Honoré De Balzac – Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu. 1831 The Unknown Masterpiece

P Picasso_Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu 1934

II—CATHERINE LESCAULT

“Come in, come in,” cried the old man. He was radiant with delight. “My work is perfect. I can show her now with pride. Never shall painter, brushes, colours, light, and canvas produce a rival for ‘Catherine Lescault,’ the beautiful courtesan!”

Porbus and Poussin, burning with eager curiosity, hurried into a vast studio. Everything was in disorder and covered with dust, but they saw a few pictures here and there upon the wall. They stopped first of all in admiration before the life-size figure of a woman partially draped.

“Oh! never mind that,” said Frenhofer; “that is a rough daub that I made, a study, a pose, it is nothing. These are my failures,” he went on, indicating the enchanting compositions upon the walls of the studio.

This scorn for such works of art struck Porbus and Poussin dumb with amazement. They looked round for the picture of which he had spoken, and could not discover it.

“Look here!” said the old man. His hair was disordered, his face aglow with a more than human exaltation, his eyes glittered, he breathed hard like a young lover frenzied by love.

“Aha!” he cried, “you did not expect to see such perfection! You are looking for a picture, and you see a woman before you. There is such depth in that canvas, the atmosphere is so true that you can not distinguish it from the air that surrounds us. Where is art? Art has vanished, it is invisible! It is the form of a living girl that you see before you. Have I not caught the very hues of life, the spirit of the living line that defines the figure? Is there not the effect produced there like that which all natural objects present in the atmosphere about them, or fishes in the water? Do you see how the figure stands out against the background? Does it not seem to you that you pass your hand along the back? But then for seven years I studied and watched how the daylight blends with the objects on which it falls. And the hair, the light pours over it like a flood, does it not?… Ah! she breathed, I am sure that she breathed! Her breast—ah, see! Who would not fall on his knees before her? Her pulses throb. She will rise to her feet. Wait!”

“Do you see anything?” Poussin asked of Porbus.

“No… do you?”

“I see nothing.”

The two painters left the old man to his ecstasy, and tried to ascertain whether the light that fell full upon the canvas had in some way neutralized all the effect for them. They moved to the right and left of the picture; they came in front, bending down and standing upright by turns.

“Yes, yes, it is really canvas,” said Frenhofer, who mistook the nature of this minute investigation.

“Look! the canvas is on a stretcher, here is the easel; indeed, here are my colors, my brushes,” and he took up a brush and held it out to them, all unsuspicious of their thought.

“The old lansquenet is laughing at us,” said Poussin, coming once more toward the supposed picture. “I can see nothing there but confused masses of colour and a multitude of fantastical lines that go to make a dead wall of paint.”

“We are mistaken, look!” said Porbus.

In a corner of the canvas, as they came nearer, they distinguished a bare foot emerging from the chaos of colour, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog. Its living delicate beauty held them spellbound. This fragment that had escaped an incomprehensible, slow, and gradual destruction seemed to them like the Parian marble torso of some Venus emerging from the ashes of a ruined town.

“There is a woman beneath,” exclaimed Porbus, calling Poussin’s attention to the coats of paint with which the old artist had overlaid and concealed his work in the quest of perfection.

Both artists turned involuntarily to Frenhofer. They began to have some understanding, vague though it was, of the ecstasy in which he lived.

“He believes it in all good faith,” said Porbus.

“Yes, my friend,” said the old man, rousing himself from his dreams, “it needs faith, faith in art, and you must live for long with your work to produce such a creation. What toil some of those shadows have cost me. Look! there is a faint shadow there upon the cheek beneath the eyes—if you saw that on a human face, it would seem to you that you could never render it with paint. Do you think that that effect has not cost unheard of toil?

“But not only so, dear Porbus. Look closely at my work, and you will understand more clearly what I was saying as to methods of modeling and outline. Look at the high lights on the bosom, and see how by touch on touch, thickly laid on, I have raised the surface so that it catches the light itself and blends it with the lustrous whiteness of the high lights, and how by an opposite process, by flattening the surface of the paint, and leaving no trace of the passage of the brush, I have succeeded in softening the contours of my figures and enveloping them in half-tints until the very idea of drawing, of the means by which the effect is produced, fades away, and the picture has the roundness and relief of nature. Come closer. You will see the manner of working better; at a little distance it can not be seen. There I Just there, it is, I think, very plainly to be seen,” and with the tip of his brush he pointed out a patch of transparent colour to the two painters.

Porbus, laying a hand on the old artist’s shoulder, turned to Poussin with a “Do you know that in him we see a very great painter?”

“He is even more of a poet than a painter,” Poussin answered gravely.

“There,” Porbus continued, as he touched the canvas, “Use the utmost limit of our art on earth.”

“Beyond that point it loses itself in the skies,” said Poussin.

“What joys lie there on this piece of canvas!” exclaimed Porbus.

The old man, deep in his own musings, smiled at the woman he alone beheld, and did not hear.

“But sooner or later he will find out that there is nothing there!” cried Poussin.

“Nothing on my canvas!” said Frenhofer, looking in turn at either painter and at his picture.

“What have you done?” muttered Porbus, turning to Poussin.

The old man clutched the young painter’s arm and said, “Do you see nothing? clodpatel Huguenot! varlet! cullion! What brought you here into my studio?—My good Porbus,” he went on, as he turned to the painter, “are you also making a fool of me? Answer! I am your friend. Tell me, have I ruined my picture after all?”

Porbus hesitated and said nothing, but there was such intolerable anxiety in the old man’s white face that he pointed to the easel.

“Look!” he said.

Frenhofer looked for a moment at his picture, and staggered back.

“Nothing! nothing! After ten years of work…” He sat down and wept.

“So I am a dotard, a madman, I have neither talent nor power! I am only a rich man, who works for his own pleasure, and makes no progress, I have done nothing after all!”

He looked through his tears at his picture. Suddenly he rose and stood proudly before the two painters.

“By the body and blood of Christ,” he cried with flashing eyes, “you are jealous! You would have me think that my picture is a failure because you want to steal her from me! Ah! I see her, I see her,” he cried “she is marvelously beautiful…”

At that moment Poussin heard the sound of weeping; Gillette was crouching forgotten in a corner. All at once the painter once more became the lover. “What is it, my angel?” he asked her.

“Kill me!” she sobbed. “I must be a vile thing if I love you still, for I despise you…. I admire you, and I hate you! I love you, and I feel that I hate you even now!”

While Gillette’s words sounded in Poussin’s ears, Frenhof er drew a green serge covering over his “Catherine” with the sober deliberation of a jeweler who locks his drawers when he suspects his visitors to be expert thieves. He gave the two painters a profoundly astute glance that expressed to the full his suspicions, and his contempt for them, saw them out of his studio with impetuous haste and in silence, until from the threshold of his house he bade them “Good-by, my young friends!”

That farewell struck a chill of dread into the two painters. Porbus, in anxiety, went again on the morrow to see Frenhofer, and learned that he had died in the night after burning his canvases.

Honoré De Balzac, 1799-1850

Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu. 1831 The Unknown Masterpiece, translation by Ellen Marriage (?)

Image: Pabo Picasso, Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu. Black ink and wash on paper, laid to card, c.15 x 15 inches

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Émile Zola – L’Oeuvre,1886 [The Masterpiece]

(c) The Courtauld Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Édouard Manet, 1832-1883. Déjeuner sur l’herbe, c.1863–1868. © The Courtauld Gallery, London

Chapter 5

Then the five roamed about in Indian file, with their noses in the air, now separated by a sudden crush, now reunited by another, and ever carried along by the stream. An abomination of Chaine’s, a ‘Christ pardoning the Woman taken in Adultery,’ made them pause; it was a group of dry figures that looked as if cut out of wood, very bony of build, and seemingly painted with mud. But close by they admired a very fine study of a woman, seen from behind, with her head turned sideways. The whole show was a mixture of the best and the worst, all styles were mingled together, the drivellers of the historical school elbowed the young lunatics of realism, the pure simpletons were lumped together with those who bragged about their originality. A dead Jezabel, that seemed to have rotted in the cellars of the School of Arts, was exhibited near a lady in white, the very curious conception of a future great artist [Edouard Manet]; then a huge shepherd looking at the sea, a weak production, faced a little painting of some Spaniards playing at rackets, a dash of light of splendid intensity. Nothing execrable was wanting, neither military scenes full of little leaden soldiers, nor wan antiquity, nor the middle ages, smeared, as it were, with bitumen. But from amidst the incoherent ensemble, and especially from the landscapes, all of which were painted in a sincere, correct key, and also from the portraits, most of which were very interesting in respect to workmanship, there came a good fresh scent of youth, bravery and passion. If there were fewer bad pictures in the official Salon, the average there was assuredly more commonplace and mediocre. Here one found the smell of battle, of cheerful battle, given jauntily at daybreak, when the bugle sounds, and when one marches to meet the enemy with the certainty of beating him before sunset.

Claude, whose spirits had revived amidst that martial odour, grew animated and pugnacious as he listened to the laughter of the public. He looked as defiant, indeed, as if he had heard bullets whizzing past him. Sufficiently discreet at the entrance of the galleries, the laughter became more boisterous, more unrestrained, as they advanced.

In the third room the women ceased concealing their smiles behind their handkerchiefs, while the men openly held their sides the better to ease themselves. It was the contagious hilarity of people who had come to amuse themselves, and who were growing gradually excited, bursting out at a mere trifle, diverted as much by the good things as by the bad. Folks laughed less before Chaine’s Christ than before the back view of the nude woman, who seemed to them very comical indeed.

The ‘Lady in White’ also stupefied people and drew them together; folks nudged each other and went into hysterics almost; there was always a grinning group in front of it. Each canvas thus had its particular kind of success; people hailed each other from a distance
to point out something funny, and witticisms flew from mouth to mouth; to such a degree indeed that, as Claude entered the fourth gallery, lashed into fury by the tempest of laughter that was raging there as well, he all but slapped the face of an old lady whose chuckles exasperated him.

‘What idiots!’ he said, turning towards his friends. ‘One feels inclined to throw a lot of masterpieces at their heads.’

Sandoz had become fiery also, and Fagerolles continued praising the most dreadful daubs, which only tended to increase the laughter, while Gagniere, at sea amid the hubbub, dragged on the delighted Irma, whose skirts somehow wound round the legs of all the men.

But of a sudden Jory stood before them. His fair handsome face absolutely beamed. He cut his way through the crowd, gesticulated, and exulted, as if over a personal victory. And the moment he perceived Claude, he shouted:
‘Here you are at last! I have been looking for you this hour. A success, old fellow, oh! a success – ‘
‘What success?’
‘Why, the success of your picture. Come, I must show it you. You’ll see, it’s stunning.’

Claude grew pale. A great joy choked him, while he pretended to receive the news with composure. Bongrand’s words came back to him. He began to believe that he possessed genius.

‘Hallo, how are you?’ continued Jory, shaking hands with the others. And, without more ado, he, Fagerolles and Gagniere surrounded Irma, who smiled on them in a good-natured way.

‘Perhaps you’ll tell us where the picture is,’ said Sandoz, impatiently. ‘Take us to it.’

Jory assumed the lead, followed by the band. They had to fight their way into the last gallery. But Claude, who brought up the rear, still heard the laughter that rose on the air, a swelling clamour, the roll of a tide near its full. And as he finally entered the room, he beheld a vast, swarming, closely packed crowd pressing eagerly in front of his picture. All the laughter arose, spread, and ended there. And it was his picture that was being laughed at.

‘Eh!’ repeated Jory, triumphantly, ‘there’s a success for you.’ Gagniere, intimidated, as ashamed as if he himself had been slapped, muttered: ‘Too much of a success – I should prefer something different.’

‘What a fool you are,’ replied Jory, in a burst of exalted conviction. ‘That’s what I call success. Does it matter a curse if they laugh? We have made our mark; to-morrow every paper will talk about us.’

‘The idiots,’ was all that Sandoz could gasp, choking with grief.

Fagerolles, disinterested and dignified like a family friend following a funeral procession, said nothing. Irma alone remained gay, thinking it all very funny. And, with a caressing gesture, she leant against the shoulder of the derided painter, and whispered softly in his ear:

‘Don’t fret, my boy. It’s all humbug, be merry all the same.’

But Claude did not stir. An icy chill had come over him. For a moment his heart had almost ceased to beat, so cruel had been the disappointment And with his eyes enlarged, attracted and fixed by a resistless force, he looked at his picture. He was surprised, and scarcely recognised it; it certainly was not such as it had seemed to be in his studio. It had grown yellow beneath the livid light of the linen screens; it seemed, moreover, to have become smaller; coarser and more laboured also; and whether it was the effect of the light in which it now hung, or the contrast of the works beside it, at all events he now at the first glance saw all its defects, after having remained blind to them, as it were, for months. With a few strokes of the brush he, in thought, altered the whole of it, deepened the distances, set a badly drawn limb right, and modified a tone. Decidedly, the gentleman in the velveteen jacket was worth nothing at all, he was altogether pasty and badly seated; the only really good bit of work about him was his hand. In the background the two little wrestlers – the fair and the dark one–had remained too sketchy, and lacked substance; they were amusing only to an artist’s eye. But he was pleased with the trees, with the sunny glade; and the nude woman – the woman lying on the grass appeared to him superior to his own powers, as if some one else had painted her, and as if he had never yet beheld her in such resplendency of life.

He turned to Sandoz, and said simply: ‘They do right to laugh; it’s incomplete. Never mind, the woman is all right! Bongrand was not hoaxing me.’

His friend wished to take him away, but he became obstinate, and drew nearer instead. Now that he had judged his work, he listened and looked at the crowd. The explosion continued–culminated in an ascending scale of mad laughter. No sooner had visitors crossed the threshold than he saw their jaws part, their eyes grow small, their entire faces expand; and he heard the tempestuous puffing of the fat men, the rusty grating jeers of the lean ones, amidst all the shrill, flute-like laughter of the women. Opposite him, against the
hand-rails, some young fellows went into contortions, as if somebody had been tickling them. One lady had flung herself on a seat, stifling and trying to regain breath with her handkerchief over her mouth. Rumours of this picture, which was so very, very funny, must have been spreading, for there was a rush from the four corners of the Salon, bands of people arrived, jostling each other, and all eagerness to share the fun. ‘Where is it?’ ‘Over there.’ ‘Oh, what a joke!’ And the witticisms fell thicker than elsewhere. It was especially the subject that caused merriment; people failed to understand it, thought it insane, comical enough to make one ill with laughter. ‘You see the lady feels too hot, while the gentleman has put on his velveteen jacket for fear of catching cold.’ ‘Not at all; she is already blue; the gentleman has pulled her out of a pond, and he is resting at a distance, holding his nose.’ ‘I tell you it’s a young ladies’ school out for a ramble. Look at the two playing at leap-frog.’ ‘Hallo! washing day; the flesh is blue; the trees are blue; he’s dipped his picture in the blueing tub!’

Those who did not laugh flew into a rage: that bluish tinge, that novel rendering of light seemed an insult to them. Some old gentlemen shook their sticks. Was art to be outraged like this? One grave individual went away very wroth, saying to his wife that he did not like practical jokes. But another, a punctilious little man, having looked in the catalogue for the title of the work, in order to tell his daughter, read out the words, ‘Plein Air ‘ whereupon there came a formidable renewal of the clamour, hisses and shouts, and what not else besides. The title sped about; it was repeated, commented on. ‘Plein Air ! ah, yes, the open air, the nude woman in the air, everything in the air, tra la la laire.’ The affair was becoming a scandal. The crowd still increased. People’s faces grew red with congestion in the growing heat. Each had the stupidly gaping mouth of the ignoramus who judges painting, and between them they indulged in all the asinine ideas, all the preposterous reflections, all the stupid spiteful jeers that the sight of an original work can possibly elicit from bourgeois imbecility.

At that moment, as a last blow, Claude beheld Dubuche reappear, dragging the Margaillans along. As soon as he came in front of the picture, the architect, ill at ease, overtaken by cowardly shame, wished to quicken his pace and lead his party further on, pretending that he saw neither the canvas nor his friends. But the contractor had already drawn himself up on his short, squat legs, and was staring at the picture, and asking aloud in his thick hoarse voice:

‘I say, who’s the blockhead that painted this?’

Émile Zola, 1840-1902.  L’Oeuvre,1886 [The Masterpiece] translated by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly (1853-1922).

Image: Édouard Manet, 1832-1883. Déjeuner sur l’herbe, c.1863–1868. Oil on canvas, 89.5 x 116.5 cm. The Courtauld Gallery, London

 L’Oeuvre is he fourteenth novel in the twenty volume Rougon-Macquart series, and contrasts the Bohemian world which saw the emergence of the Impressionists against the conservative attitudes of the Academy and official Salon. The novel  concerns the story of Claude Lantier, partly based on Zola’s friend, Paul Cezanne, a talented painter from the provinces.  

Wyndham Lewis – Tarr,1918

W Lewis_Tarr

Part VII. Swagger Sex. Chapter 2

‘I am an artist.’

‘Yes I’ve heard that before!’ she blustered gaily with a german conviviality that made him feel more than ever at home. ‘But the artist has to hunt and kill his material so to speak just as primitive man has to do his own trapping butchering and cooking – it will not do to be squeamish if you are to become a great artist, Mister Tarr!’

Tarr looked the great artist every inch as he haughtily replied:

‘Nevertheless there stands the fact that life is art’s rival in all particulars. Tehy are de puntos for ever and ever, you will see, if you observe closely.’

‘That I do not see.’

‘No because you mix them up in your own practice.’

‘The woman, I suppose?’

Tarr gave her a hard dogmatic look and then asserted roundly, and probably finally:

‘As such, and with such resources, you are the arch-enemy of any picture.’

Anastasya looked pleased, and looked a picture.

‘Yes I see how I might be that. But let us have a definition here and there. What is art? – it sounds like Pompous Pilate!’

‘Life with all the humbug of living taken out of it: will that do?’

‘Very well: but what is life?’

‘Everything that is not putrified so that it is art.’

‘No.’

‘Very well: Death is the one attribute that is peculiar to life.’

‘And to art as well.’

‘Ah but it is impossible to imagine it in connection with art – that is if you understand art – that is the test for your understanding. Death is the motif of all reality: the purest thought is ignorant of that motif.’

‘I ask you as a favour to define art for me, you have not. A picture is art if I am not mistaken, but a living person is life. We sitting here are life, if we were talking on a stage we would be art.’

‘A picture, and also the actors on a stage, are pure life. Art is merely what the picture and the stage-scene represent, and what we now, or any living person as such, only, does not: that is why you could say that the true statue can be smashed, and yet not die.’

‘Still.’

‘This is the essential point to grasp: Death is the thing that differentiates art and life. Art is identical with the idea of permanence. Art is a continuity and not an individual spasm: but life is the idea of a person.’

Both their faces lost some of their colour, hers white, his the strong, almost the ‘high’ yellow. They flung themselves upon each other socratically, stowing away course after course.

‘You say that actors upon the stage are pure life, yet they represent something that we do not. But “all the world’s a stage,” isn’t it?’

‘It was an actor that said that. I say it’s all an atelier – “all the world’s a workshop” I should say. Consider the content of what we call art. A statue is art. It is a dead thing, a lump of stone or wood. Its lines and proportions are its soul. Anything living, quick and changing is bad art always; naked men and women are the worst art of all, because there are fewer semi-dead things about them. The shell of the tortoise, the plumage of a bird, makes these animals approach nearer to art. Soft, quivering and quick flesh is as far from art as it is possible for an object to be.’

‘Art is merely the dead, then?’

No but Deadness is the first condition of art. The armoured hide of the hippopotamus, the shell of the tortoise, feathers and machinery, you may put in one camp; naked pulsing and moving of the soft inside of life – along with elasticity of movement and consciousness – that goes in the opposite camp. Deadness is the first condition for art: the second is the absence of soul, in the human and sentimental sense. With the statue its lines and masses are its soul, no restless inflammable ego is imagined for its interior: it has no inside: good art must have no inside: that is capital.’

‘Then why should human beings be chiefly represented in art?’

‘Because it is human beings that commission and buy art.’

Wyndham Lewis, 1882-1957  – Tarr,1918

Wyndham Lewis – Rotting Hill,1951

W Lewis_Rotting Hill 1951

Chapter 8. My Disciple.

  Of course in fact he had had a wide choice of callings. Upon demobilization he could have become almost anything from a Harley Street consultant to an Anglican clergyman, by means of a Government grant: to the mind of the politician, who is anti-craft, the notion that it takes a long time to become anything worth the being is repugnant. The politician, like the journalist, is a professional amateur. The only thing there was no grant for was to learn how to be a politician. The laziest of the ex-servicemen naturally chose the fine arts. The nation’s money was drained off on oil-paints, palettes, mahlsticks, six-foot lay-figures, poppy-oil and sable-brushes—and of course studio rents. Sculpture was not so popular, it sounded too much like work.

Gartsides was sent to an emergency training centre. In one year he would have qualified as a teacher in an elementary school. Shortly, however, he discovered that there was no obstacle to his transferring, if he so desired, and training to be an art teacher. So he changed over (he probably found arithmetic a bit of a sweat): whether remaining in the same training centre or not I forget. On the completion of a brief period of art-training, he blossomed forth as art-teacher, was appointed to a slum-school. The other teachers there, of whatever kind, were “certificated”—which meant they had matriculated and spent some years in procuring their licence to teach. It seems he was not a popular figure, even before he showed what stuff he was made of. But it was no time at all before he did that. He quite literally painted the school red.

A thigh thrown over a desk, an arm akimbo, his utility shoe dangling, the children were addressed by Gartsides; and their fidgety little eyes popped out of their curly little heads. They were told that what was spontaneous was best. Spontaneous meaning what spurts up, free and uncontrolled, not fed out by a nasty tap. The freest expression—the most innocent release—of their personalities was what he was there to teach. They would get no direction from him, his role was that of a helpful looker-on. Ready to give a hand, that was all. (He conveyed a very vivid impersonation of these transactions I am obliged naturally to abridge). Art was doing what they liked. It was not doing what he liked. They must pay no attention to him or to anyone else—it did not matter a hoot what anyone thought. He waved a rebellious eye over towards the office of the superintendent. He could teach them nothing. What can one person teach another except to be himself, as if he lived on a little island all by himself? They all lived on little islands all by themselves. No, he was simply there in the capacity of a wet-nurse, to assist them to be their little selves, and to bring forth—to create—whatever was inside them!

The children—typical Giles-like gnomes from the neighbouring sooty alleys and crapulous crescents—were of course alarmed and excited. Then he appeared one morning with a number of tins of house-painters’ colours and a couple of dozen suitable brushes (and he was very proud of introducing house-painters’ colours into the teaching of art). He pointed dramatically to the walls of the class-room crying: “Here’s paints and brushes and there’s the old wall! Atta boy! Paint me some pitchers on it!”

His petrified class suddenly saw the light. With squeaks of rapture they went to work. Soon the walls, part of the ceiling, as well as the cupboards and doors and even some areas of the floor of the class-room were as rich with crude imagery as the walls of a public lavatory. Some of the children were smeared from head to foot with paint.

After this his popularity suffered a further decline among the teaching staff. Next the school-inspectors arrived one morning and “nearly threw a fit” when they saw his class-room. He played the simpleton. He grimaced with a wooden jaw, hanging open an idiot lip and goggled with his eyes, to show me how smart he could be. It seems that the inspectors were satisfied that he was practically imbecilic. Of course they recognised that this was the type of man called for to teach art. They bullied the children, however, a little, for obviously they should have had more sense.

After the paint he obtained some plasticine.

“What do you think they did with it?” he asked me.

I shook my head, to indicate my inability to guess what might supervene if their personalities were left alone with so malleable a substance as plasticine.

“Well, they all made the same sort of thing,” he told me.

“Indeed. How curious.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “They stood their piece of plasticine up on end like this.” And he stood a safety-match upright on the table. He smiled at me. “I asked them what it was,” he said. “They told me a lighthouse.”

“Ah, yes. That lighthouse rescue probably. It was in all the papers: I suppose it was that.”

“No,” he said, obviously disappointed in me. “It was—well a phallus. Phallic.”

“I beg your pardon,” I said. “I see, of course. How amusing. Their personalities vanished momentarily. They became one—the primeval child.”

He looked at me with surprise.

“No,” he objected. “Each did a different lighthouse.”

Wyndham Lewis,1882-1957 – Rotting Hill,1951

Published: Methuen & Co. Ltd., London 1951

Image: Wyndham Lewis, Rotting Hill, 1st edition cover, 1951

A M Homes – Cindy Stubenstock, in, The Book of Other People, 2007

lisa yuskavage

Cindy Stubenstock is trading up – at a recent auction, she flipped two Gurskys, an early Yuskavage and her husband’s bonus, and was on the phone later live from London topping the bidding on a rare Picasso etching that looked ‘beautiful over the fireplace’.

‘Gives whole new meaning to up in smoke,’ the cryptic British auctioneer mumbled under his breath.

Now Cindy and her Scarsdale sisterhood – aka the ladies who linger at lunch – are on the tarmac at Teterboro, wandering from plane to plane.

‘There never used to be so many,’ one says.

‘Do we really need to take two planes?’

‘Well, there are six of us and I just hate being crowded, and besides, what if I want to leave early?’ They all nod, knowing the feeling.

‘Just the thought of being trapped somewhere makes me nervous – does anyone have anything – a little blue, a little yellow?’

‘I’ve got Ativan.’

‘I’ll take it.’

‘We’re going to Miami, it’s not the rain forest, not the darkest Peru, you can get a commercial flight out any time you want – just call JetBlue,’ one of the women says.

And the others look at her horrified, aghast, shocked that she can even say the words ‘commerical flight’ so easily, without pause. Flying private is one of the perks of being who they are; it’s why they put up with so much. NO airport security.

‘Soon that will change, they’re going to have scented dogs everywhere.’

‘It’s not scented dogs, it’s sniffing dogs. Scented dogs would be like soaps, verbena, vanilla, Macchu Picchu.’

‘Why do you always correct me? I’m an old woman – leave me alone.’

‘You’re forty-eight, you’re not old.’

And then there is silence.

‘Which plane is it? He keeps trading them in. I never know which one is ours.’

‘She calls it trading them in – he calls it fractional ownership,’ one of the women whispers.

‘G4, Falcon, Citation, Hawker, Learjet – remember when they were all “Learjets”? Remember when the word “Learjet” used to mean something?’

‘Who is that bald man in the wheelchair? He looks familiar – do I know him from somewhere?’

‘Is it Philip Johnson?’

‘Philip Johnson died two years ago.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s so sad.’

‘Is that Yul Brynner?’

‘It’s someone with cancer.’

‘What’s he doing here?’

‘He’s getting an Angel Flight back to where he lives,’ one of the ground crew says. ‘People donate flights – for those who are basically too sick to travel.’

‘Oh, I don’t think I could ever do that – I couldn’t have a sick person on the plane – I mean, what about the germs?’

‘I don’t normally think of cancer as contagious.’

‘You never know.’ She runs her hand through her hair – which she gels in the morning with Purell – prophylactically.

The group divides; Sally Stubenstock, the society sister of Cindy, and her ‘friend’ Tasha, the yoga instructor, go on their own plane. ‘We want alone time,’ Tasha says.

‘She wants to downward dog me at 10,000 feet,’ Sally says.

‘It’s gross,’ someone whispers.

‘What do you care – they’re not asking you to do it.’

‘Women kiss better than men – it’s a fact.’

‘How would you know?’

‘Because one night Wallis (the weird woman who has a man’s last name for her first name) Wallingford planted one right on me.’

‘Was she drunk?’

‘I don’t think so. It felt very good.’

‘Better than a man?’

She nods. ‘Softer, more thoughtful.’

Cindy Stubenstock puts her fingers in her ears and hums loudly and sings, ‘This is something I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know-oh-o.’

The conversation stops. They climb aboard. The pilot pulls the door closed and locks it. The women take their seats and then take other seats. They move around the cabin until they are comfortable. They put all their fur coats together on one seat.

‘Where are you staying? The Raleigh, the Delano, the Biltmore?’

‘I’m staying at Pinkie and Paulie’s.’

‘Really?’ Cindy asks.

Her friend nods.

‘I’ve never stayed at someone’s house,’ Cindy Stubenstock confesses. ‘How do you do it? When you get there – what do you do – how do you check in?’

‘It’s like going for dinner or cocktails – you knock on the door and hopefully someone answers.’

‘Does someone take your bag? Do you tip them? And what if you can’t sleep – what if you need to get up and walk around? Do you have your own bathroom – I can’t stay anywhere without my own bathroom even with my husband. If you pee, do you flush? What if someone hears you? It just seems so stressful.’

‘When you were growing up, did you ever go on a sleepover?’

‘Just once – I got homesick and my father came and got me – it seemed like the middle of the night but my parents always used to tease me – it was really only about 11 pm.’

‘When I go to someone’s house – I bring a clean sheet,’ another woman chimes in.

‘And remake the bed?’

‘No, I wrap myself in it – do you know how infrequently most blankets are laundered – including hotel blankets – think of the hundreds of people who have used the same blanket.’

‘What’s for dinner tonight?’ someone asks.

‘A big corned-beef sandwich. That’s what I go to Miami for – Wolfie’s. I get sick every time – but I can’t resist. It reminds me of my grandparents – and of my childhood.’

‘I thought you were a vegetarian?’

‘I am.’

‘By the way, whatever happened with that Brice Marden painting you were trying to buy?’

‘It’s still pending – we haven’t completed our interview.’

‘Some of the galleries now have a vetting process – there is a company that will interview potential buyers, about everything from their assets, hobbies and intentions for their collections – and once that’s done – they schedule a home visit.’

‘Exactly, we still need the home visit, but CeeCee has been so busy with the re-do that she won’t let anyone from the gallery into the house.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘We’re going from day to night – swapping all the black paintings for white, we sold the Motherwells and the Stills and now she’s bringing in Ryman, Richter and a Whiteread bookcase.’

‘Sounds great – very relaxing – no color at all.’

‘I heard you bought a Renoir in London.’

‘We had a good year. I like it so much I want to fuck it.’

‘When we got our Rothko – we had sex on the floor in front of it.’

‘Those were the days…’

‘And when we got the Pollock.’

‘Well, you got that really big one.’

‘Fairly big.’

‘The room is so large that it’s all relative.’

‘Do you remember that time we were all on that art tour and they let us touch a few things – Stanley stroked the Birth of Venus and got excited?’

‘Stanley, the seeing-eye horse – or Stanley your husband?’

‘Stanley, the human. He was mortified.’

‘I thought it was cute.’

‘Where is Stanley this weekend?’

‘Stan, the man, is playing golf and Stanley the seeing-eye horse is having his teeth cleaned this weekend and so the society gave me a stick.’ She holds up a white cane. ‘Like this is going to do me any good. I’ve got a docent meeting me for the fair – a young curator.’

‘God, I remember when Stanley, the horse, tried to mount the stuffed pony that your parents sent your son…’

‘We were all there – the Hanukah party.’

‘It plagued my son – the sight of Stanley trying to “hop” the pony. He said hop – instead of hump – it was soo sweet.’

‘There are people who are into that – stuffed animals. “Plushies” they call them.’

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘Sex parties!’

‘And they invite stuffed animals?’

‘Speaking of animal behaviour – are we preparing for takeoff yet?’

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Stubenstock,’ the pilot says. ‘There’s military aircraft in the area – and the airspace has been closed down.’

‘Oh now, is the President coming to town again? Thank God we’re leaving – he always blocks traffic.’

‘We’re third in line for takeoff as soon as the air opens.’

‘We usually fly on Larry’s plane, he redecorates it for every flight. Different art work depending on where we’re going. Something for LA, something for Basel, something for Venice.’

‘That’s because he’s trying to sell you something.’

‘No, I don’t think so. We always ask, and he tells us that whatever it is we want – it’s not for sale.’

‘That’s how he does it – that’s how he gets you.’

‘Did you hear about Sarah and Steve’s Warhol worries?’

‘No, what?’

‘Turns out their Warhols aren’t Warhols – they’re knockoffs like cheap Louis Vuittons on Canal Street.’

‘But they have Polaroids of Andy signing the pictures. Andy and Steve standing together while Andy signed them.’

‘Apparently he would sign anything, but that didn’t mean that he made it.’

‘They were banking on those pictures – literally.’

‘Well, you know what they say – you should never be dependent on your art collection to do anything for you that you can’t do for yourself.’

‘Are you invited to the VIP party?’

‘The VIP parties aren’t the good parties – there are no invites for the real parties, you just have to know where they are.’

‘I told Susie that I would go to the dinner but only as long as I didn’t have to sit next to an artist – I never know what to say to them.’

‘I always ask them if they’re starving – and they never get it,’ Cindy says. ‘I’ve noticed that most of the younger artists are carnivores. Remember when artists only ate things like sprouts and bags of “greens” that they carried with them? Now they all eat meat – it’s all post-Damien.’

‘Like how?’

‘Don’t you remember – Damien Hirst’s first big piece was really very small… It was a piece of steak that his father had choken on. Young Damien gave his father the Heimlich maneuver and the steak came flying out of his mouth and he could breathe again. Damien saved the piece of steak and put it in a jar of formaldehyde that he got from the school and called it I Saved My Father’s Life – Now What Will Become of Us.

‘I never heard that story.’

Cindy Stubenstock shrugs. ‘It’s famous. I think the piece is in the Saatchi collection in London.

A M Homes,1961

Cindy Stubenstock, in, The Book of Other People, 2007 (Zadie Smith, Editor)

Image: Lisa Yuskavage

Oscar Wilde – The Artist,1894

oscar wilde portrait

ONE evening there came into his soul the desire to fashion an image of The Pleasure that Abideth for a Moment. And he went forth into the world to look for bronze. For he could think only in bronze.

But all the bronze of the whole world had disappeared, nor anywhere in the whole world was there any bronze to be found, save only the bronze of the image of The Sorrow that Endureth For Ever.

Now this image he had himself, and with his own hands, fashioned, and had set it on the tomb of the one thing he had loved in life. On the tomb of the dead thing he had most loved had he set this image of his own fashioning, that it might serve as a sign of the love of man that dieth not, and a symbol of the sorrow of man that endureth for ever. And in the whole world there was no other bronze save the bronze of this image.

And he took the image he had fashioned, and set it in a great furnace, and gave it to the fire.

And out of the bronze of the image of The Sorrow that Endureth For Ever he fashioned an image of The Pleasure that Abideth for a Moment.

 

Oscar Wilde, 1856-1900. The Artist, from, Poems in Prose,1894

Image: Portrait of Oscar Wilde,1892. Photographer: Napoleon Sarony

Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray,1890

Dorian Gray Three Sirens Press

Chapter XX

As he thought of Hetty Merton, he began to wonder if the portrait in the locked room had changed. Surely it was not still so horrible as it had been? Perhaps if his life became pure, he would be able to expel every sign of evil passion from the face. Perhaps the signs of evil had already gone away. He would go and look.

He took the lamp from the table and crept upstairs. As he unbarred the door, a smile of joy flitted across his strangely young-looking face and lingered for a moment about his lips. Yes, he would be good, and the hideous thing that he had hidden away would no longer be a terror to him. He felt as if the load had been lifted from him already.

He went in quietly, locking the door behind him, as was his custom, and dragged the purple hanging from the portrait. A cry of pain and indignation broke from him. He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite. The thing was still loathsome—more loathsome, if possible, than before—and the scarlet dew that spotted the hand seemed brighter, and more like blood newly spilled. Then he trembled. Had it been merely vanity that had made him do his one good deed? Or the desire for a new sensation, as Lord Henry had hinted, with his mocking laugh? Or that passion to act a part that sometimes makes us do things finer than we are ourselves? Or, perhaps, all these? And why was the red stain larger than it had been? It seemed to have crept like a horrible disease over the wrinkled fingers. There was blood on the painted feet, as though the thing had dripped—blood even on the hand that had not held the knife. Confess? Did it mean that he was to confess? To give himself up and be put to death? He laughed. He felt that the idea was monstrous. Besides, even if he did confess, who would believe him? There was no trace of the murdered man anywhere. Everything belonging to him had been destroyed. He himself had burned what had been below-stairs. The world would simply say that he was mad. They would shut him up if he persisted in his story. . . . Yet it was his duty to confess, to suffer public shame, and to make public atonement. There was a God who called upon men to tell their sins to earth as well as to heaven. Nothing that he could do would cleanse him till he had told his own sin. His sin? He shrugged his shoulders. The death of Basil Hallward seemed very little to him. He was thinking of Hetty Merton. For it was an unjust mirror, this mirror of his soul that he was looking at. Vanity? Curiosity? Hypocrisy? Had there been nothing more in his renunciation than that? There had been something more. At least he thought so. But who could tell? . . . No. There had been nothing more. Through vanity he had spared her. In hypocrisy he had worn the mask of goodness. For curiosity’s sake he had tried the denial of self. He recognised that now.

But this murder—was it to dog him all his life? Was he always to be burdened by his past? Was he really to confess? Never. There was only one bit of evidence left against him. The picture itself—that was evidence. He would destroy it. Why had he kept it so long? Once it had given him pleasure to watch it changing and growing old. Of late he had felt no such pleasure. It had kept him awake at night. When he had been away, he had been filled with terror lest other eyes should look upon it. It had brought melancholy across his passions. Its mere memory had marred many moments of joy. It had been like conscience to him. Yes, it had been conscience. He would destroy it.

He looked round and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. He had cleaned it many times, till there was no stain left upon it. It was bright, and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace. He seized the thing, and stabbed the picture with it.

There was a cry heard, and a crash. The cry was so horrible in its agony that the frightened servants woke and crept out of their rooms. Two gentlemen, who were passing in the square below, stopped and looked up at the great house. They walked on till they met a policeman and brought him back. The man rang the bell several times, but there was no answer. Except for a light in one of the top windows, the house was all dark. After a time, he went away and stood in an adjoining portico and watched.

“Whose house is that, Constable?” asked the elder of the two gentlemen.

“Mr. Dorian Gray’s, sir,” answered the policeman.

They looked at each other, as they walked away, and sneered. One of them was Sir Henry Ashton’s uncle.

Inside, in the servants’ part of the house, the half-clad domestics were talking in low whispers to each other. Old Mrs. Leaf was crying and wringing her hands. Francis was as pale as death.

After about a quarter of an hour, he got the coachman and one of the footmen and crept upstairs. They knocked, but there was no reply. They called out. Everything was still. Finally, after vainly trying to force the door, they got on the roof and dropped down on to the balcony. The windows yielded easily—their bolts were old.

When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognised who it was.

Oscar Wilde,1856-1900                       The Picture of Dorian Gray,1890

 Image: Lui Trigo, Three Sirens Press, 1931 New York