Homage to a Master

Memorable images are often mysterious. This photograph is hardly memorable, but it manages to pose some questions: Did this man with the brush paint the landscape? If the answer is “yes,” he seems oddly indifferent (or perhaps sad?) about his accomplishment. On the other hand, if the answer is “no,” then why is he posing with brush and palette?

The answer is, no, he did not paint it. The artist who did was an obscure Spanish painter named Pastor, and the man’s expression reveals an inner conflict: He has been asked to do something he does not want to do: his closest friend, Paco Julian Portoles, has asked him to destroy Pastor’s painting.

Landscape – Oil on canvas – No date

“I hate this painting for two reasons,” his friend explained. “Number one, it’s awful. I can’t believe such a landscape actually exists.”

“OK, it hardly rises to the level of a Rembrandt, but what painting does? And yes, the landscape looks contrived, like the artist combined elements from different locations and stitched them together. I see a stream on the bottom left and is that fog on a diagonal above it? The light and shadows aren’t convincing. And that curve on the right, is that more water? An irrigation ditch perhaps?”

“More like a path, and an unconvincing path at that.”

“I have to agree with you on that point as well. But tell me, what’s the second reason?”

He explained that he had inherited the landscape from his aunt. Worse, in spite of his dislike for the painting, he had to pay a hefty inheritance tax on it, which added to the insult. “So let’s buy some paint and we’ll put a big red splotch right in the middle of it to deface the thing as it deserves.”

It took a couple of weeks of diplomacy to shift the plan from outright defacement to some kind of . . . “modification.” So, along with red paint, the friends bought tubes of yellow, blue, white, and black, a palette, a liter of turpentine and an easel. They taped plastic sheets to the living room floor and masked off the painting’s frame. Still, the artist’s misgivings persisted. How to modify a painting without destroying it? How to gracefully do something he didn’t want do because he didn’t want to disappoint his friend? The light in the room was barely adequate and some wrinkles in the top right corner of the canvas caused an irritating glare. On top of that, he had a commissioned watercolor to finish, and quickly. A flight was leaving from Madrid the following week and he needed to be on it. So how was he to finish transforming this canvas in just a few days? Such were the thoughts of the painter in the photograph.

That night, a silent man with the face of a banker, carrying an umbrella and wearing a bowler hat appeared to him in a dream. The man drew the shape of an apple in the air. Then he opened it like a door, entered it, and disappeared. The next morning, and for the following few days, our painter, full of joy and confidence, made two rivers join into one, turned the trees into doors, open to sky and clouds. He gave stones a bluish glow. turned day into night, and painted the tree trunks like veins of the earth, full of blood.

Homenaje a Magritte – Oil on canvas

The painting didn’t rise to the level of a Magritte (1896-1967), but what painting does? At least it pleased his friend. And even though he was weary beyond words, the painter managed to be on his flight from Madrid, leaving Spain yet again.

2 thoughts to “Homage to a Master”

  1. Mike, thank you very much for exploring your feelings and your treatment of this commission. Coming from the worlds of Bible translation/interpretation as I do, I think you embody Puskin’s comment on the work writers and translators, which he saw as the mail carrier of civilization. However different the aesthetic of the original and your translation of it, the painting, once silent, now speaks to its owner in a way it couldn’t before.

  2. Wonderful story and a wonderfully dramatic “before” and “after” presentation of the painting, that is, the paintings.
    I very much appreciate Bob Hodgson’s thoughts on the painting and on translating and transforming it and giving it new life. Your homage to Magritte is certainly appropriate, Magritte’s blue, I suppose. However, I am also struck by the sort of “intertextuality” that appears in the “after” painting, that is, reference to an earlier painting of your own: “Body of Fate,” for the blue and also for the trees entering that upper space, the color of the tree trunks, and the “dreamscape” essence of the transformation.

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