Authors: Maureen Gibbon
And I think back to the first day in his studio, the day he showed Nise and me the different nude photographs. There was the pretty one he called Augustine, but there was also the photo of the girl who looked dead. But I never said that to him. I just told him that I thought the girl looked bored.
I go on looking at the remnants of the body and the mess where the face should be, and then I say, “Was she your model? Before?”
“She came for a few sittings.”
“So you must have liked her.”
“There was no way to know what would happen. Some people go flat in a pose.”
Maybe it is his words or hearing his voice and staring at the rawness of the model’s mouth—but something happens inside me just then. And I do not say a word to him. I do not do anything but turn away from him and the ruined canvas. In another moment I know I have to get out into the courtyard or onto the street—anywhere away from the scraped-down figure.
I pick the back door leading out into the weedy courtyard because it is closer. And I open it and walk through.
“I should never
have attempted that painting,”
He stands somewhere behind me. Neither of us has said anything until now.
“I didn’t think she was the right model from the start,” he tells me.
“Why did you hire her then?”
“I wanted to start the painting.”
“What was so wrong with her face?”
“The shape. The planes of her cheeks. Her expression. Everything.”
“What’s wrong,” I tell him, “is to erase someone like that.”
For a moment he does not say anything, and that means something. At least he is thinking about what I said. Considering my words.
“I believe you’ve misunderstood,” he tells me. But he says it quietly. And when I hear that quietness, something in me stills. Whatever in me was alarmed by the wreck of a face and that maw of a mouth—that piece of me stills a little, like an animal.
“It’s composition. I scraped away paint,” he tells me. “Not her.”
I understand—I do. And yet. The other model is there. The remains of her legs and torso and face. It is not my imagination. Yet if I am going to pose for him, if I am to become the woman who replaces the erased figure, I have to find a different way to think.
So I remind myself that I am a modèle de profession. That this is a job and not a courtship.
“Why do you think it will be different with me?” I say.
“It will be different.”
Which is possibly a lie. I know if he decides he does not like my face, he can scrape it away, too. He can leave a hole where I once was, just as he did with her. Yet just the way I knew he would come over to Nise and me the first day we met, when she and I stood drawing outside the coutellerie, I know my face will be the one he keeps. I will myself to believe it.
“D’accord,” I tell him, and I nod. I nod as much for myself as for him.
I am still not sure I understand the canvas he showed me, or what he wants and does not want, but I do understand one thing: my will. My will to wear the green boots of a whore, to not be like anybody else. To be seen.
I do not want to be erased.
“I thought you
wanted to work,” I say.
Because for all the trouble he took convincing me about the scraped canvas, when we come back inside the studio, he does not go to the canvas or his sketchpad.
He takes me to the divan instead. He makes me lie down and then he kneels on the floor.
“Everything shows in your face,” he tells me. “I can’t draw you if you’re upset.”
So he stays on the floor beside the divan. Opening me.
And for all the fear I felt when I first saw the scraped canvas, I think of it now as a ghost. And like any ghost, I push it from my mind.
I let him open me.
e wants a specific kind
of pose, so that is where we begin: by looking at other paintings of naked girls on divans.
He shows me a print of a fancy-looking painting, and an actual painting on a wood panel. The print shows a curvy woman from behind, looking over her shoulder, with a peacock fan in her hand. The other, the real painting, shows a woman from the front with one hand draped over her sex and the other holding some kind of leaves. A silky dog sleeps near her feet.
“Those women don’t look real,” I tell him. I point to the woman with the silky dog and say, “This one doesn’t have a bone in her body.”
About the other one, the print of the woman with the peacock fan, I tell him, “Her back is so curved she looks like a snake.”
He laughs a little and then shakes his head at me. “That’s Ingres. A classic. And I painted the first one. It’s a copy of a Titian.”
The names do not mean anything to me, but I feel odd knowing I just said something about one of his paintings. Yet it is not just the painting that seems wrong—it is the woman herself.
“Aren’t there any paintings that look like real women look?” I say. “Like your gypsy girl?”
He looks at me for a moment and then goes to his cabinet. When he comes back, he holds something much smaller than the print or the painting he just showed me. It is a photograph, but it is a photograph of a painting. He hands it to me and I look at it for a long time.
“It’s a little better,” I say. I do not tell him that the breasts look all wrong—too far apart and pointing in different directions—or that the woman’s feet are too small. All I say is, “Her body’s too long. And she doesn’t have a neck.”
“It’s a photo of a painting by Goya.”
Just the way he says it, I can tell I annoyed him, so I say, “Of the three, I think yours is the best.”
The woman he painted may not have any bones, but I still like it better than one whose breasts seem cockeyed, or the snake-woman, whose face is so perfect it does not even seem as if it belongs to a woman. It is a statue’s face, or a face from a cameo.
“It looks as though her breast is in her armpit,” I say, pointing to the place on the snake-woman.
And he laughs at that. Really laughs.
“So that’s your opinion of the Odalisque,” he says.
“I’m just telling you what I see.”
“I don’t much care for it, either,” he says. “It’s dead. It’s a masterpiece but it’s always been dead. The closest is the Goya, but I don’t even want to paint that. Not that I could.”
“Why couldn’t you paint it?”
“No one should paint like anyone else.”
“But you could if you wanted?”
“I don’t want to paint the past. Not even Goya’s past. Il faut être de son temps.”
I know I do not understand all of what he means, but I do understand that he wants to be different from anyone else, that he wants to paint something entirely new. As we stand talking, things begin to feel relaxed again between us, the most relaxed since he showed me the canvas with the scraped-off face.
“The thing is
, lots of women’s breasts are uneven,” I say.
He wants to start with sketches, so that is what we are doing. The legs of the model were down in the scraped-off painting, but he tells me to lie on the divan with my right leg bent at the knee. It is the leg closest to him.
“Now touch that knee with your other hand,” he says.
So I do. And then I bend my right arm, the one that is closest to him, at the elbow, resting my hand up by my collarbone.
The position feels complicated, as if I am all crossed up, but I understand some of why he wants it: by bending my knee I hide my sex, and by reaching across to touch my own knee, at least my other arm shows. At least I do not look like a one-armed woman.
“What made you think about other women’s breasts?” he asks.
“That last painting. Goya. Her breasts are pointing in different directions. They’re cockeyed.”
“But why say most women’s breasts are uneven?”
“My mother sewed for women,” I say. “She saw their bodies. She talked about it.”
“What about you?”
“My breasts are pretty equal,” I say.
I can tell he wants me to say something else, to somehow go on, but I do not say anything else. He has told me he does not like to talk while he is working, but just then, I am the one who wants to stop the conversation. Not because I do not feel like talking—I could. But I do not need to. I feel content not talking.
And something happens then between us, in the middle of the idle talk. I feel connected to him, but there is also something about the silly, flirtatious talk that puts me at ease. I feel not just his desire but his pleasure at my company. As if there is some kind of delight he takes in me, not just in my body but in my thoughts and the things I say. Once I become aware of that, I feel weightless and settled at the same time there on the divan. Even though I am naked, it feels as if something were resting very lightly on me—a sheet covering my legs on a summer night, or a loose cotton chemise on my skin.
And that is what the sketches themselves are like. He draws them all in airy red chalk, with just the hint of my features, or with no face at all. But the blank faces do not bother me the way the erased face on the painting did. The drawings are exactly what they were meant to be: sketches. Yet there is also something perfectly finished about them. I see them and do not want any more.
And even though there is no face in any of the chalk drawings, I see myself perfectly in them. My head and hair, my breasts—even my hands. The pose with my hand resting on the opposite bent knee felt awkward, but the way he has drawn it is simple and straightforward. The hand that rests on my knee looks strong—the fingers and thumb look strong enough to belong to a brunisseuse at Baudon, and yet they are pretty. My other hand is turned in, and though you cannot see the fingers, you know I am playing with the end of a twist of hair.
Which I do not remember doing until I see it. But when I see his drawing, I remember. Remember the feeling of my own hair in my fingertips.