This painting was commissioned by a man who claimed to be the daughter of the woman painted here. But there was something odd about the whole encounter. First of all, while anything is possible, she looked to be more like his granddaughter in age difference. Moreover, they did not appear to have a filial relationship. In fact they did not appear to have a relationship at all. If they did, it felt more like a business arrangement which I have no judgement about. It’s just worth commenting on because of the intuited and palpable disconnect between what he was telling me and what I observed and felt.
After showing me a few photographs of his young adult “daughter” I told him I was happy to do the painting and we even agreed on price. However, I told him that I would need to take some pictures myself since what he showed me were nice photos but they were not useful as “studies” for a painting. They were flat and lit from the front which makes for nice bright photos but tends to flatten people and makes it difficult for me to give them the 3D qualities that are hallmarks of my work. Moreover the expressions on her face were conventional smiles and I wanted to see more depth of character.
They both agreed to meet me for a photo session and the goal was to get a few good shots of her in a ballerina outfit as she was an accomplished amateur dancer and this was the vision for the painting from the beginning. I encouraged them to bring a few props to the session on the off chance that would help create some additional interest for the painting. I was envisioning some flowers or a tiara or a favorite charm. I never asked but I assumed from the beginning the woman was about 20 years old. It was never discussed that the painting or the photo shoot would involve nudity so I never asked her age.
Well, she did show up with a few props. A knife and a fake plastic human heart….the kind you get from a Halloween shop. The knife was made of metal but was also fake. The blade was as blunt as the edge of a spoon. I assumed it was something she had from a theater production of West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet.
She was strikingly beautiful but what was more striking was how utterly silent she was. He did all the talking, not because he was a bully but simply to fill tense and peculiarly awkward silences. At some point I started concocting theories that she was mute or was in fact from a different country and did not want to betray her accent or the possibility that she was something other than the ruse he presented. At some point, though, she asked me a question and I realized that neither of those theories were correct. She asked me if I had any red paint…..preferably blood red.
She covered the fake heart in blood and held it up towards me. I took the shot and knew right then we were done. I had my painting.
I took a few more pictures to be polite. Sent them on their way and cleaned up.
Back in those days you shot with film so I jumped in the car and raced down to the nearest drug store where I could get one hour film development and prints.
I was right. The heart shot was it.
I sketched in the painting immediately. Called my client and in a day or so he was down at my studio. He loved the photo and the first stage of the painting. And without hesitation he paid me the $1,000 non refundable deposit I require for commissions of this size.
And that was the last time I ever heard from him. After repeated attempts to contact him to come see the progress I gave up. At the time of this writing it has been 10 years. And I have long since declared the piece “finished” because of my own feelings about the piece. It says it all without the raised fist squeezing the heart. While that would probably also make a compelling painting, I felt the gaze and strength of the work already conveyed the power of the femme fatale without over dramatizing and hence risk trivializing the true depth and power of this archetype with what would have clearly been seen as a Halloween trope.
As a man and an artist I am often moved beyond rational thinking by beauty. When that beauty is expressed in the form of a woman it is more complicated than say the evening light falling across the hillside behind my studio. And when that woman becomes part of one’s social circle, especially an inner circle, it becomes even more complex.
Ultimately what happens to a man who falls under the spell of beauty in whatever form he is ultimately responsible for his own condition. Wise men in literature and history have taken such precautions as Ulysses who had his men tie him to the mast of his ship and made them swear under oath to not unite him no matter what as they sailed past the sirens who would use their physical beauty and alluring song to lure men off their boats and to their death in the depths of the sea. While that may seem a bit preposterous if taken literally one only needs to think of the ship as being a man’s principles of restraint or his carefully crafted rational plans and the sea as his unconscious or chaotic sea of uncertainty to see how this plays out in everyday life all the time.
Of course men would depict these gorgeous creatures as being possessed by evil intent. That is a great way to gird oneself for the challenge of resistance and a way to shift responsibility from oneself to the other…in this case the sirens. But it’s not a very helpful way to find a balanced embrace of order and chaos. And worse, it might lead a man to become so rigid and hardened by work and ambition that he never falls into the warm embrace of a lovers arms nor allows himself to become lost and overwhelmed….the only way to discover something actually new and rejuvenating. There is no map to the unknown. And there is no resurrection without death….even the small death of letting go of one’s assumptions, prejudices and hardened world view.
Some men laugh or feel sorry for the poor fool who lets his heart be ripped out by a seductive woman. And indeed I have been that guy for various friends and acquaintances of mine over the course of my life.
But I am also grateful (and a touch embarrassed) to say that I have been pulled off my ship, stripped to the bone of my pride and certainty and had my very heart ripped out by a gorgeous woman. It was incredibly painful and I have done all kinds of things to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But I am, like most men, holding out the secret hope that someone will be able to do this again…get past my mighty walls and barricades and plans and certainties and comforts and boredom and just maybe save me from myself. And maybe, just maybe, help me find a more balanced life.
It is said the unexamined life is not worth living. But when I look at this painting and can’t take my eyes off of it, I am reminded that life without risk of loss and pain is not worth examining.