Fiction

The self-portraitist

The sun had barely rotated out of bed by the time the bakers had begun rolling croissants, the baristas singing out orders, and the second-hand bookstore owners prudently applying dust to their first editions. It was just another morning in a suburb of restored heritage properties, and the air, having been buttered and brewed into a naturally occurring atmosphere, made the moustached men strolling around Redfern feel as though they could be anywhere at all, excluding where they actually were.

In the garden courtyard of the terrace at 770 Little Eveleigh Street, a bee hummed invisibly around the star jasmine, hiccupping against the curtains that protected the flowers from getting bruised or sunburnt. Bordered by rosemary and thyme on all four sides, shoulders hunched reverently beneath hanging flower baskets, Jules Pendlebury and Carolyn Tinsleton sat together on a tapestry rug in a silence that would last only as long as the latter’s patience. A self-ordained intellectual, Carolyn had been brought up in the middle-class tradition of viewing silence as the absence of a topic as opposed to the absence of an idea. On the rare occasion that an original thought did sneak into the back alleys of her brain, silhouetted by pale and unresolved starlight, she would be too engrossed by the image of the moon upon sewage waters to notice.

“I can’t understand why you’ve been so adamant in keeping her trapped inside like this. Any work of art needs an audience,” urged Carolyn, taking another bite of vintage cheddar but tasting the traces of lipstick wedged between her teeth. “Would the Mona Lisa have become so famous if no one had heard of her?”

“I suppose you’re right,” replied Jules, who was so often the subject of her own famed oil paintings that her face seemed unsuited to its three-dimensional form. Since she began working on this self-portrait three weeks ago, she hadn’t been able to sleep. At first there were strange noises, something under the bathroom sink starting to squeak. But then she began seeing faces in her daydreams, faces she’d never seen in life, and even a shadow shuddering down the staircase just last Tuesday. One of her more open-minded friends had recommended the services of a medium in the area. Jules pulled her knees together and placed her fingertips on her sore, superstitious eyelids. “I feel like I’ve been seeing things lately…”

“Oh, you artists are always seeing things! I must say, I was quite surprised when you first showed this painting to me. You’ve relied on self-portraiture your whole career, but it appears in this instance you specifically wished to paint someone with no resemblance to you in the slightest.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you look as though you share nothing at all in common. If I had spotted the two of you having a conversation on public transport, I’d be gobsmacked. Where did you find her?”

Jules tilted her head to the side and stared at her painting. Her brow was crumpled and her smile more distinctively strained. She felt insulted by Carolyn’s lack of nuance: surely she should be able to ascertain the closeness – perhaps not in details of appearance, but certainly in essence, in temperament, in emotional state – between Jules and the Aboriginal woman she had painted.

“I didn’t find her,” Jules countered. “She just came to be. It began the same way all my self-portraits do. I’d been using a mirror, which is why my right hand is on her left. I think the very reason I can’t exhibit it is because I worry that anyone could look into her eyes and see what I myself have been through.”

The painting in question, propped against an eight-litre drink dispenser that Jules had turned into a terrarium years ago, was a half-length portrait of a woman who had been painted with all the deepest, darkest, warmest colours. Burnt sienna for the base, raw umber on the hollowed cheeks, yellow ochre for the orb of the chin, warm blue shadowing under the cow-brown eyes, and fleeting touches of viridian on the creases of the sunlit forehead. As if unsettled by the magnificence of the woman’s flesh, the eucalypts in the background seemed to be surrendering their skin in long melancholic curls. She had nothing of Jules’s freckled complexion, not its neutral undertone or perennial rosiness. Where Jules wore a caterpillar of pearls or a necklace of gold links, draped over the painted woman’s neck was only sweat and beating sunlight. Her black hair was coarse and cut by the handful, whereas the artist’s blonde bob trickled down just past the jawline. Not even the expression their eyes conveyed could be mistaken for distant relatives. As far as the viewer could tell, the woman in the painting had no interests, no education, no social status or wealth. Everything became arbitrary. Behind her stood peeling trees and wild grass and wide blue skies. It was the kind of landscape any artist would’ve left untitled. Nothing had ever happened there.

“I think it’s brilliant what you’ve done,” said Carolyn. “You have captured the trauma in her eyes so beautifully that I can’t believe you didn’t use a sitter. It truly is a painting for our times. The public simply can’t stomach another portrait of another old white man.”

“And the museums haven’t any idea where to dispose of them,” said Jules with a squinting smile, blinded by her own radiance. The women laughed together.

“You know, if it had been painted from life, you might’ve taken home an Archibald with this.”

“If only it had been,” mumbled Jules. “If only she’d been alive.”

The next morning, the artist’s tyrannical hobby of making and abandoning entire ecosystems would come to haunt her at last. Jules had just brushed her teeth and stepped out into the courtyard to harvest peppermint leaves for her morning tea. That was when she saw the glass, a thousand pieces strewn across the ground and the soil of the potted plants. Then the dirt and rocks, the moss, the dead elegance of maidenhair ferns and the Eton mess of cracked snail shells. Who knew terrariums could be capable of spontaneous combustion! Logic told her it had something to do with the expansion of gases in a container that’d been sealed and left in the sun for too long. But she tried phoning the medium anyway and hung up when asked invasive questions about her family history.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2020 as "The self-portraitist".

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Vivian Pham is a Vietnamese–Australian writer. Her debut novel is The Coconut Children.