Strolling – closer together now – the couple turned their backs upon the shops of Oxford Street, and began to make their way towards a small gallery. They were going to look at an exhibition of the works of Joseph Beuys.
It was Martin who had suggested that they visit the exhibition since Art – a subject which was usefully interesting – had provided the occasion for his second meeting with Marilyn, he now relied upon it to give tone to the third, Marilyn, who was still guaging her interest in Martin, was content to fall in with this plan. She regarded the tea at Greenwich to be her contribution to the afternoon. When her father had asked her that morning how she was going to spend the day, he had been surprised to hear that his younger daughter was visiting an art exhibition.
‘Is that with Martin?’ he asked, casually.
‘Yes, and then we’re coming here for tea.’
‘Oh, good,’ The film-maker studied his daughter as she delicately ate her yoghurt.
‘Is Martin an artist?’ he asked, after a brief pause. His voice revealed a faint trace of boredom.
‘Oh, no; he works in the City – with computers…’
Bill stood up, and scratched the back f his head. ‘Oh well,’ he said, ‘at least your friend can probably afford to buy art. That’s a much better thing than making it,’ he added.
‘I know, said Marilyn. It was impossible to tell whether she was being ironic or serious. Making his way to his study, Bill thought for a moment about Marilyn’s day. He was pleased that she seemed to have found a boyfriend; in many ways he was doubly pleased that the boy in questin appeared to be from sturdy professional stock. He had always dreaded the thought of of Marilyn taking up with a bohemian. He could not help wondering, however, what his daughter would make of Joseph Beuys.
Marilyn, that afternoon, made little of Joseph Beuys. The exhibition was quite small, but it contained, along with some photo-etchings and blackboard pieces, various objects which the German artist had made to express his political and artistic theories: cans of films, audio tapes encased in felt squares, wooden postcards, a record, an iron shovel, and twelve bottles of red wine, their labels printed with the large black initials F.I.U. There was also an old tape recorder, the leather case of which was daubed with a red cross.
‘It’s really very beautiful,’ said Martin, at length. ‘In fact, it’s like being in a shop.’
Marilyn looked at the bottles of wine respectfully. ‘How much would those cost?’ she whispered.
‘God knows. Considerably more than your average plonk…’
‘But why? I mean, it’s probably gone off by now, anyway…’
For the second time that day, Marilyn was in danger of being misunderstood. Martin was hoping that his interest in the works was not making him appear boring, or affected. Still, he could not answer Marilyn’s reasonable question from any position of knowledge. To Martin, the works on display were romantically industrial and militaristic; but he could not explain why they were art, or why they should cost so much. The two young people, therefore, were equally sincere in their responses to the exhibition. Marilyn, who had a very strong sense of what she liked, felt the objects to be ugly and deliberately obscure; Martin, whose self-conscious aestheticism in fact amounted to a similar notion of taste, was drwan to the mystery of what he did not understand.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, finally; ‘but I’m glad we came. Would your father know about this sort of stuff?’
‘Probably. He’s got loads of books on art and things – What’s that?’
Martin looked at a label. ‘Fat and human hair,’ he said. Marilyn pulled a face.
As they were leaving the gallery, Martin inhaled its scent. The smell of varnish and fresh paint, cooled by th air-conditioning seemed to mix into a clean atmosphere of modernity and affluence. He found this scent both comforting and inspiring.
Once they were outside, Marilyn slipped her arm through his.
‘Would you like to come to tea now?’ she said.
Chapter 7. Everything Matters
Instead, in April 1988, Martin bought a painting.
The painting resembled two hospital doors. The doors were closed to create a flat surface, and had been painted over with many coats of magnolia-coloured household emulsion. Thus, in some lights, the painting appeared quite blank; but beneath the surface of the paint, just visible, the outlines of the two circular windows and narrow oblong fingerplates could be discerned. Martin delighted in the understatement and purity of of this remarkable painting. The young artist who had made it was highly regarded. An essay had been written about his work in one of the fashionable art magazines. Marilyn, eventually allowed the large painting to be hung in the dining room, where it faced the haughty expression of Peploe’s Woman In Black Hat.
‘It doesn’t go with this room, you know,’ said Marilyn. ‘In fact, it doesn’t go with this flat. It ought to be somewhere modern and empty.’
But Martin held firm.
‘It’s not like it’s not prepared to make the effort to be a work of art,’ he said. ‘It’s so simple – I love it…’
‘It’s bland,’ said Marilyn.
Marilyn looked at the large, empty painting and sighed.
‘Actually,’ she said, ‘it’s rather threatening – like having an unwanted guest in the room…’ she paused. ‘And it looks dated.’
‘But it’s only just been painted!’
All of these comments simply increased Martin’s defence of his purchase. He was annoyed with Marilyn for not liking the painting. It had cost £1,500. Secretly he was suddenly pleased that his wife found the work upsetting. He believed that Marilyn was becoming too conservative, and that her approach to art was becoming unromantic and weighed down with domestic caution. Hitherto, Martin’s aesthetic tastes had won Marilyn’s attention, if not her admiration. Now she was making him feel ridiculous – like a small boy who has bought an impractical misogyny. A quarrel threatened. Divided over a matter of taste, Martin and Marilyn felt the very foundations of their relationship shudder. Marilyn, for an instant, saw deep into the heart of Martin’s conceit, and she found him neither artistic nor interesting. A conspiracy of impression’s whose catalyst, it seemed, was the magnolia-coloured painting, had caused the young husband to slip slightly in his wife’s estimation. The grace of innocence within their relationship had departed: Martin and Marilyn, for a few hours, resented one another with the ancient stubbornness of old hands in marriage.
Marilyn, for her part, disliked the magnolia-coloured painting. Its emptiness unsettled her.
Michael Bracewell, 1958- The Conclave, 1992
Image: Gary Hume, Magnolia Door Eleven, 1989