Art is an illusion of the senses, but one does not merely see the lifelike qualities of the painting or statue, nor do musical pieces please the ear alone. Words put together connotatively are not merely descriptive. In truth, the illusions of art lie not in the deception of the senses, for the senses are fooled easily enough, as any parlor magician can demonstrate. It is the deception of those deeper receptive agents within the intellect and emotions that is more difficult to accomplish, whether the art work is naturalistic or not. Were this not the truth, all art that is not literal would be impossible as well as inexplicable.
But after all, we have the Surrealists, the Cubists, and the Abstract Expressionists, and the rise of these schools of art indicates that humans often have needs and goals that go beyond fundamental devotion to observable nature. We encounter particular emotional and intellectual responses to the stimulation of a given art work, whether the painting is photo-realistic or fields of color, the music is a romantic interlude or atonal jazz, or the literature consists of expository writing or stream of consciousness. The sensations, ideas, and feelings engendered by a piece of art can be agreeable or not, but for a piece to be valid as art, they simply must relate significantly in all three spheres. This is the essence of art, not faithful reproduction. Faithful reproduction is just a style; the real question is how does the artist accomplish intellectual and emotional deception? I have an incident to relate that will perhaps suggest an answer.
It concerns Edward Rimbeau, the recently deceased artist, and took place twenty years ago. Since the subject concerns the nudes he became so famous for, you might say that the story does not apply to art that is not naturalistic, but I believe it can and does apply to all art. No doubt, Miro’s blocks of color meant no less to Miro than Rimbeau’s nudes did to Rimbeau, though I’m sure in a different way.
Rimbeau had always been highly praised as a realist of the first order. His works brought not only a high price but critical acclaim. Then the women appeared, and afterward he painted nothing else. At any showing of Rimbeau’s works, guests politely made the rounds of the landscapes, the seascapes, the cityscapes, and the other past escapes of Rimbeau’s psyche, and everyone remarked how well Rimbeau painted, how lifelike, as if what you saw was not a plane of canvas but a window into the world. What everyone was really remarking, the men with lust and the women with envy, was just how well Rimbeau painted women, and each visitor managed to return to the women a second, a third, or even a fourth time to stare or gawk up at them. And why not? Women seem to bring out Rimbeau’s genius more than landscapes or what have you. Rimbeau is not Gainsborough or Constable. Rimbeau paints women, so look, revel, enjoy his excellence!
I admit I’d done my own share of staring. I considered Rimbeau’s women to be creatures of perfection, more real, passionate, and beautiful than any women I had ever seen. Life-sized and more true than the woman standing next to you, they seemed to stare out of the canvases, to look right into your eyes, to infuse your desires with some spark of their passions. There was nothing lewd or obscene about the women, nothing to jolt the sensibilities or tease desire. Rather, there existed about them an aura of life and glorification of the body so subtle yet so strong that you forgot the people around you, forgot that the women were on canvas, in fact, nearly forgot that you were not and never could be as perfect or flourishing as they.
Rimbeau was forty years old at the time of this particular show. He was of ordinary stature, and his features were a trifle sharp though in a rather pleasant and sensitive way. He was balding above the forehead, a fact that a rival painter joked was the result of long hours of hair-tearing over incomplete canvases. Rimbeau countered that, in reality, he had plucked the hair from his head during late nights so he wouldn’t have to wait until morning to obtain new brushes. Such a reply was typical of Rimbeau, who was neither the most brilliant nor the dullest of wits. Only his eyes were remarkable. They were a sort of blue-black, as if the pupils had enlarged and swallowed the irises, as if they were optical singularities somehow devouring the visual world.
Soon after I arrived at the gallery, I saw Rimbeau standing between a portrait of a city and a seascape’s crashing wave. For some reason I had never fathomed, he did not like to be near his women during a show. He would supervise their hanging and then not see them until he came to take them down. It was almost as if he was embarrassed in their presence. They also had, I knew, the power to embarrass him out of their presence. Now, as I approached him, I could see they were about to do so again.
A young woman I recognized as being from an affluent family stepped up to him just as I arrived. She was very good looking, and I could guess what was going to happen. With small talk I did my best to help Rimbeau out of his predicament, and he tried very hard to skirt the subject of the women, but the young lady was persistent and finally had her way.
“You paint women beautifully, Mr. Rimbeau. So real and true to nature.”
Rimbeau nodded his thanks, and the young lady went on.
“I wonder, could you use a model? I have some experience at sitting. I sat for Gregory Williams, you know. Maybe you’ve seen the picture? It’s hanging in the Bellefontaine Collection.”
“I’ve seen it,” Rimbeau replied, and as he did, I remembered the painting. It was an excellent piece of craftsmanship, with the right amount of subtlety to raise it from being merely a well-executed picture of a pretty girl to an enchanting and provocative visual delight. It was not a Rimbeau, of course, but it was very nice.
“It is a wonderful painting,” Rimbeau continued. “And you are very lovely, but I’m afraid I haven’t a need for models right now.”
“Yes, very lovely,” the girl said wistfully. “But I’m not like your women, am I, Mr. Rimbeau?” She smiled at him. “I’m not...beautiful like they are.”
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Rimbeau quoted, fixing his gaze on the girl’s face. “And, I think, it requires a certain maturity. In ten years, if you treat yourself the right way, you will have the beauty of the women I paint.”
The girl blushed and stared down then back up at Rimbeau’s face.
“Where do they come from? I mean, where do you find your models?” she asked.
“My friend here,” Rimbeau put his hand on my arm, “has been, until this moment, the only person with whom I have shared this secret. Now I will share it with you, but you must promise never to tell anyone.” What followed was the truth, and as far as I knew, I was the only person who knew it.
The girl nodded, so Rimbeau went on.
“There are no models. All my paintings come from my mind alone.”
“But they’re so lifelike. You must go by something....”
“Yes, but it is the convolutions of my psyche, not the contours of real flesh that guide me. The only reality my women have is as you see them. They are born on my palette, and they mature on the canvas. I watch them grow, and I give them life. Then I give them to the world.”
“So beautiful, so perfect....”
“If they are, it is because they are my children, and I love them and want them to be beautiful and perfect. The only difference between you and them is that you are born real, with all the flaws and frailties of real flesh. My women are born an image, an ideal in my mind, and so are perfect before they become real.”
Rimbeau stopped and turned his dark eyes to stare vacantly in the direction of his women. Then he faced the girl again.
“It may well be,” he said, “that, in truth, you are the more perfect, for your perfection came after the idea of you. Your perfection is the labor of love; that of my women is simply the love of labor.”
The girl averted her eyes for a moment before she said, “Perhaps I could watch you paint sometime.”
A shadow of pain crossed his strange eyes. I don’t think the girl saw it, but I did, then and once before when I had of him the same request. I anticipated his reply and the girl’s sadness, and his reply when it came returned the sadness to me from where I had hidden it so long before. Who would not be saddened to be denied by a god the privilege of watching him create?
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but it is too personal a matter.”
“Yes...I....” She blushed, then, as she saw the pain, and she turned and gracefully fled.
Rimbeau faced me, and I looked into his strange eyes and could see in their darkness all of my own sorrow mirrored, magnified. I wished the subject had not risen again to plague me. I had believed all that hunger shelved far back in my mind.
“We are old friends,” he implored me. “You would not hold this one thing against me?”
I wouldn’t, I knew, but I felt that if I stayed right now, I might starve in the black holes of his eyes.
“No, but I, too, must go.”
“Please try to understand...,” he called softly after me as I fled from him, from the gallery; fled to some gaily lit and tinseled section of town. On this Saturday night, I hoped the sight of boisterous men and women might dispel all thought of Rimbeau’s women. But the truth cannot be denied—what I desired of all things in the world, or above or below, was to touch one of Rimbeau’s women. I want to take one of them—any one, which did not matter—into my arms, caress her, give her my love.
It did not matter that Rimbeau had said to me any number of times that he used no models or that I once had him watched to ascertain the truth of this statement. Not once during the course of several weeks did he take a woman to his rooms, nor did he see any, yet during that time, out of those same rooms came three of his women. I am not sure what I believed. Perhaps I thought he kept a woman in his apartment, though I’d been there often enough to know this was not the case. Yet I also knew that such reality, such life, could not come from nothing. I was convinced that he had to base his pictorial visions on something more than fantasy.
What I can see now but could not then was my own fantasy. I hoped that some of the power of Rimbeau’s expression would be invested not only in the painting, but in the model herself. If I could possess, at least for a short time, one of his models, perhaps I could also possess, vicariously, Rimbeau’s power. I was, however, blind to myself—or blinded under the spell of all the women Rimbeau had produced. He had created, amazingly, one of his life-sized women a week for the last three years. It was a phenomenal pace, but one he had, it seemed, worked into a fine science. He kept a strict schedule, beginning a canvas on Monday and finishing it on Saturday. On Sunday he relaxed and showed me his latest creation. I was always the first to see a finished work, but now, as I sat at a bar, surrounded by shallow and tawdry shadows of Rimbeau’s women, I resolved that, this time, I would see who he painted from.
I paid for my fifth drink, left the bar, and made my way to Rimbeau’s address. I saw by my watch that I had more than an hour before the showing was over—an hour in which to explore for myself, at last, the truth of Rimbeau’s assertion that he had no models. I ascended the stairs to his apartment, found the key I knew he kept hidden, and let myself in.
The lights in the apartment were on, and I thought, ah! the model is here! But she was not in any of the rooms. Finally, I came to the studio, my heart pounding, knowing she was in there, waiting for Rimbeau, thinking me Rimbeau come, waiting.... But the only item of significance in the studio was the easel, lightly draped with cloth. My chagrin at not finding Rimbeau’s model vanished before the anticipation of seeing his next painting. I gently lifted the cloth covering.
I don’t believe I have ever been so disappointed in my life as I was at the sight of that canvas. It was a lovely painting of a lovely, and yes, beautiful woman, executed in masterful strokes, with a tonal quality and texture that could only belong to smooth, soft skin covering real, firm flesh. It was as perfectly poised a painting as that which Williams had painted of the girl who approached Rimbeau earlier in the evening. It was definitely by Rimbeau—all the marks were there, as plain to the eye as the luster of her dark hair—but it wasn’t really a Rimbeau. That special quality of truth, reality—call it what you will—just wasn’t there, though the painting was photographically perfect.
Well, almost photographically perfect. Small sections here and there were not quite completed, including a portion of her foot and areas of her lustrous hair as well as the space where he signed his paintings. Could these small bits of imperfection explain the lack of life? No, I knew the explanation could not be contained in so simple a solution.
Rimbeau had lost his touch.
The moment the thought entered my mind, I tried to batter it down, tried to push from me the reality of that sudden, terrible conviction. I believe now my violent reaction was born out of the sense of loss I could not help but feel, for never again, I realized, would I ever see a Rimbeau woman in quite the same way. Never again could I even touch one with my eyes. Oh, there were all the ones he’d painted already, just as desirable and beautiful as always, but somehow their magic was dulled. It was as if Rimbeau himself were dead, and with his passing, all the true beauty of his paintings had passed also.
But that raised a sticky possibility. Could it be that art was art only because in it was invested some element of the artist’s own vitality, something that went deeper than pictorial perfection or intellectual and emotional expression? Was there a sort of psychic bond between the artist and his work? But if that were the case, wouldn’t the truth of any piece of art die with the artist? And I knew that wasn’t so. Great works live on long after the artist’s demise because of their intrinsic worth. No, that wasn’t right, either. If it were, then the masterworks of the past would have as much meaning for a modern viewer as for a contemporary of the artist, and I knew that was not necessarily the case. My first thought must be correct: Art is invested with the artist’s vitality, and if the work lived beyond the artist’s lifetime, then it was due to the intensity of that vitality somehow preserved within the artwork. No, no, that was crazy, too, else the scrawlings of a madman would be as valid as sketches by Rembrandt.
I was confused. It was as if Rimbeau’s loss of ability was my own loss of comprehension. One can define motifs, devices, cultural significance, or any number of terms to explain the impact of a work of art on an individual, but in the end, the impact itself cannot be defined. Then, as I was trying to define the impact that Rimbeau’s lost touch had on me, the street door opened, and I heard Rimbeau’s step on the stairs.
I must have been drunker than I thought for the time to have passed so quickly, but I was not too drunk to realize he must not find me here. He who had never let another look upon his work before it was complete must not suffer the anguish of being found lacking by some artistic voyeur. I re-covered the painting and hid in the studio closet, thinking to sneak out as soon as he went to bed. Also, I’m sure, the desire to watch him work a little, even if he had lost his touch, was strong in me. Or, uglier, perhaps it was jealousy of something he once had but I would never have that made me stay to view in secret triumph his loss of that quality. So I hid in the closet, leaving the door open the slightest amount and positioning myself so I could comfortably see the easel.
His familiar figure entered the room and went straight to the easel and lifted the cloth. There he stood for several minutes, staring at the woman before him. I could not see his full face from where I was and so could not read his expression. Evidently his will had not abandoned him as had his touch, for, picking up a brush, he began painting.
He worked tinily, deftly, and with a great intensity, his hand jumping from palette to canvas, from one incomplete area of the painting to another and back to the palette. Now and then, he would pause and step back or squint sideways at the canvas, and each time, his return was more vigorous and, somehow, more aberrant, for the delicacy of his strokes belied the dynamic vigor with which his body moved. He seemed literally to dance in a sort of hypnotic rhythm before the easel. His exertions caused him to break into a sweat, and the moisture highlighted his cheekbones and glistened along his brow. Presently, he put his brush down and removed his shirt. As he did, I was startled by three things.
The first was the amount Rimbeau was sweating. I, in my closet, must have been much hotter than he, but where I was merely damp, Rimbeau’s torso was drenched with a thick swelter. The second was the incredible change that the past hour had wrought on the canvas. I had been a fool to think Rimbeau had lost his touch. What I had seen before was merely the sketch, the foundation, the embryo from which life emerged. He had told the girl that his women matured on the canvas, and I had become witness to the truth of his statement. The canvas was now at least half as alive as any of the finished works I had seen. She seemed to poise there in front of Rimbeau as if she wanted to climb down off the easel. Third, I realized that Rimbeau must be mad; that I, in hiding and watching him work, had witnessed the insanity he had managed to conceal from the world, even from me.
As he turned and threw his shirt from him, I caught a glimpse of his full face, his eyes, and I was sure of my diagnosis. His features looked oddly discolored, at once flush and pale, and his eyes, those dark pools, were now glowing dimly, as if all the light they had devoured was luminating forth. I’d heard that the bodies of maniacs were capable of superhuman feats, and I shuddered least he discover me watching him. But I made no noise, and he turned back to his easel.
The ugly sweat now poured off him, and life streamed from his brush as he attacked the canvas in a near fury of devotion and concentration. Soon, he was radiating so much heat that I, in my closet, began to sweat heavily, too, and it stung my eyes and blurred my sight, but I was afraid to move, afraid to wipe it away, terrified of being discovered.
I blinked, and from his brush the strokes brought life, amazingly. The sweat was running from my hair and into my eyes now, and through the salty haze, I thought I saw his sweat mingle with the pigment, the pigment with his sweat, until he seemed to be painting with himself. He paused, plucked a single hair from his head, and, with his brush, stroked it into her tresses. Then he arched upward, kissed the beautiful lips, returned to his brush, and was it the light or the sweat of the heat and energy, or...her lips were so real! And as he delicately finished a toenail, caressing her arm all the while, why did the hair on my arm prickle? Where did his canvas end? When did I sleep and the illusion of thick, glossy hair cascading over Rimbeau’s shoulder occur? Did he and she seem to fall together because it was I who fell?
Rimbeau’s apartment was silent when I stumbled from the closet the next morning. He had gone to meet me for our accustomed Sunday morning breakfast. But the apartment was not empty. I could feel the presence of the painting, and I tried to look at it, but a sense of guilt and grief permitted me only an ashamed glance. That one brief look showed me the same yet now awful beauty that I had always seen but never understood, but it now divulged a terrible truth. With that realization came the certainty of my own contrite departure from the world where Rimbeau’s women reign supreme.
I did not meet Rimbeau for breakfast. In fact, I never saw him again, though he tried often enough to get in touch with me during the years until his premature death. Nor have I again seen one of his women. I am certain the intensity with which I felt that final painting was not due to that particular painting but was simply invested in them all, where a discerning eye could easily see. Rimbeau’s women, it is true, are visions of loveliness, but I think of Rimbeau’s words to the pretty young girl, and I wonder if the rewards were worth their price.
Excerpted from The Werewolf and Tide and Other Compulsions, by Christopher Dow
This story originally appeared in Phosphene magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Phosphene.