Open main menu

Chapter 23

THE EYE IS A SMALL BULB

On a Sunday in mid-September, and in the middle of painting, Paul Vermillion received a telephone call from Raymond Figente whom he had not seen for a month.

"I suppose it's no news to you that Simone is in town?" said Figente, consumed with curiosity.

"How is she?" Vermillion asked as noncommittally as possible.

"She's looking extremely well. She asked for your telephone number but oddly enough I had mislaid it. I said I would tell you she was at the Athenée."

"Thanks," Vermillion said dryly. Figente never could resist conniving in two directions at once.

"Of course you've seen in the newspapers she opens at the Club Chennonceaux in two weeks?"

"I must have missed it," he replied, genuinely surprised that her name in print could have escaped his notice.

He debated telephoning Simone. To his surprise he still wanted her, that urge apparently unaware of his decision in Brussels nine months ago to end the relationship. Sooner or later he'd have to face the inevitable theatrics of their first meeting since he'd walked out on her while she was screaming from a deliberate burn cooperatively provided by the Delft porcelain stove against which she had thrown herself to arouse his pity. Christ, what a voice! In Venice even the tourismo night-time "O Sole Mio-ers" couldn't compete with her tragedy queening because that afternoon on the Lido steamer he had remarked on the resemblance of a girl to a Caravaggio. In Brussels that last night the spiral of her recurrent hysterics finally left him apathetically thinking she resembled a decollete Boldini who somehow had got herself trampled in the gutter. She had walked from theatre to hotel in drenching rain, her black velvet gown sodden. The hennaed forelock, her trademark, hung lank and wet, exposing a curling-tong scar—she was always burning herself—and dripping mascara fringed her cheeks. In the hotel room become the classic stage of the Comédie Française she was a Medean fury unwilling to accept his limit to the times he could revive initial excitement in hearing her re-sing "Ma Douce Annette." Its nuances fascinated audiences but the song had come to mean to him her accusing eyes searching him out in his designated seat. She was insatiable not only for lovemaking, which was wonderful with her, but to be loved to the exclusion of everything. She had become jealous even of his absorption in painting. A devouring envelopment and he had no wish to return to the fashionable psychoanalytic womb. He'd run from Brussels as if breaking out of jail. During their first fine months there had been no hint of interference in his way of living and working. Then insidious hints became open nagging insistence that he stop his foolishness and become a man of her world.

"Look at Van Dongen, you can easily become more successful."

"You look at him," he had said, his irritation with himself encompassing her because unknowingly she was confirming his doubts in the Louvre earlier that day that perhaps all he was capable of was shallow facility. She had thought his resistance modesty. Try to explain to her it was vanity, the wish to achieve in painting a personal image worthy to be placed alongside the least Degas. Try to explain that you hadn't yet made a painting which satisfied you, and along with that obsession was the pull toward applause and easy living a fashionable formula could get for you. How explain it to anyone when as you said it to yourself it sounded so damned pretentious! You always knew in paint when you had succumbed to facility, tormented because you weren't getting the image across from your vision past the unwilling hand to the unwilling canvas.

A twisted scrap of paper caught his eye. Its form suggested a figure with an arm reaching out, foreshortened in Tiepolo perspective. The flowing life line. From the scrap of paper flowed a river of images shaped by time present. The living forms seemed to have been created so easily by the crayons of the masters. Dissections witnessed in hospitals were evident in even the smoothest contours. Perhaps their breathing life lines had resulted from the fact that horrors of disease and death were then not always so discreetly hidden as today from public gaze. He wondered whether his physician father, remembered dimly as two warm brown eyes and a smiling mustache, had been nauseated as a medical student. Scalpel precision, observed in Europe, certainly taught you cannot paint man unless you know his form, which is not only his body. "The body which of itself," as Leonardo said, "fills the whole surrounding air, that is by its images." So when one saw a scrap of paper in it was twisted a life which also had been present at similar discoveries as far back as one could remember. A silhouetted tree was once an anatomical exposition of a man on horseback. Or what freed the buoyant line of boats as they pushed their pulsating forms?

But working with images before their realization in a concrete song or painting had little interest for Simone. Thus, leaning from their Venice window to watch the gondolas, Simone had indulgently encouraged his reminiscence of his running away on the Albany night boat when he was nine. But the image being created before their eyes had no interest for her. The mauve overcast sky freed itself of its burden of spring rain and opposite them Santa Maria della Salute, which had been riding a silver canal in all its baroque chiaroscuro splendor, became a wet line drawing running into its inky depths. A passing gondolier, braced on the body of his black swan, caught it on the tip of his pole, a jongleur de Notre Dame, and his passenger obliged the eye by opening a black umbrella, adding a third cupola to the two of the Cathedral. A miraculous study of balance and structure of no interest to Simone. She had gone to lie in the white veiled bed, impatient at this rival for attention. What the eye saw beyond the human anecdote had no existence for her; to her Venice was only a continuous bed of lovemaking. Her interest was exclusively in what was a personal, physical relationship to herself, so that a song composed by someone else became in her thought her creation because she sang it. She loved herself in his lovemaking, incapable of envisioning a separate existence for her lover apart from herself. Even so, from initiation by Grandma's nurse when he was fourteen to subsequent girls of Washington Square and Paris, he actually had experienced lovemaking for the first time with Simone. Even now, because of her, being with the occasional others since Brussels had been tame. She had been as fine to do anything else with, like walking with her in the early morning after the show. She had made Paris come alive, given him extra keys to the city. She had educated him with her flashes illuminating nuances of social behavior when they went to restaurants, races, theatre, or an occasional vernissage.

Then she began taking back the keys one by one. The detective routine. Accusations. Sudden appearances at his work place to check up. The introduction of that commiserating talk about differences in age, her future aloneness because he was sure to leave her. It was that repetitious existence in a purgatorial future that finally had made him aware of their difference in age, not the twelve years. When they were first together he hadn't given a thought to her age. But, as her performance depressingly repeated itself, despite his reassurances he began to feel that being with her was like painting the same picture over and over again. He discovered he could not abide tragedy queen self-pity. Who the hell except Wagner could live with an Isolde! He remembered the line of a wag, asked during a Tristan intermission how he liked the performance. "Not a dry seat in the house!" Being with her he would wonder, wondered still, if she were conscious of her performance, or whether this acting in front of a lover as if he weren't there had become second nature. In which case there was something to be said for one-act plays. Each a different plot, short, and to the point. Not a three-year melodrama, in which he was the villain as well as hero. He was a villain at that, fulfilling the prophecy she had insisted on making come true.

It was a myth that in love you know another human being. He undoubtedly was as incomprehensible to her as she to him. Yet their bodies knew how to talk to one another. Apart from that, did anyone truly love another, get beyond self-love, see the other human being save in the mirror of one's own image? Sometimes he did seem to reach her with an image he had painted, as she had reached into him with her song. Perhaps the only communicative speech was made by artists in whatever the form. Then why couldn't she comprehend that it would require years of painting for him to become a painter? She had thought Degas an imbecile when told how collectors of Degas's paintings chained them with locks to walls because he always was removing them, seeing something he wished to add. It had been the worst possible illustration to make to her. Simone, who never changed an intonation in singing a song, who hated and feared growth and wanted time to stand still at the same point in their relationship. What she wanted of a man, of him, was to be her narcotic, like the powder she sometimes sniffed before a performance, to preserve the equilibrium of her private world from change.

He had known when he left the Brussels station bar for the predawn train to Paris that she would resort to the dope in the antique snuffbox. He had felt ridiculous, sitting huddled in the 2nd Class compartment crowded with sprawling sleepers, their faces drawn in the pain of unrest. His thoughts had run as twin engines racing each other, one automatically noting the problem of translating into the reality of line or paint the unreality of the sleep-gasping travelers, the gaping mouth-opened faces cruelly painted by the macabre light of feeble bulbs, swaying and shuddering to the churning wheels as in a kind of Keystone Comedy dance of death treadmill chase, and the other counterpoint thought a flicking sequence of scene images with Simone.

All this the result of having strolled, at that twilight hour when the Seine begins to reek, over the Pont des Arts, across the cobbled courtyard of the Louvre, up the rue de Richelieu to the Grands Boulevards, where it occurred to him to take in the revue at the A.B.C. He had thought the show dull until Simone Calvette appeared.

She had walked slowly, almost negligently, from the farthest back entrance down to the footlights, a narrow column wrapped in a tube of black velvet from her small high breasts to her knees where it broke into a giant trailing lily. She had stood, reposed, hands clasped arms' length, her triangle face slightly tilted as though balancing the henna-tinged swirl of hair over her left eyebrow, and sang in a thin moderate voice, exquisitely, a Basque folksong "Ma Douce Annette."

He had returned to Daudin's that night to record her image on stone. Then the accidental encounter again with Figente and through him, because of the drawing, the meeting with Simone.

But two and a half years out of three were enough to spend convincing a human being against self-destruction and the denial of a little solitude to work by himself.

Curtain!

Darkness rolled over him and, with a start, he realized that the drone of the train wheels to Paris in his reverie was the rumble of traffic over nearby Queensborough Bridge. A constellation of lights began to glimmer one by one in the last dull sanguine glow across the river on whose ebbtide flow moved long shadowy barges around which dodged fussing tugboats.

This top third-floor studio in a decrepit red brick house was a lucky find, because its view of the East River afforded the stimulation of a waterfront. Particularly at twilight the fumes of oil tar and bilge recalled the excitement of embarkations. Just a couple of miles down were ships to anywhere. The only disturbing note was that on the other and fashionable side of the street high apartments were rising for those social registerites seeking a last stand, a barricade against the middle class invaders sweeping eastward from Riverside Drive who had captured Fifth Avenue and were laying siege to Park. But as yet it was still more restful to look away to the atmospheric impersonality of the Queensborough factories than to face a side street building and the constant movement of people to, at, and from work. Office workers, milliners, furriers, endless city occupations were distracting because a temptation to paint immediately as impressions. Memory helped the brush find the living line, the form, color; memory crystallized the theme and image. Now ten years later he could see and paint Grandma and the boy of fourteen reading to her impatiently. In his memory as accentuating mirror was the little sitting room precariously perched on a tiny pension. He could see now the fourteen-year-old boy reflected in the thick glasses Grandma wore almost sightlessly. "Your head is your father's, long and narrow," she had said, stroking it. What a burden for an old woman to be saddled with a two-year-old because of a train washout. "The water that you touch sure is the last of what has passed and the first of which comes." What yap assured me in Paris that Leonardo wasn't a painter but a photographer—Oh yes, Clem Brush, one of ten thousand polishing Cézanne's apples. Sure painting has to be more than photography, academic or camera record. But not emotional slops of palette scrapings framed by heavy black lines, stretched paint rags, or unconscious automatic scratchings a la Dada. A painting has to be consciously made even when it's of the unconscious. One must be awake to paint a dream. A portrait has to be personal. Photography is flat because it's an impersonal mechanical record. A Rembrandt, portrait or etching, is the work not of an impersonal hand, or mechanical lens, but of a human eye with vision plus a hand capable of creating a living image in line color form. An image which has not only aesthetic meaning but which communicates it to other human beings.

A breeze came up from the bay, with it a sickening waft of animal blood from the midway slaughterhouses. River and sky were separated only by distant checkerboards of lighted factory windows. A slapping gulp, presaging change of tide. Creation of the arts was a great river into whose course was emptied tributaries of images after being blocked by stones and weeds of doubt and incapability until released by some individual primary force to join the main current.

He switched on the green-shaded bulb over the trestle drawing table.

An electric bulb might be a symbol of functional beauty as now touted but it was damned hard on the eyes. Without light there is nothing to paint, even with the mind's eye. Seems to me I first began thinking about light when sixteen, standing on the 42nd St. Library steps facing Broadway's skyglow. He sure had been an insufferable nuisance to the libraries. Would have taken months to read books I asked for each night after work and a fifteen-cent supper at the Automat. The art critic of the World thought me nuts too when I tried to talk about light. "Your job is to handle copy, boy."

The eye is a small bulb, or sun, lighting life so you can if lucky ascertain its meaning. Abstract painters are nocturnal painters at heart, or necrophiles, like those surrealist boys. If in nothing is to be found reality why not hang the blank canvas stretcher on the walls? Better not say that aloud or Cynski sniffing the daily rehash of aesthetic hot air would offer it as his latest innovation. But how about nocturnal painting? There's Ryder, but enough is enough, and the same goes for the Thames at night. Never equals the night itself. Turner at least got sunset and opalescence. Some difference though in the opalescent flesh of the Rubens "Helena Fourment" in Vienna. Or how about the opalescence of Venice? Lucy Claudel on a balcony overlooking the Canal. A Caravaggio lady of the evening in cerulean daylight. No, she's not heavy enough, she's more a Longhi without domino. Remember to grind me some cerulean tomorrow.

He looked at the array of his implements as a gourmet at a spread of delicacies and felt his pulse throb in his fingertips. There were the velvet leads of the hand-sharpened pencils, pliant quills, stiff pen points, pointed brushes waiting to swell with water color, flat sable brushes resilient against buttery oil paint, powdery pastels, absorbent and non-absorbent paper, the perfume of turpentine, squat bottles of oil, sticks of brittle willow charcoal and at last on the easel, a canvas of the subject he knew best in all her characteristic movements and moods.

He looked at Simone on the canvas. No matter how much he deliberately changed his model there was a kind of characteristic similarity in every woman he painted, the glow of her coloring as he first saw her. A pale bees-wax luster from which emerged the ochre-white skin, amber eyes, henna hair, and the exaggerated black form of the dress. This time he had her, and he need never paint her again. Memory was better than the object before your eye. Now she was in New York but he need not see her until the canvas was finished—though he wanted her.

Vermillion did not telephone Simone.