the phantom painter (surreal flash fic)

Dearest Theo,

It has been far too long! What is it, almost two months since last correspondence? I Hope all is well with Ellen and the twins, and that business over at the publishers continues to run in all its usual proficiency. Apologies but preliminaries must be cut unusually short– i have the most astonishing story to tell you of the events of the past few days.. contain it any longer and I fear I shall be sent quite mad!.. Recently I’ve been working exclusively by night, as I’ve found most of my best works are those emphatically dowsed in darkness and shadow. Thus my  studio is now almost completely black but for the light of a single candle, and the faint mist of the moon and stars through the high windows. In this light the objects and oil coated canvases seem to take on some new and otherworldly aspect which is leeched by the light of day.. tis something you catch a glimpse of in works of Rembrandt.. objects and figures so tenderly draped in shadow and caressed in light that they radiate beauty no matter the subject. Consequently then Ive spent many these past days in an abyssal, positively ursine sleep.. waking only in the nocturnal hours, only for my art, and feeling somewhat as if Im perpetually teetering on the edge of a dream.. Every thought and feeling seems to echo, to pulsate, to send ripples out into my own personal cosmos, and those dim unconscious wanderings that are usually so easily silenced, are now raucous, even threatening to take sway.

Although at times more than a little discomfiting this delirious state has done wonders for my art, a truly seismic change (which I hope to soon put before you), and no doubt i shall continue to drift in this stupor so long as my painterly endeavours continue to exude such an inveterate vivacity. But alas there is something yet more pressing — before this metamorphosis of mine art and mind I had been content enough with painting still life, but after my nocturnal turning I quite suddenly became set on testing my newfound gall on models, figures, and so sought out my muse. initially, I struggled beyond all mannered expression to find someone willing to come down to the studio at so exclusive and unconventional an hour, and most the stragglers who found willingness demanded such extraordinary monetary recompense that I had no choice but turn them down. I considered tracking down a working prostitute but felt it not only morally contestable to offer payment for such but also to then expect such a transaction to be somehow transformed into beautiful art. So after considerable searching I eventually happened upon a similarly manic-minded artist friend who pointed me towards a very singular fellow who was agreeable to lending his presence at such hours for a reasonable fee.

My friend had informed me beforehand that the man was mute, which I found rather endearing, but he had revealed little else of him. Having now met the man and spent some time with him these past few nights i can tell you he is without doubt the most enigmatic of personages I have ever encountered. Not only is he mute of voice but in all expression, of any kind, and yet there is an invisible, silent intensity there.. of immeasurable magnitude, like that which one feels when observing a truly great portrait of a figure who bears no expression.. but who is nevertheless radiant with some unseen aesthetic, some perhaps .. atomic energy. He is strikingly handsome, as a Michaelangelo, certainly on a par with cousin Jane –which as is well known, is no mean feat. And that stare.. by God! it is surely like lingering in those slowed down moments just before the lethal pounce of a great beast..

Last night curiosity got the upper hand of me, and after having drawn a few charcoals, which I find akin to the shaping of smoke with the tip of a finger, I told the man that he could leave a little earlier than usual (for the same fee of course). He took up his coat and left silently, but then I was struck by an irresistible urge to follow, and to find out more of this enigma. So I soon found myself stalking the city streets in the pitch night.. the streets of Amsterdam were so staggeringly beautiful I almost wept — the stars prancing and pirouetting on the surface of the canal, while the cobbled streets shifted and shimmered with lunar mists, and the cathedral spires pierced the sky like ethereal stalacmites.. it was, in no everyday usage of the word, divine. But as ever i digress.. I pursued the mute some way through the silent streets, a small few other phantasmal wanderers adrift in my periphery, and saw he made his way toward the gates of the city cemetery. Understandably hesitant, I followed him into the darkness, and thought, more than once, that I’d lost him amongst the clustered silhouettes of trees and elaborate headstones.. but then caught sight of his fleeting form and resumed pursuit.

i couldn’t help but think of the gravestones as being like withering teeth, and that I was moving deeper and deeper into the gullet of some slumbering titan.. lost in such dreamy thoughts I again almost lost sight of him, when I glimpsed him clambering over the cemetery wall. he climbed over the seven foot stonewall with a grace and ease that seemingly verged on the superhuman.. I followed this phantom, with the grace of a seal and fell over the other side a minute or so later. small wonder i landed in time to see him enter one of the buildings a little way up the street lit by a flickering streetlantern. Apartments. I approached the dilapidated looking place, and saw the main door was still unlocked.. I entered, and moved towards the dim light upstairs and saw he had left a door slightly ajar.. I should have turned away then, but was somehow unable to suffocate my curiosity.. I knocked only lightly, a whisper of a knock, and when there was no answer I pushed open the door and entered. I was astounded. His room was filled, crammed, with glorious works of art… hundreds of sketches, less but still a great many paintings.. some larger and more intricate, others more like studies of shape and form, they were all strewn about haphazardly. the paintings were mostly shadowy figures, though some were of buildings, castle ramparts, manses, and one striking work of a ship in the midst of a great biblical storm.. then one particular work caught my eye, clearly a more recent addition, still resting on the easel.. as I gazed on it i felt a terrible upsurge of Nausea take hold of me … like that moment when one realises they’re still asleep even when they’re most certain that they had woken up…. 

The painting was of me. sat in this very room, face half masked in shadow… and the likeness was so exquisite, so perfectly rendered.. why such a work could only be the creation of innumerable hours, and whats more it could only be a painting by an artist looking directly upon a model.. but how?! I had never before set foot here! Had i at some point sleepwalked to this place and sat for this man to paint my like? Madness! Id have had to come down for hours, days, for such an image of greatness to emerge… what a wonder it was! what a wonder I was! I could not but think that looking upon this image brought about the very same feeling as that conjured in the breast of Narcissus at the edge of the pond.. then, Just as I was overcome with this paranoiac onslaught of thought I heard the door close softly behind me and there stood the phantom himself. “Ah, my muse arrives” he said.. “please, do resume position. I’ve to make some final touches”. He points to a chair in the corner of the room, lit only by pale candlelight from one side.. and I saw all was configured exactly as in the painting…. words escaped me…. I couldn’t speak…. I wouldn’t. And so I wordlessly sat in the chair as he delicately dipped his brush, and began paint…

Dear Theo, it occurs to me to ask– have you ever heard your own voice whilst in the midst of a dream? Do try your hardest to keep up with writing me, I so often lose all sense of time without your words to keep me aground.

Ever your loving brother,

Anthony v B, september 5th 1633

[[[[[[[ nb: featured image is Rembrandt’s self portrait as a young man (1628) ]]]]]]]

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