The story spans a day in November 2010, as the final preparations of a major retrospective of an aging painter are underway at Tate Modern. The private view; a jamboree of press, critics, celebrities and sponsors (even Tony Blair, a friend of the sponsor, is expected) takes place that evening, and the painter, Mateus Stefko, whose life has been blighted by war, secretly plans to make a citizen’s arrest. He becomes attached to a young art handler, Jerome, unaware of Jerome’s past in the care system, and who was helped into art school by Martha, a charismatic art therapist who had strong unconscious feelings for him. As Stefko and Jerome check the final hang, the paintings trigger Stefko’s memories:- pre-war Krakow, POW in the Soviet Union, cosmopolitan Beirut and eventual arrival in the UK. When they reach Untitled, a portrait of a partly dressed, masked woman, Stefko reflects on the intense relationship he had with its subject – Martha – whose hour by hour agonizing about whether to accept Stefko’s invitation to the opening is spliced into the unfolding story at Tate Modern. She hasn’t seen him for thirty years. Jerome’s story meanwhile is told in flashback, with the mysterious Martha at the heart of it. Neither Stefko nor Jerome know of her existence for the other until the denouement that evening in front of Untitled. This private drama is offset by a very public one, as Stefko waits and watches for his prey.
The novella is about how making art can deliver emotional salvation, as well as the relationships between the main characters, and how war has affected their lives. Dedicated to Stanislaw Frenkiel – 1918 – 2002 www.frenkielart.com. This is a fictionalised account of his life but the paintings described in the text and reproduced here are real. The tale will unfold week by week, through Stefko, Jerome, Martha and the paintings.
Jerome straightens Christ Mocked by Soldiers – Christ’s pale flesh at odds with the rich military greens of the soldiers’ uniforms. Thinking of the father he never knew, Jerome reads the adjacent text, slowly, line by line.
Stefko’s Christ is crowned not with thorns but with a fool’s hat – and the paradox, Christ the Fool – setting aside the human instinct for self-preservation and surrendering meekly to His tormenters – becomes more poignant as they flaunt their Christ. The soldiers’ uniforms are not specific but derive from a combination of German and Russian, associated in the painter’s personal memory with humiliation and suppression. The snarling little dog pulling at Christ’s only garment threatens to expose him to even further ridicule. This work represents Stefko at his very best, his expressive power undiminished, the quality of persuasive distortion at its most inviting.’
‘TAUNT,’ barks Stefko, creeping up behind Jerome, making him jump. ‘It is TAUNT their Christ, not FLAUNT. Please have it corrected.’
……….‘Right,’ says Jerome, pressing numbers into his phone. ‘Jen’, hi…yeah fine thanks. First painting in room seven. Christ Mocked by Soldiers. OK? It’s taunt not flaunt. Now? OK… Later? …Sure. I’ll tell him.’ Jerome re-pockets his phone. ‘Jenny’ll sort it,’ he informs the old man.
But Stefko seems to have forgotten all about it. ‘Nicely positioned,’ he chuckles, ‘right next to the guard’s chair. He will look like an extra in the painting. Shame they do not wear uniforms like they do at the National Gallery.’
But they do, thinks Jerome black jeans and jumper.
‘What are they serving in the restaurant?’ Asks Stefko conspiratorially.
‘I’ll check with catering.’
…………..‘I hope it’s not pickled cabbage in honour of old Poles. What did they do for the last one?’
‘Tapas, but only in the members’ room.’
‘They’ll serve that stuff for old Miro. I hear it’s his turn next.’
‘It is, yes.’
‘What was the last one Jerome?’
‘Exposed; surveillance and voyeurism.’
‘ A mixed show.’
‘Ah – no-one’s then – a mash-mish from the curators,’ sighs Stefko. Did you do that one as well?’
‘Yes,’ says Jerome, recalling the terrible photograph of the burned Iraqi soldier, a grinning cinder. Immolated on the road to Basra. 1991. The Highway of Death, the caption informed. We would never show a British soldier like that, he’d told the Director. Who was sympathetic, but left the decision to the curators. In they’d chorused, as an iconic anti-war statement. Jerome had kept quiet about his feelings – and his dead soldier father – in case Human Resources put him on another job, or worse, sent him for counseling. He’d then hung the photograph as carefully as if he was interring his father’s ashes.
‘You are lost in thoughts my boy,’ says Stefko kindly.
……….‘Um. How was the interview?’
……….‘I was naughty,’ replies Stefko. ‘I pulled the wire out of my ear and left. And now I’m tired and want to look at the river. Would you put that by the window please?’ he asks, pointing to an orange plastic chair.
Stefko plants his hands onto the small of his back like a pregnant woman and follows Jerome and the chair across the room. It feels as if his body is something he has to drag about. At least I am not ill, he thinks. I don’t need a nurse. He stops for a second, thinking this might not be a bad idea. But no, walking on again. I still have a wife. Dear, doting Eva. ‘Do I still love her?’ he asks aloud. Jerome turns, but Stefko waves him on. ‘Of course,’ Stefko answers himself, shuffling past a portrait of Eva in middle-age, a muted affair of blues and greens, a handsome woman with a slightly elongated neck in the style of Modigliani, as requested; her expression the man I am looking at is mine.
He reaches the nearest of the high cathedral style windows, where Jerome stands by the chair like a headwaiter. ‘Can I get you anything?’
……………‘A cup of tea please,’ says Stefko, easing himself into the chair, ‘not Earl Grey’s piss – and four sugars.’
………….‘And NOT in card….’ says Stefko, his voice giving up on board as he watches Jerome walk back across the room, envying the easy stride of youth. Bugger old age.
Stefko gets comfortable, and looks out at the river, now glittering in the winter sun. The flow of people crossing the open artery of the pedestrian bridge thickens as it heads for St Paul’s. He imagines it in reverse tonight; the culture crowds from the City clutching their invitations to Mateus Stefko: a retrospective. The hottest opening of the year, they tell him. A blockbuster! Whatever that is. Only the few friends he has left will guess at his edgy inner state, and of course the paintings, accomplices to the crimes of his imagination. Will Martha come? Taxis will spew more guests; Friends of the Tate, friends of the sponsors, celebrities, journalists, politicians, bankers, various Polish luminaries. Tony bloody Blair and his entourage. Blair. A friend of that entrepreneur young Malinowski, and a hand he will refuse to shake. In fact, he sits up, alive with an idea. I will not only refuse to shake his hand, but I will make a citizen’s arrest. He nods his head vigorously. But his thoughts return to the evening’s art crowd, piling in with their chatter, gossip and varied enthusiasms for the newly fashionable Expressionism, pretending to like it, but really more at home with the Frenchy schmooze of Cezanne or Matisse. The default style of British housewives, a hostile art writer had declared. But how many understand it, beyond: one of the great narrative styles of the 20th century – as art the books have it – all that primitivism and cabaret colour. Pagan. Essential. Paint at it’s most erotic, like an infant smearing its food, or its shit. They’d had Beckman and Gauguin here, Van Gogh at the Royal Academy; even young Kirchner had been invited into its rooms, like a rogue nephew taking tea with an aunt. ‘And now it’s my turn,’ he says aloud, to a passing cleaner.
…………..‘Dzien dobray,’ says the cleaner.
…………..‘Good morning to you’ replies Stefko, ‘and make sure you learn English if you want to get on, you bloody Pole.’ The bloody Pole, grinning, gives a middle-finger salute.
Stefko turns back to the river. A tug pulling cargo slung low in the water reminds him of a trip with his mother to Gdansk when he was six. A dark red ship, smoke belching, sliding across the horizon was an experience so strong, he still feels a metaphysical disturbance at the memory. He takes a small lump of amber from his trouser pocket. It’s all he has of her, picked up from the beach that day, worn smooth from rubbing – his worry bead. He closes his eyes to confront his childhood self. Krakow, that dragon of a city, her mysterious courtyards and baroque arches, the religious processions and masquerades of his boyhood, with hints of flesh behind the masks: that vast square with the ochre yellow Cloth Hall at the centre where Jews traded for centuries. Rebuilt after the war, it’s now full of tourists, with horse drawn carriages driven by farmers dressed in peasant costume with silly feathers in their hats. Martha would have loved it.
He rubs his amber, and shifts to ease his back, or hide his tail as they used to joke in Krakow. Other memories work loose; spring mists on the Vistula, his boyhood obsession with the devotional paintings in the City Gallery – all suffering flesh and upturned gazes – his growing awareness of women; their difference and mysteries. Then the short walk along Dunikowski Street to life drawing classes at the Academy, where he could stare at naked female flesh with the scrutiny and leisure ill afforded by his peeping through their servant’s keyhole – and not as much fun.
A cloud covers the sun. Stefko’s nerves lurch, releasing new energy. He is in Berlin, nineteen-thirty-seven: the place a crazy newsreel of latent outrage. Crooked crosses everywhere, police and soldiers strutting about like bantam cocks. It was as if the state and the crime were one and the same.
…………..‘What. No.’ Stefko raises his hands and opens his eyes. ‘Ah – thank you…’erm…’
…………..‘Yes of course’ says Stefko, feeling foolish as his hands float back to his knees. He takes the cardboard cup and pulls at the lid, burning his fingers. ‘I thought I said…’
…………..‘They didn’t have any proper cups.’
Stefko tosses the lid irritably aside and peers into tea the same colour as the Thames. ‘Biscuit?’ As Jerome sets a china plate on the floor, he notices for the first time Stefko’s frayed trouser hems, the derelict shoes. It’s as if he’s forgotten his lower half, completely at odds with the checked shirt and dapper grey cardigan of the top.
‘So they can find a proper plate but not a proper cup,’ grumbles Stefko, fingering the assortment of brown discs and squares, thinking of late Braque. ‘Bisquee,’ he says, stretching his mouth comically on quee, ‘means twice cooked in French, did you know that Jeremy?’
…………..‘No, and its Jerome.’
…………..‘Like some paintings,’ says Stefko, dunking a custard cream. ‘Excuse me, a filthy habit I’ve picked up from you English.’ He watches the end of biscuit break away and sink, then turns in his chair, making a feeble arc with his arm. ‘This is all because of Hitler you know.’
…………..‘Yes. Really. That exhibition of degenerate art in Berlin attracted modernist European painters like moths to a…’
…………..‘…were you there?’
…………..‘…flame,’ finishes Stefko, insisting on finishing the cliché he’d just heard and rather liked. ‘There were paintings by Emil Nolde and…’
…………..‘Was he Jewish?’ interrupts Jerome.
…………..‘No Emil was almost a Nazi himself before they took away his brushes. But he represented degeneracy in paint like Schmitt-Rotluff, Oskar Kokaschka…’
…………..‘…Macke and Chagall,’ adds Jerome.
…………..‘You know art history?’
…………..‘Course. All handlers know art history. I went to art school.’
…………..‘Are you a painter? Or do you do some Post Modern daubing and call it whatever you like.’
…………..‘I’m a photographer,’ says Jerome, admiring the insult.
…………..‘A photographer,’ says Stefko nodding gravely, as if photography had just been invented.
………….. ‘I also studied technical art management.’
…………..‘You mean how to hang pictures.’
…………..‘There’s more to it than that,’ says Jerome, studying the bit of soggy biscuit that had just fallen onto the front of Stefko’s cardigan. What a great photo.
…………..‘Or how to throw seeds on the floor,’ adds Stefko, trying his luck this time with a chocolate digestive.
…………..‘I suppose you like the Chinaman’s seeds do you Jerome?’
…………..‘Well…’ Jerome hesitates wondering whether to defend Ai Wei Wei. Or not.
…………..‘I heard that each one was painted by the hand of a peasant. He wants to return to feudalism – no?’
…………..‘I’m sure it’s more complicated than that,’ answered Jerome, wondering what feudalism was.
…………..‘It always is Jerome. It always is. The man destroyed a Ming pot. I would like to know how he feels if someone dropped one of HIS pots.’
Jerome grins. As if. ‘Was your art school obsessed with theory?’ asks Stefko, dunking the digestive. ‘Process?’ he dunks again. ‘Intention?’ he adds, watching this one detach and sink too.
…………..‘You are only an artist if you make art,’ proclaims Stefko, ‘it is no good just talking about it.’
…………..‘Of course,’ says Jerome, thinking of his recent portraits.
But Stefko, his eyes closing, is back in Berlin. ‘I also went to see Der Ewige Jude, a hellish journey.’
…………..‘What was that?’
…………..‘Third class from Krakow.’
…………..‘No, I meant der…yoo…wig.’
…………..‘Ah. The Eternal Jew,’ says Stefko, ‘an exhibition of faked evidence of the history of Jews in Europe.’ He opens his eyes again and recites his list; Anthropological distortions. Proof that we eat babies. Rape Aryan women.’
…………..‘That’s terrible,’ says Jerome quietly.
…………..‘You post war English with your charmed war free lives can have no idea. Your ignorance of these things is what is terrible.’
…………..‘Right.’ Never compare trauma, Martha had taught him. He wants to take the old man’s hand, but thinks better of it. Might not be appropriate.
But Stefko is looking back out of the window, at the cranes and new buildings on the bank opposite – St Paul’s squatting amongst them like a Buddha in a junkyard.
‘I want to snooze,’ says Stefko, the sun out again and warming his face like a squash in a greenhouse. ‘I expect you have lots of work to do.’
‘I do,’ says Jerome resting his hand on Stefko’s shoulder.
‘You will be back won’t you?’ says Stefko, touching the hand with his own.
‘Yes.’ Jerome picks up his spirit level.
‘I have had an idea you see.’
‘And I need you to help me.’
‘But now I need a sneeze.’
‘Don’t you mean snooze, Matt.’
‘Yes, a little sleep, that is what I said. Wake me in a hour.’
Untitled: a novella is being serialised each week on International Times