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.
Tate Modern 6.45
Stefko looks down at his comfortable old shoes, in disgrace next to the sharp turn-ups of his suit. How Martha would laugh at them. Will she come? He walks towards Untitled, as if doing so might summon her actual presence.
Stefko spins round. ‘What! I mean yes?’ Shit, that journalist from ArtNow, looking like a crow in her draped black clothes.
‘Would you say that the sexist content of your paintings is inherent in European expressionism?’
‘Political correctness is an etiquette. It will soon be out of fashion.’
‘My work has integrity, or it would not be here. Press packs are by the door madam,’ snaps Stefko. Then he walks off, in an unsteady zig-zag, avoiding others who might detain him. Untitled has a cluster of people in front of it – chatting and drinking, eyes only for each other. But one person – separate – stares intently at the painting. The figure is wearing a red dress and black boots with a dull shine. Funny how still she is, thinks Stefko, and no drink in her hand. The hair is white and whipped high on her head – like an ice cream. He walks towards the figure. Who turns.
The years gallop up to meet him. Then time slows as he takes her in all at once. The wheat yellow hair is now white. The skin around the grey eyes wrinkled in their laughter lines, the mouth thinner, but with tiny pleats at the corners. What detail. I still see detail. Her body seems much the same as he’d left it, but thicker. He is in a state of terrified bliss. ‘Mar – tha,’ his old man’s voice breaking. ‘Well,’ he takes her hand, ‘I dit not hear from you.’
‘For I dit not know I vas coming,’ says Martha, blushing slightly.
‘Vas is German Martha. Ve Poles say our double yoos.’ He takes her other hand. ‘I am so pleased you are coming.’
‘Come, Matt.’ She squeezes his hand, delighted he can still play the funny nineteenth century foreigner game. She studies his face. He’s more jowly, hair not as white or thick as hers, the stoop is new but his eyes as vivid as in the Self Portrait in his studio, the day he interviewed her, still wet, reeking of turps and oil.
‘My demand of the English language has always been exemplary,’ he says, giving his funny little bow.
‘Command Matt. You look well.’
‘I know. And you so splendid,’ replies Stefko, who’d heard ill. ‘I am not ill.’
‘I said well Matt, ‘ replies Martha. Stefko wants to throw his arms around her. Why not? Everyone else here is throwing their arms around somebody, air kissing. Perhaps he could air kiss her, and miss, getting that pretty mouth instead. ‘I have not seen you for …’
‘…twenty eight years,’ supplies Martha, squeezing his hand again, knowing as she does so that every word and gesture will be run through her mind again the next day. That she would be giving anything to get back to it – to put right what she might say wrong, to smooth this word here, that gesture there – to make the ending of this encounter right. What to say next? ‘Where did you get that horrible tie?’
‘The gift shop.’
‘I see,’ says Martha, peering at the lurid fabric of The Cellists. Then looking down at his shoes, laughing through her nerves.
‘You remember when we made this?’ says Stefko, creeping between her and the painting, which seems to shimmer in the presence of its subject.
‘Of course I do,’ says Martha looking at the small white cat picking its way around through the labyrinth of ankles and chair legs.
‘Can we find time to talk,’ pleads Stefko.
‘Yes, but here?’
A young man and woman, to all extents a couple, walk towards them.
‘Ah, Jerome,’ sighs Stefko, who for once is not pleased to see him. ‘And this is?’
‘Jenny Matt.’ Don’t you remember?
‘Of course, of course, Jenny from the media,’ grovels Stefko, bowing again. Then he slowly straightens. ‘Meet my dear friend Martha.’
But Martha’s cheeks are already burning. Stefko, forever the watchman of colour, thinks that he is the cause. ‘Jerome is an…’ he nods in a kind of pride, ‘…art handler.’ And my friend too, he doesn’t have time to say, for the Director is upon them. ‘Matt. Blair’s on his way – on the escalator apparently – better have Jenny with you.’ Stefko nods curtly and dips his hand into his pocket. ‘Here,’ he says to Martha, ‘something for difficult times. Look after it,’ he whispers, pressing the lump of amber into her hand. ‘I have some business with Mr Blair – I will find you later.’
‘And something for you,’ she says, posting her enveloped letter into the now vacant pocket.
‘Later Martha, I promise’ says Stefko, holding his arm out for Jenny to take. ‘Come to room two, there will be a little drama.’ Stefko and Jenny walk away, while Untitled creates its damage in the souls of its subject – and handler.
‘Jerome,’ says Martha, ‘how good to see you.’
But Jerome isn’t listening. Neither had he remembered the old man’s planned drama – or told Jenny. He’s staring hard at he painting, lost in its difficulty. He knows that the curtain is a symbol of concealment. Easier for him to look at the mask, the flesh tones, to appraise the colour, the white cat against the red shoes – the formal arrangement of body, chair, wall and the tower outside the window. How sophisticated his art school education had been, all that art history, a parallel universe of meaning, story and enchantment. The galleries in which he felt contained yet emotionally expanded at the same time. Places where he’d managed to be happy – where SHE had taken me. The art school place she’d found him, the portraits she’d inspired. How could she agree to being painted like this? He would rather see her fully naked – than this mockery of mask and shoes. Jerome looks at the floor, then up into Martha’s face. ‘Is this really you?’ he asks, angry.
‘I was thirty two Jerome,’ and quite old enough to decide how and who I pose for thank you very much. She looks hard at the painting again, together with Jerome, as if this shared looking might dilute its power. Her breasts are concealed; the erotic charge to be found in the shin, thigh and buttock, concealing the pudenda. She feels a weird undercurrent of connection between Jerome and to what was shortly to be planted in her body – at the time.
The year I was born, calculates Jerome, glancing at the 1982 date on the text. What sort of dear friend was she to the old devil?
‘That’s not really me,’ says Martha.
He hears her voice as a woman caught out by something. ‘Right’.
‘Jerome,’ she blusters, ‘I am so glad to see you,’ then, smiling broadly into his face, in an attempt to break the bad magic of the painting. ‘An art handler now eh?’ she continues, ‘and a photographer, I remember.’
‘Portraits,’ he says flatly, holding her gaze.
‘Of course, you were very…’
‘Are you exhibiting now?’ she asks, over brightly.
‘Real portraits, where you see a face, an expression a human being, an inner state.’
‘Yes, I have one of yours, it’s marvell…’
‘A small group show in Spitalfields,’ he interrupts. But he’s not having fucking Martha taking all the credit for him.
‘Spitalfields,’ she repeats, nodding her head, impressed. ‘I still have that photo you took of me in Trafalgar Square. It’s in my hall.’
‘It’s a portrait,’ he answers flatly, ‘where I communicated with you,’ and loved you, he dare not say. She smiles, moving away from Untitled to the next painting The Sphinx 1978. A nude with an ambiguous look – this doesn’t really help. So onto the next – The Puppet Shop which is safer. Jerome, upset, yet needing the contact walks behind her. He can no more imagine her putting on that mask, straddling the chair than the private confines of her hall. Not for him the devil raising the roofs of private places. He doesn’t want to look inside, either in her house, or that of the old man’s fantasies.
Martha takes a glass of red from a passing waiter, who, sensing something is wrong moves on quickly. Martha sips nervously at her wine, thinking again of the lost child, how Jerome – the found one – had carried her sense of a future.
‘I find a soul in a face,’ says Jerome, ‘not under a mask. I like to look into another person’s eyes, not bury them alive.’ You taught me that he wants to yell at her.
‘Let’s walk on a bit,’ says Martha, needing the soothing effects of movement. As they pass Melon Eaters, the three painted women look mournfully back at them.
‘Another strong image of women,’ says Martha, nodding at the painting.
‘Image?’ hisses Jerome. ‘What a lame word.’ He suddenly sees the point of such language, and why Stekfo loathes its mollifying barriers to seeing and emotion. He spins on his heel. ‘You have no idea what you meant to me.’
‘And you to me Jerome, you were special.’
‘Special? Special? Special fucking NEEDS,’ he roars.
She turns to face him too. ‘How dare you.’ And strikes him hard on the cheek with the flat of her hand. Heads turn, people draw back. Security is called. But as Jerome presses his hand to his burning face they walk together towards the next painting, which they ignore. Security is cancelled, the hired art guard settling back into his chair – thinking maybe its a family tiff, or some post-modern moment, and besides, she, a woman, struck him.
‘I was your teacher,’ and friend Martha wants to add, desperate to re-connect. But maybe he’s left the home of her heart. After all, if he were her real child she’d be needing some distance now, and he from her in natural separation. Her own flesh and blood at twenty-eight might not even phone her. Might not remember her birthday. What had Jerome been to her really? Had she saved him? Or maybe he had saved her, haunting the void where her womb used to be. They stand looking at the floor, Martha wondering if she should ask for his number, invite him for a coffee. ‘Jerome,’ she risks, ‘would you like to…?’ But she watches her child of twenty-eight years stride out of the room, punching numbers into his phone.
She walks back to Untitled. The cluster of people in front of it disperses, as if sensing her need to be alone with it. She stares at it again, in almost unbearable agitation. She’d been trapped inside the painting like a genie in a bottle. The unseen voyeur – the omnipotent demon – has lost his power too. He’s just a besotted man with paintbrushes and a hard on. Was that really her? Matt had looked but not seen, and that was painful. She remembers how he always avoided her eyes, could never look into her face; the only exception that day of her interview when he’d caught his own mother’s face in hers. Just a glance, but that would have been enough. He’d seen her then, like a photographer who knows exactly when to look and press the shutter – like Jerome. The painting becomes strangely serene, the little cat picking its way around her feet is stilled, the blue of the sky ossified, the yellow curtain no longer looking as it if could be drawn, revealing her to the crowds. In showing its truth, and like a bee with just one sting Untitled gives up its power.
Untitled: A Novella is being serialised each week on International Times