nudity and sex
"Painful, Carlo?" I had expected adjectives like 'shocking', 'bold', which in fact would be used in newspapers and magazines articles, along with 'coarse' and 'scandalous'. I was hoping to become famous with 'Portraying Dorian G', and I did not worry about becoming infamous -- though I would hate the nickname 'The Dark Room' that was to give me so much exposure.
But instead of my offensively explicit nudity, and the impressive set of enrapturing beautiful men I had collected along my sex life, had Carlo seen my exposed, fragile soul?
"So you are to be the contemporary incarnation of Dorian Gray?" Carlo was referring to Oscar Wilde's famous character, implied in the title of the show.
I had rehearsed a challenging and nonchalant speech about the ugliness of the soul of our present days. How shallow and uncultivated it was, hiding behind the cult to the body and the apology of a very artificial beauty that slipped back into ugliness, unable to masquerade our souls, after all. Oscar Wilde had published his book in 1890, but Dorian Gray was one of the most iconic characters to that early XXI century, with its superficial aesthetics, the immensely alienating consumerism, a myriad of empty and equivocated values -- I had an arsenal of topics to address critics and journalists, to at least intellectually justify my presence in such an important museum. Dan Charmand had prepared me to turn my exhibition into a public statement.
But with Carlo I decided to be personal -- and it was the only time I did it, regarding that exhibition. Not even with Dan. Clearly, I felt that one painter had already spoken to the other painter about technical matters -- now it was the father talking to his son.
"To be honest with you, Carlo... I am the portrait of Dorian Gray. The painting itself. The picture that in the book suffers decadence, instead of the portrayed. I am the image that becomes monstrous, while the man remains beautiful. I'm the torn soul of the beautiful Dorian... and Gray, in this case, would be Angelo Vivace, my ex-boyfriend." I felt like pacing the room, but my father stood quietly at my side, and I just shifted my weight back and forth, feeling the unrest of my extemporaneous sincerity. "For, while he cheated me, lying with dozens of guys in Vice City," I closed my eyes briefly to that stinging memory, and gulped, "I was alone in our bed, tossing and turning and shedding tears, and crying his name... He would come back to our room radiant from anonymous sex, as I was in tears, having worried about him. While he felt horny, I just felt hurt... He smiled and exulted, while I just tormented myself... He enjoyed it all, while I was just suffering." So many years gone by, and my anger was still there, mingled with a lot of self-pity, too.
In fact, a decade or so having gone by, I had remained being the portrait of Dorian Gray, I thought. Even after my relationship with Angelo had ended. Dan Charmand had pointed that out, once.
"Why are you trying to look ugly and older, Laurent?" Like Angelo, Dan preferred that I used contact lenses instead of glasses, though he would never go with his own spectacles. "You cannot actually believe that your love life ends with Angelo. And I don't even want to know about these one-night stands you're addicted to, though they become very powerful portraits. What is good for your art might not be good for your soul, have you reflected on that? Your poser image of cruel lover and serial seducer is very amusing, but a hardened heart definitely does not suit you well." Dan had scolded me.
Thus it was that Angelo was present in all my paintings -- although, in fact, there was no image of him on display at 'The Dark Room'.
He was in every man with whom I went to bed and then dumped -- a continuation of the contempt with which he had treated me.
I had been remotely inspired by the Hindi tale about Sita and her two beheaded lovers, as retold by Thomas Mann, when purposefully I had kept my face out of that exhibition -- the only faces on display were of my ex-lovers, while the only body to be seen, in all its crude nakedeness, was mine. But with great insight and sensitivity, Carlo had interpreted the show as a portrait of my soul. A wounded, lacerated soul.
"Did I hurt you that much, Laurent?" He seemed moved, and worried. He saw me puzzled at his question, and added that he had been wondering if he was the cause of the suffering he was seeing depicted in my paintings. "This is clearly destructive, Laurent. You are trying to take revenge on these guys, trying to make them suffer by turning them into mere minced meat... Am I wrong? I mean, have you been hurting them because in fact you'd rather hurt me? Hurt people hurt other people. Does that sound too psychological?"
I almost whined, and glanced at the other side of the room to avoid crying. When my eyes were met by Andrei's, an Slavic beauty and a fierce lover, I regained self-control. "Yeah, you hurt me, Carlo." My father's words had given me goosebumps. He had been twenty years absent, and still, he could read me like an open book? "But all this has nothing to do with you..." Why did I have to lie, at that moment? Everything I had gone through during those years had to do with my father's absence, in a way or another, be it good or bad. "I mean, of course I ended up becoming a painter by your influence, but... the suffering that you seem to identify here has nothing to do with you." Andrei's stare captured in my painting contained all the selfish vanity that made him so superficial, and doubting he would ever have any deep psychological issues, I wished to be just like him at least once. "No."
We continued walking through the exhibition in thoughtful silence. Until, as we stood before the marmoreal elegance of slender and tall, nerdish Finnish Timo, Carlo exclaimed, "Your depiction of flesh is extraordinary, Laurent! Not the torn flesh of Francis Bacon, nor Lucien Freud's decay, no. Instead, you portray an enrapturing beauty, but so that it looks... harmful, perhaps? Instead of being in a museum, I have the impression of being in a butcher's shop, and all these guys look like ground beef... This amount and variety of gorgeous and anonymous men, whose only point in common is having had sex with you..." Tilting his head, Carlo again looked carefully around the room, taking in the portraits of my numerous ex-lovers. "Your sexual consumerism, Laurent, is a shocking statement. Serial seducer, you said? Perhaps this is as dangerous as being a serial killer, although it sounds like just a funny pun." He shook his head. His voice was neutral still, if fatherly, but it seemed like he was getting judgmental. "All these guys you have consumed and discarded... And that in the title of the paintings it doesn't appear their names, just a number!" Carlo snorted. I had titled the paintings simply as Portrait # 1, Picture # 2, up to a number well above four hundred, though there were only 45 on display. "Is it then right, Laurent, that with this exhibition you are seeking vengeance against your ex-boyfriend? Or actually, finally making it public to him?"
I gasped loud. It was an idea I had not yet had. Maybe in the back of my mind, but I had never admitted it to myself to be my main motivation. Would Dan have helped me to put up an exhibition that was an act of vengeance -- against one of his ex-lovers, too? Of course, I was pretty sure that Angelo, as a journalist, would learn about my exhibition at such a prestigious museum, whose director he had known very intimately. And I would very much appreciate should he visit it. Just to realize how many men I had put between me and him -- the distance being measured in beds, but not just.
But then, he would understand that he had forever conquered and defeated me. I had been faithful to Angelo for eight years. Since then, I had had only one night stands and explosive love affairs that never lasted more than a couple of weeks. My exhibition, as pointed out by Carlo, was the confirmation that my ex-boyfriend had hurt me indelibly, beyond the possibility of any cure, relegating me to the curb of promiscuity, while he had married the perfect woman, socialite supreme Laura von Tschimmel.
I startled at Carlo's voice, who wanted to continue sharing his insights with me.
"There is one boy that is repeatedly portrayed, though." Carlo observed, with much wit. "This one young man here... Portrait # 172...And that over there is also another painting on him, isn't it? And I believe in the other room there is another..." It was impressive that Carlo had noticed that it was the same man, because two of the portraits were quite dirty and disfigured. "Is he Angelo?"
Actually, Carlo had been anticipating a picture of my ex-boyfriend, and seeking for it because, as he later clarified, "this guy who made you suffer so much, my son, is who I wanted to see the most."
"No, Carlo. There is no portrait of Angelo here." Exactly just like how in an exhibition there might be no portrait of the photographer, but he is behind all the photos, always present behind the lens, thus Angelo was in all the men I had portrayed -- I had just realized that. What a peremptory defeat for me, and a definitive victory for my ex-boyfriend, if I were to accept Carlo's interpretation of my work, derived from my promiscuity. "This is Marton... He was..." Also Portrait #193, #224 and a couple more, "a little more special... and lasted a bit longer... than the others."
"But he also was committed to another relationship, as I discovered later." Perhaps only for Marton, had I fallen in love during the last decade. But he hadn't been available for a relationship, although he was always available for sex. "We got together quite a few times in Samsara Heights, when he had business there. But it did not work right for us." Nor wrong, actually, I thought, as he had done with me just as I did with all the other guys, using me and dumping me.
It would have too much of an infraction for Ted to have turned the air conditioning on, too, and both Carlo and I were sweating. I suddenly realized a stream of perspiration going down my back and into my trousers when I saw Carlo drying the back of his neck with a handkerchief. The bottom of his hair was wet too, but despite the discomfort, he didn't seem willing to drop our conversation nor leave my show.
"There are so many beautiful men in this exhibition!" Carlo complimented. More the guys than me, however, for he did not seem impressed nor proud of my sexual achievements. Instead, he seemed deeply worried and faintly stunned. "They all are, actually. But their stares... Many of them stare back at us with defiance, others in disbelief. That one over there, for instance," He pointed Rhys, a professional model who had, however, not charged me for his painting, leaving it even after a good and long, hard session on the carpet of my atelier, "appears to be disdainful, but there are also those who stare with... love... even as if worshiping... Were they posing for you, Laurent?"
It strikes me as almost surreal to be chatting about my love life -- actually, my sex life -- with my father. I had always talked about my affairs with Catherine, for she seemed to take pride in my conquests. "It looks like you have beaten me, mon cher." She had joyfully declared one day over the phone, as if she had been counting the men I had gone to bed with, comparing to her own figures. It had been the survival strategy we had shared, after her partner Edoardo had died and Angelo had dumped me. Death to her, and an end that seemed like death to me, though we were living oceans apart, had united us in our respective celebrations of the continuation of life, that consisted mainly on relishing a wide variety of men.
But confiding in Carlo had a quite different feeling to it -- more existential, as if for the first time I was weighing and measuring the extent of my wrongdoings. On those matters, Carlo was the flawless one, while Catherine and I had been accomplices in our careless freedom. My mother might have demanded that I dress and speak and write and behave to her standards of perfection, but when it came to sex, Catherine's norm was still that of l'amour libre.
I hesitated. How earnest could I be with Carlo? "Some of them... yes." It were so many years, countless memories of the different circumstances on how I had met those men and taken them to bed and then to the easel. Yet, I remembered each one of those guys I had portrayed. "I painted some from photographs. Piers, for example," He was Portrait # 265, "posed for me. We were at a nudist beach in Greece, where we crossed paths. I made several drawings of him in one of the sketchbooks that I always carried with me, and later used them as a reference to paint his portrait, back in Samsara Heights. That blond one is Lars." Or Portrait #311. "I met him in a vegetarian restaurant in Stockholm. I took pictures of him after we had sex. Lars was nervous, tense, restless, and I tried to depict him just so..."
"Then Piers must have been the opposite?" My father had observed. "Tranquil, maybe shy?" His effort to name my lovers and go beyond the number was not just to humanize them -- it sounded a bit moralistic, too. In his mind, names seemed to soften the more voluptuous, sensual aspects of the portraits. What if he started naming them at the vernissage? I doubted Carlo would be very talkative then, among a crowd. He was better in connecting to one person at a time, like with Gabriel at the Nirvana Lounge. A few of my ex-lovers and models still lived in Vice City, and I was hoping some of them might show up -- in those years, how much would they have changed? How many Dorian Grays would we have? Anyway, I calculated Carlo wouldn't play the host and greet them by their names, so I had nothing to worry about.
Since my childhood, Carlo was aiming at reading the painter behind my painting. Or maybe, was it my heart that he could still read so easily? Where had my father been, all those years? I wouldn't have run into so much trouble, I thought, if he had been there, with his sensitivity and clarity of mind illuminating my path, clarifying my own emotions, leading me out of confusion and delusion. Pacifying me by just being there, simply being there for me.
"That's right, Carlo. Piers was quiet... and sweet, too." I still recalled that, when Pier smiled, his gaze saddened. And not just when we had said goodbye at the port, before boarding different ferry boats. Piers was one of those guys who refused to have sex, and I had enacted beautiful and tender sessions of love making with him, but all along his gaze had been full of melancholy, even when his mouth twisted and moaned, in anticipation to the end of our vacations, when we would forever part.
"You never fell in love again, Laurent?" Carlo asked each question carefully. As if sentence by sentence trying to rebuild his fatherly figure and reconnect.
"No, Carlo. Never." I uttered, with a vehemence that left me wondering.
"But this won't have prevented some of these guys from falling in love with you..."
"Maybe, Carlo. But I never enticed them with the promise that I would love them back." I again recalled Piers; how even in the raunchiest moments of sex he was trying to stare right into my eyes, as if losing eye contact must have turned love making into plain sex. "And like I said, many of them were committed. For this reason, I won't ever be able to state that they are all my ex-lovers, in these portraits. But neither shall I deny it..." I laughed. "It's in my commercial contract with my marchand! Part of our marketing strategy, you see?" Carlo twisted his mouth, clearly disapproving that association of Art and selling techniques. "And of course, many of the guys I had sex with did not want to be portrayed. So this here..." I made a gesture encompassing the whole exhibition, "is just a part of my life."
No, it was not seeing an exhibition, no matter how explicitly autobiographical, that my father would scoop my whole life into his hands again.