manner, and flung a deliberately cryptic comment at them as he walked away, his massive back like one of the huge, lichened rocks of his native county:
“A paint wot’s theer, not wot a see.”
And left them to figure it out.
He made for the pub. He ought to be celebrating, he knew; he’d just been acclaimed a Master. But what use if the whole world of pretentious critics thought him Maestro, when he didn’t believe it himself. Sometimes he wished someone would slate him, if only so he could retaliate. Maybe he was just perverse. Yes, that was it: integrity is perversity these days.
As he downed his third double and felt the warm liquor curling up his toes and cooling off his temper he felt much better. Just as he was ordering his fourth he felt a hand on his shoulder:
“Hey, Bernie, how’re you doing? Celebrating another victorious sale? You sly sod, slipping the Slickers greenbacks while we’re all starving in garrets. Just for that, you can get me one of those. No, pal, I’m only joking, this one’s on me; I just made a killing. Not quite in the style you do – some rich old biddy in Coventry – but it’s brought in a few of the old samolians. Come over, meet the gang. We’ve missed your sparkling wit. We’ll make a party of it.”
Bernard felt like a party, and he was sufficiently drunk to look like one. He weaved his way to the table and found himself next to a pretty young art student who immediately engaged him in conversation. Maybe it was the drink but he didn’t recoil when she started on about his work. She’d seen all his paintings and loved them.
“They’re beautiful,” she said, and that was all. No expansions, no arty-farty crap about their intrinsic social comment or their introspective angle on longevity. It was the reaction he’d longed for – speechlessness. No need to reduce into words what could only be felt through the senses. When she said they were beautiful, she said it all, and he believed it.
Before long he was doing all the talking, telling her about his methods, where he got his inspiration, how he mixed his pigments. Then, unselfconsciously, he told her about his torment – a thing he never told anyone. And all the time she watched him with those clear blue eyes and that quiet face and listened. When she took his hand it was as if his problem were solved. It was natural that they went home together.
Their love was intense. She was always quiet, always attentive, and her touch always repaired the schizoid within him. They never spoke of their love and they never extracted promises; they gave and they took without asking.
He knew his first painting of her would be right, but he didn’t expect the tears that came in a release that shook his body uncontrollably. “It’s beautiful,” she said, and that was all.
The critics tried to understand it, but they were floundering:
“The sun, perhaps we should focus on the play of sun in her hair.”
“No, no, that’s far too sentimental for Bernard. Lord knows what he’s playing at. We all know he’s taken up with this girl, but he never did anything like this with his other women-friends. And God knows they had more about them than her. Heaven help him if this is the kind of thing she makes him turn out.”
They next one they slated and he was glad. The one after that was given a scathing mention on the back page of the Review, and his latest was ignored. “Perhaps you should stop painting me,” she said, “I’m tired of sitting anyway. What about those lovely landscapes you used to do. Why not do one of those for a change?”
He kissed her. He knew she was only trying to help, “Sweetheart, you know I’ll never need a change from you.”
He didn’t hear her sigh.
When he was out she left him. “I’m sorry,” she wrote, and that was all.
He came home full of enthusiasm for his newest creation, a portrait of them both, inseparable, incorruptible, immortal. It was to be his wedding gift to her. Then he found her note but, reading between the lines, he saw that she was ill.
Next day he waited for her outside the Slade but she didn’t appear. He waited again, unshaven, disheveled, taut. Then he saw her. “Steph!” he called. She turned. “I’m sorry,” she said, and made to go. He caught her by the arm, “Why?” She looked at him then and her face was all contempt, “For God’s sake don’t whine. It’s finished. Let me go!”
“You bitch!” he said. Then he was sorry. For a moment, she was sorry too.
“Couldn’t we talk about it?”
“There’s nothing to say,” her voice was softer.
“Then let’s sit and say nothing.”
They got drunk together and it was as if their scene had been a masque. Now they played a comedy, and they laughed a lot. They spoke about anything but themselves. He was careful, “Come home, for old time’s sake?” She saw the man within him and wanted to.
When they made love it wasn’t the same, it seemed better, and he thought everything was resolved.
She woke to find him painting her. “What the hell are you doing?”
He was bewildered, “But….”
“Oh, don’t be naïve. Last night we were drunk. You always were good in bed.”
He didn’t know her. He didn’t understand the hatred in her face. He was speechless.
She cringed, “God, you make me sick! With your moon-faced, meaningful silences and your puppy eyes. Always touching, always clinging. What happened to you? You were so – exciting, at first.”
He stared at her, wide-eyed, immobile, as she dressed to go. But he didn’t see her. He saw his mother. Her features were blurred but he knew the scorn and contempt in the face that hated him. He was in front of her now, only he was his father.
“Bernard!” she screamed. “Bernie.” she gasped.
“Sit very still won’t you, sweetheart.” He applied the paint thickly, in a hurry to finish. The sky was a red impasto, the water rippled crimson, the lovers writhed in a purple embrace. With a flourish he added the title, Nothing Lasts.
She never moved.
First Published in ART TIMES
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|Reviewed by shiloh slaughter
|diction-a bit too crisp for artists' thoughts. the story, though written very well, lost me when he fell in love with a girl who got his art. this won't do at all.|
|Reviewed by Charlie
|So, I ooo and ahhh over the first part, but refuse to "get" the last few lines. Passion brings the dead alive-- passion is so intense, it can kill...
Believable characters, idiosycratic Bernie was perfectly built. I love the comparison between "becoming alive" and being lifeless -- whether it be paintings, yourself, a love, a friend -- In life it's just like that; one's passion gets reborn while another's dies out, sometimes one drawing the life out of the other.
It's good stuff, Ruan. --Charlie