by Jasmin Kreutzer | August 31, 2022
Hetta Garber had been his muse. She was sitting on a divan, watching him paint her. If she leant back far enough and looked in the mirror above her, she could see herself shimmering for a moment before the trick collapsed and she was swallowed up by the turquoise-green and shell-pink background.
“Fashionable colours, Hetta,” he said, “fashionable colours. Now – fashionable smile!”
Her arms were resting on the sea-green chair, eyes unmoved. The chair’s colour had mellowed, lost its vibrant edge, as if covered by a layer of dust which could not be brushed off. He was in his usual mode: flurrying about, stumbling over cables while crossing the room, grabbing lamps, bits of paper, colour palettes, all the time mumbling with a cigarette between his teeth. It moved up and down, replacing the lacking inflection of his speech with its rhythmic undulation. She turned her face away. He was now titled Fluttering Bird, an Abstraction in Oil in her mental portfolio of miniatures. She had already caught the Artist in all sorts of poses that might bring her immense fame.
“Arch your back, my girl. So – just like this.”
She could tilt her head far enough to catch a glimpse of his legs beneath the easel. He was leaning over to take another look at her every time his weight shifted. Her head always turned away just before their eyes could meet. This way she looked unstirred and absent, a silent shape pulsating on his velvet chair. All his moving about would be solved so beautifully too, if his flat were big enough for a separate studio. This way, in his single, all-use room, his art never lost the quality of being a sudden attack. Some shape among the outlines of his dim place would seize him, he would pat her shoulder to make her move, and give her a poem of instructions:
Fashionable colours, Hetta,
arch your back, my girl.
just like this.
What shall I do with you,
where shall I place you,
on my soft mermaid bed?
“Yes, Hetta, that’s the smile I need.” Her face was resting against her arm, her mouth opened wide but gently, too gently to speak. Had she wanted to, she would have told him that the colours were not fashionable, they were too much from another time. Van Gogh had already discovered their combination in his still life of pink roses, Degas’ The Orchestra at the Opera employed them for the background, but neither of them had realised that these colours belonged in an underwater scene. She did not complain – nowhere outside of the Artist’s studio would she get to put on a dress in such a shade of pearly rose. It shimmered in the artificial lights which he coloured with purple and pink and deep-blue sheets of paper.
“Do you know that this is the best painting I’ve made of you so far?”
“Mhm?” She was listening to the sound of his brush against the paper, slowly lulling her to sleep.
She flashed her eyes as a response before closing them again. She would not ask how much longer she had to sit. There was a thrill in enduring like this, watched by such eyes. Seemingly in her sleep, she moved her leg to make the fabric slide off a little. Such gestures always made her tingle. The Artist stepped out of his circle of lights and cables and walked up to her chair, tripping for a moment. His trousers rested against her thigh. He was waiting for her to react. She kept her gaze fixed on a spot ahead, somewhere in the deep distance, and flinched when a hand came down to play with her earring. It gave forth a ripple of waves in the lagoon on the opposite wall.
“Hetta, tell me, what do you see in my eyes?”
He moved himself in front of her, blocking out the light. The spell of the artwork on the wall vanished. She turned to him.
“I see artistic genius.”
“Wrong. Try again.”
“I see the shapes of the Modern Age – Man Reclining on a Green Divan. This should be a painting.”
“No, Hetta. Try again. What can you see?”
She did not try again.
“Lust,” he said. She still felt something cramp when hearing the word, but its meaning had worn out. She had liked the dress, she had liked the warm chair, but she didn’t mind him taking her out of the one and then the other. She didn’t mind.
“Hetta, why are you shivering?”
His sheets were cold. One would think that they would warm up after a while, or that his lips would, but both remained as cold as the street onto which she stepped once the grey morning light had changed the colour of his curtains. He undid her hair by moving her about – he had no hairbrush. At least she had time to stop by a drowsy café on the corner. The cold evolved into a plot as she watched it from inside, following the invisible whirls of wind with unblinking, dried-out eyes. She would sip her coffee and share her secrets with the morning, sotto voce. One mustn’t stir the morning too much. Once she was warm, she got up and walked to school, where she did her homework in the fluorescent corridor light.
Her only thought, as she moved through the progressing states of daylight, was to hold onto the grey morning and wear it all day. Alone in the front row, she could let her right leg dangle for a whole hour as she rolled through her thoughts. She loved her black lacquer shoes. The absence of a brush still caused a stirring of discomfort, but it was offset by the way she held her body. The others would respect, even admire her for her pose – they would carry the sight of her effortless dormancy with them all day. But she could not avoid the arrival of the burning streak of noon, painting her desk and herself with the material outline of things. Daytime hurt, as did her eyes. The skin surrounding them was less white now than it had been on his canvas. Green and pink swollen patches only appeared in the mirror above the classroom sink, but with a definitiveness which she could not easily ignore.
As soon as the bell rang for lunch break, she was able to retreat into the church on the opposite side of the street, where the sunlight never reached the shrines. The coolness of the place was a reconciliation. Each day she lit a candle for the Holy Virgin Mary and wrote down a heartfelt prayer. She did not believe in the Virgin, but she did believe in the way her eyes turned upwards to implore. Without her eyes the face was nothing. Not even her praying hands could affect much if she was not allowed to see. Hetta would have gone on tiptoe to stroke the girl’s smooth cheek had the candles not been there. Something reminded her of her own look when she had posed for the first painting on his bed – they had only just met. “What secrets do we share?” she wanted to ask. “Tell me.” Fifty minutes later she had to return into bright sunlight.
Hetta watched the gallery opening from a corner while holding a martini. The way she moved in her black velvet dress and her mask of evening makeup was so convincing that no one asked for her age. Anyways, all eyes were on the girl on the turquoise divan, shimmering back from the life-size canvas. The girl’s dress was the same shade of pink as the lipstick which Hetta’s hair kept getting caught in. It was almost as if they had arranged to match.
Every visitor was playing their role, moving in the throng of sounds which only exist in the sfumato of a late-night gallery opening: a gentle blend of champagne glasses, a distant jazz band, voices rising in embracing waves. The Artist was being drowned in compliments, and yet he never turned his back on her. They raised their glasses to him, put their hands on his shoulder, slipped him calling cards. His strokes were unique, and in such bold colours. The girl looked almost recognizable. A couple of people tried to pull Hetta into the congregation, but she laughed it off, sensing his stare. She wanted to reassure all of them that she saw the similarity too, that she knew the Artist intimately. That no one else knew why he chose such fashionable colours.
And yet, more and more visitors crowded around him, bending forward to find out the meanings of their lives by a glance at what the press called his “unsurpassable masterwork,” “a statement on the current times and the nightmarish eroticism of the moral dangers surrounding us everywhere.” The colours he used were “only produced in one country in the world,” and “each drop costs the same as a bottle of champagne.” The champagne was actually running out, the noise reaching an unbearable point. Hetta had drunk more than she had meant to. Only she knew the truth, and only she knew how to forget it – something with nights, and velvet shades, and him touching her body. There was not much to him, and where there was something, it was in the wrong places. The corner of his eye twitched when he spoke with a cigarette between his lips; his underarms waved flaccidly with each concentrated stroke. Behind him, the most beautiful colours glistened in her shape.
Then it was over. She had missed the gallery closure – the next thing she felt was a hand on her shoulder. They were the last two people in the room. She asked him if it was morning yet – the light was too unnatural to tell, and she could barely keep her eyes open. He said that it was only a quarter past one. Inside his car, she was warmed for an instant by each faint light from a late-night café or theatre they passed, giving her hope before dying away. They stopped by one of them, a café with his paintings up on the walls. Next to their table, a girl was lying on a bed, wearing only black lacquer shoes. Hetta couldn’t take her eyes off her.
He was sipping an espresso, the smoke of his cigarette finally pleasant after hours of inner suffering. She could barely smell it now; it was a trace that mixed with the soft light and formed a question on her plate of oysters. She nodded.
“Why are you nodding like that? Are you too tired to speak?”
“No. I loved it.”
His fingertips were touching his lips, twitching ever so slightly every few seconds. He smiled the smile of a thin man who was forty. He rested his hand on hers.
“What did you love about it?”
“Your painting of me. I saw so many things in it. And everybody I saw loved it too.”
“I didn’t tell you that you could speak with the others, did I?”
“No, I didn’t speak. But I still heard them speak. They saw me in it.”
“What things did you see in it?”
“I saw myself, and poetry. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea. That’s from Prufrock. The colours really give it an aquatic feel, don’t you think? To the painting, I mean. The Turquenite was just the right choice for combination with the Fluorite pink.”
“I don’t care so much about the colour shades,” he replied. “Everyone only cares about the colours, and not about the meaning of what I paint.”
“But don’t you think the colours are part of that meaning?”
“They are an important part of the effect,” he said, “but they are just tools. Why should they carry more meaning than the actual subjects and objects I paint, or the perspective, or the size of the canvas?”
“You really mastered the colours in this one, though. You made them speak for themselves.”
“Mastered? And what do they say?”
“It’s not as simple as that, otherwise you could say it with words. The whole point is, you need the colours – not even poetry is quite the same.”
His body was still for a moment. Then he coughed, making the ash of his cigarette fall across the tablecloth. The question mark had long since dissolved. He patted her hand – he should have palmed the ashes, or at least traced a symbol in them with his finger. There were pigmentation spots on his hand when she let her eyes look at them. He was disintegrating, just like the friendless ash he had spattered all over the delicate white things. Her head turned back to the girl on the wall and her elegant shoes. Some thoughts suggested themselves, but she was in that state of tiredness where things are better brushed aside. A Crepe Suzette and a fig tart materialized from somewhere. By the time she had finished eating she was almost asleep again.
“Let us go then,” he said.
He took her hand in his, clammy with the tightness of an approaching fit of painting. Just then her tiredness solidified into a distant musing. She stopped and turned to him, her eyes laughing in the dark.
“What do you see?” she said. She had thrown her head back slightly and was holding it at an angle, her right hand on his shoulder and her lacquer shoe tapping against his foot. Slowly, she moved up against his impressible body and kissed his cheek before removing her hand from his shoulder. He would find it impossible to fathom just what she had meant. It was the knowledge of foreknowledge: she had just seen the Artist take one of his spatulas and tear his artwork to shreds with it. She, on the other hand, still possessed an intact portfolio of miniature character studies, differing states of daylights, and religious statues. Each one of them held endless answers to the question he was avoiding. She looked once more – he had already turned away. Armed with that knowledge, she was happy to accept his defeat. ∎
Words by Jasmin Kreutzer. Art by Dowon Jung.