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Life Drawing

 
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Joy Garnett

Images courtesy of the author.

 

Oxford was rainy and gray that winter. I was never not cold. Everywhere I looked there were shivering students. They crowded into pubs or wandered across medieval courtyards with their heads down. The headbangers looked cold too, tough boys in thick leathers who loitered near the bus station and the shopping mall where the frazzled cold students went to score drugs.

I bought a used mohair scarf at an Oxfam shop to wear with my astrakhan coat. I wore that coat everywhere. It was too big for me and weighed a ton. The shoulders were sculpted and padded, and the collar fastened with a small metal clasp wound with ribbon. I was sure the coat had once been very elegant, but now it was bald around the edges of the sleeves, which made it look gray and old and sad. I tried to fix the edges by daubing them with India ink. I thought my touch-up job looked pretty good.

Simonette didn’t seem to mind the cold. I told myself this was because she was English. She was impervious to wind and rain, intrepid in her wool cardigans, tweed hat, and green oilskin cape. She took me around Oxford in any weather and introduced me to its architecture, pubs, and thrift shops. She was the oldest of my older friends and the most irreverent of them. I watched her slide her hand over the back of a woman’s head, a stranger sitting at an outdoor cafe. She let her fingers search and prod the sculpted purple coif before she gave a little tug and sped away. Later she told me she was curious about the texture.

Despite our differences and disparity in age, Simonette and I gravitated to the same kinds of things: abandoned churches, burial mounds, secondhand anything, beer. We felt the same way about the dual threat of organized religion and organized play. Simonette bemoaned the fate of a mutual friend we believed had been sucked into a cult—he used to light up a room, she sighed, but lately he’d become rather tedious.

Hers was a beautiful house, tall and pale, standing on a crescent that overlooked an oval park. It was comfortably untidy and crammed with books and art. Like most buildings in Oxford, it was drafty and cold except for the kitchen. At night, Simonette would send me upstairs to the attic with a hot water bottle. She wrapped it in a woolen cozy so it wouldn’t scald me, and I would hug it tightly and try to fall asleep under a painting of a red cactus flower that seemed to reproach me for so many things.

Simonette would take me by the arm and walk me around her house floor by floor. We’d pause in front of a drawing or painting hanging between her bookshelves. Each painting—mostly flowers in vases, seashells, and the odd seascape—had a quirky backstory. The reproachful cactus flower was by the English painter Dora Carrington, who was part of the Bloomsbury Group. There was an oil of a clunky yellow flower by an artist named Simon-Albert Bussy, also part of the Bloomsbury Group even though he was French. My favorite was a still life that looked like a Matisse by a woman named Frances Hodgkins who was from New Zealand but lived in England and died in Dorset.

Simonette scheduled an appointment at the Ashmolean Museum so we could spend private time with the Turner and Constable drawings. They kept them in drawers in a special room. We sat, silent but for our adrenalized breathing, our white-gloved hands poised tentatively over the ancient paper. I tried to absorb the line, and what I felt was a swashbuckling movement in the clouds, to feel them in my bones.

 
 

We went to hear chamber music at Holywell. Another time, we attended a poetry reading. If Simonette came away unimpressed, she would say so. We often visited her favorite pub for Ploughman’s lunch and talked about pacifism and the ozone layer. We’d warm ourselves by the stove in her subterranean kitchen, and open bottles of the Tuscan red she favored. For dinner, we usually made spaghetti or ravioli, and watercress salad with grated fresh Parmesan and chunks of dry baguette, because one person living alone, or even two, could never finish a baguette before it got stale.

I confided I didn’t know what I should do with my life, and she told me stories about her past. Marriage to a much older man, whom she loved. Her secret illegal abortion. More recently, her decision to live alone despite having taken on a much younger lover. He was a violinist, she said, it was his concert we’d attended at Holywell.

We took the train to London to attend a dinner party. I had nothing to wear and spent an afternoon rifling through thrift stores until I found the perfect tight black dress. The party was to celebrate the publication of Simonette’s friend’s recent novel. Normally, she said, she avoided such evenings, and she disliked most of the people who would be there.

The taxi from Paddington let us out in front of a flan-colored townhouse in Belgravia. Two doormen who looked like male models greeted us and took our coats. People were standing around smoking and drinking. Much of the talk seemed to revolve around an acid-tipped review of a book by someone everyone loathed. A woman who looked like Hermione Gingold kept shrieking with laughter, and a thin woman had brought her dog, a whippet that looked exactly like her. Simonette’s novelist friend, the fellow we were celebrating, seemed haggard and drawn. He shook my hand reluctantly before excusing himself, disappearing with the whippet woman. He reappeared a while later looking refreshed after (according to Simonette) having snorted a few lines in the powder room.

We were led to a lavishly set table. Metallic helium balloons floated above us and got trapped in the wainscoting. Servers poured white wine, then red, followed by a succession of courses, some of them tiny, unrecognizable: a bitter ceviche served in a pale leaf shaped disturbingly like a hand; a coral-colored soup that tasted vaguely of cheese. Before they were braised, the kidneys had been soaked for days in Guinness to expunge what someone referred to knowingly as “that taint of urine.” For the first time in my life I confronted the fact that I didn’t know which fork or spoon to use, or when.

Most of the guests were novelists, and one was a television producer. Several were famous beyond that dinner party, but I had never heard of them. They seemed to have known each other all their lives, and a few had even been married to each other at some point, and were now married to other people, many of them at that party.

Between courses, a woman turned to me with a funny look and asked me about my surname. She found it puzzling, she said. How was I a Garnett? The room quieted, all heads turned towards me. I told them the story, how upon arriving in America my Jewish Russian great-grandfather bought a copy of Crime and Punishment and chose the translator’s name for his own. Constance Garnett, of the Garnetts of Bloomsbury. I’d always thought it was a funny story, but everyone looked at me blankly before turning back to their food.

 

Simonette took me to her favorite hidden place. It started to rain when we entered the fallow enclosure surrounded by abandoned buildings. She said the cemetery had been established for workers at the Victorian ironworks factory, and gestured at the sooty walls. Before that, it had been farmland. She often came there to wander among the dead, and hoped the place would remain her secret for as long as she lived. We picked our way past the mossy headstones, some of them broken. It was green and moist, beautiful and sad. I’d brought my small camera loaded with black and white film, and shot photos of the overgrown hedges and buildings. I snapped one of Simonette, even though I knew she had a rule about not being photographed. I caught her ear and part of her face in profile as she moved out of the frame. She glanced at me, a look I’d never seen before, and I felt ashamed. It’s the only photo I have of her.

I discovered the buses that ran between Oxford and London. They were cheaper than trains and ran more frequently. I could leave early in the morning, visit museums, and come back the same day. Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas was on loan from the Archbishop's Palace in Kroměříž, Czechoslovakia for “The Genius of Venice” exhibition at the Royal Academy. The painting had been on the front page of every newspaper, and all of London was transfixed by it. Based on a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses, it is one of Titian’s major late works. I stood before it and sketched until my back and feet were sore and I could no longer stand. In the painting, as in the story, the satyr Marsyas hangs upside down from a tree while the god Apollo meticulously flays him alive with a small knife. A spaniel laps up a puddle of blood in the foreground and another satyr, who looks like the devil, waits with a bucket, an expression of glee on his face. In the background, a woman, or perhaps it is a young man, plays the violin. The expression on Marsyas’s face, upside down, is indescribable.

 

A friend called to offer me her empty Paris apartment, rent-free. I bought the cheapest one-way Sealink ticket, and crossed the English Channel at night on the vomit ferry. I stood on the top deck in the rain and spray to avoid seasickness and the beer-swilling boys below. I was thankful for my astrakhan coat, although the inked edges of my sleeves had bled in the rain. My wrists were stained grey and I looked like I needed a shower.

The Paris that greeted me was gritty, pre-gentrified, and the Marais was sooty, peeling, and rotting away. The ancient walls of the Huguenots sported traces of political graffiti of the previous decade, its sky-lit arcades empty and derelict. There were no boutiques selling designer clothing for toddlers, no Mariage Frères tearoom on the rue du Bourg-Tibourg, and the Musée Picasso had yet to be conceived. People sat around in cafés reading newspapers, and the ink came off on their hands, and I stopped feeling self-conscious about my ink-stained wrists.

I wandered Paris in a daze. I learned about French food, but also things like shit and garbage. Public toilets were nearly always à la turque, with pull cords and water that flushed over your shoes and your handbag before you could escape. The lights, which were on timers, were never on long enough for you to finish, and the switch was impossible to reach from a squatting position. Everywhere, the city overflowed with recyclable bottles from the modular Kelly green depositories the Ville de Paris never bothered to empty. A few embarrassing flourishes existed for the benefit of tourists, or people who pined for the ancien régime, like the theater of street sweepers. These were young men from former French colonies in West Africa whose uniforms evoked the French Foreign Legion. They were equipped with ineffectual plastic brooms that looked like replicas of turn-of-the-century bristle brooms. They left a trail of soggy gum wrappers and cigarette butts that swelled with water and clogged the gutters.

I didn’t understand how to convert kilograms and made the faux pas of buying a too-large wedge of pâté from a man who cut it from a large round with a thin wire. He scowled at me when I balked at the size of the wedge and then at the price. I had almost no money. Thankfully, I discovered the cheap rounds of French pizza sold at bakeries, adorned with anchovies that curled around their olives like salty eyebrows. I stuffed myself with baguette and the hard-boiled eggs that sat in holders on the counters of every bar until late afternoon. For dinner I scooped avocados from their skins with a spoon, and boiled water to make broth from Knorr Suisse bouillon cubes. If I was really hungry, I splurged on half a roasted chicken. The butcher would pull one off a spit for me, chop it in half length-wise with a cleaver, and slide it into a foil-lined bag. I’d eat the entire thing in one sitting, with my hands.

I submitted an application to the École des beaux-arts. In a naive attempt to satisfy what I later learned was a wholly unnecessary layer of French bureaucracy, I visited and re-visited the same office with its dour factotum, and submitted and re-submitted a large amount of paperwork, including a vaccination certificate and evidence of a student visa that I did not have—could not have until I was enrolled somewhere.

On the morning of the entrance exam, I followed other nervous-looking applicants carrying black portfolios across the cobblestone courtyard towards an imposing building with columns. We walked past plaster figures and heads scattered on the ground, copies of Roman marbles left behind by former students. Inside, it was gloomy, the walls of the amphitheater hung with immense allegorical canvases in need of repair. It felt like a time capsule, although the era encapsulated was difficult to pinpoint. Everything seemed designed to riff on something more ancient than itself.

I pushed my way through a sea of prospective students who were already jammed inside, climbed the canted seating, and waited. Assistants were setting up still lifes on a central platform. Life models stood around smoking in their bathrobes, like extras from a Lautrec biopic. After feverish clerical activity in which names were checked off lists, we were each given an easel with a giant pad of paper and a little box with wands of charcoal. There were a set number of life drawing and still life assignments, each timed, to be completed in unison. A man with a stopwatch paced back and forth while we worked, and shouted when it was time to put down our charcoal. Afterwards, we milled around the hall waiting to present our portfolios. I showed mine to a milquetoast balding man who frowned as he flipped through my drawings. He made a notation in a ledger and handed me a slip of paper assigning me to a specific atelier. You can report here when the doors open in a few weeks, he said.

I was in, I realized. I walked home in the rain, elated. The leaves clogging the path in the park looked bright and ebullient, and everything in the world was suddenly good. Even the rain felt delicious on my face. I must never ever leave Paris, I thought.

 
 

The neighborhood where I lived was full of laundries and bakeries and wholesalers. Narrow storefronts sold leather and fabric in bulk, their windows festooned with faded draperies and displays of zippers and colored buttons. Decrepit old men hawked their wares, calling up from the street in the early morning hours, like time-travelers from another century. The knife sharpener made house calls, and a window glazier carried panes of glass in a wooden contraption like a backpack. Around the corner on rue de Bretagne, the markets lit up like Christmas before dusk. Gleaming tile-lined shops offered arrays of cheeses and artisanal yogurts in tiny clay pots, and things I had never seen before like les oeufs en gélée encased in cognac-colored aspic dotted with green peppercorns. I encountered my first blood sausage, black boudin and puce-colored boudin blanc. A bristling wild boar hung upside down outside a butcher shop, dark blood dripping from its snout into a tin cup. I could only think of Marsyas.

My little street was quiet save for a few darkened bars where men smoked and drank cloudy glasses of Ricard starting from early morning. Directly across from my building was a bakery. It was no bigger than a narrow vestibule with room for one or two customers. Like the glazier and the knife sharpener, it seemed to exist by dint of time travel. The proprietress, a withered lady with a head of white curls, stood behind the counter in what appeared to be a nightgown. Her cataracts glowed, adding to her feral demeanor, and her skin was powdery like flour-dusted bread. The bakery offered only a few items: a rustic sourdough ficelle, skinnier and tougher than a baguette, a croissant baked with lard, les chaussons aux pommes, and clafouti cut into squares and embedded with mirabelles. The custard was rubbery, but the plums were sweet. Transactions with the flour-complexioned lady were prolonged and bizarre, and I soon realized she was deaf. She would talk loudly at me, exact my few francs, and send me away with whatever bread or pastry she decided I should buy.

 

“A pungent stench like rotting leaves emanated from the apartment next door.”

 

My apartment was on the top floor at the end of a winding stair that got narrower toward the top. It was paved with octagonal terracotta tiles, many of which were loose, alternating with slats of wood worn down by centuries of feet. There was a shared W.C. on every floor. The doors and banisters were all painted the same dark, shiny brownish orange and the door handles were chrome, matching the décor of local cafes. Lights on a timer went off long before I reached my door, and I would be lost in the dark corridor fumbling for my key.

A pungent stench like rotting leaves emanated from the apartment next door. Other than the concierge on the ground floor, we were the only two tenants who lived in the building, which catered to sweatshops that ran from early morning and closed at night. I looked closely at the handwritten name on my neighbor’s door. It was written in a looping, decorative script from a distant and perhaps more careful era: M. Hubler. Another time traveler, I thought.

My apartment was filled with light from the tall double windows that opened onto the courtyard. There was a minute bathroom with a bathtub just large enough to crouch in. The wallpaper, which had once been blue, was brown and rank and peeling in places. My bed was an old mattress on the floor, folded lengthwise to form a couch and covered with a blanket. The clunky phone had an extra listening device—the French answer to eavesdropping—but the service had been disconnected. There was a box on the wall with circuit breakers that I fiddled around with during blackouts. The apartment had no fridge. When milk curdled, I would hang it in a cheesecloth bag over the sink in attempts to make fromage blanc.

Leery of the stopped-up W.C. in the hallway, I made a habit of leaving the apartment first thing in the morning to visit the small café around the corner. I’d warm myself, order coffee, and count to ten before getting up to use their W.C., which was white and spotless and had a toilet with a seat. The café seemed different from other cafes. There was no orange-brown paint, no chrome door handles from the seventies. It specialized in dried fruits, marrons glacées, crème glacée, tiny cakes and chocolates, an array of which was displayed in the window. There were none of the usual male waiters, only young waitresses who wore pink uniforms with white aprons and lace caps. They scurried around taking directions from older women positioned behind the counter who ran the place like a military encampment.

On my first night I was awakened by a furious, disembodied voice coming through the wall.

Les police! said the voice.

I froze.

My apartment-sitting deal had been offered me with the caveat that I be discreet. I was a guest, not a subletter, and I should avoid contact with the concierge or anyone else.

Les police...!

I shivered. I wondered if I would be thrown out.

The voice repeated the same phrases over and over in a kind of manic fury. Eventually, I understood that my neighbor’s outrage was directed not at me, but at the police over an incident that involved a missing valise containing 17 thousand francs.

La valise! Mon argent! Donne-moi! Monsieur Hubler cried through the night.

 
 

Paris became much colder than I expected. I got sick. I visited a French pharmacy where they sold me a box of suppositories and a vial of tablets to dissolve in water until they stopped fizzing. For days I pushed suppositories up myself while swilling orange-flavored water. My belly swelled and my nose got stopped up. I rubbed eucalyptus ointment on my chest and in my nostrils, but nothing I did could unclog me. I wrapped myself in my coat under all the blankets, alternately shivering and sweating. I stopped caring about the voice that came through the wall in the night.

After my fever broke, I ventured outside. In the days since I’d been bedridden, the weather had turned even colder. There was frost on the fallen leaves and I could see my breath. I took to wearing my astrakhan coat all the time, indoors as well as outdoors. I wore it while brushing my teeth and doing the dishes. I continued to wear it to bed. In a few months, the Seine would freeze, ice floes bobbing in the black water.

I don’t remember the exact circumstances that led to meeting Monsieur Hubler. Our first encounter took place in his doorway and I had to find a way to cut it short because of the smell. He was tiny, possibly a foot shorter than me, his long greasy hair parted neatly on one side and draped behind his ears. His face was pointy like a vole’s, and he had a large dark mole to the left of his nose above his lip. Oddly, he was clean-shaven. He seemed old, but how old I could not say. His skin had a bluish cast. His legs were not fully functional, and he moved in and out, and down the hall and all those stairs on his hospital crutches. I sometimes saw him making his way slowly and laboriously to a bench in Square du Temple. He never appeared to recognize me in public, even when I greeted him.

I could smell Monsieur Hubler from a distance. The array of odors he emitted was shocking in complexity and difficult to identify. There was a wet leaves element, and an aroma of lead pencil. On the occasions when we stopped to chat, I didn’t understand much of what he said, but I found him compelling. It was obviously important to him that I listen—I don’t think he had any friends—and this became the basis of our relationship. His voice raised, he would spin out the threads of the evil conspiracy waged against him, the theft by the police of his valise stuffed with old francs, French currency from the previous era. The era from which he had time-traveled. Les police, la valise, mon argent, gendarmerie—merde! I imagined a greasy suitcase bursting with rancid bills. I didn’t know the full history of currency reform, but I knew the nouveau franc had supplanted the old franc, and that one new franc was worth around 100 old francs. A suitcase of 17 thousand old francs was not worth all that much.

Monsieur Hubler knocked on my door and asked if he could borrow 200 francs. It was a lot for me to part with, but I couldn’t refuse him. I thought I’d never see the money again, but after a week he knocked on my door. He leaned on his crutches waving a 200 franc note at me.

My savings had dwindled. I decided to ask Monsieur Hubler if I could borrow a small amount of cash until my dad could wire me more money. I wondered if he would respond in kind. It was only part desperation, I told myself, and part social experiment. I waited in the hallway while he disappeared into the gloom of his apartment. The door was ajar and I could make out objects and furniture in the dim light. Mattresses and box springs were stacked against the back wall. Tables were positioned end-to-end and covered with opened cans and bowls full of liquid. There was a constant sound of faucets running. Everything was orange-brown, like the paint in the corridor, but covered in an additional layer of grime. The stench was overpowering. He returned and presented me with a filthy bill. It was twice what I had asked for.

I invited Monsieur Hubler into my apartment for a drink. I was an aspiring art student after all, and I thought he might agree to sit for his portrait. I put him in a straight-back chair while I sat on a stool with my pad and pencil. I offered him a glass of cheap red wine, which he greedily accepted. His hands were gnarled with arthritis. His hair was freshly combed and he shook all over with a kind of palsy, more obvious now that he was sitting still and not talking. How small he was. We fell silent as he drank and I sketched. The sun slanted in through the window. I almost stopped minding the smell.

I came home one evening to learn he had flooded his apartment. The smell met me at the bottom of the stairs. The long-suffering concierge told me he’d been hustled off to a state-run facility. She’d already had his door fitted with a new lock and key. It was the first time I’d seen her smile. It took me a moment to realize Monsieur Hubler was gone and I would never see him again.

After the floodwaters receded, a band of men in white HAZMAT suits arrived. They wore helmets with visors and gas masks, and spent days suctioning out the ruined apartment with industrial wet-vacs. I saw them enter the courtyard from my window every morning to re-enact a scene from The Andromeda Strain set in 17th-century Paris. After the fifth day, they stopped coming.

 

Someone said the atelier I was assigned to had belonged to Gustave Moreau. I thought they were joking but it turned out to be true. It had high ceilings with skylights, and a catwalk with racks of old canvases. A wall-length trough was encased in a century’s worth of oil paint and turpentine, a gray-blue sludge that denoted ongoing serious business. My cohort of students included two French, a handful of Greeks, two Japanese, a German, a Hungarian, an Austrian who was half Canadian, an Australian, and Mathias, who was Swiss and the same age as my kid brother. We became friends. The professor was Italian from Bologna. He was short with a large head of silvery hair and bulging blue eyes. We called him Monsieur C.

Monsieur C would arrive punctually at noon on Thursdays. He dragged with him his assistant, Pierre, a middle-aged Frenchman who walked behind him taking notes, presumably about our progress or lack of it. I recognized him as the balding milquetoast who had assigned me to the atelier the day of the entrance exam. The two would appear and we would stop whatever we were doing and gather around to listen to Monsieur C. He communicated in his bad French, the one language we could all speak and understand, more or less. He spoke about something he called “l’analyse,” a capacity for observation acquired through attrition, the ability to distinguish subtle discrepancies of tone and light, and possibly tease out something like meaning.

Monsieur C would inspect the works-in-progress perched on our easels. They were based on still lifes we’d each set up in our cubbyholes. He paced the atelier, one hand behind his back in a kind of reverse Napoleonic gesture. We followed him like children, holding our collective breath as we waited for him to pass judgment. He would mutter in Italian before trying out his French. He seldom approved of anything we did. If he liked something, he would make a dramatic pronouncement and move on. Vous avez un regard juste, mademoiselle, comme une lame de razoir, he told me. My eye is sharp like a razor. If he was offended by something someone had done, he dwelled on it until he made the student cry. I remember the German girl crying, she whose obstinate realism was humorless and unforgiving. Monsieur C took pleasure railing at the room over our lack of technical acuity, and he groused about our individual shortcomings. He determined that we should leave unfinished those portions of our canvases we didn’t like—the parts that didn’t motivate us. La peinture, ce n’est pas le devoir, he would say. Painting is not homework. We had to ask ourselves what we really cared about. He would hold forth for an hour, quoting Moravia, Calvino, Eco, and Merleau-Ponty, his one concession to French thinking. He called them “mes amis.”

On rare occasions, Monsieur C would talk about himself. He described his student days in Bologna during the war. An image emerged of a hungry young art student wearing Fagin gloves, working in unheated dilapidated buildings between bombardments. His father was a Bolshevik, a Sunday painter who taught him all the basics, an authoritarian who pressured him to succeed as an artist. Monsieur C’s first name was Leonardo, and eventually he told us his middle names: Raffaello Tiziano. He remained a distant figure of authority that nevertheless solicited our sympathies. He had to be at the center, and yet he never came fully into view.

In the evenings, a small faction of us would gather at a dingy café overlooking the Seine. We liked it for its griminess and the fact that we could dance and be raucous, like delinquent children from a Godard film. It was while blowing off steam in that café that we began to mimic Monsieur C. We trilled our r’s to imitate his Italian accent. Ce n’est pas la peintoorr, someone would say, c’est une omelette!

 
 

A rift emerged between those who admired Monsieur C and those who mocked him. The Japanese students, particularly Tadashi, who mixed his own egg tempera and glaire, adhered religiously to Monsieur C’s prescriptive about l’analyse. The Greek contingent was loyal to a fault and even mimicked his painterly style. Mathias and I believed some kind of Mediterranean power alliance had been forged among them. When one of the Greeks accidentally let fly his expectation of a teaching job in Modena, we realized our suspicions had been correct. Dietrich the Austrian, and Emmie, the Australian, started to emulate Monsieur C’s palette, which was overwhelmingly candy-colored and relied heavily on acquas, lavenders and purples, peachy corals and diluted yellows. Mathias and I rejected this palette and cleaved more than ever to dark hues. In fact, our work came to be seen as a rejection of pastels. I bought a large tube of Asphaltum bitumen, a tar-like color akin to the substance used to pave streets. I liked its dark yet transparent qualities. I knew from the store chart it was not the most lightfast of oil paints, and that it could seep up from lower layers to upper layers to make the painting look dirty.

During a weekly critique, Monsieur C announced to the room that my work reminded him of Gooloob.

Gooloob? I looked at him, not understanding.

Leon Gooloob. Vous avez encore quelque chose comme lui...

He meant the American painter Leon Golub, who had lived for a time in Paris. Monsieur C pressed me to find some Golub paintings to look at, but he couldn’t say why. I went straight to La Hune, the big art bookstore, and found exhibition catalogues and monographs with Golub’s paintings. If there was an affinity with Golub, I didn’t find it. I remained entranced by the tidy and discreet beauty of Ste. Ives and the Bloomsbury painters I’d encountered on Simonette’s walls. I wondered what it was about my work that reminded Monsieur C of Golub. Perhaps it was that he thought of us both as New York Jews.

Meanwhile, a drama was unfolding. Suzanne, the diminutive German whom Monsieur C had made cry, was having an affair with the Hungarian giant, Janos. No one liked Janos—he was belligerent and unkind, but it probably had to do with the fact that he was more skilled than the rest of us. Mathias was Janos’s only real competition. As a child in Kusnacht, his mentor had been a famous Hungarian emigré who taught him all kinds of tricks. Aping Goya, Mathias distorted his subjects as monsters. He despised what he regarded as Janos’s “copyism” and called him a vendeur de tapis behind his back—rug salesman.

We arrived at the atelier one morning to find Suzanne and Janos fighting. They’d spent the night together and it had not ended well. Janos, who was built like an ox and towered above us all, had pushed the feisty but slight Suzanne onto the floor and was dragging her by her foot through a slurry of oil paint. As soon as we pulled him off her she went for his face with a palette knife, screaming invective in German. Janos was bleeding from one ear. Someone, maybe Dietrich, took Janos outside while Emmie sat with Suzanne. We’d known for a while about their nights in the atelier—Janos was married and had a small son, and Suzanne lived in a cramped apartment with roommates. We were relieved it was finally over.

 

By the time spring came, we had stopped feeling afraid of Monsieur C. He must have sensed it because he ratcheted up the brutality of his critiques. We were all worthless, as far as he could see, except for Tadashi, who was actually getting somewhere with his nearly indistinguishable strands of strafed light, and the Greeks, who never stopped ingratiating themselves. I’d found my stride and a palette all my own, where one or two colors were heightened by expanses of muted grays, beach glass greens and off-whites. They had a grittiness—perhaps looking at Golub paintings had rubbed off, or maybe I was finally ready to channel Dora Carrington’s uncanny red cactus flower. I was in love, I found, with something I was doing with paint, and while it was hard to explain, it was indisputable.

 

Monsieur C made the rounds that week and he paused for a long time in front of my work; I could see him blanche. I waited, knowing he would come for me just as he had come for the other students. I knew he would say there was something off about it, that it had more to do with machinations inside my head than l’analyse du visible. His face reddened as he pored over my canvas, and I could see his Napoleonic extremity—his painting hand—curling behind his back in a longstanding tic of suppressed rage.

C’est quoi, ça?

I too felt something, not quite anger, more like triumph, spreading like hot chocolate from the nape of my neck.

Monsieur C leaned closer to the patch of gray, the sea foam that I knew was right, the angle under the jar where the light spilled and refracted, the increments of pallor that were intentionally fabricated, based on nothing in the real world. They expressed something real, though. I could read his confusion. To him, it must have seemed out of context, outside of all we’d been working towards. I watched him straighten. He’d figured it out. What he saw was all mine. I no longer needed him.

Vous n’avez pas utiliser l’analyse....! he seethed, vous avez fait la poubelle! Suddenly, I saw a resemblance to my poor friend Monsieur Hubler.

I’d found the edge of something—my posizione ontologica, as Monsieur C might have called it had he been able to reign in his anger—my place in the cosmos of painting. I had yet to explore that place, nor did I know I would come to operate from it for decades, a painter born in a state of resistance. Resistance to what? I’d rejected the musings of old men, I suppose, the ones that had lost everything and wanted back in. I wanted in too. I had never been in. I wanted in, but not if I had to fit into some subset of painting that had been exhausted.

 
 

Mathias and I were irritable. We were done with Monsieur C and his pronouncements, with Janos the tapis and his boorish misogyny, with the sycophantic Greeks, and with poor masochistic Suzanne. It was spring in Paris. We wanted to be free.

For our final projects we were asked to follow some sort of assignment, I forget what. I positioned a cheap mirror I’d found in the corner of the atelier, and took up my tube of Asphaltum bitumen, Payne’s gray, a multitude of sienna and umber, and Titanium white for the glint. When I was finished, I packed up my tubes and brushes, anything personal I wanted to keep. The self-portrait was firm, it looked straight at the viewer with a calm that could be interpreted as hauteur. The face was brightly lit on one side, emerging from the deepest shadow, the hand poised, holding a small paintbrush.

Later that evening, Mathias and I stood in our favorite bar drinking to the end of that year. He told me what had happened in my absence in that final review. Monsieur C had looked everywhere for me. When he couldn’t find me, he began to ask the other students. Où est mademoiselle? And then he saw my self-portrait on the easel, the thing I’d left behind. The realization I was gone washed over him.

Il avait l’air tout-a-fait écrasé, said Mathias.

He was totally crushed.

 
 


Joy Garnett

Joy Garnett is an artist and writer from New York. She lives in Los Angeles where she’s writing a family memoir of Egypt. This is an excerpt of that work in progress. She is the art editor of Evergreen.

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