Last week, Emmanuel pondered why the esteemed artist Edouardo Del Bosques had left his business card in Room 67 at the Museo Del Prado, until at last he gets a message asking to reunite. At Room 67 of the Museo Del Prado, of course.
Rather unexpected turn of events yesterday afternoon, to say the least. Del Bosques met me at the main entrance to the museum, and took me back to Room 67, where we’d met the first time.
“There is something of you, boy, that intrigues me,” he said to me when we at last sat down. Not another soul seemed to recognise him, apart from the occasional staff member, who would nod attentively but never utter a word.
“How so?” I replied, a tad aloof. I was not so cowed at meeting the elderly man this time. Behind every work of art lies a slowly breaking bag of bones; we creatures aren’t to be lauded so much as pitied, and held onto tightly. When I looked at his fused-up pincers I felt a pang of sadness about Great Aunty Baby. She was a game old girl, wasn’t she? It comes to us all.
He didn’t answer at first; instead he looked me up and down and offered me a sharky grin, making all his sun-drenched wrinkles move about like sand dunes in the breeze. Then he looked at the painting on the wall. Men Reading. He asked for my pad, which I gave up. He clumsily flicked through it, nodding occasionally, then shaking his head, and now and then furrowing his brows and rubbing his top lip in thought. Don’t mind admitting I let out a conspicuous huff of impatience. He must have heard it, for he thrust the pad back to me and said, “Draw me.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Draw me,” he repeated. Then he stood up and walked a few paces from the bench before I could ask why. Before I knew it, I had my pencils beside me and I was capturing him in my graphite snare. Was sweating from the unpleasant sobriety. Hadn’t had a drink all day. Felt delirious. The pencil swam, catching pockets of the old man’s form in flashes of anger, other bits in moments of self-pity. Part of me craved a glass of something refreshing – or just something strong – as I sketched him out. He was stooping as he pondered the Men Reading, and I found myself drawing the painting as well. Hadn’t meant to, but it seemed right. Usually I love to draw on autopilot, with no preconceptions, but right then and there it infuriated me, as though the freedom of it – and therefore the enjoyment of it – had been stripped by pure compulsion. I did it because he asked me to. Edouardo del Bosques asked me to. And so I had to do it. There was no question of me having a say in it.
When I was finished I was disappointed with the efforts, but when Bosques saw it he smiled, albeit not the sharky grin of earlier. “You make me look like an old man.”
Was too foggy-headed to remind him that he was an old man. He moved his little finger over the paper and ran it along the pronounced crook in his back I’d given him. He nodded at the painting he’d been regarding. “You understand that is a painting, not a mirror?”
I looked again at what I’d done; indeed, I’d made him seem like one of the drawn, haggard men in the picture, hunched over their paper prize, looking like they were devouring their reading material as if the written page were precious sustenance. Thought about offering an apology for the offence, but that was soon superseded by the better idea of just walking away. Never meet your heroes, they say.
“You don’t busy yourself with unnecessary details,” he said. “You focus on what you want to focus on. For me, that is the essence of artistic technique. One should not get drawn into the erroneous. It can be taught, but young artists are rarely willing to deviate from their own sprawling imaginations. Barthes said that photographs contain a punctum, a piece of something truly real that speaks to the observer, and tells them that the person in the photograph was real; that it isn’t an imitation. It is my belief that painters should always try to capture that similar something; some essence of the subject that shocks the viewer into understanding they truly existed, and that the painting is not simply a crude imitation or imaginative work.”
I rubbed my eyes again. I needed a glass of water. I caught the gaze of the monstrous Saturn on the wall. That painting always made me shudder. I nodded to it and spoke weakly. “He wasn’t real.”
Bosques gave a muffled snort of derision and looked at me. “Was he not?”
Artists. Cryptic bunch. Don’t talk around a subject so much as exhaust it to death by persistence hunting. The Masai warriors of chat. I looked again at Saturn and took in the bestiality of the God. “Saturn was a God.”
Bosques snorted derisively.
The urge to leave rose. “Look, I–”
“I am looking for an… how do you call it in English? A helper.”
“No, not quite… I think….amanuensis. Amanuensis.” He rolled the word around his mouth, appreciating all of its syllables.
I considered what he meant for a second. “What do you mean? I thought you retired? You mean an apprentice?”
He held up his pincers again. “I never retired; my hands did. But my head and heart never ceased to work. Some days I boil over with ideas. But without his hands, what is an artist? Just a brain in a jar. But you…” He gently punched me in the shoulder with his seized-up hands – a sensation I didn’t enjoy. “You have something. Something that reminds me of me when I was younger.”
A compliment. Was this a set up? Couldn’t find the right response, so licked my lips like a fool and bowed my head. “In what way?”
“Imperfect. Savage. Focused. Afraid. Art is not simply about technique, though the quality of brush and pencil work is important; anyone can learn this. They are merely the algorithms of art. What makes a master?” He walked over to another of Goya’s black works, Dog. The drowning head of the mutt, swallowed in liquid ether, seemed suddenly poignant. “A master creates the punctum. They don’t aim to impress their audience; they aim to traumatise them.”
He again took the sketch I’d done of him. “To look at this, it hurts. It reminds me of bad things.”
“You want me to… I don’t understand.” I didn’t, in truth, Em. Still not sure what he was on about. Always knew I was a decent scribbler, but this trauma business, I’ve no idea. Nevertheless, I was intrigued, I don’t mind saying.
“You will be my brush,” said Bosques. “Capture in paint or ink what comes to my mind. Together we will be a system, a machine.” Then he shrugged, as if it meant nothing to him. “If you choose.”
Funny thing, Em, the opportunities to do things. Makes you reassess your priorities. The thought of destroying myself by degrees wasn’t forefront in my mind any longer. “Yes,” I said. To hell with it. I could always walk away. But confusion reigned. I needed to think.
“Good, then,” he said, with a satisfied flourish. “Join me to take a drink?”
Of course I said yes, but didn’t realise he meant a coffee. Was disappointed when he ordered an espresso on my behalf – from a bar, Em, not even a coffee house! – but elected not to show it. Curiosity was dulling my nihilism. Didn’t even find it in me to pour contempt over my fellow patrons. I wonder, is that all it takes to stave off a bit of reckless self-abandonment? Talking of abandonment, how is Great Aunty Baby? I hate to think of her suffering like that, but you’ll do right by her, won’t you, old girl? Just keep the suffering to a minimum. All you can do, sometimes. Mercy is the only bloody thing that separates us from the animals, and let nobody tell you otherwise.
I drank the bitter cup of brown (I admire the honesty of the Spanish for electing to use the same word for coffee as they do for brown) and asked Bosques why he’d chosen me.
He made a wrinkly face. “What do you mean?”
“Isn’t there some hotshot art student who’d be better equipped to ‘be your brush’, as you say, than me?”
He made a disdainful face. “They idolise me. I don’t want a worshipper.”
I pointed out that I’d idolised him in the past; I had mentioned an obscure collection of his, Sketches From An Old Youth, in the museum. “That’s hardly one of your most famous collections.”
“True. But you also stank of cheap Jerez and seemed more interested in capturing the darkness all around you than in me. Yes?”
I made what I thought would look like a noncommittal expression.
“And you drew something that fascinated me, and made me afraid.” He pointed at me – or would have, had his fingers allowed it – and said, “there is no youth like an old youth. There is no room for the sentimental in art. Goya learned that the hard way.”
I nodded, not quite understanding. I didn’t feel old. Well, my liver did.
“So,” he said, standing. “We begin tomorrow. You have the address of my studio. Be there at 11:00 sharp.”
I imagine 11:00am is what counts as a brisk early start in the art world. Suited me fine. I itched for a drink. So guess what I did, Em?
Ordered another coffee.
Can’t think what the old swine’s got planned. Tell the truth, I’m rather excited.