Having studied in the Paris School of Art for the last 2 years, Arul had visited the Louvre Museum quite a few times, but this was a certain section that was frequently visited by him- Denon Wing, room 6. The undergraduate program for Art History had motivated him to visit and study the art, displayed in the museum. But it was this certain, premeditated, section that he had been visiting often.
“Are you studying DaVinci?” Arul heard someone directing the question towards him, as he was scrutinizing the painting of Saint John the Baptist. Arul shook his head to respond.
“I’ve been noticing you looking at that painting for the last 2 hours. Am sure there is a valid reason for that, though.” Arul looked at the observer, smiled at the observation made and went back to studying the painting again.
Nena returned to her desk from where she had been observing Arul for the last couple of hours and was intrigued to know what was he examining. This was not the first time she had made that observation. Arul’s past few visits and being stationed in front of this particular painting had not gone unnoticed.
Dejected that Arul refused to engage in any conversation, she returned to her work. Another hour later, Arul walked up to her desk, to return his visitor’s badge. They exchanged smiles; he scanned his card and walked away.
“What a strange guy,” Nena declared aloud to no one in particular, as she kept looking at him walking out of the glass doors.
Next time, on the first Saturday of the month, Arul was back at the same spot, in front of the same painting, making notes. Nena quietly came and by his side. Arul gave her a quick glance, smiled and went back to scribbling on his notepad. After a few minutes, Nena got impatient and spoke again, “I am interested to know why are you always in front of this painting.”
Arul let out a chuckle, “Just curious.”
“Really?” Nena did not conceal her confusion. “But I have seen you staring at this painting every time you visit here. I have seen you make notes about it. What is so special about this painting?”
“Ah, that! Well, I have been trying to emulate the sfumato in my own paintings for a while now and I am unsure what is it about this technique that looks so natural in his paintings but fails to come out like that in mine,” Arul replied, never for once leaving his sight of the painting.
“Oh, so you are an artist,” Nena deduced.
“Yes, yes. Presently studying at the PSA- Art History,” Arul was quick to respond.
“What is sfumato, by the way?” as if Nena was reminded of her own question, she asked him quickly. She was halfway through her sentence when Arul got up from the bench and started moving towards the exit.
Just as he realized that he was asked a question, he turned around towards Nena and said, “sorry, let’s talk next time?” He walked up to the exit desk, scanned his card and left Nena gaping.
“What a curious creature,” Nena announced yet again to the air.
“What is sfumato?” Nena asked Prof. Hempf during the stock count at the end of the month.
“Google it!” was the firm reply that came from the professor, who seemingly did not wish to engage in a conversation.
“I did,” Nena insisted, “but how am I to know which painting has that technique used and which one has not.”
“You are in art school, isn’t it?” The professor looked at her cockily.
Nena felt snubbed and did not want to respond to his curt question. She turned around to get back to her desk.
“You dropped this” Nena walked up to Arul and handed him over a sheet of paper that she had noticed fallen from his satchel.
“Thanks,” Arul smiled, holding the paper.
“You’re here again,” Nena said, indicating to his multiple visits here.
“Yeah, am almost done here, actually,” he responded
“When I asked you the first time if you were studying this painting or not, why did you say you were not?” Nena asked.
“Actually, I am not studying the painting, but the technique used,” Arul said, as a matter of fact.
Nena frowned at the response, “isn’t it the same thing?”
“Yeah,” without intending to involve in an elaborate conversation, he returned to his work.
Nena sat dumbfounded briefly and then returned to her work, engaging with the other guests. Another hour around Denon wing- room 6 later, she noticed Arul busy making notes in his book. Involuntarily, her eyes roved over to the painting in front of him and then she returned to her desk again.
“I have no idea what is it about him that wants me to engage with him,” Nena was reflecting more to herself than conversing with her roommate, Dez, who kept nodding time and again to indicate that she was interested in what Nena had to say.
Nena continued, without a breather, all the while doing the dishes at the sink, “I have been working there for almost 6 months now and every month, this chap simply comes and stations himself in front of the painting for hours, making notes and then leaving without a promise of return.”
Dez, who was helping wipe the plates asked, “Do you know when he is returning next?”
“He visits every first Saturday of the month…why?” Nena asked.
“So you know he is going to return.”
“Bah! You won’t understand,” Nena said miffed with Dez as she wiped her hands off the towel and headed to her room.
How could a man who has this undivided focus, fail at something that he has been trying to achieve for so long? What is this quest?
“Good evening,” Nena called out chirpily as she seated herself next to Arul, at the usual spot.
“Well, hello there,” Arul greeted with a smile. An awkward silence later, he asked, “how long have you been working here?”
“Over 6 months, now.”
“Do you always engage with the visitors here?”
“Nah..ha ha..not really. I was just keen to know why do you keep staring at this one particular painting, every time you visit here, that’s all.”
“I told you that. Didn’t I?”
“Yeah, now I know,” Nena shyly slid her hair over her ears with her hand.
“Is there anything else you want to know?” Arul sounded pleasant but it was unclear to Nena if she was invited for a conversation or a sign to leave him alone.
Nena smiled awkwardly, before she blurted, “I graduated today from Ecole de Conde- fresco.”
“Oh really! So you do know art,” Arul sounded pleased.
“Yeah…I mean, the art school and the job here has made me a bit aware. And now I am trying to get through to PSA as well.”
“Ah, do they have fresco there?” he inquired.
“Am just doing a summer elective,” she instantly divulged. “I’d do that till I have enough to enrol in a graduate program.”
“Yeah, it’s a great place to be at,” saying this Arul got up and started walking towards the exit.
“Aren’t you going to make notes about the painting today?” Nena asked surprised because she did not notice him looking at the painting of Saint John.
Arul shook his head, smiled, scanned his card and walked out of the glass door, leaving Nena perplexed as ever.
“What an unusual guy,” she mumbled again.
“Hello…hello, miss,” a visitor called out. “This phone suddenly stopped working.”
The visitor waved her hand towards Nena who was busy on her computer. As soon as she noticed the distressed visitor, she pulled out a fresh piece of earphones and walked towards her. Nena was returning to her desk when she noticed Arul holding a pencil against a 30×30 canvas board, his eyes firmly examining the painting in front of him. Nena returned to her desk, hoping not to disturb his meditative enrollment. But that did not stop her from giving him a glance every few minutes. What was so magnetic about him, she wondered.
Nena looked up from her computer screen to find him packing his stuff. She casually sauntered up to him, “ Hi there,” she paused briefly for him to look at her. “I see that you are already done.”
“Yeah, almost done here.” Arul picked his satchel and slung it on his shoulder.
“I noticed that you brought a canvas today. May I have a look?” she insisted.
Arul hesitated but pulled the canvas out of his satchel to display a few paints smeared on it. Shades of charcoal covered the far ends with a face emerging in the middle. “It’s not complete yet,” he declared.
“I see… but it looks great. Is that sfumato you’re trying?” she inquired.
“Yeah… this is the fourth attempt though, in the last six months,” he sounded defeated. He put the canvas back in his satchel and flashed his characteristic smile towards her.
“So what is it so special about this technique that makes you want to ace it?” she finally asked.
“My response may not amuse you,” he gave her an unsure sideward smile.
“Never mind. I might get something to learn,” she concluded for him.
“Well, the world over, Mona Lisa is a perfect painting made by Leonardo da Vinci where he has used sfumato. And this one, as well, has the same technique used by the artist. But I fail to understand what makes the earlier the most popular work by this artist. I mean, the smile on this painting is as endearing, as soft and as enigmatic.” He looked away from Nena back to the painting in front of him, “This one has the same optical illusion that seems to have been created in that one. So I wish to investigate what makes that one more special than this one.”
Contrary to what he had presumed, Nena was pretty amused by his contrast drawn. Possibly, for once even she would have thought about the reason why Mona Lisa was deemed so special, but that would have been just a fleeting thought. And here we had an artist who was studying the contrast created by the artist in his own painting and trying to emulate a technique that sounds easier than done.
“It could be possible because Mona Lisa is carrying a legacy while this one was a mere discovery after the artist’s death?” Nena tried to unravel the cobwebs in his mind. More so, she was trying to comfort his disturbed soul.
“Possible. Apart from that, I am simply failing at delivering what I wish to,” he tapped his satchel indicating his failed attempt at mastering the technique he had set out to.
“Every artist wishes to create an artwork, that makes them immortal. And even if not, they simply wish that at least one of their works makes them stand out; that everyone notices their work and identifies their style as their signature.”
This was the most Arul had ever spoken. Nena was surprised that he was willing to open the recesses of his mind, albeit confused, to a stranger like her; a person he had barely met a few times and spoken even fewer times. But she was glad that he did. He let out a sigh and carried himself out of the glass door.
Her heart dropped. The sadness in his eyes was heartbreaking but Nena could not muster herself to comfort him. As she saw him walk past the glass door, she promised herself to make his day better the next time he visits.
“I was waiting for you last month,” Nena tried to sound friendly shrouding her anxiety.
“Ah, last month there was a notice on the campus that Room 6 was closed for cleaning for three days. Was it not?” Arul asked her.
“Oh yes, it was. What was I thinking?” she blushed a little.
“… and I had to wait for this Saturday for my visit,” he sat on the bench and invited Nena to sit by his side.
“Actually the last time we had quite a dialogue on the sfumato technique, Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci and Saint John The Baptist that I was left intrigued to know more. Also, there is always less time to have a conversation,” she smiled.
“I have got my canvas, I was working on, again,” he pulled out the canvas from his satchel and presented it to her.
Nena held it up and scrutinized it, “I like how the charcoal shades are driving in, but if you could make the face glow a bit, this would have a character of its own.”
“You think?” he raised an eyebrow, almost appreciative of how Nena was critiquing his work. “I’ll work better.” The exchanged warm glances.
Just then a visitor who was flashing a few pamphlets and needed a clarification called out to Nena.
“I’ll see you in a while,” she told him as she walked towards the visitor leaving Arul to continue his work. It was almost impossible for anyone to have any work done there, but Arul had almost mastered to shut the world around him. Regardless, he could not help but notice Nena moving around, interacting with people and generally making the most of her job. How pleasant is she! He thought to himself.
“It’s been a year of working here, today,” Nena announced as she sat herself down by his side again.
“Really? Has it been that long?” Arul could not contain his surprise.
“Yeah, I think I might keep this job. I like it here. I’ve learned a lot and met so many interesting people,” she continued gushing. “Anyway, what are we doing now?” she asked him; turning her glance towards the painting he was studying.
“I am subtly trying to understand the strokes, function, condition, texture and blend and believe me, it has taken me a year to get to that, with regards to Art History. And now that I am trying to imagine my work being created such, I am unwilling to replicate the blank spaces that are so characteristic of this art.” Nena almost drowned in his self-analysis. “Do you know Leonardeci have created different versions of this painting and they have tried to eliminate the darkness to light element but nothing comes close to this beauty. I keep wondering, what is it about the blanks here?” He turned towards her, not necessarily seeking a response. But she offered it nevertheless.
“The detail is in the shadows,” she finally said. Arul sat mesmerized by her deduction. “I mean the beauty of this painting is the figure emerging from the darkness to light, which has been established. Your professors would have told you the same as well. I personally feel that the artist probably wanted to just outline the figure, that’s all and did not wish to create varied stories around it.”
“Are you saying that the artist was lazy?” he chuckled.
“No, no. I dare not. I just feel that possibly the artist did not even give as much thought to his art as much as the world really scrutinizes it,” Nena concluded thoughtfully.
“You know, that is close to blasphemy. If an art critic or even an artist appreciator hears you, you could get in trouble. Let aside, you could lose your job,” he joked.
“It may sound blasphemous to you, but my personal opinion is that art is to be appreciated and not necessarily critiqued.”
“That’s quite deep, you know.”
“Yeah. I mean, when an artist pours his heart on canvas, they do not intend for people to threadbare their emotions or judge their point of view. They simply seek that their art would be appreciated in the form that it is presented,” Nena reflected.
“You know, you’re quite wise for someone so young,” Arul immediately realized his foot-in-mouth moment and looked away.
Nena smirked, “you are pardoned.”
A brief silence later, she said, “Why don’t you try to find out more?”
“What do you mean?” Arul knew exactly what she was saying but wanted her to clarify, nonetheless.
“Your professors are directing you to study the subject from the perspective of the course. You are trying to figure out the work of another artist from those directives given to you. Have you tried working on your own? Like maybe, trying to find what is it that you would like to paint? You know…from your heart.”
“Of course, I paint with all my heart,” he sounded defensive.
“I mean…you do. But you are so stuck with the magnetism in this painting that you never bothered to have a look around. Do you realize that this same building has a vast collection of sculptures, antique art, Islamic art, Egyptian antiques, drawings, jewellery and what not? Have you ever thought you could probably master something else, perhaps? Or even if not, you could possibly learn something much from them? Being stationed at a place, trying to fit into a pre-conceived mould may only limit your possibilities. Having a myopic viewpoint to a certain something, in a bid to excel in that only, will make you trail in aspects that are still unknown to you. I guess you must start looking around as well, now,” Nena concluded her well-rounded speech.
“I guess I will start now,” he smiled, wound up his work, picked his satchel and headed towards the door.
“Hey, by the way, what’s your name?” she finally asked him.
“Nena Viktor,” she returned a smile, “nice knowing you.”
“Pleasure is all mine.”
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