Wood polish and cigarette smoke, hint of musty rottenness. The smell of galleries always oppressive, the sound of embarrassed footsteps hideously obtrusive. Bauer felt there should be more noise, celebration of beauty and innovation and lurid attempts at catching truth.
Through rooms and rooms, quaint and tired portraits first so as not to scare away the money, the aged patrons and buyers, slowly but certain as time giving way to the newer works, cubists taking over like insects. Infestation.
The one he wanted tucked away discreetly, so neatly he walked past it once. Backtracked, double-checked the title, blue ink on crisp ivory white. Checked the artist, year, title again.
His throat tightening, sudden irrational disappointment ridiculous in the face of such obvious skill, far more than anything his own hands had produced and yet. Not enough. Not what he’d hoped for.
The expectation of being drawn to it, his heart once beating, moth’s wings, now unable even to match Aragon’s own childish trembling – now the sudden fear that he was not enough, Bauer the disappointment, unable to appreciate this thing that had moved the French writer to produce such beauty of his own.
Such an ordinary thing, soft low curve of the woman’s belly somehow denying the frisson of Aragon’s words, negative charge cancelling out the excitement he had felt on first reading, that delicious fear that made him grip the paper, white-knuckle embrace of his own as the words somehow caressed, stroked, a deep arousal hitherto unknown.
Stepping forward, searching for detail, perhaps he’d missed something, then back, bigger picture, desperate, pleading with the painting to share the secret it had given up like a lover to Aragon.
“Wo ist es?” Unintentional whisper, too loud in the accusing silence. Guilty, he looked around, hoping to find himself alone. Then frozen in the curious gaze of the man in the doorway. Casual, hands in trouser pockets, almost ignorant of the presence of Art, how long had he watched Bauer?
Ignoring his embarrassment, eyes fixed now on the painting, moving to stand by Bauer, “Wo ist was?” Said with a smile, clearly not German, the man’s eyes searching the painting with eyes that suggested they already knew.
Bauer, struggling for explanation, for the words en français, “I read…Aragon.”
Finally turning to Bauer, one eyebrow arched in surprise. A moment’s pause, then reciting, “Nothing but them alone, never weary of their embrace, trembling in each other’s arms and legs”. Bauer’s own eyes widening, the familiar words still making him ache inside.
“You know it?”
“I know him.”
Unsure, had he made a mistake? But no, his French was not so poor. “Aragon?”
How to respond to that? Any question he could think of seemed mundane, Aragon a creator of beauty beyond any ideas Bauer might have. Back to the painting, recalling the words again, as if now he might find its meaning having found some connection to Aragon.
“I had expected more.” Spoken without thinking, he hated that habit but his own art had brought it about, his tendency to shape in the air the thoughts in his head.
“So of course you were disappointed.” The man’s smile startlingly tender when his words condemned. “’Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.’ Aragon’s words are his own. They are useless to anyone else.”
“Then why write them?” Again without thinking, but conversation suddenly seemed so easy, the words forming in French without him having to work at it. “Why tell the world about the painting?”
“But he isn’t telling us about the painting. He only tells us about Louis Aragon. That is all anyone can do. Words tell you more about the speaker than the subject.”
“Which is why I don’t like words.” A startled smile on the man’s face, and Bauer strangely pleased that he could shock too. Reckless, continuing before the words had time to escape him, “They are corrupt. They take away pure meaning and replace it with poor reflections of truth.”
“And art is pure?” Not a hint of mocking or smugness in the man’s voice, a genuine question.
“It is pure in that it is never definite. I paint what I mean, and he who views my work sees what he understands. A writer takes words and uses them to make the world ‘just so’. It must be ‘this way’ only, the words leave no room for disagreement.”
“And Aragon’s words?”
Bauer’s face reddening, turning back to the painting to escape the intrusive gaze.
“I thought they had found something.” Eyes on the couple locked in their passionless embrace, wondering who had told the bigger lie, Picasso or the writer.
“For Aragon, maybe. And perhaps you found something in them. Just not what you had expected.”
In Bauer’s head, a half-formed painting, sallow yellows and watery blues, his own disappointment fixed upon a canvas. How much easier to give that to this stranger than find words – and the idea so absurd that he laughed at himself, the stranger raising both eyebrows this time, a laugh of his own to match.
Bauer turning back to the gallery. Resolved to paint something, anything, as soon as he returned to his room, before the regret could crush him and send him spiralling into inactivity. Art was eternal, but then again so were rent demands.
“So, Herr Artist,” emphasis on the ‘h’ sound so that Bauer felt the warm breath against his hair, “do you have a studio nearby?”
Upstairs, floorboards groaning complaints and too much dust, and it was only a studio because it was too shabby to be an apartment. Mattress and blanket pushed into one corner like an afterthought, table and chair against the same wall, shirts and trousers on hooks and nails but to the man, Rosey, seemingly irrelevant. An easel by the window, more canvases leaning against the walls, the real focus, and Bauer more nervous about them than the emptiness of the living space.
Rosey taking his time with each painting, sometimes smiling in surprise, sometimes cocking his head as though he’d missed something. Rosey the writer, he’d discovered, so precise with his words in conversation, so the sudden quiet worried Bauer. He hesitated, held between the doorway and where Rosey stood, too polite to put hands in pockets, too anxious to clasp them behind his back, he worried at a loose thread on the cuff of his jacket.
“Your use of colour.” A finished statement, Rosey had no comment on what exactly he had done with colour. Just a look at Bauer, approval and curiosity and Bauer felt the spark of something, an idea before words, a feeling that he had to hold on to it.
“Colour makes sense to me,” he explained, realising that it wasn’t the translation from German to French that made it sound so odd, but the very idea itself might be absurd to someone who worked with words, who could only paint in the colour of ink. “Sometimes I want to speak in colours. Open my mouth and it’s yellow so everyone knows I’m disappointed.”
Searching again for the words but couldn’t find them, not even in his own tongue. Moving then to retrieve his paintbrush and oils, feeling he could spare just a little to illustrate to Rosey, suddenly the idea of communicating his meaning more important than anything else and yellow on the palette, a touch of white, smear of brown mixed together, mindful of his jacket sleeves. Yellow daubed on a scrap of paper, sour and jaundiced. “Disappointed,” he explained, understanding on Rosey’s face that made Bauer smile, guarded but reassured.
Then Rosey turning quickly back to the canvases, selecting a street scene in vibrant greens and the buildings orange-greys, occasional hint of cautious red and too-blue sky.
“My first week in Paris.” Remembering the excitement, the bewilderment at finally reaching the city, the serendipity of finding lodgings almost immediately, warm bread smell in the mornings and sing-song voices through the window.
Another street, rendered in slate-grey and flat brown, a figure in the foreground in blue. Rosey held it at arms’ length.
“You didn’t know her.”
“She spoke no French, or German.”
A landscape in muted greens, the sky grey.
“You’ve seen Germany?”
”You miss it. It’s obvious.” Said without looking at Bauer. Rosey’s right hand over the canvas, as if pointing to Bauer’s feelings.
“And you can tell from the colours.” It wasn’t meant to sound smug; Rosey’s expression hinted that it did. Replacing the canvas, moving towards Bauer to study the colours on the palette.
“Fear.” Pointing to the paints, an instruction. Bauer with a fresh brush, mixing hollow grey. “Loss.” The sour yellow mixed with more brown, a hint of black. “Anticipation.” Red, a touch of orange, Bauer saw fire flickering and hid a smile. “Lust.” Purple, rich and full – in his head he saw a velvet sheen and wished he could paint that but there wasn’t enough time. Later, when he was alone, he would paint with that colour, capture that decadent softness.
Rosey standing by the window, looking down to the street. He set the palette on the floor, wanted to stand next to him but couldn’t move.
“You’ll meet him tomorrow,” Rosey still with his back to Bauer, one hand resting on the window frame. “Aragon.”
Alone, some minutes later, and Bauer stripping off jacket and shirt, fresh canvas on the easel and mixing purples and reds. The image small, private, too precious to spill over on to the bigger blank canvas by the window, rumpled bed sheets in an empty room, the embrace itself over but Bauer could feel the warmth still lingering on the sheets he painted, the lip upon lip and the linked breathing he would not share for fear of losing the secret to strangers and there, inside, that warm ache that had come first from reading Aragon’s words, finally fixed upon canvas.
In the dying light he washed brushes, heedless of the emptiness of his stomach, exhausted from the effort of his own procreation, and lay down on the mattress. He dreamed in red, with a touch of orange.