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.
November 10th 2003
‘They gave me an honorary doctorate five years ago.’
‘Who did?’ asks Jerome.
‘The Krakow Academy.’
‘Fine Art. The Communists re-baptised it the Academy of Plastic Arts in 1992 to make it sound more modern.’
‘Really. But it became the Krakow Academy again in 1992, like an uncle wearing fashionable shoes settling back into his brogues.’
Stefko scratches his head. ‘Do you still have a mum Jerome?’
‘Yeah, I still have her,’ says Jerome, wondering at the old mans sleight of mind; shoes to mothers in seconds.
‘That’s nice. They shot mine’
‘I went to Poland to try and find her after the war and discovered that a couple of German soldiers stood her up against a wall, with four others – and shot them. They’d been queuing for bread.’
‘You cannot imagine such horror.’
Jerome closes his eyes; no he cannot imagine such horror.
‘I had no remains you see,’ says Stefko bleakly. ‘Not even ashes,’
‘No I s’pose you didnt.’
‘As we get old we need to have them near by; bones, ash, to feel we are about to join something that we came from. Eva and I found the pit where the bodies were thrown. You have to know where a body is or you go crazy.’
‘Sure,’ says Jerome gently, thinking of the place where his father was buried. I should go there one day.
‘Of course, it has now become a mass grave, with a marble headstone. I read a poem there, Eva beside me’, says Stefko quietly. He takes the lump of amber out of his pocket. ‘We smashed a piece from this and buried it in the pit. You see its strange shape?’
‘That’s where I have rubbed the jagged edges smooth over the years.’
‘Right.’ Jerome thinks of the soldier’s tunic button that his mum had given him.
‘But we must not think about such grim things on a day like today – no?’ says Stefko, patting Jerome on his back.
‘I guess not.’
‘Anyway, I will be joining them all soon.’
‘Don’t say that Matt.’
‘Mama, Anton, Roualt,’
‘Georges Roualt? You knew him?’
‘He taught me in Paris.’
‘Yes Jerome, wow.’
‘Are you afraid of death?’ risks Jerome, who assumes that all old people are. Like you’d be walking down the street and then boof – lights out.
‘We know when it’s near,’ says Stefko solemnly and I don’t sense mine just yet.’ I have found out where Mama is…and I would like to see Martha, he thinks, the two of them entwined again in his mind, the thought of one evoking the shadow of the other. He looks up. ‘And now I want to visit Elegy.’
‘Want me to come with you?’
‘No. Where is it?’
‘Room nine, next door.’
‘I am sure you got things to do Jerome.’
‘Don’t go far. Please.’
Stefko walks off in a tipsy zig-zag, across the room and into the next one. He stops at Elegy, the painting started within hours of hearing of Anton’s death, the painting preparing him for his own. The colour is strong, that flat maroon sky, the boiling purple river, the boat’s prow slicing through the water, the blissful energy of the oarsman at odds with the grief on board – Anton lying lifeless in the embrace of his wife. A naked woman (‘representing sensuality’ he’d told the curators) sits in the stern with another male figure in a suit. This is himself, there again for compositional reasons, he’d told the same curator, or the voyeur within the painting, he’d told another one – to see if they’d compare notes and which version ended up in the catalogue. For compositional reasons, the catalogue declared.
He’d thought that death could be a dark figure, the grim reaper bending over his friend, closing his eyes. But in avoiding that cliché, he may have chosen another one: Charon rowing across the Styx. But are such classical references clichés? Or intelligently selected archetypes. And what of my own death? He thinks. Soon? How will it be? It could be anything. Heart, brain, or just a general collapse. I hope it’s clean and quick – that I won’t have to be on life support. He shudders at the thought of being buried alive in a hospital – buried with what’s left of his mind. That would be hell. ‘Mephistopheles, you never thought of that one.’ he mutters. I’ll support my own life thank you very much, in whatever state. He stares hard at the painting, wondering who might paint an Elegy for him.
Untitled: A Novella is being serialised each week on International Times