Manual of painting and c.., p.5

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 5


Manual of Painting and Calligraphy

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  Relationships such as this one are remarkably serene. They work as long as the need to be mutually faithful does not become a burden, and they have already terminated once this tacit agreement has been infringed. Nothing is lost or complicated so long as the game is honest; only bourgeois couples betray each other, only marriage certificates become the cages of frenzied madmen, a wild jungle inhabited by mindless dinosaurs. If Adelina leaves me or I should ask her to go, or we both suddenly look at each other with indifference, one hour of time will settle quietly on another hour of time, and the world will prepare itself for rebirth. And if we should separate here in my flat, I shall be listening for her footsteps descending the echoing staircase, increasingly less distinct, increasingly farther away, and perhaps one of my women neighbors who knows her and thinks our affair is permanent will greet her: “Good evening, see you tomorrow,” and I alone will know, and Adelina, too, that there will be no tomorrow. As for the evening, if we look closely we can see that it is as pleasant as any other. Both of us also aware that we shall say in our turn, “Good evening, see you tomorrow,” when we meet again, with scarcely any sexual attraction unless suddenly aroused by an incautious glance, some fortuitous contact, or a little too much alcohol which has gone to the head. By then everything will be dead, with no resentment on our part. There is no other difference.

  Adelina is eighteen years younger than me. She has a good body, an exquisite belly inside and out, a wonderful fornicating machine, and she has the kind of intelligence I admire. She’s not very bright, my friends remark, but then she is no fool either. She manages or owns a boutique (I have never really found out which) and earns a good living. She does not live at my expense, I am glad to say. She seems to be satisfied with our arrangement, somewhat independent and detached, but always willing to go out with me, and I suspect she would not be averse to a closer relationship. I use my work as an excuse, and she has the decency to consider it a profession like any other, for she knows enough about the arts to make the distinction. Thanks to her good taste and common sense and to the esteem in which she obviously holds me, we can discuss painting without referring to my work, as naturally as we might discuss astronautics without my being Laika or her being von Braun or vice versa. Yet I find this silence somewhat annoying: nothing I do matters to her, neither my pictures, which she does not like, nor my money, which she does not need. To be frank, the only place where we can honestly meet is in bed: there I am not a painter nor she the owner of a boutique; as for intelligence, that of the sexual organs suffices and they know what they are doing.

  IT WAS NOT until fifteen days later that S. explained why he wanted this portrait, so much at variance with his nature and outlook as a man of his time. I never ask my clients in this blunt manner why they decided to have their portrait painted. Were I to do so, I should give the impression of having little esteem for the work which provides me with a living. I must proceed (as I have always done) as if a portrait in oils were the confirmation of a life, its culmination and moment of triumph, and therefore accept the inevitable fact that success is the prerogative of the chosen few. To ask would be to question the right of these chosen souls to have their portrait painted, when this privilege is clearly theirs by right and because of the large sum of money they are paying and the sumptuous surroundings in which they display the finished work, which they alone appreciate according to how they value themselves. I have often thought about the care with which spotlights are installed to enhance these portraits, like tiny suns created exclusively to illuminate a single planet from a certain angle: a diffused light contemplating the entire surface, a soft, crepuscular glow which obscures nothing yet highlights nothing, and there is that preferred light which encircles faces and illumines them in search of an imaginary spirit or a real one covered with impenetrable layers of paint. Confronted by pictures lit up in this way, one is obliged to stop. We are as bereft of ideas as the painting is of meaning, everything sharing in the same complicity, in the same connivance, in the same hypocrisy. On these occasions I am truly ashamed of my profession: to live a lie, to exploit it as if it were truth and justify it with the indisputable name of art, can sometimes become intolerable. The one who least deserves to be despised is the person having a portrait painted, who can be forgiven, after all, for being so ingenuous. I am speaking about the portrait I am painting, about the portraits I see which could have been signed by me; I am not referring, for example, to the portrait of Federico da Montefeltro painted by Piero della Francesca, which can be seen in Florence. At this very moment I can get up from my chair, search among my books and once more gaze at that profile of a middle-aged man who knows he is ugly but is unperturbed, his nose shaped like an easel, and in the background an imponderable landscape which I know to be the real Tuscany. And having looked (or not wishing to look now), my fingers grow numb with that severe chill known as despondency, remorse and defeat, and where an infinite and nameless expanse of ice still remains. I transfer this reflection to the names of the model and the painter and begin savoring them, separating them between my teeth into tiny morsels, translating them into my native Portuguese in order to know them better or lose them forevermore: Frederico de Montefeltro, almost unchanged, and Pedro da Francisca or dos Franciscos, the son of a shoemaker, poor devil, whose mother might have been called Francesca, and who as an old, blind man allowed himself to be led around by a boy named Marco di Longaro, who appears to have been born just for this, because all he left behind were the lanterns he went on to make in order to earn his living. And I, who will leave no lanterns behind and have never learned to guide myself, ask what purpose eyes serve.

  When S. told me, smiling, that his portrait was being painted at the request of the board of directors and to please his mother, I froze as I stood there at my easel with one arm poised in midair, my eye fixed on the tip of my brush, where the paint slowly trickled, liquid viscera abruptly cut off at the root but still throbbing, like a lizard’s tail or the surviving half of a blindworm. I hated S. for making me feel so unhappy, so positively useless, so very much the painter without any painting, and the brushstroke which I finally applied to the canvas was, in fact, the first brushstroke of the second canvas. We have all dreamed at some time or other of saving someone from drowning, and after having used my arms as best I could, I found myself holding a plastic doll with a derisive smile on its face and a mechanism inside which produced the sound of laughter. It was only later that I learned the story of the portrait of S.’s father; the sheer absurdity of it all would have dissuaded him from saying anything. Nor is it true, as I said earlier, that I remained charitably mixing the colors on my palette as I listened; that came later, and not charitably, or simply with the unconscious charity of someone aware of seeking revenge by some means or other. As a painter, only the techniques of painting were within my grasp, and that was how the second portrait came about. Perhaps my silence may have offended S. and turned against him a weapon which was not being handled by me. His patronizing disdain soon turned to a hostility he made no attempt to conceal. This was clearly why the sessions became less frequent. The first portrait made little progress, as if awaiting the second one painted in different colors, with different gestures and no respect, because determined by wrath, because money could not paralyze it. Even at that point I believed the craft of painting would be enough to achieve the modest victory of coming to terms with myself.

  After all, how important is the story of the portrait of S.’s father? Let the portrait painter who has never copied from a photograph cast the first stone, and I shall not be stoned, because no one will ever remember my having been involved in anything like that. What is the difference between a silent photograph and a vacant face that leers and grimaces in pursuit of some impossible and sublime expression? The painter Henrique Medina was wise enough to earn his money without being obliged to speak to his foreign clients. And what would this one say to him if he were to speak? What does S. say to me as I paint his portrait? What ties ex
ist beyond our common fear and mutual dishonesty? At least Olga the secretary, so reserved in the great boardroom, so secretive as she guided me along corridors, spoke as much as I allowed her, so nervous and absurdly flustered, so bourgeois after all, and almost endearing in her sudden desire to be esteemed by the middle-aged painter who was listening to her message, somewhat distracted but converting that same distraction into the invisible cloak of rapt attention. S. could not keep his appointment and she had called to tell me since my telephone was out of order, something of which I myself was as yet not aware. I invited Olga the secretary to enter, as she stood there trying to recover her breath after climbing four flights of stairs in the absence of any lift. I noticed that she had come prepared to linger, curious to probe a world of which she knew nothing and undoubtedly adorned in her imagination with all those picturesque details one finds in certain second-rate films. I also noticed (but not on this particular day) that S. had spoken about me in formal terms, not out of any respect (I assume) but because to have treated me disrespectfully would have shown a lack of self-respect, once he had resigned himself to sitting quite still while I examined him like a surgeon, fabricating a double without flesh or blood but with a threatening illusion of reality. Olga the secretary arrived exuding confidence, as she thought, but inquisitive and flustered and therefore at risk. Well, perhaps not; after all, she was not falling into the hands of a sadistic assassin, so there was no danger and there might, in fact, be much to gain. As there turned out to be for both of us and on two occasions.

  I asked her if she would like a drink and she accepted a whisky. She wanted to know if she could be of any assistance and I said no thank you, mine was a bachelor establishment, rarely tidy or clean, and my domestic skills did not go beyond removing ice from the fridge. She found that amusing, although it was not my intention. Now I really was distracted, without knowing how to make conversation. As we drank, I reminded her of the offhand manner in which she had received me at SPQR. She could not remember, she could not remember at all, she assured me. Perhaps she had been worried about something at work, letters waiting to be typed, behind with her filing. That was obviously the explanation, I agreed. Then it was her turn to ask if she could see her employer’s portrait. From where she was sitting one could only see the back of the canvas. I held her by the elbow as she got to her feet and squeezed it a little more tightly than was necessary. She did not react and allowed herself to be led in this manner. We both looked at the portrait, with me right behind her as she stood there quivering with excitement and curiosity. She found a remarkable likeness and asked how much longer it would take to finish the portrait. “That depends,” I told her. “If your boss goes on missing appointments, it could take some time.” Ever the loyal secretary, she embarked on some garbled explanation about S. being so busy, not to mention his golf and the factory, his bridge and the new factory under construction. I sat her in the chair reserved for my clients and I perched on a high stool. I could see quite clearly that she was ready for a sudden affair and sensed it in her every movement, as if the unfinished portrait of S. were inciting some kind of incestuous passion. Or perhaps she, too, had some wrong to redress in order to be able to live in peace. Human behavior resides in a world of hypotheses. If, in Eça de Queirós’s novel, Padre Amaro dressed Amelia in the Virgin’s mantle, why should Olga the secretary not make love to me before the portrait of her employer (patron, father, sugar daddy), who had started an affair with her and then lost interest?

  I never cease to be amazed at the freedom women enjoy. We men regard them as inferior beings, we are amused by their little foibles, we sneer when they get things wrong, yet every one of them is capable of surprising us, laying before us vast territories of freedom, as if in the depths of their servitude, with an obedience which gives the impression of being in pursuit of itself, they were putting up the defenses of a harsh independence without restraints. Confronted by these defenses, we men, who think we know everything about this lesser being we have been taming or thought we had tamed, find ourselves disarmed, powerless and terrified; the lapdog which was so endearingly wriggling on its back and showing its tummy suddenly jumps to its feet, its limbs trembling with rage, its eyes full of mistrust, irony and indifference. When Romantic poets compared (or still compare) woman to a sphinx, how right they were, bless them. Woman is a sphinx who had to exist because man appropriated science, knowledge and power. But such is the fatuousness of men that women were content to put up the defenses of their final refusal in silence, so that man, resting in the shade as if stretched out under the penumbra of submissive eyelids, could say with conviction, “There is nothing beyond this wall.”

  A grim miscalculation from which we are still trying to recover. Olga the secretary made love to me, but not out of obedience to the male or because used to submission, much less because she found me attractive. She accepted me because she chose to and had prepared herself for any eventuality. And if it is true that the half-hour which elapsed between her arrival and the moment when she crossed her arms and pulled her blouse over her head was taken up with the same old gestures and foreplay of weary seduction, this was due to that little ritual couples must observe rather than upset the sequence. This also explains our interest in the ups and downs in the life of the prostitute with whom we have just entered a rented room. She might even be offended or we might feel we had offended her if we were not to ply her with questions.

  Within the half-hour Olga the secretary finished drinking the first whisky and started on a second. Within the half-hour I made a rapid sketch of her, but a good likeness, and in order to show it to her and examine it together, I sat beside her on the divan. Sitting slightly further back, I was able to lean over her shoulder and brush my face against her hair. Familiar ruses giving the appearance of being distracted and at the same time denying it, whereby the equivocation becomes extreme in this tacit game in which both sides play with their own and each other’s cards while pretending to be mere spectators. It was at some point within this half-hour that she asked me if she could keep the sketch and I began insisting that I wanted her to have it. Then, next minute, I was pulling her toward me by the shoulders and turning her toward me, began putting my lips to hers. And believe me, if she drew her face away it was only so that everything should not be confined to that moment, which already had its surfeit of pleasure given and accepted, and might therefore be considered incomplete although essential for any pleasure to follow. I am playing with words as if I were using colors and still mixing them on my palette. I am playing with these events while searching for words, however tentative, to describe them. But I must confess that no drawing or painting of mine could ever convey what I have just ventured to express in writing. The mouth of Olga the secretary put itself within reach of mine as the black cloud from the center of my body, which is my sex and much more than simply sex, became charged with the rapid currents of a nameless fluid which draws my blood to secret caverns. I then knew that this was precisely what Olga the secretary had planned the moment S. asked her to call in person to cancel his appointment, or shortly afterward, and that all I had to do was to assist in this purification, first and foremost the involuntary agent of her revenge, already its agent before Olga the secretary even reached my flat and my sex was quiescent, hers unmistakably quivering with desire. We kissed like two adults who know all about kissing. We kissed, knowing how to get our lips into a comfortable position, how to prepare that first meeting of tongues, how to control our breathing. And we both knew exactly when I should lean over her and she should bend over me until we found ourselves half lying on the sofa, in possession of this new intimacy of bodies pressed up against each other as our mouths went on provoking from afar our sexual organs, which were already stimulated. The most difficult moment of all is when mouths separate: the least word can be excessive. Knowing this, I reached out to hold her breasts, and appearing to avoid me, she crossed her arms and pulled her blouse right over her head. Half dressed, we had no
difficulty in making love. Driven by thoughts I could sense, she soon caught up and overtook me, allowing me to witness her orgasm in the motionless center of my black cloud until it was my turn to lose self-control and enter the maelstrom. As first acts go, it had been excellent. No words were spoken, and I was frightened because I was dependent on her for any serenity afterward or that common and ill-disguised vexation which can so easily ensue in these situations. I could see from the position we were in that I must be pressing on her leg, and I asked her if it was painful. “A little,” she replied, and these were the first words exchanged, and the movement that followed was facilitated by the same physical discomfort as we began getting dressed and I calmly helped her into her blouse, an old married couple for whom there are no more surprises. But when I caught her looking at S.’s portrait, when I saw that mocking smile, I asked her abruptly if she had been S.’s mistress. I was taken aback by my own question, but she was certainly expecting me to ask her sooner or later, for she simply turned and replied, “Of course,” starting to speak while still gazing at the painted face of S. and finishing as she looked at me, or perhaps not looking at me, not looking at this face already lined with wrinkles, at this vague blotch that often passes for a face, not looking at me at all, but at some endless desert stretching behind or inside me. And this secretary Olga, whose importance consists of being a secretary and having an exceptionally generous orgasm, allowed a breach to open in her defenses for one brief moment so that I might experience once again my former vertigo when confronted with what I choose to call the fundamental freedom of woman. By mutual consent, she was taking her revenge on me.

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