Femme, Attente, Café
Chamon, Gilen: Femme, Attente, Café, 1882.
Gilen Chamon [1861-1882], France, until 1882.
Black, of course. But should it be green? A colour as deep as the Forêt de Fontainebleau where he used to walk with grand-mère on those tiresome, burdensome afternoons when the almond-scented woman insisted on hearing his plans, his ambitions for when he finally took the baccalauréat. The trees were the only thing that made such afternoons bearable. Grand-mère’s yellow teeth distressed him almost as much as the tone she took when reaching into his life and holding up pieces of it, as if requiring justification. The trees distracted him and he would break small pieces of fir and slide them into his pockets. Their colour bled out, of course, which made him sorrowful. He had wanted to show them to Édouard.
So, green. He will paint Lola’s coat green and mix a little yellow atramentum in homage to recently deceased grand-mère and her endless putain de questions.
Of course, he doesn’t know the woman’s real name. It might be Lola. Or Amelie, Juliette, Louisa. But Lola seems to stick. It leaks into his mind as he sketches her, unseen, secretly, four tables away in the joyously chaotic Jour et Nuit Café on Rue Montorgueil. She has taken a little table furthest from the door, tucked away from the thrum and shit of the streets as gigs disgorge their souvenir-hungry occupants outside.
He is doing exactly what Édouard told him to do, though it has taken some effort to walk to the Jour et Nuit. His handkerchief betrays a red spray when he coughs and he hides it, hurriedly, in his pocket. He tells himself to remember to wash it before Nathalie discovers it.
Édouard told him to find a spot where he is neither observed nor overlooked and so is completely unimportant, as to be invisible. He is proud that he has done exactly this. Unseen observation is key, is central to creation. One must blot out all distractions and drill into the heart of the thing he paints. So he takes care to become a slender man with a moustache, sitting out a downpour in a café. Merely one of a thousand young men pretending to be an artist in Paris. However, he cannot help but remind himself that Édouard doesn’t think he is pretending and the old man’s patience is like a line of lead in the younger man’s heart. It steels the chambers, giving him courage.
So, green. A sharp contrast to the heavy red of the table cloth. Lola nurses a café and every time the door opens, glances up. Her fingers make endless circles on the velvet table, tiny swirls, so he almost doesn’t see the savagery of her bitten nails. Then her hands still long enough for him to take this detail in, to swallow it greedily down.
The serveur brings a demi-carafe of something from Languedoc to his table and although he promised Nathalie he won’t drink before five o’clock, he demurs. He tries not to think of Nathalie’s disappointment when he returns with wine on his breath, and the way her satin cheeks will pink and shine. For an artist to link himself, body and soul, to the thing he creates, he cannot be distracted with earthly admonishments.
The serveur knows him. He is also a slender young man pretending to be an artist. Or maybe an actor. And he knows the serveur. He suspects the fellow has particular knowledge of certain clubs in Monmartre. Such is the way. He tips the serveur. He knows courage when he sees it. But now he has little money left and cannot order olives and bread later.
Lola’s hair is coming undone. He sees a pin at the nape of her neck and watches as curls tumble, gently, like air, down onto her collar. She doesn’t notice. Instead her eyes are fixed on the door. Her lips are pink and pursed, like the edges of a clam. He holds his breath at the thought, at what it would mean to those who view his painting when he completes it. He draws her mouth anyway.
When she finally lifts a hand to tuck hair back, he sees that her cuffs are worn. Her arms are bare beneath the coat. He thinks she must be cold. He is cold, shivering each time a patron swings the door open and steps in from the street. But Jour et Nuit is warmer than his attic. Père is mean and thwarted and angry at his son so the artist’s allowance is thin. Enough for cheese and fish from men on the riverbank but little more, and oils and canvases are not cheap. He cannot keep asking Édouard for spares.
He thinks of his last tube of Cadmium Orange and that he might have to cut it open to extract a final morsel – for he has to have orange. Look at Lola’s brooch! It is the prettiest thing about her (though he feels sorrowful when he thinks this as she is young and poor and not ugly). A glazed item, an orange on a bed of leaves. Astonishing, really, that she would wear it. Everyone knows what oranges mean. But he admires it and her. So he must cut open that last tube.
The serveur has moved away and the artist is bent over his pad, lost for a moment, so he doesn’t immediately notice that the man whom may-or-may-not spend time in bathhouses in Monmartre now stands in front of Lola’s table. But then he hears a raised voice and when he looks up, sees the serveur jab an indignant finger at the empty coffee cup. And then at the brooch on the woman’s coat.
An earnest conversation is happening. Lola’s face has reddened and filled and her voice is not much more than a whisper. A couple on a table nearby look over. Someone eating oysters at the bar and drinking schnapps swings round languorously in his chair to inspect. The artist watches them. He sees that they have been waiting for a little drama on this cold afternoon. Drama is, after all, more warming and cheaper than wine.
Lola is about to be thrown out. He can see that. He knows what the serveur makes of her and no doubt it is true.
He barely knows he is standing. His narrow chest is not suited for confrontation and he has never pointed a finger in another man’s face in anger in his life. Still, he gets up and walks to Lola’s table. He hears himself speak and wonders what Nathalie would make of it all.
“She is not disturbing anyone, leave her alone.”
The serveur’s eyes are wide and, he notes, assuming. Of course the serveur would think he was Lola’s master. Look at that orange brooch, after all. He feels indignant and then a little guilty. He has assumed so much about Lola as well.
“A carafe,” he says. He nods to the table. “Then she can drink in peace, yes?”
The serveur opens his hands in a mocking, haughty expression and then shrugs. He moves away without saying a word.
“I can’t pay for it.” She has a deeper voice than the paleness of her face suggests and he is surprised. He hears the sound of the south in it, of Montpellier and white sand. He thinks back to a summer spent with cousins on the beach. Salted butter spread on bread, grit at the bottom of his drinking glass. Burnt skin and a stolen kiss with a girl wearing blue. His stomach clenches and he blinks at Lola. Maybe she’s not from the south at all and he’s just hearing things. But her accent is pleasing. He knows when he returns to his table he will add a flourish to the sketch; a silhouette of a shell that he will add to her cuff, like the one the girl in the blue swimsuit gave him when they parted that day on the beach.
“I will pay. And I want nothing for it. Just to finish my sketch, yes?”
He doesn’t wait for her to respond. Inside his chest, his heart beats frantically, like a bird trapped in netting. He sits back down, quickly, handkerchief to his mouth again. A clot seems to have come loose somewhere in his lungs and he feels it barracking up into his throat. He tries to make his body like iron and hold it down.
All the while Lola is staring at him.
After a moment, he picks up his pencil again and begins to draw.
Gilen Chamon [1861-1882], France, until 1882; gifted to Nathalie Le Conte, Paris, France, until 1905;
He has been in apartments just like Madame Le Conte’s and the smell of faded luxury and privilege held onto for too long is just as he always remembered it – sour, stained, lying like a film on his tongue. Women like her hold out as long as they can, clinging to the threads of wealth long departed. Then they relent, they all do. Madame Nathalie Le Conte answered the door herself when he rang the doorbell and didn’t even pretend the maid was on an afternoon off. He knows there is no maid and she knows he knows.
She offered him coffee and he waits now in the salon in front of the painting while a kettle boils somewhere. Femme, Attente, Café. Chamon’s last. Everyone knows the story. Finished just days before he died and gifted to Nathalie, the girl he was due to marry. Manet, Sisley spoke highly of him. A young man, a boy really, with lungs that betrayed him. It was a marvel he had managed to finish it.
Madam Le Conte had turned him down by letter, by telegram, and later by slamming the door in his face. She knew what he wanted and that he wouldn’t offer a fair price. Everyone had tried to buy Femme, Attente, Café over the years. Even Manet, more hurt by the boy’s death than he should have been, wanted Gilen’s final painting, but of course she would not sell it. Instead she had it framed and, when she finally married, five years after Gilen’s death, the painting was hung above the piano in the salon. The piano was sold years ago, after the second man she loved died young as well, for this time she had children.
The man who stands in her salon wants to buy the painting and is a patient man. Everyone knows the story – that he had visited many salons like these over the years. In fact he visited the granddaughter of one particular artist every week for ten years. They even became friends. He was like a brother to her. Maybe she wanted to marry him. Then after years, a little candle went out inside her and she sold him the painting, the true object of his affection, and moved to Nice on the proceeds. Such is the way.
And now here he is. He knows when a widow of limited means will break and, the third time he knocked at Madam Le Conte’s door, she let him in.
Nathalie Le Conte once had great beauty and he can see it even now. It’s something that is spoken of, the ease with which her old beauty makes itself known. Looking at Madam Le Conte isn’t an act of memory. The bones of her wrist are still white and delicate, and barely seemed strong enough to hand over the cup of coffee as he moves to perch on a sprung chair. A cameo at her throat, a little old-fashioned, but still creamy. Not yellow, like cameos can go, the colour of dog’s piss or old women’s teeth. The famous lift to her nose. Her hair, now grey, but still thick. In her youth Gilen had painted her with it falling to her sides in ropes. He once wrote to his brother that he wanted to be bound by those coils. It was a scandalous letter that Le Figaro just had to print. In an early exhibition of Chamon’s work, some gallery wag thought to attach a copy of the letter to the wall next to Chamon’s pencil drawing of Nathalie in the bath. Unsurprisingly the exhibition had been a huge success.
Marie likes to read Chamon’s letters to him, on the afternoons they have together. The letters had been collected and printed in a handsome little book to mark the twentieth’s anniversary of Gilen’s death. Anyone who is anyone has a copy. The print run was limited but every apartment on the Left Bank has one on their shelves.
Marie had been beside herself when he told her he would visit the famous Nathalie’s apartment to attempt to purchase the painting. “Henri!” and she’d bounced on the bed in that adorable way of hers that made him want to roll him on her back again, though he knew his tired old bones would be unable to keep his mind’s promise. “Take me with you. I will behave. You can say I am your assistant.”
“I cannot, my sweet. You know that.” He felt sad about it. He would have liked to have seen Marie next to the woman of Femme, Attente, Café. Marie wears her hair just like the whore in the image; half up, half down, a welt of possibility. “Word would get out. Now, of course it would, please don’t look like that. And then where would we be?”
“Married, that’s where.” Her plump little mouth was a frown. “Your wife would have to give you a divorce. Oh, Henri, please buy the painting for me.”
He said he would try and then distracted her with a book of paper puppets he had purchased from a market in the 12th Arrondissement. It didn’t matter whether Marie believed him or not.
In the early days of her marriage, Madam Le Conte had held soirees and invited Gilen’s old friends. Artists, writers, men who played the piano in bistros for a few francs and considered themselves exotic. Philippe Le Conte humoured his new wife and the visitors came. Curiosity drove them and also a hope that, by being close to her, they could be close to Gilen. To their dear boy, whom they all seemed to love. His grave was never without fresh flowers.
“Cezanne wept when he saw it,” she says now. She meant Femme, Attente, Café, of course, not Gilen’s grave. Though he might have done, of course, and the man who wants to buy the painting swallows a snigger. He tells himself to remember where he is. What he wants.
So he tries to listen. Her voice is soft and he can barely hear her. “It’s not even that accomplished. Though that’s not why Cezanne spilled his tears.”
An odd expression, he thinks. Spilled his tears. Strange and sensual, how peculiar. But everyone said Nathalie Le Conte, formerly Nathalie Flauvre and almost Nathalie Chamon, has a way of speaking that webs around the listener. Her words are a snare. As is her décolleté. Men had written about it. Pale, freckled. Many hands have wanted to touch it…he finds himself staring. The famous bosom is hidden away now, naturally, for it is old and widowed and very poor.
“I think the painting is exquisite,” he says. He places his cup and saucer on the table between them. He holds out his hands. See, I am no threat. “I have a few of Chamon’s pieces.”
“Oh?” she is interested.
“Grand-mère dans la Forêt, L'été sur la Plage.” It is true, he has them all. Summer on the Beach is his favourite. A boy sitting on the sand, laughing at a girl cartwheeling before him, a girl wearing a blue swimsuit. The figures are just old enough for the painting to be suggestive.
“L'été sur la Plage,” she repeats, dreamily. “Gilen told me all about that holiday. I think she was the first girl he loved. I think that’s why he added a shell to the woman’s dress. There, you see? On the cuff.”
Of course he sees. Everyone knows about the shell and how it mirrors the girl’s mouth in Femme, Attente, Café. Pages have been written about it. In some circles, it is argued that the shell stands in for a part of the girl he cannot paint and display, at least to polite society.
“It isn’t me in the painting, you know.” She gets up suddenly and stands before Femme, Attente, Café. “I know what the critics say, that I posed for him. As if I would, with that orange brooch! Oranges means whore, I’m not a fool.”
Marie had asked him what the oranges meant and pretended to be scandalised when he told her. “Art is about signs and codes,” he’d explained. “That’s the attraction for me – to see a figure or a landscape exquisitely portrayed and then discover all the little signs and important things that add an extra layer of meaning.”
She didn’t really understand but that didn’t matter, for he didn’t visit her on Thursday afternoons while his wife was at her mother’s to talk about art.
He stands up and joins Madame Le Conte and positions his head at an angle. It is a stance he has assumed many times before; the earnest, knowledgeable collector, seeking pure beauty in art not the potential for extra francs when a piece was resold. “I’ve never thought it was you,” he says. “The hair, it isn’t right.”
“She has my nose, though.”
He shrugs. “But it isn’t you.” It seemed important to insist this, to add distance between the woman who owns the painting and the subject matter.
“Gilen wouldn’t give up his afternoons at the Jout et Noir,” she says. “Not even for me. Manet told him that real life was to be found on the streets and my love was so desperate for life.” A note of sadness in her voice and she looks away. “Always he knew.”
“That we wouldn’t have time to marry. Yet still he asked me. Monsieur, I cannot sell her to you.”
He can see she isn’t certain, even in the way she crosses her arms. She trembles a little. Her face is terribly thin. He wonders how often her children visit her.
“I think you can,” he says quietly. “I think the time is perfect, in fact.”
“If I do…If I do, what will you do with her?”
An unexpected question and for a moment he is wrong-footed. He doesn’t like the sensation. When he visits apartments or chateaus, he is prepared and knows the questions that will be asked and when. He knows when an owner will shrug, over-casually, and then ask about a painting’s value. They never ask what he will do with the piece when it becomes his.
“Well, Madam, I am not sure. But I will not re-sell it.”
Madam Le Conte exhales deeply, as if relieved. “No, she is not a piece for many hands.”
Gilen Chamon [1861-1882], France, until 1882; gifted to Nathalie Le Conte, Paris, France, until 1905; sold to Henri Dupuis, 1905-1928;
She is to be married. She is to be married! For the past three months she has woken every morning, sometimes before street-lights are lit, with that one thought in her mind. It seems impossible to be so happy and only a year since Mama died.
And an earnest voice, sounding remarkably like Bernard, would counter – Mama would want her to be happy. She had been Clarice’s age when she married Papa, and he was already an old man!
She can barely remember him. He holds a strange, patchwork place in her mind, made up of recollections of others and half-seen, blurred images of him toddling her around the sitting room and holding her in his arms in front of a painting of a woman wearing an orange brooch. Henri Dupuis, art collector, sixty when she was born, a scandalous divorce.
Sebastian will give her away. He is the soft-hearted of her half-brothers, the rest still appalled that she even exists. Sebastian is the least like his mother and treats her kindly.
Good Lord, she is to be married! On the first day of the new year, 1928. Almost ten years have passed since the end of the war and Paris – marvellous, glorious Paris – has almost recovered. Sandbags around Notre Dame and the Louvre are memories, shop windows are open and shutterless.
There is to be an orange flower in her corsage. Dear Bernard had said she could have whatever she wanted and, when he couldn’t find a brooch in the shape of the fruit, orange blossoms became a natural addition to her wedding flowers. A little crease had appeared at the bridge of Sebastian’s nose when she told him; maybe he didn’t like the colour? It hardly matters. She does.
She loves the brooch on the painting best of all. She always pointed it out to Mama when they sat together in the evening, automobiles thrumming on the street outside, workmen finishing for the day and yelling obscenely about wine and cigars and crepes. Mama would sip her cognac and wind her tiny foot in a circle. She was always terribly pleased with herself. She’d tip her glass at the woman in Femme, Attente, Café. “Yes, the orange brooch is just exquisite, Clarice. While other colours fade, the orange blazes still.”
Clarice didn’t think the painting had faded but it didn’t hurt to let Mama claim that it had. There seemed to be something under Mama’s words, something unexpressed. The orange brooch amused her mightily and she hummed in satisfaction when Clarice ran her fingers, delicately, over the canvas.
The painting will come with her to Germany when she marries Bernard. Papa had left it to Mama and Mama had left it to her. And Clarice will leave it to her own children. At the thought, she pulls up her knees in bed and giggles. The idea of doing things with Bernard that will make babies is preposterous. Mama used to love to tease her about it. She supposes Mama had been quite shocking in a way; she can’t imagine her friends’ mothers whisper, delightedly, about a man’s breeches or the firmness of his buttocks, but Mama did, eyes shiny with mirth. Once, on a rare occasion that Sebastian’s wife allowed them in his house, Mama picked up a cantaloupe from a silver dish and squeezed it in her hand. Clarice had to dig her nails into her palm to hold back her laughter.
It hurts a little to think of Mama but she had longed for the end and would not want Clarice to turn her days into grey slabs of memory. “Be my little orange bird,” she had said. She had held Clarice’s hand for two days and then died. She liked Bernard. She would have approved of their marriage.
And now her little orange bird is going to move to Berlin and live with her love’s huge family. At the thought of Bernard’s mother, Clarice gets up and pads through to the sitting room, where the painting hung over the sofa. Mrs Solomon terrifies her a little. If Bernard had been the eldest son, she might have objected to the wedding. Mama and Papa’s union still embarrasses their circle. But Bernard is the fourth boy, so unimportant. Their apartment in the Solomon family home will be small, but Clarice doesn’t mind.
Once a bent, grey-haired old lady visited her mother to see the painting. Clarice tries to remember how old she was – twelve, maybe? She leans back on the sofa and rings a little bell for coffee. Yes, twelve. She had started her monthly cycle only the day before. She was terribly uncomfortable and proud and giddy. Clarice’s cheeks burn a little, remembering. Her mother had given her strips of flannel to put in her underwear and she felt like a penguin they’d seen at the zoo the year before – waddling, cumbersome. She had been worried that anyone looking at her would know. Or that they could see the padding between her legs.
She had been sitting on the sofa – the very same she sits on now! – when the old woman was shown into the room by the maid. Her mother had been expecting her. The two stood before the painting, murmuring softly. Clarice had watched them curiously. The visitor sniffed quietly. When she turned round to smile at Clarice, the woman’s face was wet. Her cheeks were like satin. She had thick grey hair and the skin of her bosom, visible above the neckline of her dress, was smooth and freckled.
Mama had embraced the woman, which was another unusual thing, and then the ladies had retired to the balcony overlooking the street. Mama served coffee and macarons and rung for a cab when the sun began to sink over the river. She had spent the rest of the evening in front of the painting and, thinking hard, Clarice could not remember her mentioning the orange brooch again.
She wonders what Mama would make of the painting coming with Clarice all the way to Germany. Bernard had told his mother about it, and apparently Mrs Solomon knew of the painter and cleared a space on the wall of the breakfast room, in anticipation. She seemed more excited at the prospective of Femme, Attente, Café arriving in her home than Clarice.
The coffee arrives and, on the tray, a note from Bernard. She picks it up, heart a warm ball in her chest. He is such a sweet man. Around the edges of the envelope he has drawn oranges and leaves and they weave around the paper in a merry dance.
Gilen Chamon [1861-1882], France, until 1882; gifted to Nathalie Le Conte, Paris, France, until 1905; sold to Henri Dupuis, 1905-1928; appropriated by Otto Bern, 1941-1972;
So much to take, houses open to him like skirts. Sometimes when he steps inside apartments he can smell traces of previous occupants (he never thinks of them as owners). Perfume, polish, sometimes the trace of brisket. In one, elegant property on Oranienburger Straße he found the wheels of a child’s toy car still spinning on the breakfast table. He touched it with his fingertips, stilling the spirals. Then he wiped his hands on his handkerchief.
The Task Force has a list of items that are to be immediately requisitioned for the planned research institute at Lake Chiemsee. Otto is a good discoverer of these items, but isn’t servile enough to hand everything over. In one apartment he found a Tieck bust the elderly occupant had thought he’d hidden securely in a space in the cavity wall, behind a mirror. These people. Without exception, they think they know best. Otto found the hiding place as easily as he beat his valet at cards. The tilt of the mirror gave it away. Always does. He held the bust sculpted in the shape of a young girl in the palm of his hand while the frail splinter of a man was bundled outside and shot, and then, just because he could, he smashed the bust on the windowsill. He never mentioned the find to the commandant.
He loathes the people turfed from their apartments as much as he is instructed to, and more. And he reads newspapers and accepts the dangers they pose. So it astonishes Otto Bern, forty-three, unhappily married and the father of three boys who have forgotten what he looks like, that these people appreciate the same art he does, the same painters, the same scene, the same splendour of perfectly captured beauty. He cannot get his mind around this knowledge. He cannot frame it. He thinks of the people he throws down stairs or pulls apart from their children are as not-real, less than he. And yet they collect Tieck busts, sketches by Picasso, Cezanne, pieces by Bruegel.
But to find a painting by Gilen Chamon is quite something. A clot of fried egg and wurst rises in his throat when he pulls back the curtain covering half the apartment wall and window, and sees it. Just there. Femme, Attente, Café, hanging on the wall like any ordinary painting when of course she isn’t, she never has been, she is explosive, she reaches down his throat and pulls his breakfast from his stomach.
Before the war he curated a small gallery outside Potsdam and the piece he loved more than ever, the piece he drew visitors to when they wandered into the cool marble room, was a sketch by Chamon of his muse, Nathalie Flauvre. Scandalous for its day, fascinating now. She was in the bath, an arm thrown over the side. The faintest shadow of breast and areole. Old maids stood before it and made little puckered shapes with their mouths and tutted, but he knew they really remembered moments from their own lives when a man they adored watched them bathe and ran his hands over their young flesh. Old soldiers who had fought at Verdun lingered and remembered mademoiselles they had never told their wives about.
He knew Chamon had painted a woman observed in a café and that it was spoken of his finest work, made tragic by his death only days after the piece was completed. Everybody knows the story, but no one has seen it for years. The painting had disappeared into that unknown space of “in private hands”. Such a frustrating, thwarting space. There were rumours that Nathalie had sold the painting to a private French dealer, and that he had passed it on to his daughter. But no one really knew.
Men in his charge flick their eyes in his direction as he stands in front of the painting and then they move on, hungry in their search for gold or gems that can be slipped into pockets, unseen. They all eat well. Their faces are pink and corpulent, like over-fed pigs. Otto supposes his own face is just as fleshy, too. Children wearing yellow stars pick up leaves to eat, but he has his table at his café and there is plenty of bread for a man like him.
“Muller,” and a young man with faintly red hair stops at Otto’s command and holds out his arm in salute. “Arrange for this item to be taken to my car.”
“The painting, Herr Bern?”
He trusts the fact that his men won’t know the value of the painting and its significance. Not one of them has given any hint they saw further than the plate of food in front of them or the body to throw against a wall. Some were over-fond of drink but he can’t hold that against them. It takes iron guts to do their work. Paintings and sculptures don’t interest them. Still, better to be cautious.
“Muller.” The boy turns back, painting in his hands. “When you have completed your task, you may see if there are stones of value in the ivory box on the dressing table. I saw it in the master bedroom.”
“Sir.” The boy grins and turns away and Otto knows that the boy will hurry his task with the painting and that whatever is found in the box will be tucked away in the boy’s pockets before the apartment is emptied.
The strangest thing – when the painting is gone and only a discoloured square is left on the wall, Otto feels like his stomach has been hollowed out. As if he is an apple and he has been cored. He wonders if it is because he has looked for the painting for so long and then to glimpse it, only to hide it away again, is like a brief moment with a lover. A quick fumble, a secret kiss, when the flesh longs for passion and hours devoted to it.
I’m getting soft, he chides himself. He must settle. There is always someone biting his shoulder, ready to step into his boots should an indiscretion or unwise moment of mercy send him to the Russian front.
He doesn’t know what he will do with Femme, Attente, Café. Perhaps he has been foolish to have the painting removed to his car. Anyone passing by on the street will see it. He tries to calm himself by remembering that no one wants to look at his men, no one wants to look them in the eyes or ask questions, even those with unblemished bloodlines and papers. But he still doesn’t know what to do with the painting. Perhaps he will send it home, to Potsdam, as a gift for his wife. He hasn’t seen her in two years but can imagine her face when the frame arrives and she unwraps it.
Gilen Chamon [1861-1882], France, until 1882; gifted to Nathalie Le Conte, Paris, France, until 1905; sold to Henri Dupuis, 1905-1928; appropriated by Otto Bern, 1941-1972; bequeathed to Cather Gallery, Whitby UK, 1995.
Anthony Cather had asked him to curate a small exhibition, to mark the occasion of the Bern bequest to the gallery, so this is why today, Callum Kennedy, twenty-four and in his first job as gallery assistant, frowns down at a painting of a woman in a café, unease growing in his chest like a cactus. The gallery is silent; it is nine o’clock in the evening and he’s the only one there. Everyone else – Anthony, the gift shop staff, the cleaner – left hours ago. Only Callum is still here, still unable to decide where to put the painting and rendered inert by a growing sense that the painting is dark, bloody, not right.
He becomes a sloth when he isn’t sure. His family think him a careful person, considered and calming, the exact opposite of his younger sister who, currently, lives somewhere in London trying to make it as a musician or something. Occasionally she sends postcards home, the awful tourist ones she buys from a vendor on Westminster Bridge, scribbling about a party she’d been to, where someone from a Britpop band Callum had never heard of, was present. His parents find him much easier to understand. They think of the two months he spent in his bedroom after graduation as his research time, where their son made careful plans about the next steps he would take in life. The reality was that Callum lay in bed, afraid, feeling rudderless without a lesson plan or exam timetable. His first-class degree in Art History seemed spectacularly unimportant.
He knows this painting. A minor artist, a man who died young. Callum has a vague memory of a line in a text book about Gilen Chamon; that he became feted and popular in the first decades after his death, that there was an obscene scrabble to buy his pieces. Callum remembers the sneering tone of the book and the researcher’s proposition that Chamon’s art became indelibly entwined with his early, tragic death. Such tragedies blind the connoisseur, see footnote 315.
A noise behind him as the gallery creaks and settles. It is an old building, tucked away down a side street, off the well-trodden tourist path. Only visited by those who know the gallery is there and Anthony Cather prefers it this way. We’re here for the discerning, he says, tapping his glasses on his teeth, draped in his usual black polo-neck and white jeans. He seems to have stepped straight from the set of a French film. The shop staff mock him. Even Callum thinks he’s a bit of a dick. It’s all very well to prefer a select clientele, but takings are down. Cather is coming round to the idea of selling Damien Hurst and Banksy prints.
He's letting his mind wander, which is another thing he does when he doesn’t know what to do. The painting troubles him. He thinks he can remember it’s title – something about a girl waiting in a café – and that the textbooks speculate the woman Chamon painted was a prostitute. He’d given her a name in one of his letters – Lola, Luna? – but it was an affectation, a pressing down of the artist’s own ideas, for Chamon didn’t know whom she really was, only that she wore a brooch in the shape of an orange and the artist added a shell to the sleeve of her dress. The clam mirrored her mouth and was quite scandalous at the time.
It isn’t these things that trouble Callum, not really. His course taught him that artists do this all the time. They take what they see and fold the image into whatever emotion thunders through their chest. There was no need to add a shell to the woman’s dress. No need to emphasise the means by which she made a living. She might not even have worn that particular brooch. Chamon, deliciously aware of his impending death, became an artist of pathos. What a word, Callum thinks. Deliciously. Even the author of the text book is at it – adding his own interpretation onto what must have been a horrendous experience for Chamon’s family. Callum knows this. His younger brother died when Callum was eight, the boy hit by a car. But then again, maybe Callum is also adding his own interpretation, remembering what such loss was like for his family when maybe it wasn’t like that at all for Chamon’s relatives. He sighs.
He is uneasy at the painting’s provenance. Walter Bern, son of Otto, resident of Whitby for the past twenty years, has donated his collection to the Cather museum, and many pieces belonged to his father. Callum met Otto once. The old man came into the gallery to have a look round, maybe to see if the place would treat his pieces reverently. An old man on a stick, that was all, harmless and loose of teeth. Still had a slight German accent. Callum found him charming. Then, after Otto’s death, there had been a piece in the local paper about his art collection. The journalist made one of those passive, inflammatory remarks about Otto’s role in the war. Otto began collecting around 1940 and limited access to his pieces during his life. Callum bites his lip. He took a module about art during the war. He may have given himself food poisoning just the month before by eating a supermarket carbonara five days out-of-date, but he isn’t totally stupid.
He remembers Anthony Cather’s face when he raised his concerns that very morning. Of course he’d mumbled and of course Cather had been irritated, and the conversation had gone just as Callum had predicted it would. Cather had dismissed him and told him to focus on the work he was paid to do. It wasn’t the gallery’s concern where Otto Snr acquired his artwork during the war, the gallery’s role was to display them. Maybe Callum should write a short explanatory note about the artists and hang them alongside the paintings - this, surely, was Callum’s area of expertise, not an interrogation as to how a harmless old man acquired his pieces. Callum remembers the way Cather shook his head and stalked off. Yep. A dick.
He’s found a slim volume of biographies in the gallery’s library, listing the multitude of artists thrumming around France at the fin de siècle. So many, most of whom remain unknown, barely scraping by on the sale of pieces to family or indulgent patrons. A couple of pages on Chamon, mostly about his friendship with Manet. The life of one man seen through the prism of another. Callum takes it from his pocket now and scans the text. Ah, here it is, the painting is called Femme, Attente, Café. Depiction of a girl, possibly a prostitute, in a café; given to Chamon’s fiancé, Nathalie Flauvre later Le Conte; sold to Henri Dupuis, bequeathed to Dupuis younger second wife, Marie, who in turn left it to their daughter, Clarice. Taken with Clarice to Germany when she married Bernard Solomon, then disappeared.
So much contained in those little lines and Callum thinks of his sister and her postcards home. Went to a party in Notting Hill, Dougie from The Electricians was there. Got up late the following day. Of course Callum knows that Harriet was probably hungover, that there were likely substances other than alcohol at the party and that when she says “late”, she means five o’clock in the afternoon. He moves to the side of the painting, squinting. Now he can see Luna/Lola’s frayed cuffs, the sheen of yellow deep within the green of her dress. It’s a rich colour, the colour of a forest. He notices that the cup in front of the woman is empty. Chamon has added shading to it, so the cup looks stained, as if coffee had been drained some time ago and hadn’t been refilled. He feels a wave of sympathy towards the girl and wonders if she was poor.
And that orange brooch. Almost garish. Before he knows it, Callum’s hand is outstretched and he touches the canvas. The brief pages about Chamon in the gallery’s book mention it, everything he’s read about Chamon and this painting mentions it. It brands Lola/Luna, identifies her, swallows up who she really is, folds her thoughts and the strum of her heart in pimpled, round citrus skin on a bed of leaves.
A little flame ignites in Callum’s mind. He wonders if it is possible, after all this time, to find out who the woman really was. Maybe there are papers, letters tucked away in a drawer. Maybe Chamon found out who the woman really was and wrote it down somewhere. Callum could do it, he could write to archives, maybe visit. The exhibition could evolve, be organic, change meaning over time as he makes discoveries.
Anthony Cather would object at first, of course, but…dick. Callum laughs softly. The change within him has been sudden. The woman in the painting has affected him, even as she sits, waiting in a café.