THE DRAWING LESSON
the first in The Trilogy of Remembrance
Mary E. Martin
|PROLOGUEA figure, drenched in the rain, stamped his feet and banged impatiently on the door of my gallery, Helmsworth and Son. When I unlocked it, Britain’s finest landscape artist, Alexander Wainwright, stormed in and towered over me.I asked as mildly as I could, “Where on earth have you been, Alex? I’ve been trying to reach you for days!”
Without answering, he tossed off his raincoat, which I caught and hung in the closet.
Poised in the middle of the gallery, he gave a deep and solemn bow. Then a sweet smile broke upon his face. “Out— finding beauty and harmony in the world, Jamie!”
As an art dealer, I know that artists are very different from you and me. We, who must earn our living in the mundane world of commerce, simply walk through a door and into a room. We can scarcely imagine how—in the mind of a highly creative person—the act of entering a shop can be fraught with so many dramatic possibilities! But I was always charmed by my dear friend’s energy and life.
Alex paused and, taking out a snowy white handkerchief, patted the raindrops from his grizzled face. “What can I do for you then?” he asked, eyeing the cabinet at the back. “A drink, perhaps?”
I poured two glasses of scotch. “I need your opinion on this new group show for next week—the one before your retrospective gala.”
Alex grimaced and then took a long drink.
“I have to cut out one of the artists. There’s simply not enough room.”
In an instant, Alex’s professional eye scanned the paintings. “Those ones.” He gestured at my favourites dismissively. “They should go.”
He slumped into the chair at my desk and fiddled with several pens scattered about.
“ Jamie, about the retrospective of my work…”
I sat down across from him. “Yes?”
“I can’t do it.”
“What on earth do you mean?”
He reached across the desk and touched my sleeve. His eyes gleamed intently. “I’m afraid I’m losing my vision!”
Because I have heard many artists speak of their vision, I assumed that Alex was referring to his source of inspiration and so I was astounded when he described his plight.
“Just yesterday, I was walking along the Embankment to my studio and clouds seemed to roll in along the periphery of my vision until everything was almost entirely black. Of course, I was frightened—so I sat down on a bench a waited for it to pass, which it did within about five minutes.”
“ Has it happened again?”
He shook his head. “But it did several weeks ago.”
Immediately, I reached for my address book. “Don’t fool around with this Alex.” I spoke sternly but tried not to let my emotions overtake me. Good God! Beethoven losing his hearing. Wainwright losing his eyesight! A tragedy for both the man and his art!
“You must see Dr. Hugh Robinson, an ophthalmologist in Harley Street.” I watched my hand tremble only slightly as I wrote down the doctor’s address and phone number. “He’s an old school chum. Tell him I sent you—and who you are. I’m sure he’ll see you right away.” I half-expected that Alex would smile and make light of my concerns, but he did not. Instead, he nodded and pocketed the note.
After downing his drink, he rose to go. As he put on his coat, he looked strangely at me
“Really?” Shocked, I could think of nothing better to say. “Boy or girl?”
Alex turned the doorknob. “He didn’t say. But I loved the mother very much—many years ago. She was my muse. It was my very best period of drawing.”
“Will you try to find this child?”
He tossed up his hands in frustration. “I have nothing to go on, Jamie. And perhaps it’s never wise to go back…”
I agreed. After all, what good could come of unearthing the past? But I only said, “Don’t forget Dr. Robinson, Alex.”
“ About those paintings for the group show,” he said. “They’re not so bad, but the painter is still struggling to find what is in his heart.” He shrugged amiably, but when he turned away, he sighed, “But then, isn’t everyone?”
I shook his hand. “I’ll see you at the Tate Saturday night for the cocktail party?” I smiled grandly. “All in your honour–and the others on the short list for the Turner Prize.”
“ But Rinaldo might just win, Jamie.” Buttoning up his coat, he shook his head. “I can’t say I understand his art, but he interests me greatly. But, honestly, I have never met a man who so
As I closed up the shop, I reflected that much of Beethoven’s most original and soul-stirring music was written when his deafness was most profound. But how, I wondered, could a painter paint if he could not see?
My story of Alexander Wainwright begins on that day. Because I have been present at only a small number of events, substantial parts of this tale are hearsay. But think of me, James Helmsworth, his art dealer who, as a dedicated biographer, has done his best to check all the facts. I have pieced together this account of the past year of his life from a variety of sources—some personal, some media accounts and conversations with those who knew him well and those whose lives were deeply affected by him. Of course, Alex himself has, from time to time, been quite helpful and where there have been blank spots, I have allowed myself a certain artistic license.
What follows is the sum and substance of a remarkable year in a great artist’s life. He was at the pinnacle of his career when his art took a strange turn and I began to fear he had become possessed by some devil. But I was only beginning to understand the power of his passionate and hungry spirit, which nearly devoured him in his search for his new art—and his new life. I leave it to you to judge the value of his find.
At the Tate Modern Gallery, women swirling about in their elegant cocktail dresses and men in their tails, congregated before Alexander’s most recent painting the Hay Wagon. Each one of them was arrested by his vision.
A huge moon hung low in the sky illuminating the scene with an unearthly glow. A hay wagon stood before a barn door, which hung on its hinges. Beyond that, an old horse shambled about in the meadow.
“Look at the way the light shimmers,” whispered one woman, pointing upward with her face aglow. “It’s like seeing the beyond. ”
“ It almost seems alive and pulsing with life,” breathed another. Other guests were silenced, unable to articulate the complexity of emotion, which Alexander’s painting evoked.
Along with the luminaries of the art world my wife, Renee, and I had gathered to raise a glass to the five finalists for the Turner Prize in contemporary art. The high glass ceilings of the immense Turbine room had darkened in the twilight and the flickering lights along the riverbank, created a dream-like, festive atmosphere.
Renee tugged on my sleeve. “Don’t you think there’s something quite odd about Alex’s painting?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look! There’s the faintest shadow just to the left of the wagon and there’s another one near the barn door.”
I peered closely at the painting. “Yes, I do see what you mean. Strange! They look like shadows cast by very oddly shaped—almost stunted—people, but there’s no one in sight.” Puzzled, I shrugged and stepped back.
From across the rotunda, I heard someone calling out my name. Geoffrey Yorkton, holding two champagne glasses aloft, shouldered his way from the bar and descended upon me.
“James!” he nearly shouted in my ear. “ArtNews just hit the stands. Alex’s Hay Wagon is on the cover.”
Geoffrey was the editor-in-chief of that glossy art magazine.
“Yes. I’ve seen it and read the article. Why was the interviewer so hostile?”
Yorkton’s eyebrows shot up. “You do know Maxwell’s a conceptual art man. He’s pulling for Rinaldo.”
“Then why have him do the interview?”
Yorkton grinned. “Controversy always sells magazines, Jamie. That’s my job!” He patted my arm and winked. “Besides, the buzz is good for Alex.” Then drawing me aside, he spoke more seriously. “I know Alex is the front-runner, but if he gets too cocksure, the committee won’t like it.
“Why? The prize is for contemporary—not conceptual art. ”
Yorkton just winked and was off into the crowd. Briefly, I glanced heavenward and went to find Alex.
At the door, the crowd began to part and murmurs rippled through the gallery. There stood Alex, tall and handsome in formal attire, thoughtfully caressing his neat goatee. Sauntering in, he
From behind, a hand fluttered on Alex’s shoulder. He turned to see the scarred, pinched face of Rinaldo gleaming up at him.
Strangely, Rinaldo never seemed to blink and his laser-like gaze sought to pin Alex, his latest victim, like a butterfly under glass.
Alexander set his champagne down on a passing tray.
“Ah! There you are Rinaldo!” Alex held out his hand, which the little man ignored.
Waiters lit tall candles in the corners of the room. Light danced upon the fluted columns and
Smirking, Rinaldo stuffed his fists into his crimson cummerbund and bowed deeply to the smattering of dignitaries now drifting closer. “I am honoured to be shortlisted with an artist of such renown. But Alex, haven’t you thought of expanding your work beyond the representation of bucolic scenes?”
Alexander frowned and then turned away.
Grasping Alex’s sleeve, Rinaldo continued in lilting tones, “It must be a heavy burden for one artist.” He shook his head and sighed deeply. “To maintain such certainty of vision in a world of constant change.” Then his eyes glittered with mirth. “Perhaps we should collaborate someday!”
A few nervous titters arose from the group now congregating about them.
Wainwright swung around. “Your art installation greatly intrigues me. The ditch or trench—whatever you call it—in the main hall perfectly captures the state of art in the present day.”
The little man twirled his moustache between his fingers. “And what state is that, sir?”
Alexander was referring to the bulging, heaving crack constructed by Rinaldo and laid over-top the length of the Turbine Room floor. A barbed wire fence ran down the centre of his
Alexander retrieved another glass of champagne from a waiter. “You’ve outdone yourself, this time, Rinaldo.” Struggling to suppress a small smile, he continued, “Your work fairly teams with complex, intellectual concepts.”
“I must say your painting is very pretty.”
Anger flashed in Alex’s eyes. He snorted. “It is a sincere effort to create the warmth of the human spirit. Agreed, it is not clever enough for your cerebral contortions.”
By now, most of the committee had gathered about. The chairman, Gus Grosvenor, sought to intervene. “Gentleman, please, lively controversy about art is wonderful, but this is a party. Please…”
Neither artist paid the man any heed.
Like a cat upon a mouse, Rinaldo pounced. “Your art was revolutionary two centuries ago. But how is it relevant today? We see an old cart, some bales of hay and a dilapidated barn in the background. In a distant field, we see an old broken-down horse.” He nibbled his lip reflectively then gave a dismissive wave. “Does such a scene even exist in this twenty-first century— anywhere on this earth— except in the sentimental, bourgeois imagination?”
Alone, Alexander leaned against a wall and stared at the Hay Wagon. I witnessed a fleeting expression on his face, which I had never seen before. He was not in retreat, but his pale blue eyes seemed to contain certain hesitancy—even doubt— the depth of which I could not judge. I frowned, wondering if I had seen the tiniest splintering in the façade of a great artist.
With a fawning smile, Rinaldo turned to a young, female docent and said, “Tell me, my dear, what do you see?”
The docent, who was very pretty herself said, “It has a certain quality, sir, rarely seen in landscapes. It has the numinous light suffusing it, as if God were everywhere in the landscape and the world.”
“ That’s it exactly!” someone in the crowd said. Others murmured their agreement.
Rinaldo’s lip curled. “God or just a trick of light, young lady?”
Gus Grosvenor stepped forward and, drawing Rinaldo aside, whispered in his ear. “This is a social event to be enjoyed by all. The committee frowns on such grandstanding. The final vote is this Tuesday.” He glanced significantly at the little man. “I’m sure you get my drift, sir.”
The artist clicked his heels together sharply and bowed. “Certainly, my good man! The last thing we want is controversy at a party.”
Wainwright’s voice boomed from the far side of the rotunda. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s go back to the main hall and view my friend’s work. I’m sure he’d like to explain it to us.” Without waiting, he sauntered back to the Turbine Room. He turned to face the group.
As a conceptual artist, Rinaldo was fond of creating installations. The guests gazed upon his work entitled The Destiny of War. On both sides of this trench, with its barbwire fence, were flung piles old clothing, children’s toys—guns, model tanks, knives and swords—all spattered with red paint. No doubt, he intended to create the effect of a blood bath. I found one dismembered doll to be a particularly tasteless touch. In my opinion, the message of this so-called piece of conceptual art was both obvious and trite. But then I, as a dealer in representational painting, had to admit my bias.
Alexander began. “We know that conceptual art is not judged by the usual aesthetic values. Beauty is but an offensive, bourgeois conceit. Only the originality and validity of theconcept itself is significant.” Smiling benignly, he turned to Rinaldo. “Sir? Is it fair to say your concept is—that hatred divides our world and results in war, death and devastation?”
The gathering fell silent as Rinaldo squeezed to the front. “Yes, that is fair comment, although very limited in scope.”
“ What else does it say?”
“ Unless we change our fundamental attitudes, we are on a hellish course of self- destruction.” Rinaldo had difficulty keeping a defensive tone from his voice. “This is a revolutionary concept…”
“ By its very nature, mankind is doomed to destroy.”
“ Ah! So there is no hope. How have you conveyed that? Might we not conclude we can mend our ways because that ability is also part of human nature?”
Grinning, Rinaldo glanced about nervously. “That is the whole point of conceptual art—to stir debate, controversy, different points of view.”
Wainwright strolled the whole length of Rinaldo’s trench, pausing occasionally to examine a doll or a gun. The room was silent until he returned.
“ Ladies and gentleman, if conceptual art places the idea first and foremost, let us judge such a work in its own terms. Is Rinaldo’s idea original, novel, controversial or at least interesting? Who does not know that hatred is part of human nature and leads to the most destructive forms of warfare? Where is the new idea?” The artist bowed deeply and concluded, “Rinaldo should enlighten us. Why is his concept original or thought provoking?” With a flourish of his arm, he stepped aside. “I give my friend the floor.”
Rinaldo, now the palest white, hung back for only a moment. “My friend, the great Wainwright, speaks from centuries back.” The little man’s face twisted into a cartoon of fury. “He fails to see that the world has changed beyond his understanding and he clings to his old verities. Caught in his time warp, he can only paint bucolic scenes from centuries back.”
Wainwright relaxed against a fluted column. “Ladies and gentlemen!” His softly whispered voice rebounded eerily in the great hall. “Rinaldo has not answered my question.”
No one had ever seen Rinaldo at a loss for words. He spun on his heel. With a slight, hitching gait, he marched as rapidly as possible toward the main entrance. Glancing behind only once, he fled through the spinning doors. For a long moment, the group was silent. Then gentle murmurs and occasional soft chuckle filled the hall as everyone drifted back to the bar.
I approached Alex and said, “You certainly won that round, old man.”
Wainwright looked at me oddly. “You never win with Rinaldo, Jamie. And he does have some interesting points.”
“ Such as?”
Anxiety and confusion spread over Alex’s face. He stared into my eyes and whispered, “What if he is right that my art is dead?” Then his shoulders slumped and he muttered, “This is just the beginning. He and I shall never be done.” Then he brightened for a moment. “By the way, did you see Peter Cummings here tonight?”
I shook my head. “I think he’s out of town, Alex.”
Alexander sighed heavily.
“ Did you reach Hugh Robinson?” I asked.
He frowned, as if trying to recollect.
“ The ophthalmologist.”
“ Oh yes. I see him next week.”
I said goodnight and stepped outside the main doors. On the opposite side of the Thames, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, gloriously lit against the night sky, rose up in an incredible celebration of harmony and beauty. I smiled. What would its architect, Christopher Wren, labouring in the eighteenth century make of the irreparable division in the art world today?
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