Redefining the Face
Claudine rolled her shoulders, touched her breast and wriggled a little in the seat. Then she resumed the pose, exactly as she held it for the previous hour, the morning, and four hours of the previous day. She might be a whore but she was also a bloody good model.
“Not long,” I promised. “A few more strokes of the brush, a little more detail, and we’ll be finished.
“Take your time,” she said. “You’re paying me for the full day.”
“So I am. Maybe we can make use of the remaining time in another way.”
“Don’t get any ideas. You’re paying me for this today, not the other.”
“What if we arrange the other as well? For a discount?”
She twisted her lip, at first a faint scowl, then a smile. I knew I would get the discount and smiled to myself. She was also a good whore.
I thickened one of the lines on the forehead, added extra streaks of yellow to the hair, a touch more pink to the lower lip. I was nearly there but felt it needed something else. I placed the brush on the palette, stood back, stared at Claudine, then back at the painting. The idea came, a dab of red in the larger of the eyes, a tiny distortion, a little dash of fire. Then I stared at it for a full ten minutes. Claudine was silent. I felt the glow inside me; my inspiration was fulfilled.
“It’s done. You can stand.”
Claudine stood, stretched and pushed her loose breast back into her dress.
“Happy?” she asked.
“Can I see?”
“Not yet. You know my rule. I like to give it a day before I let anyone else see.”
“In case the doubts creep in.”
“And it needs more work. Or I decide to destroy it.”
“You had better not destroy that. Not after I sat there with my tit out for two days.”
She took a step towards me. I picked up the easel, carried it away and placed it facing the wall.
“If you come back tomorrow evening you can see.”
“I’ll be working tomorrow evening.”
“So we’ll arrange another time.”
I steered her towards the coat stand at the other end of the studio.
“Now just give me five minutes to clean my brushes, and then we’ll go down to Bertrand’s and have a drink to celebrate our good work.”
“You’re buying I hope.”
“Of course, but we can also talk about that discount.”
A couple of hours later we lay naked on my bed, smoking the last of my cigarettes. A radio played in a room across the alley, wafting the voice of a female chanteuse through open windows. Claudine was still curious.
“You spent a lot of time on that painting of me. I mean, a lot of time without actually doing anything, just standing back and staring.”
“It needed a lot of thought. I’m trying something new.”
“What do you mean? A picture’s a picture.”
“There are different ways of seeing a person when you paint a portrait, and different ways of conveying what you see.”
“So what did you see with me?”
I looked at her. She was bright for a whore, but she wouldn’t understand what I was getting at with the portrait. I realised that had influenced the way I had painted her, and decided immediately that I was happy with the work. I was going to ask the gallery to include it in my show. I smiled to myself. Then I had another idea.
“Do you want to come to a small party?”
“I don’t do that kind of work, not where any old fart can fondle me.”
“I didn’t mean that kind of party, and it wouldn’t be work. A private gallery is going to show some of my paintings, and it’s holding a reception for the opening. A week on Thursday.”
She looked at me as if wondering if I was making fun of her.
“I’m serious,” I said. “I won’t pay you, so regard it as a night off, drinking some wine and meeting some interesting people. If the gallery owner has done his job that should include some wealthy, interesting people.”
“Do you mean as your …. what?”
“No, not as my escort for the evening – I won’t have one – but as the model for one of the paintings. And as a friend.”
“Are you sure?”
She looked pleased.
The room was busy. A few of the usual characters were around, always on for a free drink and the chance of a worthwhile meeting, and a group of my friends were doing their bit to fill the room; but there were also men in good suits and women in couture hats with expensive jewellery. I had a chance of making money from this crowd.
I was talking with a couple who had a Bugatti in the street, an apartment near the Tuilleries and a house in Nice. I knew they had bought from Picasso and was feeling encouraged by the woman’s praise of my work. I was expressing my gratitude when Claudine entered the gallery. She was smartly dressed, wore just a little mascara and make-up, and looked as if she could have been the girlfriend of any of the single young men in the room. She saw me and I gestured to her to join us. I introduced her to the couple as a neighbour who was interested in my work – not a big lie as she lived just three streets away – and brought her a glass of wine. I was confident that she could handle some small talk, but caught the eyes of two friends and glanced towards her. One had met her before, and had agreed to entertain her while I chatted with potential buyers. We spent five minutes talking with the couple before I decided it was time to move her on.
“So where’s the picture?”
I had briefly forgotten why she was there. I asked the couple to excuse us and led her to the spot where the portrait hung. It was striking: the figure was recognisably female by the length of its hair and the nipple on the triangle that hung from its chest, but it played havoc with the usual perceptions of feminine beauty. I had misaligned the mouth and chin, thickened the lower lip to one side, removed a couple of teeth to the other, broken the nose, reduced one eye to a defensive squint, enlarged the other into an explosion of white and blue with that dab of angry red at its centre. Thick streaks suggested distorted cheekbones and the visible ear hung low and tilted upwards towards the large eye. I was more pleased with it than ever. I head Claudine speak in little more than a whisper.
I looked at her. She obviously failed to understand.
“It’s a redefinition of femininity for a disturbed age,” I said.
“You painted that while you were looking at me?”
“You provided the starting point. But it’s an expression of something wider. Think of the troubles in our country, in Germany, in Spain; it reflects the dangers of our times.”
“But you’ve told everyone it was me.”
“I’ve mentioned that you were the model.”
“And now everyone here has seen it.”
“Of course, and I believe that most of them have been greatly impressed.”
She kept staring at the portrait. I decided that she needed some time to appreciate its appeal. One of my friends appeared at our side. He seemed to understand what was happening and led her back to his company. I resumed my mingling.
Everything went well over the next hour. Three of the guests bought paintings at the asking price, two put in bids, and others said they would return for a second look. I had money on the way, and the gallery owner was pleased. A couple of times I glanced towards Claudine and saw her still attached to my friends’ group, talking and drinking the wine. It was on the third look that I noticed she had drifted away and was standing alone in the middle of the room, staring at the portrait. I wondered if I should speak to her but the gallery owner took my arm and pointed out a man in a bowler who was leaving.
“That’s Tresor,” he told me.
“The critic? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“He doesn’t like to meet the artists, says it helps his objectivity, but he was impressed. He especially liked the portrait of your friend.”
That was the best of the evening. A favourable review from Tresor could launch a career, attract buyers with serious money. I was happy. Then I noticed that Claudine was coming towards me, and that she held a wine bottle at her side.
“You still telling everyone that’s me?”
Her words were slurred. My friends had let her have too much of the wine. I realised that the occasion, and the radical nature of my vision, was a lot for her to handle. I smiled and spoke quietly.
“I know it’s very radical, but it’s had a marvelous reception. The man who just left is an important critic. He expressed his approval.”
“Of what you did to me?”
“Of the whole show, including the portrait.”
We looked into each other’s eyes and for a moment I thought she was going to cry. Then she swung the wine bottle into my face. It struck me hard on the chin. I collapsed. My head rattled, I felt something on my chest and as my vision cleared I realised she was kneeling on top of me, the bottle still in one piece and above her head.
It crashed onto the bridge of my nose. I was vaguely aware of a third blow smashing my cheek, then I passed out.
Dinner time. Another dish of mushy bread in soup; my jaw still hasn’t healed and, with half of my teeth gone it’s all I can manage for now, that or porridge. I place it on table, give it a little stir and try a mouthful. Too hot; my gums are sensitive between the teeth that are still in place. It will have to stand for a few minutes.
I rise from the table and walk to the window. Sometimes it’s interesting to stand here and look down, the monster hiding from the passing world, fearing he will scare those who do not know him. The light is fading and it’s raining, so there’s little to see. I feel a chill, decide that I should put on a jersey for the evening and go to the bedroom. I can’t avoid the mirror on the cupboard. It’s there to taunt me every time I enter the room and as soon as I rise in the morning. I have tried to cover it, but the blanket kept slipping off. So as I get the jersey I can’t avoid seeing myself, and once again I’m struck by the transformation.
No longer a handsome young man. My chin is twisted, my nose bent at a sharp angle, my lower lip badly scarred and half of my teeth are gone. There are two more scars across my left cheek and forehead, ripped by the wine bottle after it shattered, the right cheek is sunken and the left eye closed, permanently, from the last splinters of glass. I don’t look human.
Claudine did to me what I did to her; she had redefined the artist for a disturbed age. For the first time I smile. She did a good job of it.