Manual of painting and c.., p.7

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 7


Manual of Painting and Calligraphy

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  I spent the morning working on the second portrait. I had woken up determined (what had provoked this resolve during my sleep?) or had determined at some point while awake (but when and for what reason?) to persevere with the portrait. Not that it was not making good progress, but unlike the first one, obedient to a set plan of methods and procedures (naturally subject to the introduction of factors and variants peculiar to each model), the second one allowed for and demanded a different freedom, further changes in accordance with new elements I had or thought I had at my disposal as I tried to discover the true S. For the first time I transferred the picture from the storeroom into the studio without removing it from the easel and placed it alongside the first portrait. There was scarcely any resemblance except for that one finds between one man and another, both belonging to a species characterized and distinguished from others by certain forms. Even I was not aware of having painted them so differently, although deep down I knew that they were the same person. Yet there was something else I had to clarify. Was this the same person because just as meaningless (what I am doing here is not painting), or the same person because finally captured in the second portrait and an essentially different image? As far as likeness goes, the first portrait is a portrait of S.; his own mother (mothers are never deceived) confirmed as much the only time she ever came with her son to the studio. But the second portrait, which even his own mother would not recognize, is just as good a likeness in my eyes, although quite different from the first one, just as one drop of water differs from another. Who would see this second portrait as a true likeness? In other words, at what moment in life has S. been or is ever likely to be this portrait? As I looked from one picture to another, I thought how interesting it would be to show the portrait from the storeroom to Olga the secretary without telling her who it was supposed to be (ah, this business of writing can be so ambiguous). Having known him in bed, would Olga the secretary be capable of recognizing S. once disfigured? Am I trying to say this knowledge is disfiguring? That it is comparable with this other disfigurement I have achieved in the picture, both of them presupposing knowledge or its pursuit? And why is the pursuit itself not disfigured? What was I to Adelina when, even though we knew each other, I still had not been to bed with her? What am I to her in my own eyes, knowing that I have been to bed with Olga the secretary without Adelina knowing?

  I drank a large cup of coffee without anything to eat. My cleaner arrived midmorning. She has been coming here for three years, yet I cannot say I know much about her. She looks older than me but is probably younger. Formidable, sharp and taciturn, she works with the efficiency of a machine. She washed up the dishes, changed the sheets (she must find it painful if it reminds her of the moments of pleasure she experienced before being widowed), she cleaned the rest of the flat without touching the studio and departed. She asked no questions, knows that I always lunch out and that she is paid weekly. But what does my cleaner Adelaide really think of me? What first and second portrait would she paint of me if she were a (bad) painter like me? I can hear the shuffling of her slippers as she descends the stairs and discover (to be frank, rediscover) that I am interested in the noise people make when they descend the stairs; I store them in a useless but seemingly indispensable archive, like some harmless yet obsessive foible. Once more I find myself alone in the silence of my studio, the forgotten street beneath my windows and the other rooms recovering their interrupted solitude while objects which have been moved, suddenly transferred or ever so slightly adjusted either become accustomed to their new position by spreading out with sheer relief, like fresh bed linen, or trying to come to terms with the outrage, just like those soiled sheets rolled up in the laundry bag and smelling of cold sweat.

  Seen from a distance, I have the gestures of Rembrandt. Like him, I mix the colors on my palette, like him I extend a steady arm and apply firm brushstrokes. But the paint does not settle in the same way, there is a slight turning of the wrist, a greater or lesser pressure exerted by the bristles of my brush, unless Rembrandt used some other kind of brush, which might explain the difference? If I were to take a microscopic photograph of a tiny section from one of Rembrandt’s pictures, surely this would confirm the difference? And would that difference not be precisely what separates genius (Rembrandt) from mediocrity (me)? (Between parentheses: I put Rembrandt and me between parentheses to avoid writing “genius from mediocrity,” an absurdity which not even a writer as inexperienced as myself would let slip.) But since all the painters of my generation use brushes similar to mine, there must be other differences to make critics praise them and not me, so that although they are different among themselves, they are all considered to be better than me and I am judged as being worst of all. A question of how one holds the brush? A question of what then? I can remember words by Klee: “A naked man should be painted in such a way that the viewer admires the anatomy of the picture rather than that of the man.” If this is the case, what is wrong with the anatomy of these faces I am painting, if they fail to arouse any admiration for the anatomy of the pictures themselves? Even though I know perfectly well that a microscopic photograph of a painting by Rembrandt would look nothing like a similar photograph taken of a painting by Klee.

  I work slowly on the background of the second portrait of S., with brownish whorls probably recovered from my dream. They gradually cover the naturalist features with which I had earlier tried to express industrial and financial power: factory chimneys, serrated rooftops, a cloud in the form of a large escudo sign lying on its side. As I fill in this new background, I notice how S.’s face (or this image which I alone call S.) seems to be covered in ash, a dead face starting to turn blue and decompose. I avoid touching his head with my brush. I work only on the background, applying one color over another, now adding some darker tints which leave traces untranslatable into any other language, and the thickness of the paint creates a kind of foreground which transforms the plane of the head and trunk into a collage which looks as if it might have been added later, using the palm of my hand and the tips of my fingers to smooth down the outline where the wet paint gathers. At this moment, but without stopping to think about it, I have my first intuition of this picture’s final destiny. I have buried S. in excrement.

  TWO DAYS LATER I began writing, and during this time both pictures progressed to their inevitable end: the second to that black cloud which isolated it from the world, the first to the boardroom of the Senatus Populusque Romanus. Today is really today. There is no truth to look for, nothing to be construed within its appearance. The only remaining portrait of S. will be collected tomorrow. The paint is dry, the portrait is good, technically speaking, and guaranteed to last. In these matters I am the best painter in town. But in this city I am also the greatest failure alive. I have never successfully completed any of my projects and not even these sheets of paper have increased in volume since I started writing from scratch. It is over and done with. I tried, I failed, and there will be no further opportunities.

  WRITING CAN NO LONGER do anything for me, but I have decided to salvage at least the embers of these last four months. Olga the secretary came to collect the portrait, accompanied by a messenger (for the first time I noticed on the lapel of the man’s jacket the initials SPQR, and here I was thinking I had invented the anachronism), and she was in every way the efficient and solicitous employee with that touch of authority (by contamination and contrast) who had accompanied me to examine the portraits in the boardroom. She handed me the check, put the receipt I had written, stamped and signed, into a folder and politely said goodbye, without being hostile or aloof, simply neutral. I stood there listening to the clicking of her footsteps descending the stairs and other footsteps, those of the man, heavy and cautious, contrasting sounds, loud and soft, which diminished in unison, while keeping up the counterpoint, getting further and deeper into the spiral until they vanished into silence, the noise of the street, before resurging, transformed into the banging of car doors and the throbbing of an e
ngine being started up before tailing off into the perspective of the road ahead and finally dying away.

  Who would have thought that on this divan, no matter how uncomfortable, Olga the secretary had made love to me, that on this bed, fully stretched out and stark naked, she had made love for a second time, had come twice, and called out the second time. Who would have thought that on both occasions she carried away inside her part of my body, its secretion, that incredible fluid wherein these aspirants to a peculiar parasitism hover and swim by the million. Who would have thought, watching us engaged in the simple act of giving and receiving, that there were other accounts between us, not pending, but settled so recently that I am not even sure whether the wet stain we both left on the sheet had completely dried. I believe I have already written that life is extremely simple. I had one more reason for thinking so. And if this philosophy is not worth much, it has, in recompense, the advantage of setting its limits the moment it defines itself, like dying before birth, like that butterfly which survives for no longer than a day and has already perished by nightfall. I feel myself to be in some kind of night without having really known day, merely clinging to the simple affirmation that life is simple. Today, as I always do when I sell a picture (and this one was sold at a good price), I shall organize a little party (a reunion, to be more precise) in the studio. I usually serve drinks, a trinity of nuts—pine seeds—raisins, canapés, things one can buy already prepared and which I suspect are all made from the same basic ingredients although presented under various guises. Naturally Adelina will be there and several friends whom I have invited. But I ask myself why anyone should be interested in these details.

  What obstacle finally detained me on the road I indicated on the first page of this manuscript, for there it remains, still questioning me? On that same page I confessed that the attempt to paint a second portrait had failed; on that same page, or shortly afterward, I clearly stated what I as a painter think of my painting, of which that first portrait is truly representative. It would not be through painting that I should discover something (I no longer call it the truth) about a sitter, however much the latter might think he knew about himself on recognizing himself in the picture. By resorting to writing I knew that I was simply turning my back on a problem: I was not ignoring it, I knew it was just as daunting, but it was as if the novelty of the instrument (everything for me had to be real invention and not merely an imitation of earlier experiences) was sufficient in itself to bring me close to my objective. It was as if (having convinced S. of my talent as a painter) I had taken him by surprise. If there was anything S. felt he ought to mistrust, these were surely my brushes, my paints, my gestures of blessing and excommunication over that portrait which gradually acquired definition; not some sheets of paper he could not see or a picture that was not only hidden from him. But by what route should I travel in order to arrive at this unprotected place, exposed, one might even say innocent, where I should at last know and finally come to understand S.? What I learned about him I found out through Olga the secretary and even then involuntarily. She succumbed without any conquest on my part. I lost time in digressions which (as I now see all too clearly) led me to other parts where I discovered more about myself than about anyone else. How disappointed Vasco da Gama would have felt if, on sailing to the Indies, he had finished up at the mouth of the Tagus. Things were different for Magellan, who, had he survived the voyage, would have made it a point of honor to land at the very spot from whence he had set sail, who knows how long ago. But I had no desire to go on a trip around the world, and not even this calligraphy would be capable of carrying me all that way. All I wanted (a man with only one profession) was to give my work some raison d’être, even though cheating by using the tools of another craft and other hands. Confronted with the outcome of this experience, I should like to know where I went wrong, at which point I deviated and moved further and further away from my objective, thus depriving myself of any assistance from Olga the secretary, who could have been so useful. I want to believe that I somehow knew it would be hopeless. Olga the secretary would have given me (and she did give me something) her image of S., just as the man who serves him by annotating files and stamping papers would have provided me with another image. Not forgetting the image given by the messenger who came to collect the portrait and who probably descended the stairs quivering with excitement at the great honor of being allowed to carry that precious object in his arms, perhaps shaking with rage at being asked to do it, perhaps resigned to obeying orders, perhaps proud and capable of deep hatred. Just as I would offer my image of him were I to take the trouble of capturing it, after discovering where to look for it. But it would always be an image, never the truth. And this was probably my biggest mistake: to think that the truth could be captured externally and simply with one’s eyes, to imagine a truth exists which can be grasped at once and thereafter remain still and at peace, just like a statue, a truth which contracts and expands depending on the temperature, a truth which eventually erodes, not only modifying the surrounding space but subtly altering the composition of the ground on which it stands, shedding minute particles of marble, just as we shed hairs, nail clippings, saliva and the words we speak. Even if I had been apprenticed to Sherlock Holmes or to one of those modern detectives who use their brains as well as their muscles and weapons, I would end up a frustrated wreck to whom the wholesome S. would say with a smile, “Elementary, my dear Watson, such is life.” Frankly, what questions could I ask and of whom in order to discover the truth? Go to bed (since that is where fate decreed it should begin) with all the women S. has slept with, including his wife? Plant spies in the SPQR, install microphones and hidden cameras and put compromising documents on microfilm? Disguise myself as a golf caddy? A bartender? Aim a gun at him as he turns the corner and threaten him—“The truth or your life”—while recognizing there and then that life is not truth? With considerable effort I would get to know the history of the Senatus Populusque Romanus and the family who owns the firm, I would discover S.’s date of birth and all the other important dates in his life so far, I would be able to investigate his friends and enemies, I would have as many images of him as I have facts, dates, names of his friends and enemies, but even after collecting everything possible the ultimate question would remain unanswered: how to put all these facts into a portrait, or indeed a manuscript? My art, in the final analysis, is worthless; and what is the use of this calligraphy?

  Anyone who paints portraits portrays himself. Therefore, the important thing is not the model but the painter, and the portrait is worth only as much as the painter himself and not a groat more. The Dr. Gachet painted by Van Gogh is Van Gogh and not Gachet, and the thousand different costumes (velvets, plumes, gold necklaces) in which Rembrandt painted himself are more expedients to give the impression that he was painting other people while painting himself in some other guise. I said I do not like my painting. That is because I do not like myself and I am obliged to look at myself in every portrait I paint, futile, weary, disheartened and lost, because I am neither Rembrandt nor Van Gogh. Which goes without saying.

  But the person writing? Is he also writing himself? What is Tolstoy in War and Peace? What is Stendhal in The Charterhouse of Parma? Is War and Peace the whole Tolstoy? Is The Charterhouse of Parma the whole Stendhal? When they finished writing their books, did they find themselves in them? Or did they believe they had written nothing other than a work of fiction? And in what sense fiction, since some of the threads in their plots are historical? What was Stendhal before writing The Charterhouse of Parma? What did he end up being after writing it? And for how long? I only started writing a month ago, and it seems to me that I am no longer the same person. Because I have added another thirty days to my life? No. Because I have been writing. But what are these differences? Apart from knowing what they consist of, have they reconciled me to myself? As someone who dislikes seeing himself portrayed in the portraits I paint of others, would I like to see myself in this manu
script, an alternative portrait in which I have ended up portraying myself rather than someone else? Does this mean that I get closer to myself by means of writing rather than through painting? And this raises another question: will this manuscript go on even after I assume it to be finished? If the straits of the Tagus are located where I hoped to find India, will I be obliged to relinquish the name Vasco and call myself Ferdinand? Heaven forbid that I should die en route, as always happens to the man who fails to find what he is searching for in life. The man who took the wrong route and chose the wrong name.

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