[Editors’ Note: An embryonic version of this piece, titled “Me, the Other,” was originally published in Spanish in a small circulation magazine. The following translation is by Michael Parker-Stainback.]
Finally, after years of anonymous toil, my talent has been publicly recognized. And no one—literally no one, except my cousin Vincent, Professor Thaddeus Lazarus and I—knows it.
He—Vincent—turned up at my studio four months ago to buy one of my watercolors. I was awake, still in bed, when the doorbell rang. I had a particularly annoying headache. I got up and swallowed two aspirin with the water that was still in the paper cup and picked up the intercom.
“Yes,” I said.
“Who are you?” he asked. I recognized his voice right away.
“Gustav,” I replied, put out.
“It’s Vincent Turrent, Gustav.”
I let him up.
I’d seen him a few months before, at one of the family lunches. Not too many people had arrived when I got there, so I said hi. We didn’t run into each other very much, once or twice a year. He went to my mother’s funeral, I think, and we saw each other when Isabel had her operation.
I could picture him perfectly, though, waiting there for me to open the door after knocking a couple of times. His hand slightly raised, jiggling some heavy car keys, and the other hand inside a silk-lined pocket. A lightweight shirt, set off with cufflinks and an unbuttoned blazer. Eyes so blue they’d be blurry if it weren’t for their turquoise rims, beneath light brown eyebrows. The aquiline nose and seductive, almost lascivious lips. Barely moving his head, glancing insolently, he’d be scanning the hall outside my door.
When I opened, he shook my hand firmly—looking at me first and then inside the apartment—then entered. “How are you, man?” he said with an imperative tone as he adjusted one of his cufflinks. He asked “Can I see your paintings?” in the same tone. He was already looking at the woman series, four medium oils hanging on the wall behind the bed.
He went around the bed and glanced at the still life that was lying there against a bookcase. At the same time, he noted other aspects of the apartment: light bulbs in the ceiling, a stack of books, the clothes hamper, full, and a bottle of vodka on a small table. There were five other oil paintings lined up against the wall by the door, separated by some cloths. He went back over.
I was really thirsty and my head still hurt, so I went into the kitchen. When I came out with a beer, I saw Vincent lift the veil from the painting. I grabbed it, saying “I don’t show them before they are finished.”
“I see,” he replied.
“That still life—the one with the green bottle—I want it,” he said. I pushed the turpentine, brushes, paint tubes to the left of the futon and sat down.
“You want to buy them? Is that what you mean?” I asked after a deep swig. He stood about a meter away, looking at me, with his hands in his pockets.
“Has it been appraised?”
“What about the other one?” I named the first price that came into my head, put the bottle on the coffee table and stretched a little.
“Is that what you were asking at the Biennial?”
“The Arts Institute Biennial.”
“Yeah,” I lied.
He walked back and looked at the still life again. After a moment, still looking at it, he said: “I’ve got a proposition for you.”
“What?” I said as I fixed myself another vodka.
“I’ll give you twice that,” said Vincent, “But I want it to be mine.”
“What do you mean, yours?”
“Just that. Mine. I want to be the artist who painted it.”
“You want to be the artist that painted it?”
“I want to sign it as my own, cousin. To see what happens.”
I took a drink, inspecting the inside of my glass.
“What was it your father used to say? …Oh, right: ‘An artist can sell his work’—do you remember?—‘but not his art.’”
Facing me, hands in his pockets, he said: “Don’t be an ass, Gustav. If in your opinion this were a real work you wouldn’t have asked that price at the Biennial.”
Plastic cup in hand, I’d repositioned the veil over the canvas on the easel. On my way to the front door I continued: “I prefer a symbolic payment over vulgar gestures.”
“Is that right?” I heard him say.
Once I got to the paintings that were lined up I held the glass between my teeth. I flipped the first paintings toward me and pulled out the third one. Some of the vodka spilt from the glass. “Shit!” I exclaimed. “God damn it!”
The drops ended up on the exposed painting. Furious, I let the third one fall. It crashed against the wood floor and I pushed the other two aside. “Shit!” I went to wrap my hand in toilet paper and came back to the paintings. I knew the idiot Vincent was watching me with complete calm. What a fucking idiot, I thought.
“I want five times as much,” I finally said as I carefully inspected the painting lying atop the bedspread. “No. I want ten times as much” I amended, and watched him with a gratifying smile.
Head down and arms akimbo, Vincent stared back for a few seconds. Then he looked around and pulled out his checkbook and a pen from an inside jacket pocket. He went over to the table and quickly wrote out the check. I watched him incredulously. He left the check on the table and went over to grab the painting. He was really going through with it. Worst deal he ever made, I thought.
“What are you doing?” I finally asked.
“Is there anyone who knows you painted it?” He was headed toward the door. “I mean, other than the people at the Institute. Someone important?” He hesitated, looking at me.
“Not that I know of. No,” I said, highly amused. Then he opened the door and left.
The next day I called him.
“How are you, Gustav? Any second thoughts?”
I wasn’t going to give him the pleasure. “Second thoughts? No. More like curiosity. What are you going to do with the painting?”
“Show it at a gallery. But for the time being I’m going to my studio for a few days.”
“Oh, so now you have a studio? And just what are you going to do in it?”
“I’m going to paint a still life with a green liquor bottle.” That’s what he said. “Listen: call me in a week and I’ll let you know where it’s showing.”
“I just might.”
I was a bit surprised when three weeks after this transaction, Vincent’s secretary called me. Not that I doubted his influence dans le moyen de la élite culturelle, as his father, the painter Henry Turrent, would pedantically call it after just one cognac. Vincent had money, and a name, and sufficient connections to place the painting in the right gallery. Plus he had that innate look of supposed security—something this close to ridiculous, yet, somehow, always far from it—that comes from a prematurely atrophied sense of self-criticism—the kind that seduces the weak of temperament. No, I was surprised by the fact that the still life, that I’d painted in four sessions, soon after graduating, and which Professor Thaddeus Lazarus—whose opinion I’d once valued—had considered, rightly, a mere passable exercise—would do, even in the case of Vincent’s friends.
Vincent’s secretary told me that his Still Life with Green Bottle would be showing at the Ortega Gallery as part of its emerging artists show, and that Vincent would be delighted to see me at the opening, to be hosted by some second-rate bureaucrat. Needless to say, I had no intention of going. Few things bother me more than that affected closeness, if not chumminess, that gallery goers put on for artists and critics alike, in complicity with said artists and critics. Instead I waited a couple of days and visited the gallery during a lull.
I wasn’t surprised to find that the exhibition—and it was a minor one, no matter how you figured it—occupied the gallery’s principal space, what had once been a living room in a house. My piece was hanging alone in the center of a large panel. While I can appreciate the curator’s intention of highlighting it, the color choice for the panel—a light gray that inhibited the glow of the bottle and drew attention to the secondary effects of the eggs—was, simply put, unfortunate. The frame’s opaque blue did echo the painting’s diffuse light, though, without interfering.
Falsely modest, Vincent’s signature was a light mark in the upper left corner. Elsewhere, the frame’s lower edge covered my signature without visually damaging it. And as a consequence of the alteration—a decidedly minor one as regarded the image per se—the painting had gained the authority and dignity it previously lacked. It was no longer the work of an unknown Gustav Turrent—a name of merely circumstantial reputation, if any. It was the work of Vincent Turrent, only son of Henry Turrent, as was well known.
After considering the painting for twenty-five minutes and taking a look at the other paintings on display—three of which were patently superior to mine—I got an itch to see the permanent collection. From the second flight as I was going upstairs, I recognized Professor Lazarus—nervous, in front of the counter. I paused a little bit further up and then came back down again, this time in the elevator. As I’d imagined, Lazarus had gone straight to my painting.
When I got home there was a message on my machine. I knew who had left it. I fixed myself a vodka and listened. “Gustav, my boy,” he began. “This is Thaddeus Lazarus. I’m calling because I believe I saw your still life in the Ortega Gallery. I know this will sound strange—I really don’t know how to say it—but I think your cousin, Henry Turrent’s son, is trying to take advantage of you. Give me a call and I’ll explain it in more detail.” Of course I didn’t call him. The last thing I wanted was for that old man to be sticking his nose into matters. Lazarus left me two more messages the following week. Then he went away.
The money Vincent gave me didn’t last a minute. But I paid off a debt, and rejected two jobs doing book illustrations. For a few weeks I worked seven hours a day on Maternity—except Saturday and Sunday. I’ve been working on it for three years. The mother’s gaze took me four months alone. But I got the desired effect. The woman looks down and a little to the left. The baby is in her arms and her right breast is exposed precisely as her older son enters the room and she thinks, “Oh, he’s here” and all her attention is about to be refocused on the baby even though the boy is holding something up that he wants to show her.
Naively, I thought Vincent’s interest in painting had been a passing fancy, a sudden dandy’s desire to add a refined accessory to his already elegant and comfortable life—like a flower in one’s lapel—and that my response had been an equally isolated show of cynicism. I was forgetting that this kind of vanity is rarely a one-off—that vanity never diminishes or stays the same—it grows. I didn’t get wise even after I got his call—seven weeks after the first payment.
“Cousin, how are you?” he said over the phone.
“How are you?” I answered.
“Quite well. Say, Gus, I’d like to see you soon, today if you can swing it. Let me buy you a drink.”
I said I couldn’t.
“How about tomorrow?” he asked me. As I took a good sip of my beer I though that Vincent was genuinely trying balance out an otherwise utilitarian relationship with a disinterested although somewhat hypocritical meet-up, for old times sake maybe.
“What do you say?”
“We could get together tomorrow.”
“How about seven at Delibes?”
I had to meet an editor before I saw Vincent. “It’s important you take the project,” she told me. “I need to know I can count on you.” Both the cliché and the menacing tone angered me and I rejected the offer. I needed a drink. The bar was nearby so I got there early. It was 6:20 when I asked for my beer. Vincent didn’t show till 7:30. Amid antique lamps and a lot of cigar smoke I saw him greet a couple of people, briefly but warmly.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said as he sat opposite me. “Waiter—could I get a cognac? Any brand will do.”
He forced the conversation, asking how my father was. I said fine, except for the coma. He mentioned that Isabel had gone to the opening, but just for a while. He recalled certain impressions he’d had.
“So did you go and check out the painting?”
I said yes.
“I’ve got to admit you’re an accomplished artist,” he said. I just stared at him, beer in my hand.
He mentioned Cassandri, the respected art critic from Sharp.
“I don’t read Sharp,” I said.
“Remind me to send you a copy. He included your still life among the four or five most praiseworthy works in the show. And you know how tough he can be.” I admitted he was right. Then after a long pause, he got down to it.
“The other pieces—the woman series—you should show those.”
After lighting a cigar with not a little ceremony, he went on:
“I think the series would be considerably more successful than the still life. Have you thought of approaching a curator, Gustav?”
“My series is right where it should be, Vincent.” I forced myself to look away.
He looked at me intently for a few seconds. Then he looked over at the garden.
“The still life,” he elaborated, “does not have the dimensions required to speak sufficiently of its author. Your series, on the other hand, is like a volume of nouvelles, or more precisely, a collection of essays. You should think about my suggestion. Surely you know a good gallery owner.”
“Vincent, listen to me. I’m not going to show those shitty paintings, ok?”
Vincent smiled amiably as his glinting eyes lighted on different parts of my face.
“Shit-ass, exactly. Perhaps you failed to notice that series has no style whatsoever. They were done in the shadow of four or five different influences. Did you look carefully at the eyes, the fingers, or some of the flowers? I worked them over in such detail that any chance of attaining balance was lost. I had to take detail out or add it everywhere else and I didn’t want to do either. Shall I go on?”
“Could it be that you’re scared?” he asked as if in jest.
“I’m not afraid of anything. Why don’t you just ask me for them, if that’s what you want.”
He’d smiled as I was speaking.
“I’m kidding, Gustav.”
“I’ll give you the stupid series. You think you can turn it into a masterpiece? I’ll give them to you—I really don’t give a shit.”
Once more, for reasons I still don’t understand, Vincent had chosen one of my early—and as I said—less worthwhile works. If memory serves, I painted the woman series—four oils—soon after the still life. My only goal was to emulate and, if that exercise is even possible, bring out the spirit of Goya’s Nude Maja and Clothed Maja—but just as an exercise. So first I painted a zaftig woman with and without her clothes. My woman wasn’t lying on her right side, as had the original, but was supine, her head turned unaffectedly to the right; her arms, inert, to her sides; and her legs slightly apart. She isn’t seen at eye level but obliquely from above. Then—based on Vesalius’s anatomical studies and as a modest homage to Bacon—I “dissected” my model on a third canvas; there’s a cut that runs from her throat to her lower abdomen, open in the center, that shows—almost all the blood having been drained—her skin layers, fat deposits, ribs and some organs including her heart and stomach. Finally in a fourth canvas I parodied Arcimboldo’s grotesques, with flowers in place of fruits, vegetables or animals. Do I need to point out this last painting aspires to a portrait of the woman’s soul, denuding her not only of clothing but of the body as well?
This time Vincent didn’t retreat to his studio to “paint” my series. Not four days after we met, while reading The New Observer, I learned of his decision to re-present some of his early works, as he was quoted as saying. “Reclining Woman is a series I painted almost a decade ago,” he explained, “and I am aware of its limitations. I want to share it with the public not as an example of the art to which I aspire now, but as a genuine though still immature passion for painting itself.” A number of galleries, the article noted, as well as one public museum, were in talks to show the work.
Vincent is a resourceful guy and I have always recognized this. When we were kids, my father decided never to visit Uncle Henry’s house again, which put an end to what had become for me a relatively important routine: eating at the Turrent residence on Wednesdays and spending the afternoon there with Vincent and Isabel. And it was Vincent who came up with the solution. Like that—Turrent found sober enjoyment in indulging the whims of his only boy—he convinced him not only to take me on as a pupil, but also to call my father to ask his permission, a request that—Vincent wisely intuited—my father would not know how to refuse. Several months later, when Vincent became convinced his father was showing some interest in me and my work, he reacted with similar efficiency. After taking the time to fill Isabel’s head with thoughts of me, as if it were nothing, he then spoke to me of her interest in me, since I had a crush on Isabel and Vincent knew it. Soon enough I was skipping my lessons. Then finally when he felt jealous of us, or thought it would be easy to woo her, he stole her from me. He fell back on the most effective tactic when it comes to courting a girl: proximity. Remember Isabel was there on Wednesday afternoons because her nasty mother and Turrent were close friends. To get me out of the picture, he simply started to invite her over on other days when he knew I couldn’t be there.
Now Vincent’s “artistry” meant Reclining Woman was to be shown in no less prestigious a spot than the Lafayas. This time I didn’t find out through one of Vincent’s lackeys, but through Lazarus himself. He called me two weeks after the item appeared in The New Observer. I was working on Maternity so I didn’t answer. I heard his nasal voice as he left the message. “Gustav, this is Thaddeus Lazarus; it’s three in the afternoon. Listen, I think this is more serious than I thought. How many paintings did you sell to Turrent? Right now he’s showing your series at the Lafayas. Call me as soon as you can.”
Later that same afternoon he came looking for me at my studio. I’d already grabbed the intercom when it occurred to me it could be him. I didn’t utter a sound but he must have heard something because he said, “Gustav? Are you there? Come on, open up.” I didn’t hang up until I was sure he’d gone. Minutes later he called again. “Gustav, I know you’re there. Are you drunk? Come out, ok? Let me buy you a cup of coffee.”
I didn’t go to the Lafayas to see my series. All I did was read items and articles in newspapers and magazines that deigned to refer to it. I should admit the tone and number of notices unnerved me. Not because after reading them I understood that in fact my series was quite estimable work: I was, and am, aware of its scant qualities and its glaring limitations. What surprised me—though this only to a certain point—was their authors’ lack of critical rigor. I expected praise from reporters; typically they have no other angle than that of the person they hastily interview. And I knew I could count on Marcel Adams’s loyalty to Vincent. The same with Rupert Johnson and Therese Mitre. But I’d held Pope, Casandri and Rivadeneira in high esteem. Despite certain reservations, their reviews of my series were largely positive. Casandri esteemed “an irreverent and skilled recreation of themes and styles now—lamentably—institutionalized… a clear example of postmodernism’s visual reach.” Allow me to say just this: my series has nothing to do with postmodernism and the parody I made is anything but skilled. Pope noted my intention to “animate—to infuse nature with anima, soul—and capture its transcendental ends,” but mistakenly qualified this intention as “triumphant.” Rivadeneira was impressed by the “meticulous, eloquent description of the horror we feel before our corporeal confines.” I’ll concede that Reclining Woman is descriptive, but the critics will have to wait for Maternity to understand what meticulous means.
Somewhat ironically, these reviews and others like them motivated me to paint. I was genuinely eager to know how critics would react to my more accomplished works, particularly Maternity, which by that point was notably superior to Still Life and Reclining Woman. Not because these finer paintings would receive more recognition, but because, on the contrary, I was pretty sure they would not be understood and would therefore constitute an irresistible opportunity for the critics to engage in their habitual and categorical logorrhea. I would interpret their rejection as a sign of both incomprehension and aesthetic accomplishment.
By the time Vincent contacted me again I was sure of two things. I was not going to give him any of the paintings I most valued—which put me in a bind because I had no other works to give him (a problem with a solution, as will be seen)¾and as well, I would force him to present one of my good paintings, in my name, to the critics.
I asked him to visit me at my studio the following day.
“Why don’t we go somewhere else?” he said as soon as he entered. “A café or a bar. Someplace nice where we can talk.” I nixed the suggestion. Then he said with affected innocence:
“Aren’t we at least going to toast to the success of Reclining Woman?”
I replied: “Sure, what would you like? I’ve got beer and vodka. Oh, and that bottle you sent the other day.”
“I’ll have a whiskey then. Regular water, no ice.”
I gave him his drink.
“What are you having?”
“What, you’ve quit drinking?” he asked casually as he looked out the window.
“I don’t have any more paintings for you.”
Vincent turned from the window to the walls and took a sip of his whiskey. He was walking around slowly.
“There are no fewer than seven works here, besides the one that’s still on the easel. I’m sure that one of them is for sale. It’s just a question of fixing a price. They say everyone has a price, after all. May I?” he said, referring to Maternity. “Can I see it?” He began slowly to draw back the veil, glancing at me from the corner of his eye. I stared back silently and he stopped.
“What’s up, Gustav?” he asked after a pause, as he turned back to look at me. “Do you want me to say it again?”
“No. I want to show Maternity at the Lafayas.” I pointed at the canvas. “I want your critics to notice it.”
“What about the money? It’s not enough? You don’t need money anymore?”
“Right, money. Oh, I want money too.”
“I get it… cousin Gustav is getting ambitious. I like it. I really like it. And what, may I ask, do I get in return?”
“You pay up front and I paint a picture for you.”
“No longer than ten weeks,” he said.
“Two months. I don’t need any more than two months to keep your fans happy.”
I began working a week later. Without forcing it, when I didn’t have anything else to do, I considered a number of themes. They’d come into my head, but nothing was stimulating enough and I let the days go by. Then unexpectedly, when I was tossing around bottle caps like little Frisbees from my bed to the trashcan, it came to me. I’d only been hoping for a tolerable idea, a solid enough motif to keep me interested during the two or three weeks I’d invest in the work. But instead of that I had a sort of insight, an instant of deep, involuntary introspection, where something that had been inside me for a long time—not latent but in lukewarm gestation—was revealed. I would paint Isabel. I wasn’t going to do a portrait of her. I wasn’t going to ask her to sit for me or to create the image based on photographs. I would express her being as it existed in me.
For several hours after this epiphany, I doubted about doing something like this for my cousin Vincent’s benefit. I was conscious of the strangeness of my vision. Up to that day I’d had only two moments of inspiration as powerful as this one, the first related to my father, now lost in the mists of sloth; and the second having taken the form of Maternity. I knew I wouldn’t be able to let go of this creation, much less deliver it into the hands of the person who in my mind might actually have what it took to do it, and yet would be the least capable of understanding and appreciating it. In spite of all that, moved by a creative instinct several times stronger than the sum total of my thoughts, I painted Isabel and I did it right away.
I painted two months straight without stopping. I’d wake up with the dawn and go to bed at one or two in the morning, exhausted physically as well as emotionally, convinced I wouldn’t be able to get up the next day. But every day I got up—an urgent need to press on and finish would jolt me awake. It was that urgency (a substitute expression, I think, of the fear that I was entirely incapable of creating—a form of death and the constant need to deny it) that was consuming me and simultaneously driving me forward. Slowly, the image of Isabel that I’d kept inside from our time as kids together took form on the canvas.
There inside the Turrents’ house, we see her enter through the back door into the hall—the hall that led to the kitchen, the breakfast nook, the pantry and, further on, the dining room. She’s just one or two steps in. The door is completely open and even though Isabel occupies its center, behind her we can see outside to carports, trees’ boughs and the blue sky. At a medium distance, warm asphalt, and there on the pavement, a red bicycle that has been left to rest there. Daylight streams in, and interior walls are bright, as is the white and light-blue tile floor, like a chessboard.
Isabel wears a snug pair of jeans, canvas sneakers and a pink top that shows her shoulders except where the straps are. She’s slim and her skin is used to the sun and the colors it creates. If it weren’t wet, her hair would be wavy gold and honey. Her eyes are portrayed round, an even dark brown, eyelashes long and slender; rather than hiding her eyes, her brows explain them in a delicate gesture. Her nose is small and follows an imprecise line—or a harmonious arrangement of several random lines. Her cheeks, healthily flushed, borrow from her mouth’s rosy hues. The mouth could be a dense cocoon or an open smile of perfect white teeth.
Isabel appears in the painting precisely at the instant when—having jumped off her bike, that falls to earth on its own, and perhaps hurrying inside—she sees someone who’s waiting for her a few steps ahead—is it Vincent? Me?—and then stops. Her body can barely contain her impulse, in a playful, exaggerated way: she leans slightly forward, as if her feet, legs and ass had reached a reasonable stopping point but her torso and head wanted to go a little bit further. She throws her hands back to get her balance and looks up to see the person in front of her. She smiles with all her being, in part for fun and in part out of recognition. Her eyes partake of the fun, but there’s a hint of bewilderment in them, as if something in that other person suddenly seemed unknown to her.
In something like two months I had dedicated more real work hours to this piece than I had to Maternity in an entire year. It had been as much a question of effort as fluidity. When Vincent called up to claim it, it wasn’t nearly finished. It needed another month of work, to correct some obvious problems—the tension in Isabel’s neck and the sunlight on the fingers of her right hand, just to name two—and at least three months of distance, to regain a certain perspective, then two more for a quick revision. But even if the painting had been finished I would have said the same thing to Vincent: that I had had second thoughts and that I’d give him back his money.
“Are you trying to be funny?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Then what’s going on? Wait—let me guess: the artist needs more money.”
“And that jazz about showing Maternity—that’s what it’s called, right—at the Lafayas?”
“I guess that will have to wait.”
“Look, Gustav. Stop being stupid.” He was getting angry but then stopped himself.
“Ok, cousin: I’ll pay you double.”
“I’d prefer we just hung up.”
“Don’t you want to see your paintings where they deserve to be?”
“Vincent, I’m sorry. I should have called earlier.”
“So that’s it?”
“I’ll come pick up the money this afternoon.”
“Don’t bother—I’ll send you a check.” He hung up.
A week later I saw a small ad in The New Observer from the city’s Museum of Modern Art that announced the imminent (in one of its secondary galleries) opening of an “Emerging Artists” show. Vincent’s name figured on the list. He has to recycle one of my paintings, I supposed, or maybe he’d found a new wholesaler. That same day he called me again. He wanted to know if I had his money. Even though it took a little doing to get my hands on funds I’d already spent, I’d made the deposit a day earlier and I told him as much.
A series of daily calls followed, always at night. First he just wanted to let me know he’d gotten the money. He seemed sincere and I appreciated the gesture. The second time he asked me, in very polite terms, if I’d be willing to sell him some other of my finished paintings—maybe even Maternity, he added, with obvious sarcasm. I hung up. The next time I didn’t pick up the phone but on my machine he employed—yet again—a really polite tone: “Cousin, buddy, I’m willing to do what it takes to get Maternity. Call me, okay?”
When he called for the fourth time, I was in a good mood. I’d seen an editor who was interested in my illustrations. So when the phone rang at the same time it had on previous days, I answered. I’d have a little fun with him.
First came all manner of flattering greetings and niceties: “So, Vincent, mon enfant: I have to ask you something. Mon enfant: that’s what Turrent used to call you. Pray tell: how goes my artistic career? Any prizes?”
“There are no prizes at this time, but soon. I can feel it coming very soon. But don’t let me butt into your business, my beloved cousin.”
“Quite right. Let’s not talk about that, nor if my Maternity is ready. You know who they award prizes to? People who already have prizes. We should buy you some, mon Vincent. I know what I’m talking about. How does it feel to finally be a real Turrent? It must be like… like… Vincent, how does it feel?”
“How would I know, Gustav? Don’t confuse others’ need to reaffirm their identities—a chronic, pathological need, I suppose—with the pure, simple pleasure of showing off a little.”
“Showing off a little. Naturally—my apologies. I forgot you care nothing for process. All you care about is results, the painting and success. But good art is nothing but process—incomplete process if you rush me. Maternity is unfinished. And it’s destined to stay that way.”
“No problem. I simply called to see how you were. And I’m happy to see you’re in a good mood.”
“You’re not going to have a painting for the show.”
“Gotta go, cuz.”
“You really want some glamour in your career? Tell them you’re creatively blocked.”
“I’ll think about that.”
“Or you could always go abstract.”
“Goodbye, Gustav—au revoir.”
“I think you’d better let Isabel be for a while. Let me ask you something. How are you going to resolve the problem of the light on Isabel’s neck and hand? I’d really like to know.”
Lazarus called fifteen minutes later. I resisted answering, since I hadn’t returned any of his calls, but I picked up because I wanted to show him Isabel. If he asked about Still Life or Reclining Woman I would say that, indeed, I had sold them to my cousin and that I knew what he had done but that I wasn’t looking for trouble with him, especially in the case of minor works. I invited him for a drink in my studio.
When I opened the door, no more than twenty minutes after he called, I found Lazarus had brought an expensive bottle of vodka that didn’t really go with his decor.
“I want to show you something,” I said. He looked inside uneasily.
I went directly to the table, poured the drinks, drank mine and made another for myself, then served Lazarus his. I went over to the easel. With my vodka in my hand, I carefully uncovered the canvas, then went to stand next to Lazarus.
“What do you think?”
He drank deeply from his glass, somewhat disconcertedly. I looked at him for a few moments but he didn’t say anything until I looked at the painting again. Then he spoke. “This isn’t Maternity. It’s better—much better. I thought you were going to show me Maternity.”
“Remember, you haven’t seen Maternity in years. But this one isn’t too bad either. Does the problem stick out?”
“I didn’t notice anything.”
After a pause—my arms crossed, shoulders thrown back—I said, “What do you think of the way her body is depicted?”
“It’s not an easy position. But I think you pulled it off. You really pulled it off.”
He touched the back of his neck nervously. “Is it finished, Gustav?”
“Is there such a thing as a finished work?”
We stayed in front of the painting fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. Then I sat down in a chair and —taking in the bathroom from that angle—I spoke at length about how I created Isabel. Lazarus listened—and didn’t—as he paced the room, now with his hands held nervously behind his back, then with his heavy arms by his sides, always gazing out the window—suddenly it was night. When the vodka bottle was nearly empty, he said goodbye.
“Adieu,” I said without moving.
Seconds later someone knocked on the door. I saw what looked like Lazarus’s jacket hanging on a hook. I got up, went to the door, trying to keep my balance, and opened. Vincent and his driver burst in. I knew what he wanted and I tried to block him but I ended up on the floor. I only came to the following day and sure enough, Vincent had taken Isabel. There was an envelope with some money in it on the table.
The fact that a scruple as perfectly old-fashioned as decency forbade me the pleasure of slapping my cousin with a lawsuit would not prevent me from telling his most beloved friends and acquaintances about what had happened (which was in fact a more gratifying pleasure) at the same time I recovered Isabel. I would do both precisely when their effect would be greatest: the night of the opening.
That night, seizing the invitation Vincent had been cynical enough to send me, I grabbed a blue marker and headed out for the museum. Hours before, I’d spoken with Lazarus, letting him know he’d see me there, after the presentation speeches.
“Nine sharp,” I affirmed.
“Listen, Gustav, what are you talking about?”
“It’s a surprise, Lazarus. Just wait and see.”
“What bar are you at, Gustav?”
“You’re going to love it.”
I found him right at the entrance to the museum, nervously watching out for something. Night had fallen.
“Gustav, listen: you should just go to the police.”
I calmed him down. I’d managed to get him there and we needed to seem harmless at this point.
“I just want you to see them admiring Isabel.”
“That’s what you’re after?”
“I want you to see Vincent sweat.”
Come on, man, for Christ’s sake, let’s get out of here.”
“Are you coming or not?” I said by way of ultimatum.
The sleep-inducing temporary exhibition space is closed off, with high ceilings divided into four relatively big galleries. It’s separated from the lobby by a concrete wall. The first gallery—there was no doubt in my mind—would serve as a pretentious antechamber to the show. I expected to find Isabel at the back of the third gallery.
The cocktail party for Vincent’s show was in the lobby. Perhaps the only thing more pathetic than a rich person brownnosing an artist in search of a bit of refinement is an artist who brownnoses a rich patron in search of money. As soon as I could, I snagged another drink and downed it. Lazarus stopped me at the threshold between the lobby and the galleries.
“Gustav, I’m begging you: let’s go.”
“Not a single drink more, Thaddeus—I swear.”
Lazarus looked obliquely over my shoulder. Then he looked into my eyes. I could feel there was someone behind me.
“Well, look who’s here. How is my favorite cousin?”
“Vincent, this is Thaddeus Lazarus,” I said without turning around.
They exchanged pleasantries. Lazarus was eyeing him nervously.
“A drink for the gentleman, please,” Vincent announced. “So what brings you out tonight? You weren’t thinking of making a scene, were you, cousin?”
I took the drink and hustled off. Vincent turned to entertaining Thaddeus. The cocktail party was restricted to this room. Beyond, in a space no larger, were some people who hadn’t satisfied their bad taste just yet. There was a couple observing a nude, a bronze panther in the center (Rilke’s Panther I would later learn) and a diptych.
When I got to the next threshold I looked to the back of the gallery and saw Isabel. I’ll simply say it shared the wall with two other oil paintings on either side and that it was hanging maybe eighteen inches above the marble floor, so that her gaze was roughly at the same level as the spectator’s. I went over to it.
There was a guard monitoring the gallery Isabel was in as well as the one before it. He was wandering around desultorily. Acting like some fervent collector or single-minded critic, I stood directly in front of my work. Then—when according to my calculations—the guard had gone into the other gallery, I bent down toward the painting and with the blue marker in my hand, I firmly scratched out Vincent’s name.
A second passed when I doubted I’d done it. Then I stood up, making sure the marker pointed at the painting, and turned back around. One lady was looking at me in shock.
“Guard,” I said in a tone that echoed throughout the gallery, “look what I did.”
The guard turned and attempted to understand. Most likely he hadn’t seen my amendment, but with his walkie-talkie in hand he made his way to where I was. I put the tip of my weapon on the canvas—on the sky above the Turrents’ house, to be precise. When the guard saw the surface of the canvas sink a little, he stopped and raised his hands, appealing to reason. At this point he had reached the gallery.
“I’ll ruin it.”
“I’m going to draw fish all over it.”
He put his walkie-talkie on the floor.
“There you go. And now I need for Vincent Turrent to come here. If he’s not here in two minutes,” I stared at the marker, “I’m going to start working on the picture.”
He took two steps backward, cautiously, then ran out. “Get out,” I ordered the lady who had been watching me. It only took a second to reach behind the painting, grab it with both hands from the top and pull it down. The spectacular crash of the frame against the marble floor followed. A second later it was leaning face-out against me.
That Vincent, seeing me in the distance with the painting, did not take offense, but instead showed veiled, but perceptible, signs of a triumph, and the fact that this did not upset the (theoretically noteworthy) intelligence of Ernest Roncesval, the museum director, in whose company Vincent was approaching unhurriedly, spoke of Vincent’s complete indifference to Isabel and Roncesval’s utter lack of awareness to the evidence of fraud—or his complicity. They advanced casually, glancing alternately at the painting and at me, a few steps behind Lazarus, as if taking a prisoner to his cell.
Once he reached the gallery, still silent, Turrent, Jr. stopped opposite me while the esteemed museum official, arms akimbo, kept pacing near him. Lazarus stuck to the threshold, eyes fixed on the painting. The first curious witnesses crossed the other gallery quickly.
“Have you seen, Ernest?” Vincent finally said. Looking at me, he smiled mockingly. “Cousin Gustav is a coward. Look at the mark he made: he wouldn’t dare touch the image. You could save my work right now and he wouldn’t do a thing.” Facing Isabel with his arms crossed, Roncesval was thinking.
I butted in: “Roncesval.” I raised the marker and allowed it to dance between my fingers. “Vincent thinks this painting is more important to me than honor. That’s what he really thinks and he’s quite wrong.” I held my weapon over Isabel’s face. “Go for it,” I invited Turrent, Jr. “Stop me.”
Alarmed, Roncesval intervened.
“You’d better stay away from him,” he entreated Vincent.
Vincent kept watching me with delight.
“Ernest, my friend, don’t start a panic. Gustav is about turn his life into a joke and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Whether they represented a threat or a burst of idiocy, Vincent’s words left me fearless.
“That’s right,” I quipped. Meanwhile the guard had blocked the doorway. With his blue jacket and gray pants, he was keeping out the looky-loos. “Where is Lazarus?” I asked angrily. “There you are. Please step over to that wall.” I indicated to my right without turning around. The dear old poof complied. “Let those people in!” I ordered the guard. Consternation masked prurient interest. Blanching, but quickly, elegantly dressed men and women—along with a couple of wannabe artists—moved into the gallery. I recognized Casandri, the critic, once one of Lazarus’s students. If I had recognized the man behind Rilke’s Panther —other than Isabel, the only worthwhile work—I would have had said hello.
“You’ve got your audience,” I said to myself, in a tone of voice that created silence. Without looking up, I tossed the marker up in the air. Then I caught it. Vincent’s cynicism—I saw him utter yet another cutting remark in the tense gallery atmosphere—amazed me once more.
“The painting is entitled Isabel,” I declared. All eyes were on me. “This stupid title card says Infancy, and Vincent called it ‘the little girl,’ but you’re all wrong. My work is not any allegory of childhood, nor is it the embodiment of any human or superhuman trait. It is an intimate work. It is entirely dependent on the identity of one girl—one woman—alone. It represents a golden age as well as any other real-life child. Only a blind man would fail to see something so obvious.
“It’s a portrait of my cousin Isabel. I did it because I felt like it. Vincent—who is here with us—could have thought of it as well. Isabel and I were inseparable from him when we were kids. What Vincent Turrent could not have done was to have discovered within himself—within that deep-freeze brain of his—the life, the élan vital, that infuses the painting. Art’s chemistry needs unique, sophisticated laboratories. Vincent has no soul. I do. It would be great if his father, and Isabel, were here. He should be here to tell you all who the real, true artist is.
Vincent had the gall to look at me with undisguised complacency.
“Isabel is unfinished; it has glaring faults I should correct. I would never have allowed it to be shown like this. There is no worse aesthetic sin than for an artist to betray a work he believes in. In his superficiality, Vincent thinks of none of this—or it hasn’t mattered to him, which is the same thing—and he shows it here, naked and vulnerable. Creating a work like this and then insulting it this way could not be the actions of the same man.
“Roncesval, Casandri,” I pointed them out, “meet Lazarus.”
I addressed my teacher.
“Clear this up once and for all.”
Lazarus looked up, but without meeting my gaze. I turned to the onlookers and repeated:
“Tell them who did it.”
Silence reined. When he dared look at me, I asked:
“Lazarus, who painted it?”
The old maid in pants didn’t answer. I watched Vincent out of the corner of my eye. He let things play out, lightly glancing at the marble to the left with a perceptible smile.
“Did you hear me?” I hissed.
He shrugged, embarrassed, pathetic. What a pussy.
“Open your trap, Thaddeus.”
He revealed his eyes at that point, glassy and pusillanimous. And I understood.
“You’re not going to say anything? You sold out, you miserable Judas?”
It all came back to me—my rage toward him: Vincent’s calls at all hours, supposedly to ask for Isabel, but really looking for the right time; Lazarus’s unlikely call, right after Vincent’s last; that cheap-ass Lazarus with the imported vodka bottle; the long visit, Lazarus sober, leaving his jacket behind. Minutes later the doorbell, Vincent and his thugs, the theft.
“Motherfucker. Filthy, ass-kissing pansy.”
I grabbed my head to think. I execrated him with my eyes for several long seconds.
“What was your price, you fuck?”
And a moment later:“He betrayed her, too. I’m the only one left.”
I grabbed the marker, seized the frame by its right side and looking up, declared:
“Say that it’s mine, you thief, or I’ll destroy it.”
Vincent—I know this—smiled condescendingly and then stepped forward confidently, addressing me:
“Gustav, cousin, that’s enough.”
The silence in the gallery was shattered by the squeak of a broad, slow line across the blue sky.
Vincent stepped back, annoyed—I’d finally gotten to him. Casandri and Roncesval watched me calmly; Lazarus stared into space. A woman began to whimper.
“I said admit it!”
But he said nothing, unmoved. That was it. I straightened up, put my hands at the upper edge of the frame, took a deep breath. My eyes fixed on Vincent, the monster, I let the marker fall at random.
Vincent was insolent enough to demand the last word. As I headed for the entrance, escorted by the guards, he began to justify himself. He raised his voice and the multitude quieted for a moment.
“It’s my house, cousin,” he started to say. “Isabel, as you correctly noted, is coming in through the back door. We’d spent the entire day at the country club pool. I remember blue water and sunlight. Isabel kissed you for the first time, isn’t that right? Her adorable lips like a rosebud. She took you by surprise and naturally I’ve been bothering you all day long, with complete delight. When we were finally finished we started back on our bikes and you and I, as always, raced. You usually won. We were pouring ourselves a drink of water in the kitchen when we heard Isabel’s bike. You pretended you didn’t care; you said ‘she’s dumb,’ even though you were dying to see her. I rushed to the door and that’s when she ran into me.”
Vincent kept looking at me with his typical self-assurance. I’d heard enough. I told the guard I was ready.