The tutor’s story: When I was a child my father worked for the great composer and violinist Antonio Vivaldi in Venice. It was his job to copy out manuscripts and prepare them for the engravers. He was an adequate violinist, and sometimes he had the pleasure of performing in Vivaldi’s works if one of the regular musicians was absent.
In Venice at that time there was an institution called the Conservatorio dell’Ospedale della Pieta. It was an orphanage, but unlike its usual counterparts for the destitute, it was opulent and extravagant. It was an orphanage for the female offspring of the aristocracy.
Who the parents of these girls were was not known; they were delivered to the institution in secret, in the dead of night. In a darkened street, in a wall there was an opening large enough for an infant, the child was placed in the niche, the door was closed, and a turntable rotated bringing the child inside.
Even though the parents of these children never saw or acknowledged them, they nevertheless provided than with an institution suitable to their origin. But it was an orphanage run by nuns and priests and their manner when it comes to the bringing up of children was repressive to say the least.
Vivaldi was priest, but a priest of a very unusual sort. In Venice at that time there were ambitious artists, composers and musicians who knew that their only possible patron was the Roman Catholic Church, so they took their vows and became priests in clothing and name only. These priests often became wealthy and successful, lived like lords and enjoyed the best food and wine. When it came to the fair sex they indulged themselves to the full. One such priest was Antonio Vivaldi.
Since he was an employee of the church he was given the assignment of composing music for a girls choir, a choir consisting of the occupants of the Conservatorio dell’Ospedale della Pieta orphanage. If you listen to the compositions Vivaldi wrote for this girl’s choir you realized that he must have composed them with a feeling of frustration because he was already a famous composer.
But here he was, since he was also a priest, condemned to compose simple scale and arpeggio exercises for young girls, music of no consequence to anyone. Added to that, since they were all young girls, and Vivaldi was very similar to myself, (here the music tutor tapped himself on the chest), those girls started to torment Antonio in that special way music teachers are always tormented.
“They put oil into his flute, they put lard on the pegs of his violin, they touched the strings of the harpsichord when he tried to tune it, in short they did all the things you girls have been doing to me all these weeks.” Now the music tutor stopped speaking and gave his students a look. It was certainly a shock and a surprise to discover he knew all along what they had been doing, but then he continued.
The reason I know all the things you have been doing to me is because they are the exact same things I did to my music teacher when I was young, and the same as my father did to his teacher. You girls think you have made all of this naughty behavior up yourselves, but the truth is all of these things have been going on for years and years. And if you have the misfortune to have to teach music when you are older it will happen to you also.
The persecution of the music teacher is a grand tradition that goes back thousands of years, and you may wonder why it is that the bad children engaged in these pranks are not caught and punished. The answer is very simple. The music teacher looks on with a blind eye because he is kind, because an unkind person can not master the discipline of music, and secondly, because when one sees children playing the same pranks we played as children it gives one great pleasure.
But now back to my story of Vivaldi. Since it was a choir he had to compose and conduct for, it was when the girls were singing that they gave him the most trouble. I say, ‘singing’, but the word really should be mumbling. No matter how he encouraged the girls, they were too shy and awkward to try to really sing.
If Vivaldi resorted to having them sing the common tunes of the street, which they were familiar with he, had better luck, and those tunes, since the girls sang in unison, went very well. But as soon as he tried to get them to sing more complicated works, works involving part-singing, they resorted to near silence. Just like myself, he resorted to threats and reproaches and it sometimes happened that all the girls would manage to sing some work of his with adequate feeling.
But then fate took an hand in the affairs of Vivaldi. As I said before, the orphan girls were all the offspring of aristocratic parents, and so it often happened that expensive gifts were received anonymously at the orphanage, one of those gifts included tickets to the opera for all of the girls.
The girls went to the opera, and they were not impressed. The opera that night was not good, and the singing was not up to par, but what impressed the girls the most was the forced ridiculousness of the entire production. The garish badly painted sets, the dramatic gestures, the overuse of stage make-up all combined to create a comic impression, and when everyone died at the end do to innumerable stabbings it was all they could do to keep from dying of laughter.
In the days that followed two of the orphanage girls began to entertain the other girls with mock presentations of the opera they had seen. These two girls, named Netochka and Simmona procured the music for the opera from the music library, memorized several of the duets, and then, late at night preformed these works for the other girls in their dormitory. The purpose of these performances was to reduce all the other girls to hysterical fits of laughter.
But Netochka and Simona were playing with fire. The better they got at doing mock presentations of the opera they gradually began to develop real singing voices. All of the girls were affected, and little by little this prank evolved into complete childish productions of operas, with costumes contrived from bed sheets, carried out in the middle of the night.
Meanwhile, back in the music classroom with Vivaldi, none of this was in evidence. All the girls would do was look down at the floor, mumble instead of sing, and watch out for opportunities to irritate their teacher.
Netochka said to Simona, “Since he is always complaining that we won’t sing at all, lets shock him tomorrow and sing the stonmitz out of whatever he gives us to sing. Apparently Netochka was from Austria originally, hence the use of the word ‘stonmitz’.
The music Vivaldi picked out for the days lesson was one of his own works, it began with a solo by one of the girls, and was followed by a chorus in unison. About half way through the chorus Netochka and Simona began to sing with more intensity, and toward the end of the piece the girls were singing with as much passion as they could muster.
The effect of the girls singing like that was contagious and all the other girls joined in. The music room echoed with the intensity of their singing, Vivaldi thought they were going to blow his powered wig from his head.
When the lesson was over Vivaldi asked the two girls who had started the commotion to remain after class. Since what they had done was intended as a prank, and to them amounted to ridicule of Vivaldi’s music and of opera in general, what they were expecting was some sort of punishment. Vivaldi was not one to inflict punishment but they expected to be reported to the head mistress, who would then confine them to their dorm room for a week or two.
The girls stood at his desk, he looked at them with his baton in his hand, “Thank you girls, thank you for this glorious day, do the same tomorrow, and the day after”, he said to them. The girls left the music room, suffering from a confusion of mixed emotions.
Vivaldi went immediately to the music library to find a piece of music that now stirred in his head, something he had heard years ago, a work by Monteverdi with a title like “Agamemnon”. He was all day in the music library but he could find no trace of it. He remembered a solo by Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, in which she pleads for her life, and begs not to be sacrificed. This solo was followed by a chorus of young girls of the town reproaching the king for his plan to sacrifice his daughter to the gods.
After the chorus of young girls reproaching Agamemnon, Agamemnon’s wife in a solo, calls all the women of Argos to witness the crime Agamemnon is about to commit with the words, “We mothers of Argos, we recoil in horror, your plan we abhor, your war should not destroy the child we adore.”
But search as he might, he could find not a single page of this piece by Monteverdi, and even today Music scholars only know of it because it was mentioned in a letter that Pope Clement XI sent to Cardinal Riveria in Spain asking about a certain sort of grapes.
Vivaldi gave up the search but he did not give up on the idea of a work for young girls in which they plead for the life of one of their own. For some reason he felt that such a subject would appeal emotionally to them. What he hoped to do was to mine their deep feeling of resentment since they were orphans, added to the fact they were all aware of the social standing of their unknown parents.
Vivaldi was a very prolific composer, and after many hours in the music library trying to find the composition by Monteverdi, it struck him that he could compose a work himself on the same theme, and it would take him less time than his search for the manuscript had taken.
Vivaldi composed an oratorio rather than on opera. An oratorio was more appropriate to his resources. It was a short work consisting of a solo by Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter in which she pleads for her life. The solo was followed by a chorus of the girls of the town singing in unison. After that came a quartet of mothers, reproaching Agamemnon for his plan to sacrifice his daughter in order to make possible his war on Troy.
Antonio had to restrict himself to simple passages, and he had to stay within the narrow vocal range of the girls. The work he produced is in many ways very similar to that prelude Marie Antoinette was trying to learn by Bach in that even though it was basically simple, it was relentless in its pathos. It was, as you know, baroque music, and so its pathos was logical, it was the logical pathos of the baroque period.
My father told me that he copied this work out in parts for the girls but Vivaldi said it would not be necessary to prepare it for the engravers. He did not consider it a thing of any importance. For this reason no copy of the work exists, and if my father had not told me about what happened concerning this work, this entire episode in Vivaldi’s life would be unknown. Vivaldi presented the work for the first time to his girl students and they sang it in their usual way, with no interest or emotion, mumbling the words, looking at the floor, fidgeting, anxious for the lesson to end so they could leave to do something else. It was a typical choir lesson.
The ideas in Vivaldi’s oratorio acted on the girls in the choir exactly the same way as yeast in bread dough, but it was an unconscious sort of fermentation, they were not really aware of it. In their usual way, late at night they preformed parts of the work again for each other. Since they were alone they sang with gusto, subjecting the various lines to their usual ridicule.
The ideas Vivaldi implanted in their heads took root, bore fruit, and they sang the piece with interest. He asked them to go through it again and they sang it with passion, then a third time in anger and desperation. Vivaldi was able to stop conducting, the work took over, and the girls sang it on their own way. In the performance there was not a hint of mockery. When they were done in some girl’s eyes tears glistened, but in others he saw that angry proud look of injured innocence.
Vivaldi realized he had stumbled on to a masterpiece; it was a combination of perfect material, circumstance, and ability. He was so impressed with what he heard that he thought he should give a presentation of the work to a larger audience. It was not his habit to involve his work at the orphanage in his larger work in his professional career, but this was an exception. But before he could proceed he needed to get permission of the Father Superior and the elders of the orphanage.
But the girls, and especially Netochka and Simmona did not realize how important the performance was to Vivaldi. They continued to make fun of him and the oratorio, even though at the same time, they were moved by the work when they were singing it. There is only one word to describe the feelings of the girls in the choir, and that word was ambivalent.
Simmona now came up with another trick to further torment Vivaldi and they tried it out in their evening mock performances and it worked perfectly. Meanwhile Vivaldi arranged for the orphanage elders to be present at his next rehearsal. He wanted to surprise them. He was sure they would be as impressed as he was. He did not want to inhibit the girls or make them nervous so he had his audience file into the choir room at the back entrance, and take seats where the girls would not see them.
The first two movements went off without any difficulty, but in the third section, the section involving the quartet of the mothers, Simona and Netochka began to sing slightly out of tune. Simmona sang slightly sharp, and Netochka sang a little flat. They did this very skilfully so that at first it seemed accidental, but in the slower sections it became more pronounced.
It is easy to describe what Simmona and Netochka sounded like in the quartet. Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night by cats confronting each other and preparing for a fight? If you have heard that sound then you know exactly what the girls sounded like, and just like with cats out in the yard at night, it would not stop, but went on an on getting louder and louder.
Poor Vivaldi. He knew he was being made a fool of by the girls, but what could he do? He was used to sitting back and letting the girls direct themselves because they had been doing the piece with such inspiration, so when the caterwauling began he was not even paying attention to what was going on.
But things were even worse that that. The orphanage fathers believed that it was intentional, and that what they had heard is what Vivaldi had intended for them to hear, and so they were livid. Poor Vivaldi, if the orphanage fathers had not been in the choir room he would have found the caterwauling of the girls just as funny as the girls did even if he would have pretended to be angry, but under the circumstances he had to demand their punishment.
As usually happens in these situations it was decided to punish the ‘ringleaders’, that is Netochka, and Simmona. Even though all the girls had joined in, it was those two who were singled out for punishment. The girls were beaten with a leather strap, a punishment administered by a nun, and witnessed by a committee of six elders. I know you are expecting to hear details of a severe punishment but that was not the case. The fact was, many of the nuns of the orphanage had been inmates of the same institution when they were young. The old leather strap about to be used on Netochka and Simmona was the same strap that had been used on them as children.
Over the years an elaborate scheme had been worked out between the elder nuns and the young girls about how to deal with these punishments. The girls to be punished first had to be locked up in a small room where they were to pray for forgiveness for a full hour on their knees.
In the room the girls found several pairs of cotton tights, as well as gauze pads to be placed in vulnerable places. Once the layers of stockings and padding were in place the girls were taken one at a time to be whipped. They felt nothing but knew they were supposed to scream bloody murder. The leather strap was wielded with terrible cruelty, but did no harm. Everyone was happy with the outcome except for Vivaldi, who, completely taken in by the charade, suffered pangs of guilt.
Some months went by before the girls were allowed returned to choir practice again. When they returned they seemed to Vivaldi to have completely grown up, and their voices had matured, especially Netochka, and Vivaldi was able to give her difficult solo parts that she executed with confidence.
During this time Vivaldi had also changed. He no longer felt that the teaching of the orphan girls was a pointless chore. The memory of their rendering of his little oratorio about Agamemnon remained in his mind, and he began to compose vocal works, especially for the girl’s choir.
He was especially motivated to create works featuring Netochka. What was Netochka’s voice like? Sometimes one hears a huge choir singing in some concert hall and among those voices in the crowd of singers one detects one individual voice that has a strangeness about it, perhaps it is a reedy quality, or an inexplicable darkness.
One’s eye searches the faces to combine the sound with the features amidst the crowd. Finally the eye and the ear make the connection, and the face somehow explains everything. After the music is over many people will search out that singer and ask for an autograph, but they really just want a closer look, because they are recognizing some future Prima Donna.
Such was Netochka’s voice, and she did go on to become a Prima Donna. When she was older her performances were in demand all over Europe, and even after she married and raised five children, still she continued her successful singing career.
The nuns of the orphanage were not surprised about Netochka’s success and they suspected it would happen. It was not just all the attention Vivaldi lavished on the girl; it was something else. It was her flaming red hair and her freckles, which were exactly like Vivaldi’s. They were quite certain that Netochka was Vivaldi’s daughter.
The music tutor did not know how Marie Antoinette and Gloria would react to his little story about Vivaldi, but their reaction took him completely by surprise. What interested them the most was the business of Vivaldi’s composing a piece of music especially for the orphan girls. “Please compose an opera for us dear music tutor”, pleaded the girls, “please oh please”
“I am just a simple teacher of music, and my father was only a viola player and transcriber of manuscripts. I have never composed any music, and as for opera, why I would not have any idea where to begin,” said the tutor.
But the girls were not to be dissuaded, if the tutor was not going to write an opera for them, they would write an opera themselves, and he would just have to help them do it. He would be the transcriber and the copyist, and they would do all the composing.
“But girls,”, said the tutor, “You can’t even start on an opera unless you have some idea to plan the entire thing around. What would your opera be about, who would be its heroes, who the villains, where would it take place? And even more than that, what would be the purpose of the opera, what would be its message?” With such questions he sought to discourage the girls from such a difficult project.
Marie Antoinette was ready for the question and said, “The opera will take place in the royal kitchens, and a feast will be the setting. The royals will eat a huge meal in the dining room and retire to the ballroom; poor people who will eat up the leftovers will invade the dining room. The poor people will become drunk and shout insults at the king and the queen. Then the cooks and servants will return to clean up the dining room, and drive the poor out of the dining room and into the night.
Camus Crosses The Street
When the Duck finished narrating his story, Buboni made some interesting observations. “Duck”, he said, “I suppose the real point of the story about Vivaldi and the choir of orphans is this interesting fact that Vivaldi turns out to be Netochka’s father. We may have suspected this conclusion to the story if we were paying attention at the beginning when you said that Vivaldi was a priest in name only who enjoyed the fair sex.”
But I for one did not see the conclusion coming, and I have to commend you on your storytelling skills in that you suspended the most important point until the last word, since the last word of your story is indeed ‘daughter’. And not only that but you didn’t bother to foreshadow the conclusion like so many storytellers would do.
We did not know how that story would end till the last word, and it is interesting to compare the Vivaldi story with the earlier one about Marie Antoinette. In the story of Marie Antoinette the Duck gives us all sorts of details about when she is just ten years old, but we know already how the story of Marie Antoinette is going to end, when she is 37 years old and a young mother she will have her head chopped off.
Does the knowledge of the conclusion of Marie Antoinette’s story affect our reaction? Does the thought run through your mind, ‘what difference does it make if Marie learns a piece of music in time for Mozart’s visit since no matter what she does she is doomed to tragedy in the end. Do the hanging storm clouds which will bring inevitable tragedy render all the little tender details of her young life superfluous. To the scaffold, let’s be done with it, who cares about her childish pranks.
“For shame Buboni,” said the Duck. “Do you mean to tell me that you think that just because Marie Antoinette dies on the guillotine this means that her life was pointless? That would be the attitude of a self-centered person who thinks that other lives are just a story with a plot, and if you know the end there is no point to watching the movie.”
“That is not my attitude at all”, said Buboni “I am drawing a distinction between two types of lives. Consider Michelangelo, he worked at his art his entire life, was always successful, beloved by everyone, and in old age died happy with what he had done. But then think of Marie, she wanted to be a great queen of France, beloved by the people, and instead she was hated and killed. So you could say her life was a failure and a waste.”
That reversal of purpose, when your life’s work produces the exact opposite of all that you intended is what inspired the existentialists to write about life as being absurd and pointless.
Buboni could not convince the Duck with his existential argument, his idea that life might be looked at as a long sequence of meaningless events culminating in the crowning indignity of death? The idea was of no use to him, he rejected it utterly.
“You know”, said the Duck to Buboni, “I have read all of those existential writers who try to convince everyone that life has no meaning, their writings are quite elegant, and there arguments very convincing but there is not a one of them who would not look both ways before crossing a busy Paris street, because actually they were phonies.”
Smoking their pipes and drinking fine wine, sitting in their well appointed living rooms with a view of Paris, the Seine and the Pont Neuf, they set down their wine glass, lay aside their pipes and type a few lines about the meaninglessness of existence, and then go out for a few drinks at a cafe with their intellectual friends. And they all agree that the marvelous lives they are leading, are actually without any purpose at all.
Outside around a corner a blind beggar asks for alms. He is old and sick and lately has come to the conclusion that he has not long to live and yet he still asks for a copper from a passing stranger, because he intends to savor the dregs of the wine of his life, even to the last swallow.
Because he knows, as Dostoevsky knew, that life forever poised on a narrow ledge on the edge of a cliff can be enjoyed, and is infinitely superior to eternal nothingness. Here are Fyodor Mikhailovich’s words about it:
Dostoevsky: “Where is it I’ve read that someone condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once! Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!”
And what did Dostoevsky and Marie Antoinette have in common? Everything, everything that mattered. Because both of them were placed in a cart, and driven by others through crowds to their execution. Marie to be executed, and Dostoevsky to be pardoned at the last moment.
“Now Buboni”, concluded the Duck, “are you really going to suggest that those fifteen minutes in the cart had no significance? The simple truth is that every segment of fifteen minutes in a life is either equally significant, or on the other hand equally pointless. Take your choice, and as a Duck I chose the former, and you as a worn out old frustrated professor, will probably chose the latter.”
But what of me, I thought to myself. How many times did I look up at the back wall of the post office and note the time, fifteen minutes more till the morning break, or thirty minutes more till lunch. How many times did I mark on a scrap of paper a line to represent a minute gone by on the way to five o’clock? My life was exactly like that famous poem with the line; “I measure out my life with coffee spoons.”
And in the same way that I marked time each day in intervals of five minutes, so also I marked out the years to pass until my retirement, my retirement when I could turn my attention to all those things that really mattered to me, the only problem being that nothing really mattered to me. It was just wishful thinking. I suppose I felt that once I reached the magic age of 65 some purpose for life would pop up as if out of the ground, and I would turn my attention to it.
So I began to take classes at the museum, that was my new purpose once I retired, but it was always with a nagging feeling that casting things into plaster had to also be entirely pointless, if indeed all the years leading up to the making of those casts was pointless. How many times did I sit back and look at the things I worked on, and in my mind would arise this image of the sun exploding, and a huge wall of flame coming to consume the earth and everything in it.
All my little plaster casts of hands and feet, and the big casts I had made and stored out in the garage where my wife could not see them, burnt to cinders, burnt to less than cinders, burnt to a vapor, along with all the great masterpieces of history, all the special museum collections. Even that old shoebox full of unusual stamps some old man has collected from World War I, at the back of the shelf in a closet where thieves will never find it, burnt to a crisp, destroyed for ever.
Those were the images passing through my mind, images all of which agreed with Buboni and his notion that a life could indeed be one long meaningless decent into nothingness. For him it was really worse than that, in that he had built up a career for himself, only to see it all disappear before his eyes in an instant and be replaced by humiliation.
But the Duck had to be right in the end, because it was an all or nothing equation, either everything matters for all time, or nothing matters, how can it be both and neither. One is faced in the end with a simple fact, some day none of this will exist, and so everything matters, or nothing matters, since that is so, the Duck thinks that an ant crawling across the edge of a table is just as important as Einstein’s theories.
Frost on a winter window matters just as much as all the works of Shakespeare, and a shoe by the side of the road, driven over and crushed by traffic and soaked with rain water is just as worthy to be in a glass vitrine in the Louvre as the paintings of either Da Vinci or Van Gogh.
I suppose the Duck would say: Let us stop Marie Antoinette’s cart in which she is being taken to the guillotine, have her step down and you, whomever you may be, shall get in her place. Now it is you that is on the way to your death, which will occur in fifteen minutes depending on the traffic.
Wouldn’t you want that tumbrel to go slowly, or perhaps stop all together for as long as possible, and can’t you see that a bee buzzing around near your ear is just as interesting as anything you have ever heard. In this situation it is obvious that the old wet shoe in the road is as interesting as any object in a museum you have paid money to stand in front of.
You may get down from Marie’s cart now, and she will get back in, and with a sigh of relief go back to thinking that some sights and some sounds are more worthy of your attention than others. But you will be deceiving yourself, because the fact is, you are in that cart, and you will never get out of it, so you must accept it.
When is a gum wrapper sticking momentarily to a lamppost the most interesting thing you ever saw, something you promise yourself you will remember till your dying day? It is that time you walked across a parking lot just after some doctor in a lab coat told you are not going to die after all. “No” the doctor said, “you are going to live, going to live for ever.”
To say that ones life had no meaning, and was a waste of time is treason against the self. One has to rise up against a thought like that and…, Just then, Aunt J noticed me and said, “Richard what is going on in that head of yours, you look like you are going to blow a fuse, are you all right.” Apparently she could see painted on my face all the disturbed things that were going on in my head.
Her question made me feel self conscious and I could not start talking about what was on my mind at that moment so to change the subject I asked Aunt J what she thought of the Duck’s stories about Marie Antoinette, and the tutor’s story about Vivaldi.
“I have no idea where this Duck gets his information”, she said,” I don’t doubt that he knows what he is talking about. One thing stands out for me however, and it is the detail about Netochka becoming an opera singer by accident. When Netochka first starts to sing with passion and conviction it is just to entertain her friends, and not because she is interested in the music she is singing.”
Do you notice the similarity of Coromo beginning to paint and Netochka beginning to sing. Coromo was not interested in painting pictures at first, he came about it by accident because he was trying to emulate children’s pictures to entertain his woman friends. So in both cases you see, people became involved in their art completely by accident.
The similarity in those stories makes me suspect that the Duck has invented the story of Netochka. He is transforming the details in my story about Coromo, changed it to fit a different circumstance, and trotted it out as some piece of discovered history only he can have knowledge of because of some Duck hocus pocus. But I have always thought it is very important to make a distinction between historical truth, and fiction made up by Ducks carried away by their own eloquence.
“Duck hocus pocus?” quacked the duck. “What are you talking about?” “I did not make up any story about Netochka, the story I told you was directly from the music tutor who heard it from his father the viola player and transcriber of Vivaldi’s manuscripts. I told you what I heard, I never make anything up, and as far as Netochka being similar to Coromo, it is an interesting observation, but it is only a coincidence.
As a matter of fact although I have a wonderful memory and the ability to weave those memories into stories intended to explain certain ideas, I have no ability to invent anything because I have no imagination. My head is so full of the images of all the things I know actually happened there is no room for fairy tales and fiction, I have no use for fiction anyway.
“But”, the Duck continued, “I think it is you Aunt J, that is embroidering your stories with pieces of fiction you have read in order to make the narration more interesting for your listeners. Perhaps long ago you happened to read Boccaccio’s Decameron and so you added to your story of Coromo and the youngest sister the detail of his being very religious, in order to drag out that time in the woods when he was so full of desire.”
“The difference is Mr. Duck”, said Aunt J, “I know Coromo and so I know he was very religious, but you did not know Marie Antoinette, so there. Coromo’s religious convictions had an interesting effect on his development as an artist as a matter of fact.” “How so?” asked Buboni, always one to want to hear the details of some artists career.
“Coromo had the idea to do paintings in his spare time and then try to find a way to have them get seen at the resort where he worked,” she said. “His biggest problem was always what to use for subject matter. He knew he wanted to paint pictures, he just did not know what those pictures should be about.
He finished six pictures, all of which were attempts to imitate children’s pictures, as you know, but after he sold those paintings to Tallulah he had no reason to imitate children’s pictures anymore. But if he was going to paint pictures, what sort of pictures should he paint, he wondered.”
Buboni listened to her with great interest and with each word began to squirm and twitch with all the thoughts swimming in his mind. Twice as she spoke he started to interrupt her, but held back trying to force himself for once to be polite, but when she finished a sentence he jumped in excitedly.
“This this…, is just exactly the crux of the problem of the modern artist,” he said. “Don’t you see, nobody is asking Coromo to paint pictures and nobody cares what he paints. He has to come up with the ideas all by himself, and on top of that, he has to provide the motivation.” Here Buboni paused, and waited for her to reply.
I want to take just a second and say something about this pause in Buboni’s speech. By now you know what our Buboni is like, he has no respect for any one’s opinions and will only listen to the Duck because the Duck is so intelligent, but here he was showing a subtitle deference to Aunt J, and actually waiting patiently to see what she would have to say in reply.
Yes, it was one of those unmistakable moments when you realize that one person is attracted to another person, and your eye flashes across the space between their eyes in order to ascertain if that attraction is reciprocated. I thought to myself, ‘Buboni likes this woman’, but I couldn’t tell if she liked him, or was oblivious to his behavior.
But I did not find out the answer to that question because the Duck started to talk about the idea Buboni had just brought up. “Buboni says,” he began, “that the artist is free to do what ever he would like to do in this day and age, and he has to bow and scrape to no Pope or Emperor. This is thought of as an advantage.
At this point in art history we often hear things like the artist is ‘unfettered’, he is encouraged to break the bonds of academic thinking and training and to ‘experiment’. But is this really such a wonderful thing.
The truth is that the artist only has such complete freedom, because hardly anyone cares what the artist is doing. The artist’s friends and relations all say wonderful things about everything the artist does, but it is really meaningless perfunctory encouragement out of politeness. The terrible truth is, most people just don’t care what artists are doing.
You may chose to disagree with me, and you may point out that our museums are overflowing now with visitors, and there is more traffic to shows than ever before. But I see it differently. The last time I was in a museum was six months ago, before I became involved with Richard and Buboni.
It was a big retrospective of the works of Cezanne. Cezanne, being one of the foremost pioneers of modern art, I expected big crowds and a long line to get in, but it was the usual thing, fifteen or twenty elderly couples with white hair in each of the rooms of the exhibit.
I went to a baseball game, there were ten thousand people in the stands screaming so loud I had a ringing in my ears for a week, and my poor little Duck body was almost crushed to death in the rush to get into the stadium. People are interested in baseball, and people are interested in cinema. People in general are not interested in art in any way. There behaviors make this abundantly clear. Art exhibits are social affairs where the rich go to visit with each other, they are not about art.
“Social affairs you think, Mr. Duck?”, said Buboni. “Are you saying that all of the billions of dollars that have been spent on new museums for modern art in the world, and all of the trillions of dollars that has been spent by collectors driving up the prices of modern works to unprecedented levels are simply the expression of a social phenomena, to be studied not as a part of art history, but studied as a branch of sociology.
“I am not going to get into that argument with you today said the Duck, and besides I know you have read Veblen’s book ‘The Theory Of The Leisure Class.’ That book was written in 1899 but it is still the best and only explanation for why someone would pay 40 million dollars for an object consisting of a piece of cloth with paint smeared on one side of it, which is all that on oil painting is in actuality.”
Here was this argument again between the Duck and Buboni about aspects of art that I knew nothing about. Was it true that someone had actually paid 40 million dollars for an oil painting once? I hardly believed it but perhaps it was so. And if they had, how could you explain it in a way that an ordinary person like myself could make sense out of it. Ten thousand perhaps but 40 million? I thought it was just an example of Buboni’s exaggerations.
But speaking of Buboni, I continued to wonder if I was correct about his being attracted to the Cleaning Lady and I watched for any indication that would confirm my suspicions.
You will remember all of the things we discovered about him when we looked him up on Google, about his academic history and the denouement of his career. We knew about his childhood and his color acuity and how he ‘by accident’ started to be interested in art history. But we knew nothing about the man’s emotional life. Did he even have a wife, for instance? Was he divorced?
Buboni In Love
“Tell me Buboni?” I said, “Have you ever been in love?”
Hearing the question he did not answer me directly, instead he look up at Aunt J and said, “There has never been a time in my life that I have not been deeply in love. It is, I suppose, part and parcel of an artistic temperament. Some of my earliest memories are of being in love, and of suffering over it beginning when I was five years old.
I was in love with a blond girl named Cynthia. Blond is the best description I can give you because I never saw her close up. She sat in a seat the farthest from me, diagonally across the room in kindergarten.
Once, at a great distance, I followed her home, but not all the way to her door. After getting several blocks away from my usual path home I began to feel a rising panic and gave it up, but I was only five.
That same night I had a vivid dream about my new love. I dreamt that we were married and that we lived in a tree fort in the back yard of my house. When I awoke it was with a distinctly absurd feeling of stupidity and I wondered to myself, “How could I think that people could be married and live in a tree fort?” I felt that the dream indicated a certain level of stupidity on my part. But the blissful feeling of contented marital bliss, as I now know it is called, would not leave me.
When I recall that dream I still can feel that delicious feeling of being in love with someone who I really do not yet know – set apart in some wild and strange place. We were like shipwrecked survivors on a deserted tropical island, for whom courtship, inquiry, fascination and consummation take place without the least possibility of interruption or competition and where even memory and fantasy are silent.
The very next morning I set about building a tree fort, with the restricted means of a five year old. Our backyard however presented a dismal prospect: a piece of dirt perhaps thirty feet square with a few strands of crab grass here and there. It was bordered with cinder block walls on three sides. One of these walls was the back part of a funeral parlor which had one window, its curtain always closed. Another wall was the back of an establishment that rented tuxedos.
In the corner of this yard grew a lone sumac tree about seven feet tall with spindly branches and those long leaves that look like the remaining unkempt hair of some balding old man like myself.
I spent a long time trying to nail a two-by-four into a branch in that sumac tree but with no success. I remember being stupefied by the problem of how to hold the hammer, the nail and the wood up in the air all at once and still, be able to strike with the hammer. Each time I would try the nails would fly off into the dirt of the yard someplace and I would have to hunt around for them.
In desperation I resorted to rope. I tied several two-by-fours to the branches of the tree with the rope, and then, standing on a chair, I jumped upon them like mounting a startled horse by surprise. The various branches of the sumac tree all broke at once and everything ended up on the ground. I had murdered the sumac tree even though I had not meant it any harm. I was just like Lenny, in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”.
My crime did not go unnoticed. My mother confronted me and asked, “Albert, why did you destroy the sumac tree?” I explained, “I was trying to build a tree fort.” “But why would you try to build a tree fort in a sumac tree?” This second question she said more to herself than to me and did not expect me to answer. To me, it sounded more like, “Albert, why are you such a stupid little boy?” I couldn’t even face her apron but stared down at my shoes, the laces I still had not learned to tie.
Late in the afternoon I occupied myself with throwing stones at the mortuary wall until, as luck would have it, I broke their only window. After that I went inside, told my mother about it and said I would be in my room until the police came to take me away.
Just a few years after my love affair with Cynthia, I fell in love with Jane Russell. This was a love both tragic, and confusing for me. It was especially confusing as I was a child at the time and I had absolutely no idea that I had fallen in love with her. It came about unconsciously, just like an illness with an incubation period.
Apparently, when I was seven I saw one of her films by accident. Perhaps it was showing along with one of the westerns I would go to see back then. I can remember that there were two feature films showing together, and because of the Jane Russell film I sat through both movies twice.
I soon forgot all about those movies, but several weeks later I had a vivid dream about Ms. Russell. I can’t remember any details of that dream except that we were in love and then she rejected me for someone else.
For many days, even weeks after that dream I was terribly depressed. It was exactly as if it had actually happened, as if it was my own real life experience. This so upset me that I actually began to argue with, and ridicule myself. “Albert,” I would say, in a tone of indignant reproach, “You’re only seven years old and she has got to be at least twenty. Besides you’ve never even met her, never ever really seen her.
I mean you’ve seen her image but that’s just some dots of ink on some paper in a magazine. It would be one thing to fall in love with a movie star, very understandable to suffer the pangs of unrequited love in that situation. But to suffer from rejection? Well, this is just idiotic!” But I discovered at an early age that no amount of verbal logic or reasoning has any power over one’s emotional life. It just roars along under its own steam, and you just wait until it is over.
By the time he finished with these personal remembrances from his childhood love life he was talking to all of us rather than just to Aunt Jemima. He was nervous that he had said too much, and seemed to retract into himself as he finished, as if he wanted to avoid any questions.
“Have you ever been married Buboni?” asked Aunt Jemima. What sort of a question was this? Was it a question driven by a desire to know Buboni more intimately; was it a question that signaled that Jemima reciprocated his newfound interest in her?
Or was it a clinical question, like one of a series of questions a doctor will ask examining a person in the emergency room of a hospital, answers to be added to a list of other replies the sum total of which will be used to draw some conclusion.
Buboni knew the answer to the question, but he did not have any idea why the question had been asked of him. To Buboni the answer was irrelevant, but the reason for the question was, to him, very important. He began to answer, but found himself at a lost for words, and so said nothing.
One thing was obvious, whatever the answer to the question was; it was painful for him to even think about it. The muscles of his face tightened like a person about to have a sliver pulled. Aunt J, seeing his distress, changed the subject, she said, “I was going to tell you about what Coromo did about his paintings.” Buboni, looked down and did a careful inspection of his fingernails in reply.
Rose Van Dusenberg
Coromo knew he wanted to paint pictures, he just did not have any idea what his pictures were going to be about. There was one thing he was puzzled about. He knew that Tallulia liked his childish pictures done in an overly simplified way, but it seemed to him that this could only be a complete coincidence. The idea that there would be other tourists at the resort who would also be interested in such paintings did not even seem to be a remote possibility to him.
He was driven by two conflicting desires; first he very much wanted to simply repeat the experience of selling a group of pictures to some rich tourists, but on the other hand he also wanted to repeat the pleasant sensation of making an image using the mysterious materials of oil paint, canvas and brushes.
Another thing bothered him. ‘What if’ he wondered, ‘people actually liked his simplified childish pictures because they were simple and childish’. This thought gave him mixed emotions because he could see that if he was correct about this, it would be very easy to make money, but on the other hand there was something inherently demeaning about it. He was an adult; he didn’t want to be appreciated for childishness.
In the back of his mind were those strange Bouguereau paintings with their unbelievable accuracy and detail. Those were things he could never do if he had a hundred years of practice. He could never resolve these questions; there was only one thing to do, set to work on what ever came to mind, with no idea where it would lead him. He made only one decision; paint every single day, paint something even if in the end he smudged it all out later with a rag.
While Coromo was working on his new paintings the manager of the food service department received a fax from the owners of the resort somewhere in Nevada, informing him that he should expect a visit from an interior decorator whose job it would be to redecorate the dining room of the resort.
The visit of the new interior decorator and the restaurant manager was a very painful experience for the manager. Five years previously, when the restaurant had been constructed no thought was given to the furnishings of the dining room and the manager had a free hand in selecting everything. The result was a cross between a retirement home and a funeral parlor. It was not a question of a limited budget, it was simply bad taste.
The annual meeting of the principal investors had come and gone, and the result was a consensus that dinner in the resort dining room was an oppressive experience. No one could put their finger on exactly what was wrong, except for one gentleman who blamed it all on the very large fake gold frames around the prints on the walls.
“These pictures and these frames are just the sort of thing I see when I visit my Aunt that has dementia in her critical care facility. There is nothing more depressing that this sort of art. And why is it that every single thing in this room is some variation of tan or beige. As for these fine art reproductions, Rembrandt may have been a great painter but who wants to look at his sour self-portrait while trying to enjoy one’s vacation in the tropics.
“And look at this thing,” he said, pointing to one of the manager’s favorite Bouguereau prints, “Don’t people realize that this sort of art, this kind of smarmy image was out of date fifty years ago. The thing to do is to take all this stuff down and replace it with impressionist paintings, full of color and light. My suggestion would be to use the works of Van Gogh.
At this point in the meeting the only woman on the board spoke up. “Please God not Van Gogh, if you put up all Van Gogh’s the place will look like a psychiatric hospital, that is all you ever see in those places.
The woman who made this comment was named Rose VanDusenberg. After she made this comment there was a long silence and in that silence hung the question, ‘how do you happen to know about the interior decoration of mental hospitals.’
Rose did not attempt to answer that unasked question but feeling the need to offer something by way of explanation she said, “It seems that when prints are put up in mental hospitals the staff thinks that pictures by a psychotic who never sold any paintings, cut off his ear and shot himself in the chest is the sort of thing that will inspire the patients to try to do something creative.
The reason that Rose had opinions about interior decoration was because that was her profession. It was not that she went to college or had a degree in the field, but just like so many creative occupations it came about by accident.
Rose was married to a very rich man who made a living buying and selling space in trans-continental shipping containers. You shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that anyone selling space in shipping containers is bound to get rich. Rose’s husband could give you the names of several people he knew that lost their shirts and their pants buying and selling empty space; shirts and pants hanging in his closet in a manner or speaking.
One of the reasons Rose’s husband was so successful at selling empty space is because he had inhaled the skill from his father’s cigar smoke when only a child. His father made his living buying and selling abandoned lots in Yonkers, and was still a busy man of business well into his eighties.
Once Rose’s children were grown and out of the house her husband started buying houses in various desirable locations to serve as vacation homes depending on the season. Each of these houses was a blank slate in which Rose indulged a newfound desire to experiment with ever newer and more expensive interiors.
She became an avid reader of “Architectural Digest”, and “Art And Antiques”. She spent her days looking through books of fabric swatches, collecting paint color samples, and talking at length with the sales people in furniture stores.
She purchased so much furniture over a period of two years that the people she dealt with began to assume she was a professional, and so it was a natural step for her to have business cards printed up and get a tax exempt number. She was her only client, but by offering her services free to her friends and neighbors she soon had an office, employees, a fax machine, a web site, and so many projects that she seldom finished her workday before eleven at night.
As is so natural with very rich husbands, Mr. VanDusenberg, began to complain off and on about the steadily increasing costs of his wife’s hobby. She pointed out to him that every time they sold one of their investment properties the return was more than he expected. She wanted to take the credit for this, but he was skeptical. To him it was just a matter of the rising market.
Then one day the swivel chair Mr. VanDusenberg had been using for twenty years broke into three pieces and he asked his wife to purchase a replacement for him as soon as possible. Rose replaced the chair, but she also talked her husband into the purchase of a new larger more modern desk.
The desk he had been using for the past twenty years had been purchased in a second hand store and was made of oak. It had three drawers on the left, three on the right, and one in the middle. You would be familiar with this sort of desk if you like Film Noir movies. His new desk did not have any drawers at all.
Then Mr. VanDusenberg had his wife re-decorate his office, and at the same time she re-designed his stationary, his web site, his clothes, and his shoes, and also his haircut and even went so far as to begin to explain to him how to pronounce certain words. Soon after this Mr. VanDusenberg saw, to his great amazement, that his income suddenly more than doubled. He had never been to college, but his wife’s avid interest in magazines like ‘Metropolis’, made up the difference.
Rose said to Mr. VanDusenberg, “A real-estate agent I know has four cars, she has a Cadillac, a Lincoln, a Mercedes, and a Fiat 500, it is her ability to know which car to take to see a client that is the reason she is such a success. But it is not just the car; it is everything else, right down to the heels. Taste speaks louder than words. The husband could see that his wife was right.
In the morning, like a child getting ready for school, he presented himself to his wife for inspection, and never muttered a word of complaint, as she looked him over, changing a tie, or a belt. He sold space in containers, but she made it a success with skills he knew existed, but could never for a moment really comprehend.
It is men like Mr. VanDusenberg who never dare to get a divorce, dependent on those skills, which exist in a realm that to them is only magic, even though it’s exercise is infallible.
This occupation of Rose’s cost her husband around two hundred thousand dollars a year, but he did not mind it at all. Not only that, but he often tried to participate in her projects and could often be seen on a Sunday afternoon reading a copy of ‘Better Homes And Gardens’.
Since Rose was on the board of the resort, and since she had so much interior design experience, she was asked to redecorate the dining room, with the understanding that if she was successful she would also be give the task of re-decorating all of the time share rooms when the time came. The first step in this process was for her to meet with the dining room manager, whose job it would be to execute all of Roses ideas.
The meeting between Rose and the hotel manager took place over dinner in the resort dining room. It was Coromo himself who had the honor of waiting on them, and the pleasure of listening to bits and pieces of their long conversation about everything from what sort of chairs and tables to buy, to why reproductions of neo-classical paintings do not belong on restaurant walls.
A great many of the considerations touched on by Rose would never have crossed Coromo’s mind. For example, original oil paintings and copies on canvas were ruled out simply because you couldn’t wash gravy off of them without damaging the surface.
All of Rembrandt’s paintings were dismissed out of hand simply because they were brown. “When one puts up a work of art in an interior one is first of all putting up a spot of color,” said Rose. “One may want a spot of red, provided by Matisse, or a big patch of blue provided by Rothko. Monochrome works have their place also to provide balance, but splashes of brown all over the place never work.
This sort of talk was very upsetting to the hotel manager because he had never in his life imagined that anyone would write off the entire life’s work of a great artist, works were worth tens of millions of dollars, paintings any museum would die to have in their permanent collection just because they were all somehow too excremental.
It was not just Rembrandt and the other Baroque painters like Caravaggio that Rose wrote off as useless in the restaurant setting, all of the works of Andrew Wyeth went into the same brown excremental trash heap also.
Rose’s knowledge of art came from a class she took at the local community College, it was titled “Introduction To Art History”, and it used the well known text book, “History of Art”, by Janson. Rose read her copy of Janson’s book from cover to cover, and almost all of the text had been highlighted with yellow marker.
Coromo stood next to the table where Rose and the restaurant manager were discussing art, the Janson book was opened to a page on which was a color reproduction of David’s “Rape Of The Sabine Women.” Rose was saying, “Look at this painting, David knew nothing at all about the Romans and the Sabine Woman except some ideas he may have picked up from reading history texts.
David’s paintings of ancient Rome are like the movie ‘Ben Hur’, after a period of time they stop being considered seriously, and become something to laugh at. But consider his picture of the Death of Marat, David knew Marat, he could have trod in the man’s blood. Therefore some of his work is painfully truthful, and others just a sad joke.
Then she turned the pages until she came across David’s picture of the coronation of Napoleon. “And here we have the ultimate idiocy of historical painting,” she said, “this is a combination of all that is wrong with the Ben Hur style of historical pictures combined with an inability to understand his present predicament as a revolutionary who voted to decapitate the King, only a few years later to paint the glorification of an Emperor.
The sad thing is that the bad jokes he produced cost him years of toil. Still, the public loved his work up till the end when he had to flee to England to avoid the new King’s wrath during the restoration.
The poor restaurant manager listened to Rose in silence because he had nothing to say, and did not even have any idea what she was talking about. Rose went on and on taking about her favorite subject, and now and then the manager ventured a timid question, just to indicate that he was listening.
But for Coromo it was a different matter entirely, the conversation was causing an earthquake in his mind, a mind unacquainted with a single idea about what is and what is not art. And you must never forget, if you want to know what Coromo was like, that he was deeply religious, walking away from Rose and the manager to the kitchen he muttered to himself, ‘Having eyes I saw not.” casting in biblical terms, these confusing new ideas.
First of all Coromo had never considered a judgment about a picture in any other terms that its detail, its accuracy, and the amount of time it took someone to do it. According to this measure, he judged his own pictures to be the worst. On the other hand, he could see that Rose was dismissing those highly detailed works of some old masters for reasons he never would have considered, they were rejected by her because they were not ‘truthful’ some how.
He thought to himself, ‘What if someone were to make an eloquent speech full of brilliant words, and turns of phrase, and yet everything said was an outright lie. Then someone else who is practically illiterate, and furthermore has a speech impediment, states the truth of the matter in a blunt simpleminded way. Who is the great speaker then?
But, his pictures were not truthful, he thought, what is truthful about a striped bus full of tourists with dog’s heads in the windows, painted by someone who seems to have the palsy.
He decided it was confusing and impossible to figure out. He put it out of his mind, and decided to just take things as they came. He was having very good luck with his new occupation of painting. He was very popular with two strange old rich lades; who knew what the future held for him. Little did he know, or even suspect that the distant ephemeral art world of which he knew less that nothing was peopled with scores of strange rich old women.
To say the restaurant manager was uncomfortable while talking to Rose would be an understatement. First the work he had put into decorating the dining room had been dismissed with ridicule, and after that he had to listen to Rose’s long, self-indulgent lecture on art and design. Suddenly his irritation found an outlet and he turned his attention to Coromo, whom he began to ridicule with an outpouring of fake admiration.
“Coromo here”, said the manager to Rose, “is our local artist. He has done a series of paintings that are superb, and I was thinking about recommending him to be an artist in residence at the resort. He could give instruction in painting and drawing to our guests who are always looking for classes to sign up for. You should see his paintings, you would love them.”
Coromo knew that the manager hated his painting and thought he was a fake as well, so he understood that everything said about him was simply said in jest. Rose, however took the manager at his word and immediately asked him if he would show her his paintings. He refused this request with an outpouring of humble excuses saying, “The manager is just kidding about my paintings, they are nothing at all, just little things I do in my spare time.
But Rose was not to be put off, and Coromo had to promise to bring all the paintings he had at home for Rose to inspect the very next day. That night when he went home he took a copy of Janson’s ‘Art History’, with him, he found a copy of the book in the resort library. Although he expected no good to come from showing Rose his paintings, still, there was so much he did not understand, he though anything might happen.
That night he looked at every image in the art history book, giving special attention to the color plates. He looked at the artists Rose had mentioned with admiration, all of these were toward the end of the book in a chapter on post-impressionism. The artists she had criticized were in the earlier chapters. He could see clearly that the post-impressionist painters drew things out of proportion and used color in an arbitrary way just like he did.
But those post-impressionists managed to distort their figures, and employ odd colors in a way that was very different than the way he did. It was as if they could have done it all realistically, but chose not to because they had some different obscure purpose.
He finished looking at the art history book, set it aside and had a look at his pictures with a fresh eye. What he saw seemed utterly stupid to him. By comparing his own work to the pictures in an art history book, he was doing the worst thing a new artist can possible do, especially in this day and age.
A person might gain something by looking at Rembrandt’s paintings if one could go over to Rembrandt’s house and have a long talk with him about how he did what he did. But not only has Rembrandt been dead a long time, dead also are his patrons, the institutions and political systems of his day, as well as all the assorted trivial facts, procedures, opinions and ideas of that time.
And what is there to learn for new artists by looking at the pictures of Picasso too carefully. Does one ever hope to be considered a ‘follower of Picasso’? That would be a deadly title. There is a reason there were followers of Rembrandt and followers of Michelangelo, because they worked in a tradition the arc of which lasted a hundred years so there was something to follow.
All modern artists are one of a kind, if they are not one of a kind they are nothing at all, so to copy, to follow, to even ‘learn from’ others is a serious mistake. Coromo could only proceed when he decided to close the art history book and forget about it all together and fortunately that day was not far off.
But for the moment he had to decide what to do about the command from Rose VanDusenberg to bring all of his painting to her the next day. What would she make of his paintings? Would she ask him if they were done by some village idiot. Purple horses, pink bicycles, a black and red striped bus with dogs looking out of the windows, dogs with faces half yellow and half orange.
He had only one painting of which he was proud, and on which he placed all his hopes to be taken seriously, it was a religious picture, Christ being taken down from the cross. He was surprised to find this idea painted by many artists in the past, and he saw also that painters as modern as Gauguin painted religious images.
He knew Rose liked the paintings of Gauguin who was also a painter who used color in an arbitrary way. But what if it was not arbitrary, what if those real artists had access to theories and ideas which he could not understand, or even come across so as to be confounded by them. In short, he was tormented by a feeling of inadequacy. But he had no choice, he had to take has medicine, and subject himself to criticism from someone who obviously knew all about paintings.
As you might guess, Rose loved almost all of Coromo’s paintings. She set them on the floor against a wall of the restaurant all in a row and for about five minutes she said nothing at all. After those five minutes she picked up one of the pictures and set it apart from the others, it was the ‘Decent From The Cross’ painting. After that she rearranged the others into sets of two or three, like a person arranging their cards in a poker game.
All the time Rose looked at Coromo’s paintings she held her chin in her hand in a meditative pose, and with her other hand she held her elbow. Now and again Rose massaged her chin with her thumb and her forefinger. Coromo was on edge the entire time. Since he had no self-confidence, at least when it came to his pictures, he thought everything she did was an indication of her irritation and rejection of his little pictures.
Now it is a well known fact among people who buy and sell pictures frequently that when a person rubs their chin with their thumb and a knuckle of the forefinger it means that they are about to purchase the picture they are looking at. If perchance they ask a question about the picture they are contemplating while rubbing said chin, the dealer knows there will be no need to offer a discount, because the sale is as good as completed.
Perhaps you do not believe me about prospective purchasers of paintings rubbing their chins before they purchases pictures, but you can subject the theory to a test; go and buy a picture, and see if you can complete the transaction without rubbing your chin first, I assure you, you will not succeed, you will rub your chin despite yourself.
This chin rubbing is of no advantage to the art dealer because it indicates that the transaction has been completed without him or her having to exercise all of the subtle skills that go into prompting a client to buy a picture; it will have happened of itself. It is one of those sales where the salesman takes no part; the client makes the decision all on their own, and is positively annoyed if the dealer tries to interfere.
Rose however did not decide to purchase any of Coromo’s paintings, instead she invited him to chose a wall in the dining room and put up all of his pictures. She suggested he not put them all in a row, but to scatter them all over the place. The only painting she had misgivings about was his one religious picture, Coromo’s favorite. She did not reject the picture outright, she just questioned if it would work in the restaurant setting.
Rose explained to Coromo what she planned to do to the dining room, and her explanation gave him a little insight into why she wanted to utilize his paintings. “We will replace all of the chairs and tables with much more rustic items, no chrome, no Formica, and no plastic. Every section of wall will be a different color, and some walls will be two or three colors where patches of one color show through another as if by accident.”
Rose said “If you go down to the village just a mile from the resort you will see this color idea used on all of the buildings completely by accident. A wall is painted yellow one year, and then green at another time, later the wall is covered over with a rose red, and then one color breaks through another in the most sensuous way.
All of this color would be jarring to the eye except that the sun, the wind and the rain temper and age all of the colors so in the end all of the tints combine in a way that is entirely harmonious. This effect cannot be imitated by just taking a bunch of different colors and splashing them all over the place, if you do that the result is hideous.
The mixture of many random colors only works if time and the weather work on them. If one is to imitate this effect every color must be selected and adjusted with great care, only an artist’s eye such as you and I have can accomplish this task.”
Rose then applied her theory to Coromo’s paintings, pointing out how he may have painted the grass pink, and the lion’s face purple, but it was not any pink, and it was not just any purple. The delicate adjustment of these tints was what made Coromo’s paintings wonderful, because he was a natural born colorist.
“As far as your ideas and subject matter you chose for your paintings, about that I have nothing to say”, Rose pronounced.” You are like Magritte or even Salvatore Dali in that no one could guess where your ideas come from, but if you just keep on doing what you have been doing in time I expect you will make a name for yourself.”
Coromo did not believe any of this. What did, ‘make a name for yourself mean’ he wondered, and who were Dali and Magritte, he had no idea. Nothing Rose said to him was able to dislodge his sneaking suspicion that it was all a nasty trick being played on him by a malevolent force bent on leading him to an unforeseen destruction, probably as a justified punishment for his indiscretion with that third sister he still could not stop thinking about all the time.
He may have been in his mid-twenties but in many respects he was just a child. His childishness expressed itself in many ways, one of which was his desire to paint pictures, but also in his simple idea of right and wrong, truth and false-hood. To put it simply, Coromo believed that there was such a thing as truth and falsehood, and these two things were obvious and clear to anyone.
For example, let’s say it is raining outside. The truth is that it is raining outside, everyone can agree on the truth of this statement. Irrespective of shadowy areas such as ‘starting to rain’, or ‘was raining’, the truth of a present downpour was simple, obvious and incontrovertible, not subject to dispute or discussion.
To Coromo the same simplicity applied to his pictures, they were either good, or they were not good, it was as simple as that. Obviously there were people who knew about pictures and they would know the incontrovertible answer to the question, “Are Coromo’s pictures good, or are they bad?” His own opinion was of no account. If you have ever painted pictures yourself, and had the misfortune to have other people talk about them, you know what I mean.
Here was the difficulty, he had the opinions of three people about his pictures, Rose VanDusenberg thought that they were ‘good’ good enough to take responsibility for putting them up in the dining-room of the resort, and Tallulah thought they were good, good enough to actually purchase them. But the hotel manager though his pictures were bad, so bad that they were deserving of ridicule.
Rose’s observations about his use of color did not impress him either, the fact that there were walls down in the village painted all sorts of colors, and parts of these walls were crumbling and falling apart was in no way beautiful or picturesque to Coromo, on the contrary it was just decrepit. He was unable to see his surroundings with a stranger’s eye, it was too familiar to be interesting.
His real suspicion was that it all had nothing to do with his paintings, it was simply that old ladies like Rose and Tallulah always liked him, and as a result were sure to like his pictures no matter what they looked like. This was no comfort to him, because he felt his pictures were about to be thrust into the real world where the truth would immediately come out. The restaurant manager’s opinion would prevail, and he would end up being made a fool of to the manager’s delight.
He made up his mind to hang his pictures in the restaurant as Rose had commanded him to do, but under no circumstances was he going to take credit for them or tell anyone he had painted them. The manager knew, but he could do nothing about that.
A week later, after dinner, a crew of painters and decorators invaded the dining room and worked all night and through the following day. At dinnertime the room was ready for business. All the walls were transformed with various colors, and all the furniture was replaced with rustic chairs and tables, It was a shocking transformation, but what followed was even more shocking to Coromo.
What followed was…nothing! The guests of the resort had no reaction at all to the room’s transformation. They neither commented about the color, or remarked about the change of the furniture. No one took the least interest in the new pictures. Coromo’s paintings were not subjected to ridicule, on the contrary, it was as if his pictures were not there at all; nobody looked at them.
There was something strange and impossible to him about the reaction of the resort guests to the re-design of the dining-room. He was reminded again of that Bible verse, “Having eyes they see not.” In a way he was happy about the reaction because he expected to be in an embarrassing spotlight, but his things seemed to be simply invisible.
Coromo soon realized that the re-decoration was a success however, the patrons all stayed longer in the evening that they had before, and their liquor tabs increased significantly. The change was subtle, but one thing was noticeable, the color of the walls reflected in the guest’s faces and everyone looked more vibrant and lively. “Those tan and gray walls were deadly” he thought, Rose was correct, color transforms everyone emotionally, if only they are perfect colors.
He found himself in a peculiar situation. His pictures were all on one wall of the dining room, and along that wall were six tables all of which were in his section so he was the waiter for the patrons sitting next to his paintings. None of the resort guests had any idea that he was the artist who had painted the pictures, and he had no intention of informing anyone.
None of the clients paid any attention to the pictures in the dining room, at least at first, but after a few weeks He began to notice that there were exceptions to the aesthetic indifference of the resort clients. Every once in a while one of the guests, after a long expensive meal and several drinks, would totter up to one of his pictures and make an obscure comment. But Coromo was coming and going about his duties, what he heard was invariably just a half a sentence.
There were a lot of art works in the restaurant but it was Coromo’s pictures that were commented on, everything else was passed over in silence. What were these people thinking? What were they saying? He had no idea. The situation was nerve wracking for him.
Then one day he sold another painting to one of the tourists. This is how it happened. There was a family of five, a mother and father and three children two boys and a girl, the children all under ten years old. It was there last day at the resort and they were trying to decide what to purchase to take home as a keepsake of their vacation.
All of the children wanted to buy one of Coromo’s paintings, the one of the black and white striped tourist bus with the dog headed passengers. Since Coromo was waiting on their table, they asked him if it was possible to find out if the picture was for sale. He said he had no idea but he would find out from the manager. He was willing to sell his picture to the family, as long as he did not have to admit that he was the person who had painted it.
The manager agreed to let him sell the picture right off the restaurant wall, and so he had to decide on a price for it. All of his previous sales had been to Tallulah, and he had charged a dollar for each one. Now he was emboldened by the new interest in his work, and so he decided to double his price to two dollars. The tourist family did not haggle over the price and so they took the picture off the wall, wrapped it in a towel, and took it home with them the next day.
The other guests of the resort did not ignore this transaction, which took place in the dining room. What had happened was that the picture had been purchased as a memento for two dollars. The resort had a section of there store set aside for this sort of purchase, there were wood plaques with pictures of the resort laminated to them for twenty dollars, and miniature license-plates with the name of the resort in embossed letters, for twenty-five dollars.
The price range for gift items in the store was from fifteen to thirty dollars, and so the resort patrons gravitated to Coromo’s paintings, not just because of the price, but because they were somehow more representative of their tropical resort experience. Over time he began to see a pattern emerging in these sales, they happened always on a couple’s last day at the resort, when they were trying at the last minute to decide on gifts to take home.
He began to expect to be able to sell at least two paintings a week, and he immediately replaced the sold pictures with new ones he would paint in the evening. He had to involve himself in a little deception however; he changed his waiter nametag to read Koromo, instead of Coromo, and claimed that the painter was a friend from his village. “Coromo is an illiterate old man with no teeth who suffers from dementia,” he might say.
Little by little, without his really knowing it, Coromo developed the consummate skills of a picture salesman, skills impossible to learn except over a long time in the perfect conditions. They were not exactly skills so much as a flowering of dormant aspects of his personality. First of all was the most important attribute; a complete indifference to any possibility of a sale.
The second necessary attribute of the picture salesman was the actual love of the item being considered for sale and his real reluctance to part with it. The third attribute he developed over time was a playful disregard of the truth, and a propensity to make up on the spot, far fetched explanations to the client’s questions.
Meanwhile the situation necessitated a subtle change in his relationship with the restaurant manager. The manager had received an e-mail about a week after his meeting with Rose, suggesting that Coromo be allowed to sell his pictures himself, if the opportunity arose. In order for this to happen, the rule of the help not indulging in idle conversation with the resort clients had to be abrogated.
Allowing a simple waiter to indulge in conversation with the clients was galling to the manager, but he had to go along with it. It didn’t matter, he knew that Coromo was making a stupid mistake with his project of selling his pictures, a mistake so obvious that it proved beyond any doubt that Coromo was dumb, his pictures pointless, and Rose was just a simpleton who actually knew nothing about anything.
What was it that the manager knew? Just this, he was in charge of all purchases for the concession and gift shop for the resort and since he had to make all those purchases, he knew very nearly how much Coromo’s paintings cost to produce. This was not an artistic consideration, this was not a matter of art, it was simply a business consideration. Those pictures cost no less that fifteen dollars a piece for canvas, stretchers, and paint. How he was able to sell them for two dollars, he had no idea.
The manager did not know how his waiter managed to produce his paintings without the expense of the materials because he did not know about Tallulah’s sending him all of those canvases as well as lots of very expensive tubes of paint. But the manager knew that sooner or later the excrement would be hitting the air-conditioner, and he rubbed his hands in anticipation.
“Coromo, you have been framing and selling five dollar bills for a dollar each.” How the manager looked forward to saying this, and putting the dumb waiter turned artist in his place. But he would pretend to be sympathetic, and offer some good business advice.
The day the manager anticipated did come as Coromo was about to paint his last picture on the canvases sent to him by Tallulah. In the bottom of the cardboard UPS box he came across the packing slip with a list of the materials and their prices. He had looked at the price list long ago, but not being interested in it at the time he had forgotten all about it.
Now, when he had to consider replacing the canvases, he looked at both the invoice, and also the catalogue of art materials that was also enclosed in the crate. He intended to look up the price of the canvases but his attention was diverted by the price list just for the tubes of paint.
His favorite color was cadmium red light, and it cost over fifty dollars, fifty dollars for a tube like a small tube of toothpaste. He rummaged through his cigar box of oil paint and found that his cadmium red light was all used up, and his cadmium medium was almost gone also. Just these two tubes of paint amounted to nearly a hundred dollars.
There was no point to trying to add up the cost of the paintings he had produced, what would be the point? If he added up all the money he had made selling his pictures he would not have been able to buy even one tube of oil paint. How stupid! How idiotic! He thought.
He was a sad sight sitting there at his kitchen table with the catalogue in his hand. He felt like a person might feel who comes across his or her own obituary in the local paper. Here was this paper document covered with information written up by someone he did not know, in a place he had never been, and couldn’t imagine, but which seemed to put an end to this new idea of himself.
The next day the manager, seeing the dejected looks on Coromo’s face, and his depressed, lack-lusted demeanor on the job, called him aside and questioned him about what was wrong. He soon found out what was it was, just as he had suspected.
The biggest problem for Coromo was what to do about Tallulah, who would arrive in a few weeks expecting to buy all his paintings for a dollar each, having provided by her investment in him all the necessary materials – materials that actually never really belonged to him in the first place.
The manager explained to him some of the most basic considerations of a successful business venture. He went through the bother of adding up the costs of a painting, adding also a small amount for Coromo’s time and subtracting for the occasional failure. He arrived at a price of eighteen dollars for each painting; this was a price that would allow replacement of materials and a good two dollar profit per picture.
“So you see Coromo,” lectured the manager, “When the concession gift store prices its photo gift plaques at twenty-five dollars it is not an inflated price at all but simply a price that includes all of the necessary expenses involved in being able to sell something and yet make a modest return.”
Coromo did try selling his paintings for $19.95 each, instead of two dollars, but he was not surprised to find out that although everyone wanted paintings for a dollar or two, nobody wanted his pictures when they cost twenty dollars. Even lowering the price to fifteen dollars did no good. He had to repress a growing feeling of resentment as every day he saw that the resort guests would spend a hundred dollars for dinner, but not spend twenty for one of his original paintings.
The worst part was having to take the manager’s advice, advice he felt would never work out, not because the advice did not make sense, but because he knew that the man did not like him. He was forced to fall back on desperate means, he decided to take his Grandmother’s advice and pray to God for a solution to his problem.
As you know Coromo was very religious, but he was very reluctant to resort to prayer to solve a specific problem. It was all well and good for his dear Grandmother to be praying all the time, down on her knees, asking for anything from relief for her rheumatism, to some ripe pears. That was what she was like. For Grandma, God may as well have lived in a big house down the street; a very nice God, who granted all requests if only he happened to be at home.
But for Coromo resorting to prayer was an act of desperation. You very well remember the last time Coromo had to resort to praying; down on his hands and knees out in the woods, to save himself from falling into serious difficulties with that third sister he had to spend the night with. Back then his prayers had gone unanswered, and he still had mixed feelings about the result of that particular religious experience.
He got Grandmother’s Bible out, one of the ones she had given him after she had used it up. It was Grandma’s practice to note down her comments in the borders of the pages, and since all she ever did in her old age was read, underline passages, and write in the margins, those old Bibles soon became worn out with her endless notations. When Coromo found himself in difficulties he would open his bible at random and read one of Grandma’s underlined passages.
The passage he came across that night gave him deep confidence that he would find some answer to his art supply problem, here is the passage for your edification: Matthew 7: 9-11. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Coromo was not asking for bread, he was asking for art supplies. Asking for bread had an obvious validity about it, but asking for art supplies struck him as actually sacrilegious in a way, but he pushed the thought from his mind, including the notion that millions of very devout people have starved to death asking God for bread. When he went to work in the morning he picked up a small stone in the road, and carried it in his pocket. “Perhaps He will give me the stone instead”, he thought.
Carrying a stone in your pocket, a stone you endow with special emotional significance can have a serious effect on the course of your life. If you want a good example of this just watch Fellini’s movie called La Strada, where the character Gelsomina clutches a little stone given to her by the “Fool”. That situation lead eventually to her death, but we will hope for a better outcome for our artist friend.
I have neglected to tell you an important thing that was happening outside of the resort facility, during the time Coromo was dealing with Rose and the manager, putting up his paintings and selling them. All this took about two months during the height of the tourist season, and outside of the resort, day by day a strange transformation was going on.
First let me describe the situation. The resort was on the coast, all by itself about half a mile from the nearest coastal village. In general the tourists stayed in the resort compound, hardly ever venturing outside, both because of an unjustified anxiety about the poverty-stricken natives, and also because there was nothing of interest outside the resort grounds.
On occasion the more adventurous resort guests would decide to walk to the village along the coastal dirt road, and then back to the resort, a trip of a mile, and when these brave souls were able to return to the compound over and over again unharmed, not held for ransom or otherwise attacked or molested, the other more timid patrons followed their example, and a constitutional to the village and back became an accepted daily event for many people.
The resort owned the beach front going almost the entire distance to the village, and in an attempt to keep the beach private, and to keep out the locals, an ugly cyclone fence had been build almost the entire length of the distance to the town. The fence was an eyesore, and more than that, it was an insult to the locals who had free access to their ocean for ages past, up until the resort purchased the beachfront and fenced off the beach.
The fence didn’t really matter however, because the local children, acting according to “The Children’s Unwritten Law of Universal Property Rights”, tore holes in the fence wherever access was needed. Over time the resort was forced to abandon the misguided attempt to segregate the beach, and what remained was nearly a half a mile of ugly, rusted cyclone fencing overgrown with weeds and saplings.
That ugly cyclone fence, of no use to anyone, built as an insult to the locals, rusted and overgrown with weeds now became the engine of a new economy for the local population. The word of Coromo’s success selling paintings to the tourists spread among the locals, and soon he had imitators. New artists were cropping up every day, and since they did not have access to the resort grounds, they naturally displayed their pictures in the most logical place, on the cyclone fence.
At first it was just two or three artists, but by the end of the season the entire mile from the resort to the village was crowded with exhibitors, and the more of them there were the more successful the trade became, since it became a necessity for every tourist to buy several pictures for themselves, and extras as gifts for friends and the family.
Trips to the village now became a necessary part of the resort experience, so much so that the resort management made plans to feature an article about it in its next annual brochure. Coromo’s village was in the interior, however, so he was not even aware of this explosion of art activity he had been the cause of. He did not know about those artists, but they knew about him, they did not know him by name. He was referred to as “Somgy.”
He was called Somgi, because of this oft-repeated phrase, “Some Guy is selling dumb pictures of blue cats and purple dogs to the tourists for a buck a piece.”
All of these new artists did not have the problem of the expense of art supplies because it never entered their heads to go looking for oil paint, linseed oil, turpentine, or stretched canvases, as they had never heard of such things. For materials they did not go to any art supply store, but instead headed to the local landfill, in search of old cans of roofing tar, or half filled-paint cans, scrap pieces of lumber and the like.
Dependent as they were on scavenged raw materials their paintings and drawings had a much more rustic and primitive look than did Coromo’s pictures and this was an advantage to them in the one to five dollar picture trade, because they had no costs to cover.
Coromo, on the other hand, had accidentally started out with expensive artists materials, he had developed his skills with real materials, and even though, when he eventually saw all of this other art which cost nothing to make he saw their advantage, it was too late for him to change direction. After all, he still had to replace Talullah’s art supplies as well as paint pictures for her before her anticipated yearly visit at the end of the season.
And don’t go getting the idea that any time natives start selling pictures to tourists it is going to be a big success, and everyone will be happy and the natives will make a lot of money. That would be as naive as thinking that anyone buying and selling space in shipping containers like Mr. VanDusenberg was doing, is bound to make money. Such assumptions about success belittle true accomplishments.
What Coromo had done was to create a new art market, a market that would sustain his community for years to come, and he did it the way all great deeds are accomplished, by accident, on an unseen wave of history that picks a person up in one place, and deposits them in another, along with their entire world. All truly great deeds are effortless, that is the simple truth.
But let’s not forget about his dilemma. Last night he was on his knees praying to God to give him the necessary art supplies so that he could complete his God given task of painting pictures for Tallulah, and replacing the five pictures he had sold in the past week to that Pontormo family that was visiting from Italy; the Pontormo family that claimed descent from the great Mannerist painter Jacopo Pontormo. Coromo pretended he knew about Pontormo, although it could have been a brand of Olive Oil for all he knew.
God answered Coromo’s prayers that morning. Don’t go asking me why God answered his prayers when there were so many other people in the world praying for things much more important that art supplies. God answered his prayers I suppose, because that is what God is like, full of mischief, delighting in a wry prank in one place while an entire continent is engulfed in a tidal wave in another place and millions drown or are buried in earthquakes. “God quacks in mysterious ways”, commented the Duck.
Here is the way God answered Coromo’s prayer, he caused the catalogue for the art supplies to fall out of the UPS box and open up to the page where the art supply company offered a low interest credit card to their customers, and at the same time as he read the ad for the credit card, God put it into his mind to apply for that card using the prestigious address of the resort as his billing address.
But you may object that there is a world of difference between God’s mysterious machinations and the machinations of the credit card companies. God, you may say, fulfills the desires of the soul in ways that, over time, we understand the beauty of, and the credit companies strive to exploit those exact same desires, charging us more than twice as much for their fulfillment as God might have charged us in the first place.
Not only that but God has a nice habit of canceling all debts accruing to Him every so many years, something the credit card companies never do. They pursue those debts with religious fervor.
Why would the credit card companies extend credit to Coromo, a person who had no assets, and almost no income to speak of? It was a simple matter of actuarial science. Those credit card companies knew that art supply purchases are risk free because only the rich ever buy the things and, even though the rich don’t always pay their bills, still you can squeeze it out of their families later with no trouble.
The only thing that troubled Coromo was the consideration that someday he was going to have to pay the loan back, or stop purchasing the supplies. That old fear that he was being slowly lured into a trap to be punished rather than having his prayers answered began to torment him again, and so he resumed praying, asking for God to send him some sign or message to tell him his prayers were truly being answered so he could proceed.
God, at that moment was busy making sure a man who had just been served by a lawyer with divorce papers was also going to get a ticket for parking in the handicapped space he had overlooked because he was so nervous about the lawyer’s appointment. We don’t really know at this point why God wanted the poor man to have that ticket, but it didn’t happen anyway, because God immediately turned his attention to Coromo when he heard the new request.
God had Rose write an e-mail to the restaurant manager, he dictated the e-mail quietly right into Rose’s ear, and for Rose it just seemed to be that she suddenly had a very good, generous idea she had to act upon that very moment. It was an entirely unselfish impulse and it took her by storm. After she wrote the e-mail, she had a wonderful feeling of well-being, and went for a long walk in some public gardens, and felt dreamy and light headed.
She came across some wonderful roses, stopped to admire them, and said to herself, “I am a Rose.” Years later she would remember that walk in the public gardens and wonder about it and ask herself, ‘Why was that such a wonderful walk, so much so that I keep measuring everything else that happens in my life by it, God, it was like I was in heaven that afternoon’.
The ground had been prepared for Rose to send the e-mail because of a sarcastic message she had received from the restaurant manager about Coromo’s paintings. Here is what the manager wrote to Rose. “Poor Coromo, he just found out his paintings cost twenty dollars to paint, and he had been selling them for two dollars apiece. He has decided to charge $19.95 for each picture, and now nobody is interested in his masterpieces anymore.”
This was a vindictive e-mail, full of spite, in which he was trying to point out how stupid Coromo was, and by default, implying that all of Rose’s ideas and decisions were probably just a stupid. This message had been rankling in the back of her mind, so God’s encouragement to her to write an e-mail to the manager about Coromo had been well prepared.
This is what God told Rose to write, I am copying it out just as he dictated it, mistakes and all. ‘Tell Coromo, It has come to my attention that you have raised the prices for your paintings up to 19.95, this is a serious mistake on your part. No one will even consider purchasing paintings for that price, have some common sense and put your prices back down to too dollars, just like all of the other artists out on the chain-link fence.”
“If you don’t was to sell for two dollars, than just make the price two hundred dollars, those tourists are just a bunch a stupid rich people who…those tourists are just well-meaning rich people who don’t distinguish between to dollars, and too hundred, but they think that things priced at 19.95 must be junk straight out of WalMart. A tourist is just as likely to pay two hundred, as two dollars, that is what they are like, take my word for it, I have know lots of them over the years.
That was God’s e-mail to Coromo, sent by way of Rose VanDusenberg, full of typing mistakes because he never re-read his notes being so busy all the time. I was happy to see that He mixed up to, too, and two, just like I do constantly.