CHAPTER TWO

 

It took a couple of days for Andrew Doyle to get used to the presence of his portrait hanging in the study of his ground-floor flat.  Frankly its existence there struck him as somewhat pretentious, elevating him out-of-all-proportion to his actual status.  Gradually, however, he became less conscious of that and more resigned to living with it as a matter of course.  Whether or not other people would approve of the work ... was a matter of complete indifference to him, as was its presence on the wall above his writing desk.  Now that the temptation to have his relatively youthful face transposed to canvas had been realized, he could forget all about the experience and turn his attention towards matters of more importance to himself.  He might even be able to sell the portrait to a wealthy and admiring collector one day - assuming he ever became sufficiently famous to be in such a privileged position!  For the time being, however, it would have to remain where it was, sightlessly staring out onto the back garden.

     As for Robert Harding, there was as yet little that Andrew really knew about him; though, to judge by the paintings he had seen next door, not to mention the one he had recently purchased, it was evident that his neighbour, besides having a talent for self-publicity, was a talented and versatile artist, who could develop quite interesting potentialities if time permitted.... Not that time was completely on his side as regards the age in which he lived - an age when traditional representational art, no less than traditional representational literature or music, was steadily on the decline and, to all appearances, could hardly be expected to pick up again.  At least that was how matters generally stood, though there were, however, a few notable exceptions - works of art which approximated to egocentric greatness in an age of post-egocentric simplicity and even naiveté, whether in respect of the superconscious or of the subconscious.  But even that was better than no art at all, if one had a taste for art in general.  And even post-egocentric art, conceived, say, in terms of Abstract Expressionism or Post-Painterly Abstraction, was only such in relation to traditional art, where a balance held good between the sensual and the spiritual, the physical and the mental, and dualistic man was aptly reflected in his representational creations.  Nowadays, on the other hand, that balance had been tipped so much in favour of the spiritual, even with a new disparity between progressive and regressive manifestations of it, that a kind of transcendent rather than Christian art prevailed, in testimony to a later stage of evolution, wherein the abstract predominated over the concrete.  Doubtless there was a limit to just how abstract such art could become before it reached a peak, one way or the other, and this limit, signified in the most radically progressive examples by a monochrome canvas, had arguably already been presented to the public, thereby signalling the unofficial end of painterly art.  For once the highest and most radical abstraction had been attained to, there was no going back to a less abstract approach to painting, no returning to the concrete, even if contrary approaches to abstraction were still possible!  Progress in art couldn't be reversed simply because one had a nostalgia for earlier trends.  Art wasn't a game that could be one thing one moment and a completely different, unrelated thing the next!  On the contrary, it was a very definite procedure which progressed from age to age through the requisite transformations laid down by both artistic precedent and the fundamental nature of the age itself.  If it didn't, in some measure, reflect the age into which it had been born, no matter how many contradictions that age may have inherited from the past, it wasn't genuine art but, rather, a sham carried out by aesthetic philistines who simply wanted to please themselves and imagined, in consequence, that art could be completely irresponsible, turning its back on the problems and overriding concerns of the age in the name of an ivory-tower isolationism which would inevitably reduce it, or whatever they produced, to the comparatively contemptible level of an amateur pastime - devoid of social or moral significance!

     Thus modern painterly art, in attaining to an abstract climax, was drawing to a close, refusing to turn away from the logic inherent in its development towards increased spiritualization and thereby desert its primary responsibility in response to and furtherance of the developing transcendental nature of the age.  A number of the artists involved with this responsibility could certainly have gratified themselves - not least of all financially - by adopting a more traditional approach to art and thereupon painting works which the ignorant or mediocre could have recognized as 'genuine art' - three-dimensional perspective and a credible balance between the concrete and the abstract, with the appropriate traditionally-approved colour schemes included for good measure.  But for a variety of reasons, not excepting their responsibility to society or, more correctly, to themselves as artists, they refused to do so, resolutely sticking to the dictates of the age, with its abstract predilections.  And even if some of them didn't possess these talents primarily because they were heirs of the Industrial Revolution and the large-scale urbanization which had resulted from it - in other words, because the environments in which they had matured were inimical to the life of the soul, with its emphasis on the sensuous and the emotional - then their transcendental allegiance to the dictates of the age was still the most important consideration, rendering the ability or inability to paint in traditional terms largely if not completely irrelevant.  If the ignorant or cynical wished to think otherwise, so be it!  But their desire to see 'real art' instead of 'modern art', at the latest and most genuine exhibitions, would never be realized, neither now nor in the future.  The urban environment was fundamentally against it.

     But where did Robert Harding fit-in to all these thoughts that flitted through Andrew's mind in a plethora of paradoxical contradictions as he sat in his study one morning, about a week after the completion of his portrait, and indifferently gazed out, through his closed french windows, on to the garden, now freshly bathed in sunlight.  Certainly there was much more to Harding's art than the execution of semi-Expressionist portraits - passably accomplished though they were.  On the few occasions when he had sat in his neighbour's studio or wandered around from room to room out of idle curiosity, he had noticed examples of Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Op, and even Surrealism on various of the walls - each work testifying to the painter's awareness of contemporary or, at any rate, modern trends ... as largely bearing, thought Keating, on a petty-bourgeois intelligentsia who necessarily fought shy of photography, with its communistic and, hence, objective implications for social realism more symptomatic, it seemed to him, of a proletarian humanism.  If portrait painting was one of Harding's lines, it could hardly be described as the only one; though, off-late, it had evidently usurped the domain of his other painterly concerns and rendered them at least temporarily redundant.  How long he would continue to paint portraits was anyone's guess, but it seemed not unlikely that his recent decision to do so was in part sparked off by a growing discontent with the bi-polar trend of modern art towards increased abstraction, and a desire, in consequence, to return to a more concrete and possibly traditional mode of painting such as might, besides offering him greater financial reward, gratify his penchant for form, for unity and coherence.  Whether he would eventually grow disillusioned with or tired of this, however, remained to be seen.  But he showed no signs of doing so at present.  On the contrary, the very fact that he had asked his new neighbour of only moderate literary fame whether he would like his portrait done and, when this worthy individual had modestly declined, well-nigh insisted on it, on the pretext that it would be to his subsequent professional advantage to be seen on canvas, suggested an urgency of intent bordering on the ridiculous, so imperative must have been his need to find someone, no matter how socially insignificant, on whom to practise.  Doubtless the preoccupation afforded him by Andrew's subsequent, if rather unenthusiastic, consent prevented him from being either idle or, worse still, relapsing into a non-representational mode of art which, for some as-yet-unspecified reason, he preferred to avoid.  That more than likely being the case, it was obviously in his personal interests to carry on from where he had left off and execute a number of other such works - works which would, in some measure, unburden him of the contradictory pressures and responsibilities of being modern.  For it did seem that the aesthete in Harding, which Andrew had recognized and been obliged to acknowledge on their first meeting, little over a month ago, was in earnest rebellion against the latest developments in art which, in their utter and disarming simplicity, scorned the traditional criteria of aesthetics as though they had never existed.

     Not that Harding had intimated to him of any such rebellion at the time, nor, for that matter, subsequently, since far too discreet to risk exposing himself to opposition, ideologically or otherwise, from a person he as yet knew very little about and wanted, for the aforementioned reasons, to exploit.  All the same, it wasn't too difficult for Andrew to put two-and-two together and adduce from his reticence and general aestheticism the likelihood of a conservative if not reactionary turn-of-mind where uncritical fidelity to the more progressive contemporary trends in art was concerned.  Even his considerable knowledge of Christian art, a knowledge embracing almost everything of any value from approximately the 10th-19th centuries, spoke eloquently on behalf of an unsatisfied aestheticism and preference for traditional values, for a return, in short, to that compromise between sensuality and spirituality which had characterized the era of egocentric art.  An unequivocal admission of this fact might have rendered him vulnerable to attack and rejection by one who, on first setting foot in his house, had expressed tentative approval of an Abstract Expressionist canvas, after the manner of de Kooning, hanging in the entrance hall.  Yet for reasons only vaguely hinted at, and then unconsciously, he had refrained from any such admission and, instead, pandered to Andrew's tastes to the extent he could.

     Nevertheless it was evident from the first that a kind of spiritual friction existed between the two men which no amount of duplicity or neighbourly deference could entirely cloak - a friction which led the writer to critically reflect upon a number of things which had passed between them during the course of the afternoon in question, and not least of all where politics and religion were concerned.  For although neither of them had 'come out', as it were, about their respective beliefs and allegiances on those counts, nevertheless it was fairly evident, from various statements and casual asides Harding had let drop during their conversation, that they were by no means of a kindred disposition but, rather, of an unequal if not downright antagonistic one!  Still, neighbours were neighbours, and the fact that they were both professionals of approximately the same age - Andrew being a mere three years younger than the painter - was conducive towards the establishment of a cordial, not to say optimistic, acquaintanceship.  How they would respond to each other in due course when, through familiarity, they became a little less guarded in their conversation, remained to be seen; though Andrew already harboured some misgivings as to the prospect of a genuine friendship, based on religious and political affinities, subsequently developing.  Even that remark Harding had casually let drop, during the final afternoon of his sitter's ordeal the previous week, about being obliged to paint three-quarter witted aristocrats, half-witted bourgeoisie, and quarter-witted proletarians had, unbeknown to himself, provided the writer's sensitive imagination with further clues as to the political mentality of his new neighbour, causing him to reflect upon the probability of an allegiance, consciously or unconsciously, to the upper classes in contrast to any socialistic bias which would have favoured the people.... Not that the descending scale-of-values, evidently improvised on the spur-of-the-moment, was without at least some applicability to the general intellectual or imaginative differences which undoubtedly existed between the classes in question.  But, even so, a remark like that could easily be interpreted in terms of fascism or even of royalism.  Yet Harding, with his aestheticism and expansive knowledge of Christian art, was unlikely to be a fascist, even if the possessor, consciously or unconsciously, of fascist tendencies.  No, in all probability, he was simply a bourgeois aesthete, as most young aesthetes tended to be these days.  And that doubtless went some way towards explaining why he was in rebellion, willy-nilly, against the trend of modern art towards increased abstraction and had consequently reverted to painting portraits, to reinstating the concrete to the extent he could.  The bourgeois in him had taken fright at the progressive spiritualization of art, but to save face or, at any rate, prevent this realization from breaking through the thin barrier of moral integrity with which he protected his conscience, the aesthete had conveniently come to the fore and recoiled from the simplicities of the latest abstractions in the name of 'genuine art', to thereupon initiate a return to portraiture, with its sensuous form.

     Yes, that was how it seemed to Andrew Doyle, as he reflected on the probable motives for Harding's abandonment of painterly abstraction, an abstraction which, in any case, he had never appeared to practise too ardently or convincingly, if the original paintings on display in his house were anything to judge by!  On the contrary, the first impression a number of them had made on Andrew was hardly such as to suggest that their creator possessed a profound and intimate knowledge of modern art!  Rather, that he managed a perfunctory attempt at emulating it.  The result, one felt, was more a pastiche than a genuine outpouring of progressive sentiment, a thin veneer of modernism over the essentially reactionary and conservative nature of the artist's soul.  Perhaps a brave attempt at camouflaging his true loyalties?  But not a particularly convincing one!  His return to portraiture must have come as something of a relief.

     The sudden sound of someone laughing from the direction of the artist's back garden caused Andrew to start from his morose speculations at Harding's expense and wonder who it could be?  Then he remembered that Henry Grace had been expected to put in a few appearances, next door, for the sake of his portrait, this week, and wondered whether it mightn't be him?  Apparently, it was in the nature of Harding to paint in his garden when the weather permitted, and today, being so clear and warm, was evidently no obstacle to his pleinair predilections but, rather, a strong encouragement to them.  Whether or not he had already painted part of the new portrait in his studio would have no bearing, seemingly, on any subsequent decision to paint outdoors.  For he somehow managed to change from one light to another without any professional qualms or undue technical difficulties.  The only possible obstruction to this environmental resilience would come, if at all, from his sitter, who might object to being exposed to the sun for too long, or of having to endure stiff breezes, etc.  But such obstructions were apparently few-and-far-between, a majority of sitters evidently preferring the superficial beauty and apparent cleanliness of Harding's back garden to the profound ugliness and essential stuffiness of his studio.

     With curiosity aroused, Andrew silently opened his french windows and tiptoed out into the garden, availing himself of the cover afforded by the tall lattice-fence which divided his strip of turf from Harding's.  Although the laughter had evaporated, a little sporadic conversation could be heard instead, which was punctuated, every few seconds, by enigmatic silences or subdued humming.  Tiptoeing up as close as possible to the fence without running the risk of detection, he peered through a narrow gap in the lattice at the scene beyond, where Harding was indeed at work on the art critic.  For at that moment the sound of a woman's voice saying: "D'you know, Henry, I really can't remember the last time you drank champagne," was distinctly audible above a protracted bout of subdued humming which issued from the direction of the man in question.

     "Can't you, my dear?" Mr Grace responded in a vaguely commiserating tone-of-voice.

     "Not unless it was at Raymond's, that time in '76," the lady conjectured.

     Andrew swivelled his eyes over to the right to get a look at the physical source of the female voice which, until then, had simply eluded him.  He could just discern, through the tangle of rose bushes the other side of his fence, the outlines of a profiled head with short grey hair freshly tinted a pale purplish hue.  With further optical manoeuvrings it was just about possible for him to follow the length of her lightly dressed body from the top of her head down to the tips of her toes, as she reclined, without sunglasses, in a bright-green deck chair which Harding had evidently brought out into the garden on her account.  She must have been in her late fifties or early sixties, judging by the colour of her hair and the mature timbre of her voice.

     "Yes, it may well have been," Mr Grace admitted, following a period of reflective deliberation which might have led one to suppose he was pondering a problem of such magnitude that its correct solution was a veritable matter of life-and-death to him.  "Although I've an uneasy suspicion I had a drop in '78 at Maxim's, the time they were opening their new gallery."

     "Which was something I missed, wasn't it?" the lady commented, half-excusing herself.

     "Yes, I do believe it was," Mr Grace confirmed, casting her a sidelong and vaguely reproachful glance.  "However, it tasted more like cider, so you didn't miss much - not, at any rate, with regard to the refreshments!"

     From what Andrew could see of him, Mr Grace was a man of approximately the same age as his wife, with grey hair, an average build, and a patrician profile.  Not a particularly handsome-looking figure but arguably an intelligent-looking one nonetheless, a man with an air of authority, acquired, no doubt, during the course of his lengthy career as a maker or breaker of painters.  One felt that if he hadn't been an art critic he would have been a judge.  Possibly even a priest.  But at the present juncture in time he was very definitely a sitter for Robert Harding, who, ensconced at his easel no more than a few yards away, appeared to be deeply engrossed in the application of bright pigment to a canvas slightly larger than the one he had used for his previous client.  It was indeed refreshing to behold such an unabashed demonstration of industry, to see the artist knitting his brows and occasionally allowing his tongue to delicately protrude from between his moistened lips under the apparent exigency of the latest feat of concentration he was imposing upon himself with the encouragement of Mr Grace!  Not once, during the entire course of his own modelling engagement with the artist, had Andrew noticed such a display of ardent commitment!  The artist, except when replying to the comments of his mistress, had retained an almost unbroken equanimity, a serenity of visage bordering on the angelic.  But now?  One might have thought him in the throes of some demonic possession or suffering from a fierce and implacable migraine.  The transformation in his approach to portraiture appeared so complete ... that Andrew was tempted to laugh, so incongruous an impression did it make on him.  If it was an act Harding was putting on to impress the renowned art critic, there could be no doubt that he was flogging it for all it was damn-well worth!  A more concentrated act of sustained commitment one couldn't have imagined.  Clearly, the absence of Carol Jackson from the scene had something to do with it.  For, with her present, he wouldn't have felt quite so confident that the act would be taken seriously.  Indeed, he might not have been able to perform one at all.  But that was probably beside-the-point and only an aside Andrew felt inclined to entertain on the strength of his sublimated amusement.

     "Have you ever been to Maxim's, Robert?" the figure in the deck chair suddenly inquired of the painter.

     "Yes, once or twice actually," he answered.

     "Really?"  Mrs Grace appeared lost in thought, but Mr Grace, having apparently lost interest in the champagne problem, pressed the artist to reveal what he thought of the place.

     A slightly nervous cough from Harding intimated to all present the likelihood of a negative response.  "Rather too modern for my tastes," he tentatively confessed, after a moment's cautious hesitation.

     Andrew automatically started back from the fence, as though to avoid the gaze of someone who had a suspicion he was there.  It was a veritable revelation!  A confirmation of his prior assumptions concerning Harding's creative predilections!  Maxim's evidently specialized in abstracts.

     "Yes, I had imagined it would be," Mr Grace remarked in an overly sympathetic tone-of-voice, the rudiments of a conspiratorial smile in swift pursuit of his words.  "And thus rather too subjective, what?"

     The artist nodded in agreement and proceeded to mix some fresh pigment on his abstract-looking palette.  "Not quite what I'd regard as art," he softly commented, becoming a little more forthright.  "Though they do deal in a few paintings more to my tastes - portraits and landscapes, for example.  Not to mention the odd nude of variable quality."

     "Quite!" the critic conceded, nodding vaguely.  "Unfortunately the emphasis is on Abstract Expressionism, Op, Pop, and Post-Painterly Abstraction.  They don't even deal in Cubist or Surrealist works these days."

     "Doubtless they're just another victim of the times," opined Harding, some freshly tinted pigment poised on the end of his brush, like a blob of coloured ice cream.  "Going down the slippery slope of commercial modernism in deference to creative degeneration," he added caustically.

     "So it would appear," sighed Mr Grace.  "Frankly, if modern art degenerates any further, I'll be out of a job.  One feels the critic is a dying breed."

     "Well, at least he won't die-out in your lifetime," Mrs Grace declared from her deck chair.

     "Small consolation for those who come after me!" the critic retorted, turning briefly, at Harding's professional expense, towards his wife.  "Fortunately, however, there are some artists in the world who are doing their level best to stem the rising tide of anarchic disintegration and thereby grant one the rare opportunity of reviewing art instead of kitsch.  Artists who refuse to kow-tow to the latest trashy shibboleths but remain loyal, even in the face of hardship, to the essentially objective nature of art."

     It wasn't too difficult for Andrew to notice that, following this comment from 'On High', a modest but perceptible smile had insinuated itself into Harding's formerly stern mien - a smile which betrayed his heartfelt pleasure in identifying with the sentiments of his distinguished sitter.  Yes, how significant all this was becoming for the writer, as he continued to spy on the unsuspecting trio through the small gap in his fence!  Now there could be absolutely no doubt concerning the artist's bourgeois aestheticism, his reactionary tendencies vis-ŕ-vis modern art!  Objectively speaking, he didn't want progress but only regress or, failing that, perpetual stasis.  He wasn't prepared to let art exhaust itself, to come to its inevitable painterly end in the ultimate abstraction.  He was one of those who wanted, on the contrary, 'to stem the rising tide of anarchic disintegration' as Mr Grace, himself evidently an enemy of progress, had so crudely put it, and thus prevent the evolution of Western art from reaching its subjective goal.  And, if possible, he would doubtless do more than merely 'stem the rising tide'; he would endeavour to reverse it, so that the age could become a victim of his anachronisms and thereafter be obliged to regard them as alone representative of artistic progress, the 'progress' of a post-abstract accommodation with photographic objectivity, and thus of the bourgeoisie with the proletariat, of liberal and social humanism.

     To be sure, it was easy enough to see why portraiture had become such a must for Harding recently, as also why he hoped to curry favour with Mr Grace.  And, to judge by the conversation and sentiments exchanged between the two men, he was doing just that - establishing the basis of a mutual understanding which would further his cause by, hopefully, bringing his work into greater prominence.  For if Mr Grace wielded as much influential power as Harding supposed, then there could be little doubt that the subsequent assistance of the critic would prove of inestimable value in his hitherto lone-handed battle against abstraction.

     Turning away from the fence in manifest disgust, Andrew swiftly tiptoed back to his study and gently closed its french windows behind him.  He had seen and heard quite enough of his next-door neighbour for one day!

 

 

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