“PORTRAITS AFTER THE CAMERA” by ROBERT BROTON

An old man woke every morning to look at his disease-ravaged face in the mirror. A servant once saw the ritual and told him, “Master, it’s only a painting! You look healthier than ever.” Nonetheless, the old man was dead by the year’s end.

-From The Epigrams of Dr. Neste

 

Our city, with its short white buildings, it pyramid roofs, its copper cupolas, its black windows deep as neglected ponds, seemed a Bosch painting.

We found tremendous views at the city park. It was on a tall, wide hall with a flat top and carefully planted trees. From its east side the hill declined into suburbs of white bungalows with crimson shutters, which thinned into country neighborhoods of dusty yards, which ran to the side of a black ridge. Sitting at our benches on yellow days, we saw the tiny houses, their brown fields undulating in the cool fumes of fall. Tiny coal-fires lit the ridge like smoky stars on the night sky. White birds flew in front of the ridge like bits of paper from a book-burning.

In October the painter Gauron came. He stood, with his canvas and easel, between a privet hedge and a beech carved with obscenities.

He offered to paint our portraits for a mild fee. Most refused him, as the camera had rendered his skill an affectation. His dubious appearance did not inspire our confidence either. He had short-cut black hair and pocked cheeks. He went in yellowed shirtsleeves and dungarees that trailed threads.

He is not a gentleman, we said.

Nonetheless, a few pitied him. They sat for his portraits, which he produced with reasonable speed. The paintings invariably shocked their subjects– they were perfectly correct yet entirely lifeless, as if Gauron painted a corpse or a cheap statue. They took their portraits home, displeased at having squandered their money.

However, the paintings would “grow on you,” as said Professor Willech, one of Gauron’s earliest subjects.

We began to appreciate Gauron’s work for its lifelessness. We have always considered ourselves the city’s avant-garde, its sole reserve of taste.

 

 

Madame Haile sat in a chair of rich red wood. Behind her was an arras Gauron had pinned to the turret wall. He had black curtains over the window to keep out moonlight. Opposite Haile, he had three lamps sans shades. He was carefully brushing the canvas.

Madame Haile was a heavy, pretentious woman who wore ugly green dresses and piled her hair upon her head. We liked her superficially. She thought of herself as an enthusiast and patron to the arts, her enthusiasm affected, her patronage forgiving the debts of young painters and poets who secured coitus at her brothel.

With his newly-gained money, Gauron was dressing smartly, wearing a black jacket of velvet, light-green trousers, and leather pumps. He made swift and gentle strokes on the canvas, as if he were a doctor dicing a corpse.

An hour’s work canvassed the Madame.

Gauron, having finished the portrait, plunged his paint-stained hands in a copper basin, carefully scrubbing the bright mud off his palms. Madame Haile asked if he was done, to which he replied affirmatively.

Gauron dried his hands on a rag and threw open the curtains.

He turned the canvas to the window for six minutes.

“What, pray tell, are you doing?” asked the Madame.

“I am allowing the painting to develop.”

Madame Haile nodded with mute annoyance. Having exposed the painting to his satisfaction, Gauron covered it with a silver sheet.

Madame Haile chatted him until the painting was finished. He removed the sheet and grabbed the canvas at both sides, carefully turning it and exposing it with a flair of exhibitionism.

He always had to show a painting like that, carrying it like a shield over his torso, with his head peeking over the top, a grin on his face exposing his small white teeth.

Madame Haile nodded and paid Gauron. She carried the painting out of the house, onto the purple street where her sedan waited. She barked her tires with a squeal.

 

 

Madame Haile’s funeral, in December, brought out a moderate crowd; we disliked her, but we did not hate her. Her employees, wearing fine cotton dresses, sat in the front row, before the coffin. Their faces were greasy and they had small pimples in the corners of their mouths; they had refrained from putting on make-up.

Haile’s nephew was in attendance; whether of his own volition or as the family’s emissary we cannot say. He told one of the girls of his last meeting with his aunt, which is worth reproducing here for your enlightenment:

He had come to see his aunt at her home weeks earlier. They sat in her parlor, which she had decorated with meerschaum-and-tassel mimosas, “oriental” statuettes, jade ash trays, and migrainous quilts. She had garish paintings too, nothing more than scenic smears in frames.

Archibald, the nephew, extinguished a cigarette in one of the trays while his aunt admonished him. Undoubtedly he was asking her for money, though he did not say so to the girl. He had to bend over the couch’s arm to put out his smoke, and he saw a new painting as he bent.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Madame Haile asked him to point, which he did with the extinguished cigarette.

“Oh, that’s a portrait of me by the painter Gauron.”

Archibald remarked that it was very bad, one of the worst he had ever seen.

Madame Haile nodded and, grinning, said, “I look like I’m about to die!”

Archibald laughed. His aunt rarely displayed such levity. You would express a criticism of anything creative, be it a painting, book, or film, and the Madame would immediately bolster your critique with a vague, pretentious snip of wit. She was hardly ever so earthy.

When her estate was divided among her relations, they found that the painting was not there. Someone must have taken it.

 

 

I heard Gauron’s exhibition was to take place in a respectable street and, like everyone else, I attended. I am not an “aesthete,” and I preferred the clean, life-invigorated portraits of the camera, yet the tinge of the sinister which clung to Gauron’s name like the mists which would cling to the distant black ridge outside of our town, those indecent murmurs, brought me to his showing.

It was in the ground floor of a square edifice with a domed roof of copper. The door was open and let out yellow light onto the night street. A tall man with long hair and nervous features stood beside the door, welcoming all visitors. He wore a cheap purple suit with bits of tarnish-colored mold growing on the armpits; he often shifted his arms, crossing them, uncrossing them, holding them along his stomach, whether out of nervousness or desire to hide the mold I cannot say. On the opposite street was a square building of apartments with arched windows. Wealthy convalescents lived there with their relatives and nurses, and that night a few stood at their windows watching us enter the exhibition. Their soft lamps lit the room behind them, and they stood motionless at their windows, their skin pale as if they had been exsanguinated– before the last guests entered the ill had been spirited from their windows by haggard aunts and nurses and lain deep in their capacious beds, where their violet dreams germinated more beautifully than any of Gauron’s painting, no matter the bits of bloody sputum that collected in the corners of their mouths after they coughed.

I entered the exhibition, and the greeter made a pursed smile at me when I entered. I imagined he was a lowlife, he had that low, criminal physiognomy, that narrow forehead, those pursing lips in need of a cigarette.

Inside I saw that Gauron’s paintings covered the walls– it surprised me he had produced so many! I thought he spent most of his time painting portraits, and yet there were relatively few– I saw here and there pale men in turbans of white silk, looking like they had been bled out. They were more or less epicene.  Scenes natural and naval predominated– Gauron had depicted fine alexandrian argosies braving violet seas, bone-dead shards of foam embedded in their prows; tired canoes with hole-ridden bottoms traversing green rivers, plaster-faced lads in hats pailing out the water; armadas on an icy sea like freckles on pale skin; a lone black galleon approaching a smear of isles.  The martial scenes were solemn- dark-suited soldiers marching through torch light; a franc-tireur holding a rusty bayonet; a sickly youth aiming a rifle. They only implied violence.

The whole gallery smelled like a butcher’s shop. It smelled like blood had been spilt.

I waded through the thick crowd to find Gauron. He stood in a corner, looking ignorant and confused. His jacket was unbuttoned, and he went without a tie. Stubble shaded his face, and he looked terribly disheveled. I wanted to make a few comments to him, as I was at his showing and, whenever I visited any kind of aesthetic event, I always liked to relay a few remarks to the artist, as I am polite if anything. A woman in a green dress dragged Gauron away before I could speak to him. She grabbed him by the shoulder of his jacket and led him off; he had a bemused smile, undoubtedly a rare one for such an unhappy man.

I investigated some paintings I had previously overlooked. I saw an incomplete one, a self-portrait that had not been filled in or painted.

 

 

To our knowledge, Gauron disappeared for a week after his “exhibition;” his customers, who had booked at least three weeks in advance to get their portraits made, were understandably disappointed; they induced Gauron’s landlord to let them into his quarters, which were in a disarray, but a normal disarray– the greasy walls and piles of soiled clothes were characteristic Gauron. There was no sign of a sudden departure. He had even left a few large bills on his rickety table, proving that he had no concern for money.

Gauron reappeared in a cheap tavern. Hilder, a merchant with a love for bad verse and prostitutes, was trying to induce a young girl with a small head and dirty hair to come to a hotel with him. He got up to fetch her some more liquor, hoping that it would weaken her chastity. While carrying the glass back,  he saw Gauron sitting alone in a booth. He gave the liquor to the girl and admonished her to drink it all, then went to the painter’s booth to chat him up.

“Gauron, we haven’t seen you in a while! Where on earth have you been?”

Hilder always spoke in a smarmy, obnoxious fashion, so obnoxious that we wondered how anyone tolerated him. Yet we tolerated him.

Gauron looked up from the table. His face was tired but clean; a tiny bit of white foam clung to his left earlobe, showing that he just shaved before entering the tavern.

“I am quite fine, Hilder. I went far away to visit a relative. She lives in the country. I didn’t do much work unfortunately.”

Gauron spoke slowly and methodically. He spoke as if he were a foreigner, carefully choosing each word and conjugation. There were hints of an accent in his long r’s and his slightly open vowels, yet we attributed these vocal defects to a physiological or psychological abnormality. He could not have visited a relative in a foreign country in only a week– yet this relative might have emigrated and lived outside our city. We did not know what to make of Gauron’s “visiting the country,” whether he visited our countryside or some foreign country. He had such a peculiar syntax it could possess either meanings.

Hilder was now sitting at the booth, saying nonsense to Gauron, who nodded out of polite deference to the man who bought two of his landscapes for more money than they were worth. Hilder mentioned the banker Danber’s account of the exhibition, how Gauron had been dragged away by some women. Gauron smiled modestly and said that they were lovers of his work.

Hilder saw that Gauron had a backpack next to him and inquired as to what was in it; Gauron smiled and took out a long, rolled-up sheet of paper. He unrolled it and said that it was the only painting he made while gone. It was a brutal portrait of a broad-browed, small-eyed, low-foreheaded man with black hair. A golden mist covered his jaw and mouth, which might have had a beard. Gauron said that, were it not for the golden mist, the portrait would be much weaker; the chin was incorrigibly effeminate.

Hilder smiled and nodded.

Hilder says that the yellow light in the tavern began smearing like paint, and he could not see until he left.

 

 

Gauron worked with renewed assiduousness. He painted his disappointed customers for half-price and with skilled celerity; he dispatched of three-dozen portraits in a mere six days. He took on more customers, lowering his rates so as to profit more by volume than by each painting’s individual worth. He dressed, and even acted, according to some, like an actor doing an impression of a painter. It surprised us that anyone would have the bad taste to wear his crimson suits and green shoes, which belonged in a theater’s wardrobe, not a notable painter’s dresser. His eccentric dress confirmed a few’s opinion that he was a foreigner. His speech, normally scarce, had turned voluble and frequent. Anyone sitting in his nighttime garrett would be thoroughly chatted– Gauron apparently revealed a number of bizarre, inconsistent facts about himself. Contradictory stories, supposedly sourced from Gauron’s very mouth, were exchanged among us like so many tattered pornographic magazines. We will relate a few:

Gauron was born in a dusty country by a sea black as ink. His father made charcoal. His mother was a peasant’s innocent daughter. As a child, he made famous charcoal paintings which got him into a renowned university, which he left in disgrace for some undisclosed sin.

Gauron was born in a slum of our town to a former prostitute. Seeing the reflections of passing cars in the puddles of standing water, he learned the ephemeral excellence of representation. He became a self-taught genius by the age of 14, but he never revealed his talent or sought to capitalize on it until he appeared in the park that dusty fall.

Gauron was a decorated soldier. He had medals of polished brass he would show to the curious. He had many lovers in a distant city and four bastard children he blushed to acknowledge.

Gauron was born to a farming family outside of our city. He showed incredible talent from birth, but he never made a show of it, and no one consequently acknowledged it. He moved to the city after a girl he loved spurned him for a “loyal” friend.

Gauron smoked his cigarettes awkwardly, pinching them between his thumb and forefinger.

Gauron did not know how to drive but owned a black car. He did not know whether to sell or keep it.

Gauron once hired a prostitute, but did not make love to her when he saw her smoking, he hated tobacco so.

Gauron once wandered the barren plains of a country that may as well have been on another world. Walking down a white vein of a path, he saw a beggar with rotten rags scabbed to his hide. He begged food from Gauron, who gladly fed him. The overcast sky drizzled. Gauron asked the beggar if he would come with him to find shelter. The beggar declined and hobbled off, declaring that Gauron would be rewarded for his kindness by God. Later, when he found he could paint, he understood that his talent was the divine gift.

Such were the stories of Gauron we told.

 

 

The death of Gauron.

It was a grey night in February, when a grey, oily slush fell from the black sky. We stood outside Gauron’s door, waiting for him to come out and paint us. There was at least a dozen of us. We had waited long enough– we all grumbled and a few beat against his locked door. We heard nothing from inside. A little blonde man said that Gauron might be out. Another said that a friend saw Gauron go in a few hours earlier. A red headed fellow perhaps seventeen years of age almost knocked the door down, before calmer, older hands restrained him. We sent an emissary downstairs to get the landlady– he returned in a few moments, and we saw that the landlady had a key. She opened Gauron’s door and jumped back. We all rushed in. We aesthetes become agitated if we lack our preferred representation.

Gauron lay in in his iron-frame bed with his eyes open, staring at the ceiling. His hands were clasped together over his solar plexus– they were mottled a dozen colors, not due to illness, but with dried paint. We stood around his bed, impatient aesthetes grabbing the bed’s rusty foot-frame and shaking it as if to induce the painter to get up and get to work. He did not move, and we quickly understood that our beloved painter had perished.

Photographs of his corpse appeared in the next day’s papers. There was much difficulty over his burial– he hardly had the money to afford anything he deserved. The recent victims of his portraits, unusually vivified and sporting rosy cheeks, paid for a modest burial outside the city. There are photographs, more finely detailed than any painting, of us standing in a sere field of orange grass, our eyes on Gauron’s rich-black coffin being lowered into a deep grave, a pile of rocky earth to the hole’s side, a few enterprising aesthetes standing on the pile to get a better view. There was a hint of ash in the air, which a few claim they can smell even now, provided they look deeply at the photographs.

A nervous relative arrived, a short, high-strung woman who claimed that Gauron had visited her during his disappearance. Her only purpose was to arrange an auction of Gauron’s remaining possessions and paintings– there was nothing complete, only a few sketches– and she intended to pocket the money, and she did, for that matter. I believe Gauron’s couch ended up as firewood.

 

 

A postscript.

Gauron’s bare apartments were quite filthy, both his turret and his personal room– paint sullied the walls and floors. They required days of scrubbing and, in obstinate cases, a new layer of paint to cover Gauron’s traces. A washerwoman scrubbed the bare, plank floors of the turret for several hours when she noticed a board sticking up slightly– it looked black with moisture and would need to be replaced, if only for the health code. Going home that night, she told the proprietor.

Three days later a carpenter came into the turret with a hammer, a fresh plank, and a bag of nails. He tore the rotten board from the floor and saw a dark space hiding a rolled up piece of paper. Curious, he removed it and unrolled it. It was a complete self-portrait of Gauron. It burned with alien energy; everyone who saw it said that Gauron’s cheeks were never that red, that his eyes were never that fierce.