A year before she died I was given an audience with Louise Bourgeois. My gallery had a connection with her, and I was doing my PhD on drawing, looking at the technique noted by Leonardo and later used by Cozens - making blots and random shapes and reading images into them. It's a process a bit like reading the tea leaves, I suppose, and while I couldn't find anything saying it was a process she used, Louise Bourgeois' drawings and works on paper have the air of improvisation to me. Anyway, who more likely to be reading the tea leaves than a little old lady like her? The Irene Handl of the art world.
I am being impertinent. Louise Bourgeois is, was, the greatest living artist to many people, and everything about her was extraordinary, fitting, perfect. Her life history, her fascinating work, even her age; she was the last surviving member of the generation of artists whose work and ideas had set the new mould. She was an old lady to Richard Hamilton. She knew Marcel Duchamp! Personally!
I arrived at her London address, in a small, 70's block set surprisingly in a side road off Kensington Church Street, at two o'clock one afternoon in February. I rang the doorbell, and immediately heard the deep baying of dogs behind the door. I felt nervous. I am a little afraid of dogs, especially big ones, and I had shifted my portfolio in front of me like a shield by the time it was opened. A young man appeared behind the door, one hand holding the lock and one reaching down to restrain two basset hounds, their tails wagging and ears flapping on the floor as they barked their welcome.
He was astonishingly handsome: dark and unshaven, with curly black hair loose on his head. Not tall, quite slight in fact. You are...Charles...he said, without smiling.Sorry, these silly dogs. Come on, he said. Come on.
I wasn't sure who he was talking to, me or the dogs. Could have been either really, because he was one of those impatient, scornful young men who seem to regard everyone else as a bit stupid. We made our way over the parquet floor to what is usually the sitting room in a house like that, but turned out to be Louise Bourgeois' London studio.
Did he frighten you, boys?
The voice was what you hear on programmes about her, you know it; the heavily accented French of an old woman so sure of herself that the rest of the world can fuck off. At first I thought she was talking to me.
Hallo, Madame Bourgeois I said, and started to introduce myself, but she cut across me.
Who is this, Robby?
Charles Williams. A PhD on...drawing?
I nodded but he wasn't asking me.
I will take the boys into the garden? Alois can get you tea? He said to her, and then turned away, whistling lightly at the dogs, who waddled after him, their nails clicking on the parquet.
The room smelt badly, and I tried not to breathe too hard as I spoke. It was a combination of dog, very stale perfume and a sort of sweet talc-like smell, and very musky after-shave. There was another smell too, which I recognised, that sharp smell of India ink.
Madame Bourgeois, my name is Charles Williams, and I am an artist, a painter, and I am doing a PhD in drawing…
Her large brown eyes were staring directly into mine and she was sort of nodding in time to my speech rhythm, smiling slightly.
You want to see me draw? She said
Well, yes. I am interested in the improvisational technique...
All drawing is improvised. It is drawing
I think it's interesting how Leonardo uses this technique and Cozens...
Of course. Leonardo was my father. Not my…cousin...
She looked a little put out. No, I said, Cozens, Alexander Cozens, he was an English Watercolourist...
I know. I know Cozens. I know him. Blotting. He did the blotting thing, have you heard of this?
Yes, that's what my PhD is on, it's on...
You must look at Cozens. You can see his work in the Victoria And Albert Museum, you know it? In Kensington. I used to walk there sometimes. It's a beautiful place, near the Oratory. And this blotting, it's like Rorschach, you know Rorschach? The blots that you read shapes and images in. It is a beautiful thing, and this is what my drawing is about.
As she was talking, and I was agreeing, another young man appeared behind her, from a glass door that seemed to lead to a kitchen. He was tall and very dark, slim and, again, astonishingly good-looking. His huge dark eyes rested on me, and he smiled. I blushed. Extreme beauty in either gender is a bit disconcerting to me.
Hi, he said. I am Alois. You are Charles? The Royal Academy?
Yes, I said. Hi. People see the RA on my CV, and somehow it sticks in the mind.
Louise Bourgeois turned her head up to Alois.
We are talking about drawing. I was telling him about Alexander Cozens.
I didn't know you had any cousins, Louise?
No, he is an English Artist.
I know, he teaches at the Royal Academy. It is a famous place of English Artists.
As a matter fact I don't teach at the RA, but I didn't want to say anything at this point. I studied there, but to get work teaching there is an achievement some way beyond my capacity. Maybe when the PhD is finished.
They talked in French, rapidly. My French is too slight to catch what they were saying, but he seemed to have an easier relationship with her than the other boy.
They laughed. I said Look, would you mind if I made a sketch of you?
I don't know why I said it, it just seemed to emerge from my mouth.
They both looked up, their lips in identical half-smiles.
If you want, she said.
You draw…things? That you are looking at?
I told you, he is from the Royal Academy.
I don't think they liked the drawings I did. Robby, the other boy, came in too, and stood sulking, and I drew all three of them in my Fabriano sketchbook. After a while, she spoke, again in rapid French, and he went away and came back with this huge jar of red ink and some sheets of beautiful paper, handed the paper to her and stood holding the ink jar.
Oh, yes. Alois turned and scrabbled in a drawer – all the while I was sketching – and returned with a very old, large Japanese brush, with a ragged tuft, which she took, dipped in the jar which Robby held over to her and proceeded to splurge the red ink over sheet after sheet of paper, handing each to Alois as she finished. He held them gingerly, and I tried to draw that too.
She looked up, like a little bird, and met my eye, just as I was describing her right shoulder with my careful pencil. This is drawing, she said. You should learn this.
The room was furnished darkly. To tell the truth I felt too uncomfortable to look closely. There were drawings in severe frames; things l might have recognised from books, but l wasn't able to really look. There were also objects on low dark plans chests set against all the walls which looked like ancient medical equipment, but again I wasn't able to examine them. They may have been art.
That's what I want to talk to you about.
I stopped. I thought, actually fuck it, why does she have to have all the cards? So I held back from replying.
After a moment she said what? What do you want to talk about?
Drawing like that I said
This is how you should draw. Let it come from inside.
How do you know it comes from inside, I said, it might come from...what you have read, or what you have been talking about. From someone else, I suppose is what I am saying.
She looked at me for longer than I thought necessary, and the two young men backed away, Robby placing the jar of red ink carefully on one of the plans chests and Alois sort of riffling through the drawings.
You understand the Surrealists? She said. You understand about automatism and drawing from the subconscious? You understand...I knew Breton, did you know this? I knew that man. We were lovers....
When she said this word, lovers, her voice went down an octave, becoming more gravelly than it had been, and I am sure I noticed a change in the posture of Alois and Robby. They seemed to hunch over a little, draw in on themselves.
Yes. Breton. And also Marcel. He was...
There was a sound like a cough from one of the young men. Robby turned his back completely, and bent to pull open a drawer in the plans chest.
These men were geniuses. You understand? Not from an...
I don't know what she was going to say next because Alois broke in.
Why you always talk about him? He was almost shouting or so it seemed in that quiet Kensington house. The dogs thought so too and started to snuffle and growl.
He thought nothing of you. His books, his interviews, they say nothing of you. You...you are the genius. You, not him. Chess is all he could do, chess and filth. And Breton, Christ, Breton. He was...
I will sack you, Alois.
His face was very pale. He was standing upright, almost on tiptoes, facing her, his legs taut in very short denim shorts, thigh muscles rounded as he raised his body upwards, filling his lungs, the sheaf of drawings still held lightly though, in front of him and low down.
I don't care, l can work anywhere. Anywhere. I don't need your salary.
Go away, Alois, she said. Leave. Now.
My pencil was poised on the page in my sketchbook. I have the drawings near me, the sketchbook is on a shelf in my studio, upstairs. I could get it now and show you the mark my pencil made as l sat looking at the two of them, three if you count Robby. I was not sure how he fitted into the group.
The way I draw is very calmly. I use the point of a soft pencil, not too soft, a 2 or 3b, to shade, scribbling in patches of dark, and then I try to find the edges of things, carefully and sensitively. I don't make big decisions quickly, but build up my knowledge of what is in front of me. My first drawings of a subject are usually quite tentative, although often they catch something l find hard to reprise in later studies, but the next few gain in authority. I had made three drawings of her and of the young men behind her, and was hitting my stride by the time this confrontation happened. I don't like to stop at this point.
The little old woman had been looking down at the floor as she spoke to Alois. Her brush still poised and her other hand holding the light drawing board carefully, the knuckles clenched but her hands were like all old people's hands, big-knuckled, so not clenched white and angry. She looked up at me.
Are you still drawing?
I told her I was. There was a reluctant smile on her lips, perhaps the beginning of respect, l thought.
You won't be soon.
My pencil stopped as if my hand were under compulsion. It was visceral. I heard thumping and crashing upstairs. Robby, meanwhile, had placed the huge jar of ink on the side, on a plans chest, and was crouched, picking up the drawings that Alois had thrown on the floor before slamming the door behind him.
There was a sound like more paper rustling and l realised the old woman was laughing, her shoulders shaking up and down. I smiled too, and began to laugh as our eyes met, but at that point a door banged open and Alois strode in, his tall figure dark against the light from the window, the old woman and Robby both looking up from below as he grabbed the jar and threw the bright red ink in their up-turned faces.
He missed me.
I left soon afterwards, my portfolio swinging by my legs as I walked up to Notting Hill Gate tube station. I remembered my friend Jose has a studio on Portobello Road, behind a church, and decided to drop in on him.
Jose was excited that I had met Louise Bourgeois. To him it was he most extraordinary thing, and he thought that the connection we had obviously made could be significant.
You should visit her again, he said.
I told him it was impossible, it was embarrassing, and anyway, she would know l had ulterior motives.
What? She doesn't have ulterior motives?
She needs another assistant, for a start.
The assistant of an artist like Louise Bourgeois would have the most extraordinary view of the Art World. It would be like being an ugly child riding the back of an enormous elephant, watching people who would usually treat you with contempt running, dodging, ingratiating as your huge and powerful mount trod wherever she fancied, on whoever she wanted to. You would probably have the opportunity for patronage yourself, as people, critics, museum directors, curators even collectors tried to reach her though you.
I told Jose about Robby. Alois' position was obvious, but Robby's sourness was not.
He thinks he deserves more. He imagines that he is a greater artist, or destined for greater this, and I expect he is...chafing...he is uncomfortable that he has not achieved it yet.
Jose was probably right. I had felt a bit like that at the Academy, when Visiting Lecturers would talk to me. Inside l would be thinking, who cares what you have to say? I will be famous in a couple of years.
I have always loved English oil paint but in my country it is expensive and l was poorer there. Here I can afford it, and I have discovered a colour called 'Flesh Pink', which I enjoy using. Because, as you see, my skin, my flesh, is not remotely pink.
When we were at the Academia my friends and I were known as ‘The Sad Boys'; not that we were unhappy, more pathetic or worthy of pity. In truth, it was we that coined the phrase - we understood the fallacy of our ambitions, among the aspiring portrait painters and governmental muralists, not to mention the graphic designers and trainee layout artists hoping for work in advertising and regional newspapers. We wanted to be famous, international, we wanted to be remembered, not for our good looks or our ability to steal from others but for our paintings. Among the others, to whom we rarely spoke, perhaps we were called something else.
We learnt all we knew of the world of Art from magazines, dog-eared things that we discovered in the library and occasionally new ones, shiny with beautiful black and white and sometimes colored photographs of art and artists from Europe, the United States, the United Kingdom and Britain. To my shame I was in the third year of my five year course before I realized these last two were the same place, but I longed to live in London, perhaps in a houseboat, to wear a porkpie hat and to walk down Carnaby Street with my friends, who would be other artists, perhaps from Liverpool or Jersey. We all wanted this, in fact: some of us wanted to live in Paris, some New York, some San Francisco, but we all wanted to famous, first elsewhere and then at home.
The photographs of paintings were fascinating, and the more difficult to understand the more fascination they exerted. There were paintings that looked like things; these were good, distorted and strange but still recognizable; De Kooning's portraits, for example, thinly painted, tortured and unfinished shapes interlocking and cutting into each other, resolving and not resolving even in the photographs. My friend Arturo loved these things, he loved the intensity and obscurity of them. They seemed to retreat into the shadows of the photograph.
There were abstractions, which Diego and Urban claimed as their own, rough, broad brush strokes or spillages of wet paint, blocks of color which seemed to throb and vibrate on the page; Hans Hoffmann, for example, looked as if he worked with neon paint, the reproductions were so vibrant. There were also almost abstract paintings, like Karel Appel or Basquiat's work, or Dubuffet, paintings like graffiti or insults; Jose loved this sort of work. The photographs of these had a sort of forensic or documentary quality, as if taken by a police photographer to record an illegal activity or the traces of some violent crime.
But the most enigmatic were the so-called monochrome paintings, and these exerted the greatest fascination for me. They were records of paintings whose image was almost lost in the medium, activities so slight or so subtle they became blurred by the translation, leaving only rectangles of color, black, beige, grey, blue, green. You knew that within that matrix there were shifts and surfaces of infinitely fine calibrations and if you stared hard and long they would give up hints, but you were never sure of exactly what you were looking at, and at the back of your mind, at the back of mine anyway, you wondered how this rectangle of greeny-grey beige had got into the magazine and not someone else's.
We gave each other names, based on our preferences. Melancholy Bill, Poor Little Diego, The Hoff, Jose the Cobra and I was Sad Reinhardt. I think my nickname was the best.
I left home after my studies, and emigrated to London, where I did buy a porkpie hat and even lived on a houseboat for a while, but I came back after ten years of working in cafes, building sites, then painting scenery for films which was very well paid and where I met some real artists. We had a few exhibitions in the East End - never on Carnaby Street, which I discovered is not a place for artists at all, just for clothes and tourists - and I sold first a few paintings, then some more and then a lot. I stopped painting for films and began to live on the proceeds of selling my paintings. I had a posh gallery (posh means ‘uptown' in the United Kingdom) and they would sell my work in central London and in Art Fairs around the world, and I was rich enough to return, to buy a small house in ............ City and to live at home again. I felt homesick; I longed for the smells of my mother's cooking, the brightness of the sun, the colors of my childhood.
Michael Nyman lives in Mexico City because of the light. He says it's the sharpest, strongest light he's ever seen, and when the sun falls through the lemon trees in the courtyard of his house it casts extraordinary shadows. The shadows are as important as the light. He says the night falls suddenly, though, and he finds the lack of transition disturbing. When it gets dark it gets dark.
"There is a tragic and a comic repetition. Indeed, repetition always appears twice, once in the tragic destiny and once in the comic aspect. In the theatre, the hero repeats precisely because he is separated from an essential, infinite knowledge. This knowledge is in him, it is immersed in him and acts in him, but acts like something hidden, like a blocked representation. The difference between the comic and the tragic pertains to two elements: first, the nature of the repressed knowledge - in the one case immediate natural knowledge, a simple given of common sense, in the other terrible esoteric knowledge; second, as a result, the manner in which the character is excluded from this knowledge, the manner in which 'he does not know that he knows'. In general the practical problem consists in this: this unknown knowledge must be represented as bathing the whole scene, impregnating all the elements of the play and comprising in itself all the powers of mind and nature, but at the same time the hero cannot represent it to himself- on the contrary, he must enact it, play it and repeat it until the acute moment that Aristotle called 'recognition'. At this point, repetition and representation confront one another and merge, without, however, confusing their two levels, the one reflecting itself in and being sustained by the other, the knowledge as it is represented on stage and as repeated by the actor then being recognised as the same. "
Steve And Leon
I dreamt about her that night. I was keen on military modelling when l was a boy, and l had all these soldiers that l bought from mail order businesses. They were cast in white metal, each about a centimetre and a bit high, and l would order from a typewritten list. The ordering itself was exciting. When I had made my mind up my mother would write them a cheque, and l would hand her my paltry savings, and I would send the list and the cheque. A week or so later a very heavy little box would arrive with the little silver-coloured figures wrapped in tissue paper. I would be almost sick with excitement.
Then the process of painting them would begin. By the time I had finished them l would have changed my mind about them - l had wanted to make an army of Carthaginians, now l wanted a Napoleonic one. But anyway, l and my little friends would have battles with divisions and pikemen and war-elephants moving across green baize.
In my dream l was playing with my soldiers, only they weren't Napoleonic or Carthaginians. Some were dressed like Romantic poets and artists, distraught women with long hair in night gowns, wild bearded men, and others seemed to be conscripted soldiers, wearing motley uniforms and wellington boots, wielding sticks and bits of 2x1. One even had a saucepan on his head as a helmet, like a child playing war in a 1950s illustration. Somehow they were moving around by themselves as much as under my direction. I looked down at them, and when l looked up, Louise Bourgeois was sitting opposite me. She grabbed one f the figures, l think it was a crap soldier, and she put it in an orange bun, and ate it. It wriggled its legs. I think l heard it cry out.
I woke up suddenly. I was sure that l had heard a noise. My girlfriend snored slightly, and mumbled. Bicycles. Bicycles.
That morning l arrived at the studio at about eleven. Early for me, but the damp in the flat had made my winter cold intolerable and l had not slept well, and l gave up trying to sleep at ten, had a coffee and got on my bike. The studio is in Wandsworth.
It is a large residential building, a block of flats built in the 30s, not very pleasant and its owners don't seem to know what to do with it. While they are making up their minds we, a small collective of artists, have two of the floors, and some other people seem to be living on the higher floors. I don't know much about it. Tom, the studio manager, talks about them sometimes.
My studio is one of the flats, and l share it with Steven, although I don't see him much. It's a two-bedroom number, and we have a kitchen, bathroom and a room to store stuff, as well as two not-very-big studios, his and mine. It's a sweet deal, although quite expensive. We don't have to walk miles to the loos and the temperature is quite easy to control in different seasons. That's a lot more important than it sounds; the big converted factory and warehouse spaces, with their glass roofs and draughty windows stuck in place by time make great studios for eight months of the year, but Summer makes them roasting hot and Winter makes them freeze.
My gallery employed this young man for a while, l think he'd been in property or something, and he could never understand why artists' studios are so quiet, and seem to have no one in them. I think he imagined us all sitting around talking about art, or in the studios painting with Mahler on the record player. In fact most artists have too much to do to spend do time chatting - that's for private views in the evening, if you can get to them, anyway - and when they can fit studio time in between teaching, working in a bar, filling out application forms for residencies, scholarships, competitions, exhibitions or jobs, taking work from one gallery to another and so on, they don't want to waste it in arguments with other people about how loud they are playing their music. This young man thought that if artists had to do other things they probably weren't successful. I think he is in property again, now. He was quite intelligent.
I don't see Steven much. In his work, he takes photographs of people looking at art, of the invigilators, people employed in galleries to protect the work from the visitors, and of the work itself, and the he paints from the photographs. I don't think he likes my paintings much. Maybe if they were in an exhibition he'd visited.
He is quite tall, has a bald, shaved head, thick glasses and a big black beard. He also owns an old Basset Hound called Leon that he brings to the studio. Leon smells quite bad.
He was there with Leon that morning, and he was pissed off at me.
Did you set the alarm last night?
I did. The last person in the studios has to set the alarm when he or she leaves, and I had left at 9 o'clock. You have to check the place, open everyone's doors and make sure it's empty, otherwise someone gets locked in and has to call the alarm company. It's annoying and takes a while.
Oh, shit, did I lock you in?
I was in Carl's studio, and you didn't check.
I did, I knocked on the door but there was no answer. You must have been using head phones. I am really sorry.
You locked me in. It is really annoying.
I know, that is terrible. I am really sorry.
It's really annoying. I had to phone the alarm company and it took half an hour before anyone sorted it out. You have to check.
I have never done it before, I am always really thorough, it's just...
It really fucks me off when that happens. It took half an hour.
I was beginning to get fed up myself. I had apologised several times, in fact I had rather abased myself. Any normal person would have said Ok, well, you know... and I would have said sorry again and that would be it, but he just kept on.
He looked at me, his mouth pursed in his bushy beard.
I said I really am sorry. I won't do it again, and he said it really fucks me off, because it's so inconvenient. It was an hour before I could leave. You need to check thoroughly.
I looked down. Often, if you act subserviently, angry people calm down a bit, and it seemed to work. He waited for a few moments, and then turned around and went into his room. I made a coffee. I didn't offer him one.
He was stretching canvases. The snap of the staple gun went on irregularly, snap snap snap, while I sat and sipped my coffee, looked at my paintings, turning things over in my mind.
It's odd when people don't let go. What did he want me to say, other than what I had said? Perhaps he has some kind of condition, I thought, maybe he is unable to handle this sort of thing. It was clearly not something I had planned to do, it was not malicious and other people had done the same. It wasn't personal, and yet he was dealing with me as if it were. Or rather, as if he would like to have done something further, to exact some kind of payment from me.
After about an hour the door opened and he started carrying newly stretched canvases into the little hallway, where we store things. Leon waddled along after him, wagging his tail and whining.
Not now, Leon. In a minute.
Steven muttered as he stacked another stretched canvas against the wall, and went to get another one. They were big canvases, and he didn't see Leon come towards me, with his mouth open in a droopy grin, then crouch down and strain. A huge brown turd slid out of him, and he waddled back to his bed in Steven's studio, as it steamed on the parquet floor just outside my studio.
The Interview continued
It had been a terrible scene in the studio of Louise Bourgeois. The old woman dripped in red, like the most hideous accident, and beside her, crouching Robby fell forward, his hands going to his face, as if praying. I heard him say
Oh God, my eyes. My eyes
Quietly though, a whisper as he rubbed at his face, and Alois couldn't hear him anyway, because he had turned straight around and left. The door banged and the dogs barked softly from a room at the back of the house.
Are you alright? I asked. The old woman spluttered and coughed, her hands at her face too, but less sure than Robby, hesitantly dabbing. An old woman has got used to the delicacy of her skin.
Where can I find towels? I said, and water? Which way is the kitchen? I had risen and was halfway to the door l thought led to the kitchen.
No. No. Not...Robby can do this...don't go in...
She was gasping and I still don't know whether it was shock or fear that I would trespass further into her house.
That fucking...queer...shithole...that fucking queer...
Robby was getting to his feet, not shouting but much more fed up than I had seen him. He pulled the sheets of ink-covered paper towards him, some soaked, some just splashed, although I cannot deny that my chief thought at this point was that the drawings actually looked a little better than I thought they would.
Robby placed them carefully on a plans chest, before turning to Louise Bourgeois and tenderly bending over her, caressing and whispering, using his bare hands to wipe her cheeks, her nose, her eyes clear. She lifted her own hands to his, her face upturned and eyes closed, like a weeping lover. His hands supported her neck as she tipped back her fragile head, the thin hair sodden with red ink, and he took her handkerchief from her sleeve and gently cleaned her face, neck and then hands.
I stood watching. I asked again if l could get towels, but they ignored me, cooing to each other in a mixture of French and baby talk. After a while Robby lifted the old woman from her chair, and they walked, shuffling, out of the door.
For a while l stood there, looking at the mess. In fact, there wasn't much - just a lot of red colouring on the carpet, which was red anyway, and dripping from the chair. And the drawings, of course.
I took a few steps towards them, and had a closer look.
There were five drawings, done on full sheets, 22 x 30 inches. The first was landscape format, and across its surface were brushed figures, each perhaps a hands breadth high. They were indeterminate, more stick figures than anything, but each had a pot-belly, long legs and a huge head, like a wasps nest. They were depicted running about, or perhaps they were seen from a bird's eye view, lying entangled, writhing. There were no figures not touching other figures, and there were about fifteen of them. This sheet had been splashed by Alois' assault, but the image had not been obscured at all, even improved by the extra element.
By the side of the writhing figure drawing was one that seemed to depict a human figure, an animal like a large horse or deer, and a huge, red and indeterminate-shaped mass, in portray format, with the human at the bottom, the animal in the middle and the mass at the top. Again, largely untouched by Alois, the image might have been one of threat, the two creatures threatened by the dark shape, like a blood-bearing cloud, or the shape might have indicated thought or feeling, like a swollen speech or thought bubble in a cartoon, only obscured, blank, filled in.
The next one was hard to determine, and I expect it was the one she had been working on when Alois returned. The page seemed to have been full of almost circular forms, biomorphic but crudely made, and then the great wash of red splayed across them, holding them together and suspending them in a sea of blood. There was a single, emphatic brush mark at the bottom of the page, the kind that occurs when the brush is forced down and dragged; the tuft splays out.
The other two were both penis shapes, drawn right across the length of the paper. One went right to left, the other left to right, and both had huge pendulous scrotums. There were sprays of red ink over both, like monstrous bloody ejaculations, and I couldn't work out whether these were Alois or Louise Bourgeois' work.
There was little or no noise from upstairs. Some rustling sounds, perhaps, and soft thuds. I listened carefully, as l looked the drawings. I had my portfolio. Could l slip one in, or all five perhaps? The soft thuds became a regular rhythm, and then I began to hear a squeaking sound in time with the rhythm of the thudding. I heard one of the dogs whine.
I thought that l could steal one of them, that even if they remembered there were five the old woman wouldn't mention anything. I picked up the animal drawing. There was a bark from the dogs, and then two more and I dropped the drawing, quickly, and looked round. There was no one there. The thudding upstairs continued, and the squeaking sound seemed to come more frequently.
I zipped up my portfolio and made to follow Alois out of the door, and I noticed Louise Bourgeois' brush on the red, afghan carpet. I bent to pick it up and there was no noise from the dogs as l slipped it into my pocket.
About a week later my gallery called. A bright young voice, I could never keep track of the people who worked there, asked me how I was and, without listening to my reply asked how my interview with Louise Bourgeois had gone.
Interesting I said.
I bet it was. She is amazing. I so love her work?
Yes. It was amazing.
Well, I have a surprise for you! She wants to see you again!
My innards turned over. She wants the brush back. She wants the brush back and she's going to sue me. The smell of the place rushed back to me.
She wants to fix up an appointment for you to come round, and she has a proposition for you.
We met the next day. This time we met at the gallery, on neutral ground, in J......D.........'s office. J...... sat behind his desk, grinning at me, leaning back with his arms linked behind his head, and she sat on the huge chair, with a middle-aged man in a grey suit standing behind her. I had assumed in my previous visits that the chair was some ethnographic artefact, a thing of ancient provenance that J...... had collected and was storing in the office as a trophy. Sometimes there were catalogues on the seat, or an overcoat draped over its huge, carved shoulders, but never anyone actually sitting in it. Perhaps he reserved it for Louise Bourgeois? It was disconcerting seeing her small frame resting on it, the dark wood fusing in the light with her black dress, the white lace glittering under her grey, lined face. She smiled as I came in.
There was a pause while everyone else in the room worked out what she had said.
Chris, she said again, it is good to see you. I am very sorry that you had to witness that...contretemps. Alois was not well-behaved, l am afraid.
She laughed, a rather bronchial laugh.
You did some drawing. Was it successful?
Well, sort of. Would you like to see them? I have them here, in my sketchbook... I was gabbling a bit, as l pulled at the zip on my bag and pushed my hand in, trying to locate the book.
You were carrying a portfolio
The voice came from the man standing behind her. I looked up and saw only Louise Bourgeois' face looking craggy but kind, a small smile on her face as she watched me struggle, but the voice, quite whispery really but deep, repeated
You were carrying a portfolio. Did you carry anything of Louise Bourgeois away with you when you left?
How do you mean? I did some drawings, I suppose that might be...
Drawings. A small piece of sculpture. Two paintings, made by...someone quite important. They are missing. Do you have them?
Drawings? I felt myself blush. I wish that didn't happen, but it just comes over me when I feel I am being accused of something.
No, paintings. Did you take them?
Chris, if you have taken them I won't mind, just give them back to me. I am not so bourgeois as to worry about the money, it's just they mean something to me...Louise Bourgeois laughed when she said the word 'bourgeois'.
We will not prosecute. But you must give them back.
I didn't take any paintings. The funny thing is, l almost took a drawing, and l could have, but I didn't. I didn't even see any paintings. There were some photographs on the wall, some little things on the plans chests but I didn't even look at them. Ask Jose. I visited my friend Jose when I left.
I was gabbling, and I was in a panic. I was making an enemy of the biggest artist in the world. How could l have been so stupid as to even toy with the idea of stealing one of her drawings? For Christ's sake. Louise Bourgeois! This was the end of my career!
She held up a finger to stop me talking, and turned to the man in the suit. They whispered.
Chris, l believe you. Alois took them. I know he did. Don't worry. I am sorry Mr. Johnson had to question you like this.
I sat still. There was a long silence, then I realised that J...... D....... Was looking straight at me.
Ok. I will...see you then...
I stood up and left the room, sweating. As I walked out through the gallery, which suddenly seemed enormous, I felt dreadful, pathetic, worthless. I managed a little smile to the girl on the desk, l still couldn't remember her name, and pushed through the door, out onto Curtain Road.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
My phone rang. It was J..... D........
She wants you to be her assistant. Do you want to be her assistant? Louise Bourgeois' assistant. I don't know what the pay is, but...well, it might help. I don't know. Does it sound like something you'd want to do?
I don't know either. Aren't I a bit old to be an assistant?
Well, if you want to do this PhD it will give you an income for a while.
That was interesting. They had not been selling my work for a some time now, just the odd small thing, certainly not enough to keep me. I had enough teaching to get by, just, but l was hoping that the solo show I had been promised, by then six months away, would put things right. But by the sounds of it J.......D......... didn't share that feeing. I had started the PhD because nowadays if you want to teach at university level it's a necessity, but also because l thought it would be good to deepen my knowledge of what l do and because it might make the work itself more complex. I didn't realise that J........D......... thought it a waste of time.
Can l think about it?
The problem with people like Louise Bourgeois is that their own lives are the centre of everything. To her, the offer she had made was stupendous - there were, literally, thousands of people who would pay her to be her assistant, so my 'thinking about it' could easily mean my not getting the job at all. She might easily just say no, he can't. At least I would know, though. It's pretty obvious that any normal person would need time to think over that kind of job offer. But she wasn't normal. She was Louise Bourgeois.
She says yes, you must think it over. It would mean great change for you and you need to be sure. He was quoting her.
Christ. Does she know l am actually called Charles?
J........D...........laughed and said he'd tell her. And that was it.
I like J..... D........ A lot of artists think that galleries are the anti-Christ, and can't understand their determination to get their 50% commission, or keep their buyers lists to themselves. When I left the academy, I was in a group show of the leaving year in a gallery off Grosvenor Square that had just opened. It was quite a nice gallery, and I think it lasted a few years, but we didn't sell many of our student works - New Young Masters, that show was called, which gives you a sense of how gender ideas have changed in thirty years. One of my friends did sell his painting, though, and l remember his huge outrage when the gallery wouldn't give him their contact details. They said they were American, and they love coming over to England. Well, what if they come again and might want to buy another painting?
How did he think they were able to afford their Grosvenor Square premises? Artists seem to have fantasy ideas about dealers, or they used to. Probably because most of us don't come from backgrounds in which buying art plays much of a part. I remember selling a painting for £1600, the most money I had ever sold for at that time, and telling my father about it when l next called. My father was a university professor, so not poor by any means.
£1600? That's great, he said. Then there was a pause, and he said what kind of idiot spends £1600 on a painting?
To me it seems the most difficult job, dealing in a commodity whose value is so unstable and which no one actually needs, and J........D......... is good at it. He puts in the hours, always at private views, parties, around the world, visiting Venice, New York, Beijing nowadays. He calls it Peking when we are in the Club. He knows his stuff and he is fascinated by it all.
I started a week later, working as Louise Bourgeois' assistant. I was living in the studio by then; my girlfriend and l had split up, and I needed somewhere to sleep, Steven was hardly there at all and never in the evenings. All mod cons and all that. I knew I'd have to find a place soon.
I cycled every morning to Kensington Church Street, Monday to Saturday, going north and over Vauxhall bridge, weaving my way through traffic in the cold bright Winter mornings. March was on its way, Spring was coming. This was a few years ago, before the new cycle lanes and everyone getting on a bike. Hairy.
After my ride l had to face Robby.
Jose's Story continued
My return to ........... City was greeted by my friends at first with joy, because we were a gang together again and, l am afraid, because l was now relatively rich and therefore influential, and later with hostility. I was not truly welcome. I don't know whether they would have loved me more if l had been even more generous with gifts and patronage, but much more giving would have left me back where l started. I doled out as much as l could, but after a while it seemed to irritate more than salve the wounds that their lives had scratched across their souls. Urban told me to my face that he and the rest of them considered me a 'sell out', and l decided to leave their social circle.
Perhaps they were right about my being a sell out. When l lived in London my painting went through big changes. I think it was because of the work l did to earn a living. The problem with painting scenery is that you become cynical about the means of painting. Where once the method you employed had almost a sacred quality, was something that defined you, that you felt called to, that you identified yourself with - Sad Reinhardt, my name, meant that l painted icon-like abstracts like my hero - in painting scenery, you have to use all the methods, the techniques you can. Of course, we were trained in techniques, unlike the European artists l met, who seemed to be trained only to argue, and that made me a better scene painter, as l could paint most things, but when you are called on to paint three 'abstract paintings, one red and two blue, to go on that wall there' and you have to do them in under an hour, and make them look convincing, it makes you think about the work you choose to do. It took me ten minutes to do a painting that thousands, millions of people will accept as abstract painting of quality when they see the film, while I couldn't even find a gallery that would exhibit the paintings l spent months making, let alone sell them.
It makes you think that the specialness of the painting is an illusion. I can paint a good likeness of a person though, and someone on a set l was working on asked me to paint a portrait of his girlfriend. He was just a runner, as far as l knew, a youngish man who seemed to know everyone. But l did not know anything about what the English call the 'class system'. At home someone doing a job like that would be a poor young fellow who had worked his way onto a job that didn't pay well but had a lot of opportunity for other things, dealing, pilfering, 'organising'. The son of a wealthy man at home would start in the film business by having his father buy him a job as an assistant director or even a director. Not in Europe.
Josh's girlfriend was very glamorous, a beautiful girl with blonde hair and the clearest blue eyes. He wanted the portrait to be made 'properly', for me to paint her as she sat, or in fact lay in front of me, her head propped up on her lovely arm, her hair tumbling down her face.
I liked her, although she seemed very stupid. I did not try to seduce her, even though she was ten years younger than l and she clearly found me attractive. We were alone in her flat for three afternoons in the Spring, the plane trees outside the window rustling their bright green foliage in the slanting sunlight, as l told her stories of life in the Americas and tenderly painted her glowing skin and her bright hair in the best English oil paint on expensive, primed linen. She was called Fi. I found that an easier name to pronounce than Josh.
Josh showed the painting to his parents and to her parents, and their friends saw it too, and wanted me to paint their children, girlfriends, wives, husbands. That's what happened to my painting. I became a portrait painter, a sell out. Jose Garcia Madero became one of the names on the English portrait painting circuit. I even joined an organisation called the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.
Maybe that's why Urban and my other friends disowned me. Maybe they thought I had become a Royalist. It is a word with unpleasant connotations in my country. My country.
My return to Great Britain, came after a few more months of this ostracisation.
I met Charles in the early 2000s, at the Mall Gallery where the Royal Society of Portrait Painters exhibit. He is a pleasant man, boyish in some ways, enthusiastic and interested in my stories of the life of the artist in other countries. He has never visited my country but seems to have read about it a little. Like many European artists he has an inflated view of the importance of Frida Kahlo - Diego Rivera means a lot more to us than his ex-wife, but Feminism, ignorance of our history, post-colonial theory and above all their extraordinary respect for photographic evidence makes them suckers for her kind of self-centred imagery. As long as there are lots of good black and white photos a twentieth century artist is assured of a future beyond death.
Louise Bourgeois was very photogenic. I remember Charles coming to my studio the first time he suffered that interview with her, almost panicky after the strange outburst with the ink. The funny thing is, I think I knew Alois. I think he was the son of one of Josh's parents' friends, and I think he was called Alexander. Alex. One of three brothers, rugby players, whose parents wanted a triple portrait.
They were a kind couple. He was an Englishman who worked In publishing, so he told me, and his Italian wife. They invited me to stay with them in their house in the Cotswolds while l painted their boys. It was a large house and had been a farm, but all that was left of peasant life was the stables, where Alex and his mother kept their four horses.
I stayed in the room above the stables, which the boys had knitted out for their 'frat house'. That's what they called it. At first I thought they said fat house, and when they all stood together for the initial sketches in the huge living room, their father with them to make sure we agreed on the poses, I asked them why they called it a fat house.
They roared with laughter. They were well brought up souls, and they never once mocked my accent, or called me 'Speedy' like the men l had worked with on building sites, but they found my misunderstanding hilarious. Alex went bright red when he explained the meaning of the expression.
'It's, like, from America?' He said. 'I think they're actually called Fraternity Houses, and you know, we're, like, brothers? So....'
I got it, immediately. I don't watch movies from the United States much.
A portrait never takes me long. I was well trained, and I also have a natural aptitude, but more importantly, l need the money, so I just get to it. But three boys all lined up in one picture is difficult.
It took me about a week. It was late August, and it had been quite a good Summer, which in England means sunny, but by late August even the lush Cotswolds were looking tired and old, the leaves beginning to droop on the trees, the pathways becoming dusty and rubbish blowing around in the warm, lacklustre breezes. England is an amazingly clean country, but everything seems a little dirty then.
After we agreed on the pose, I had each boy stand separately for two sittings, and then asked them to stand together while I pulled the whole thing together. Alex was difficult to paint.
The problem for me, painting English people, is that they are all so white, even these half-Italians. It is hard to judge the temperatures of the colours when the face and hands are such neutral tones, and if anything makes a painting work it is the colour/temperature balance. With Alex, every time I looked at him he went bright red, and when I tried to paint that, it looked ridiculous, the flaming face against the dark brown, curly hair. My painting looked like an old drunkard with two young men. In the end, I made it up.
In the evenings we all ate together, the mother, the three boys and me. Ivan, the father, was never there, but working in London.
No, we didn't really all eat together. Irena wanted them to, but the boys would never come to the table, and if they did, would take a plate, some bread perhaps, and disappear, except sometimes Alex would stay and interrupt the slow seduction that l was practising on his mother.
Irena was the most beautiful woman l have ever slept with, and it took me three evenings of careful talk to lure her into unfaithfulness, although as we lay together, waiting for the last tick of the clock that signified the return of her three uproarious sons from some party of the local rich she told me, as women will, that she decided to sleep with me the moment Ivan engaged me to paint their portraits.
'It is the last thing he will give me' she said, 'After this, I will be taking from him. English divorce laws are wonderful'.
Alex was annoying. I would move the conversation away from their villa in Tuscany and their dull activity holidays in the US, ski-ing or yachting, onto a more personal one, and Alex would come in, stare at me as I helped her to more salad, some wine, and then ask me a question about Art. Did l like Frida Kahlo? He was, apparently, studying her work for his A level. What about the Angel Of The North? I had no idea what this question meant. How do you make a living as an artist? Very little about that either.
I would try not to insult him with my answers. After a while he would tire of it, take a can of coke from the refrigerator and head off upstairs to his brothers' rooms, while l returned to his mother.
I don't know what the English think they are doing with their marital customs. A woman is a woman, even if she is a wife and a mother, so why leave her alone with another man like that? It happened to me several times, the wealthy husband working in London, the wife looking after the children and me staying during the week to paint them. Once, in a county house in the West Country I seduced the wife of a property agent while his teenage children were watching television in the room below and he was at a Masonic Dinner, not because l liked her at all, she was an odd-looking, washed out woman with no flesh on her at all and a ridiculous laugh, but because I wanted revenge, I think. Revenge for the long hours staring at his unpleasant children, for his rudeness, his condescension, his English disregard for the very idea that I, a foreigner, might fuck his wife.
But Alex, or Alois as he was now. Over the years l heard from Josh, and perhaps others, how Alex had taken the unusual step of studying the History of Art at Durham University. Then that he had dropped out and gone to Newcastle University instead, to study Painting. His father was enraged, but not too enraged, as most of his resources were concentrated on the divorce Irena was putting him through. A fine woman, and quite determined. Then, that he was at the Royal College of Art. And then, was he at the British School at Rome? Or perhaps he was staying with his mother, who had returned to Italy. The next I heard, he was Louise Bourgeois' assistant.
So when Charles described this Alois, I knew at once. It would be just like him, the charm grown more practised with age but the sudden passion flaring up, like his boyish blushes.
Kensington Church Street
Robby was a graduate of The Slade. At the Royal Academy Schools, and at the Royal College, post-graduate students were treated like apprentice artists, in that it was understood that the true business of an artist is in the studio and at Private Views. The RA was set up when that was how things were. The Slade was set up in the late nineteenth century with all the Victorian pretensions to high seriousness of John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold. Being an artist was a high calling and had more to do with morality and religiosity than making a living, and that seriousness, or even pomposity, has remained. Graduates of the Slade tend to think a lot of themselves, even if they belong to the false-modesty infected life drawing faction, who will tell you about how difficult it is while despising you for finding it easy.
Robby had been what we used to call a life-room casualty, but had got fed up with it, and l think he had represented himself to Louise Bourgeois as being in need of rescue, an artist perverted by the old fogeys who nevertheless tried to retain his integrity and wanted to escape to freedom. He was also the son of a novelist whose fame is so great that l cannot reveal it here in case he sues me.
When l had started to sketch Louise Bourgeois during my interview, his hackles, already more or less permanently raised, must have hit maximum extension. For a Slade artist 'sketching', particularly the tonal method I employ, is anathema. You either draw, in which case you employ a planar and linear means, or you paint. The activity is sacred, painful, intense and concentrated.
At the end of a drawing you are disgusted with yourself, and it's only with huge reluctance that you might allow it to survive the waste bin. He was enjoying the idea that Louise Bourgeois would put me in my place about my puny, self-satisfied efforts, l expect. Annoying that Alois prevented my inevitable humiliation.
Annoyed was Robby's default position actually. Annoyed and obstructive.
My first 'job' was taking the dogs for a walk. I was instructed early on to come in around the back, leaving my bike down the side of the building, and entering through the back door, into the kitchen. The first day I knocked and, eventually Robby and the dogs let me in, but Robby handed me a spare key with my other instructions. Keeping quiet and asking before doing anything, asking him rather than Louise Bourgeois, was the gist of it all. How long should I go for? As long as it takes? he replied.
After that I remember lots of cleaning, the kitchen mainly, and the studio. The red ink was still evident over the floorboards. I had to re-arrange materials, put lids back on pots of paint and ink, dust. Sometimes I would hear someone moving about upstairs.
She's in Geneva? Then she's going to Zurich? Clinics, mainly. Zelda's with her?
He didn't tell me who Zelda was, but I assumed a nurse or carer. Louise Bourgeois was very frail.
This state of affairs continued for a week, a week in which I was, essentially, a cleaner. I was pretty fed up by the time Louise Bourgeois returned.
No one in this narrative is intended to have any resemblance to anyone living or dead, specifically not the artist referred to as Louise Bourgeois. Thanks to Phil King for the Deleuze quote