Saturday, April 10, 2010

Winter Roses

The old man had been left alone now. The still warm autumn sunlight slanted through the open casement windows onto the polished boards of the studio floor, not quite reaching the foot of the table on which the vase of flowers stood. From behind his head, the cool northern sky lit up the white cycling cap that he wore and highlighted the threads of the brocade cloth beneath the blue vase.

The frail figure was sitting, or rather had been placed at an angle, so that he could see the dark corner of the room as a contrasting background to the pink and red blooms that Jean's wife had carefully placed in the vase the day before. He thought it would have been better if they had been arranged less carefully, since beauty often followed accident rather than design.

He could see outside into the garden, through the triple panes of the doors, and a bit of intense cerulean blue above the tangle of bushes and gently swaying mass of fruit trees. Beyond were the twisted forms of the olive trees that had endured for centuries. If he had not bought the land they would most likely have been cut down, to make way for some hideous tourist development, an act of vandalism he could not bear to think about.

The fresh smell of distilled turpentine and linseed oil hung in the air, scents which his now cavernous nostrils could barely detect anymore: perhaps through the atrophy of the senses that comes with age or the familiarity that blinds the mind to an omnipresent sensation. He dipped his brush into the oil and flicked in the spiral curve of a petal, mixing it with the undried madder on the canvas.

The tableau reminded him of the Tricoleur: the blue vase, the white cloth and the blood red of the roses. He was not overly patriotic: the ravages of the recent war had nearly killed his son and had hastened the death of his wife, but he was imbued with the true spirit of France. In his heyday, Paris had been the centre of civilisation and might be again, now the Bosch had finally been defeated. He did not care for politics much either, but knew the importance of symbols. The blue of liberté and the red of fraternité were incompatible without the separating white of egalité. What better represented freedom than the blue of the open sky, and what more telling sign of brotherhood that the red of blood? As to white, was it not the summation of all the colours of light bound together in harmony? Had he not devoted his life to balancing the raw colours of the palette into the opalescent perfection of female flesh?

He thought of his early nudes: too much bitumen leaking into the flesh tones, too much umber in the shadows. Red was the colour of fire and warmth pulsing within the human body, a necessary antidote to the cool, neo-classical perfection of Ingres and David, which he had so admired in his middle years. He had reintroduced the discipline of line, and dried and cooled his palette in the search for perfect form and colour, but had remained unsatisfied. For years now, he had breathed life back into his monuments to the female form. In old age, he wanted to feel again the presence of woman, the weight, the softness and the smell of the female animal: all those delights that were man's birthright had to be translated into the impersonal medium of canvas and paint.

In the heady days of his youth, the four of them had dissolved the world into a living rainbow, learning to see it in a new way, lifting the veil of varnished gloom forever. Colour had burst free from its restraining lines and edges, perhaps for the first time since man had smeared his caves with ochre and charcoal. There could be no turning back now; the stygian gloom of the academy had been overthrown by life and joy, and he had played a major part in this human drama. But where had it all led? He wasn't sure but could not give up the search for something more. Could he, even now, come up to the great masters of the past?

Crippled all these years, he was now helpless as a baby without its nurse. But he was thankful that God had spared his eyes. Degas and Monet had lost their windows to the world and were left with only dim shadows or the feel of clay beneath the hands. "Bad pain", he muttered, lowering the palette with a ruined hand. He would have liked some brandy; the occasional liqueur eased his pain and was a small pleasure besides. "Pleasure is important", he said to himself. "What is life without pleasure? The pleasures of painting, of friendship and of women." He had been unable to enjoy the greatest gift of the gods for some years now.

"What have the old to do with this?" he thought aloud. He remembered the half-length self-portrait with its sidelong glance and almost hidden hands, revealing the delicate longings of his soul. "I loved myself then, or rather what I hoped to become," he chuckled, reflecting on the hidden narcissism of those days, betrayed in this image of a still young man. He could wear the red rosette of honour now, if he wished, but cared little for the kind of social judgment it represented. Only time would measure the true worth of his labours.

"Truth, there had to be truth," he muttered to himself, struggling to raise the palette again. The battle for truth was never ending: the truth of line, the truth of form and, above all, truth of colour. Each act of painting, in itself a lie, was a deception and a fraud upon the viewer. "Glorious crime," he said aloud. Even the gods had to lie to reveal the world to men. He was no philosopher - what painter could afford to be, without doubting the worth of his profession- but he understood that without the sensual there was no world at all. Life was a picture painted with all the senses, and to appreciate it fully one needed to be an artist. The painter worked with the raw materials of the soul, seeking to reveal the glory beneath mundane experience. Without art the world was full of ugliness and pain. The artist was there to display the feast of life, rather than the famine. He had been poor, he had been unhappy, but he had always been an optimist, sustained by the belief that his special gifts could throw the cloak of beauty over the injured masses of humanity, to capture the eternal beauty of life and joy in the faces of ordinary men and women. As every fatalist knew, he had to make the best of it, whatever life might bring.

The precise, linear style that he had mastered long ago was no longer possible. He couldn't grasp a charcoal stick in his arthritic hands, let alone a finer instrument, and had to trace out the main arcs of the flowers with the brush, pushed between the fingers of his crippled fist. Ever adaptable, his brain had learned to transfer the delicate control from the fingers to wrist and arm, but the flickering flashing style of his youth could not be recovered. Now, it had become a stabbing, jabbing action, like some old fencer defending his honour to the last.

 In his earlier works, he had painted landscapes, still lifes and sometimes animals, but his preference now was for single subjects: the nude, a group of figures, a bowl of fruit or just a vase of flowers. He wanted to extract the essence of the subject and impregnate the canvas with the intensity of the feelings it aroused. Satan lacking true creativity, merely tempted man to explore God's creation. He was all in favour of that, but photography, that invention of the devil, could only produce a colourless, dead imitation, devoid of human feeling. The labours of the pointillists, with their scientific dots of colour mixing in the viewer's eye, were wasted in trying to produce a rival to colour printing or photography. There were no singing lines or colours in photographs, and even if there were there could never be any soul. A painting was an expression of human emotion and feelings, in response to nature, something a photograph, or its imitation, could never accomplish.

His painting was about relationships: between earth and sky, between inanimate objects, between people, and between himself and the world. Nothing was entirely separate; everything was in some way related to its surroundings. Everything reflected what was around it: light flowed over surfaces, broke up into a million hues, filled up shadows with indigo and purple, and poured its bounty into the eye, where it ran down to the heart and awoke love, passion and desire. The problem for the painter was to arrange the pigments on the canvas so that the light falling on the painting would be scattered in the same way it would have been from real flowers, fruit or women. This was a kind of magic that went beyond mere cleverness because, like the actor, the painter had to add his own message of love and beauty to the light, as it went on its way to the observer's eye. The serious viewer had the responsibility of learning the visual language used by each artist, so that he could fully enjoy the gift of sight being freely offered. Like Arachne, the painter must weave his colours with consummate skill, even to the amazement of the gods, whose jealous rage might reduce him to a shadow of his former self.

A patient spider, he wove on, despite the pain. Each subject had its special problems. The purpose of flowers, like a woman's smile, was to attract a lover, to enjoy the nectar within. The petals had not the fullness of the fruit that would surely follow, as summer followed spring, but displayed a more brilliant if less substantial tone. The very purity of its colour repressed the wealth of reflections found in an aubergine or in a woman's cheek. Woman was both flower and fruit in one, so most satisfying to the painter's eye. What more glorious subject than a full-blown woman, suckling a child at her breast. This was the subject he had chosen for his wife's monument, a last defiant blow in the face of indomitable death.

The servants had returned now, tending to his every need. The palette had been removed and the thumb guard taken off. Wheeled into the villa, and uprooted from his chair, his useless legs hung down, the limbs as gnarled and knotted as the ancient olive trees in his garden. He was accustomed to the indignity of relieving himself in front of others, and being cleaned up like a baby by his 'doctoress'. In the kitchen, soup and pate was being laid out.

Afterwards, in the studio, willing hands would clean brushes and squeeze out fresh colours, according to the master's standing instructions. He did not like being called master; that would be tempting fate, but preferred his surname, unadorned. Although he lived in the surroundings of a bourgeois gentleman he was not one of that kind.

After the meal, he was wheeled onto the terrace. He had taken a few puffs of the cigarette, which irritated his bronchial chest. The moist wind from the sea had never agreed with him. Very weary now, and afraid he might have one of his turns he signalled to the nurse that he had finished working for the day. Even in the warmth of the south, the roses in the garden would soon succumb to winter. Perhaps these would be the last he would paint.

The woman and the little girl stood in the newsagents, the bright artificial light reflecting colours from the shiny magazine covers onto their youthful faces. "I like this one," said the little girl, holding up a birthday card with a painting of pink and red roses in a blue vase. "These look more real," the mother said, indicating row upon row of roses, photographed to perfection.

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