Place de Stalingrad
Robert’s project at Place de Stalingrad was the most monumental work we’d seen of his. There was no claim of paternité on the artwork to identify it as Robert’s which made it all the clearer that it was his work.
Jack and I spent hours exploring what he had done, the chalk lines, curves and shapes filling the entire space from one graffiti’d wall to the other. Taken as a whole, it was gloriously abstract, colors interacting in a way that almost felt like looking at something in motion. Then, at every level as you came closer, it transformed itself, revealing new abstractions that became representations that became abstractions again. “It’s like that math thing the computer graphics guy at IHEAP was always going on about—fractures,” Jack said.
“I think it was fractals.”
“Whatever, this is pure genius.”
I walked closer to the fountain in the center of the plaza and noticed another detail in Robert’s artwork. “Jack, take a look at this.” He came over. “Check out this pattern, it seems abstract at first but then you realize that it’s communist hammers and sickles turning into airplanes turning into crucifixes.”
Jack nodded as he inspected what I had found. “And over here, the airplanes are dropping bombs.”
“Man, old Professeur Maurin could write a whole book deconstructing the meaning of all this.”
“And to think none of these people have the slightest idea what they’re walking over.” We looked up to see the drug dealers lurking in the shadows as the bourgeoisie on their way to the MK2 cinemas on the banks of the Bassin de Villete ignore the black teenagers practicing their raps in the open air. Occasionally someone saw us studying the pavement and looked down themselves, but even those few who did, didn’t pause long.
“I wonder if you can get up to the roof of the rotunda somehow. I bet there’s a whole other dimension if you could just somehow see the whole thing at once,” I said.
Jack looked over at the rotunda and shook his head. “It’s a pity it’s going to rain tonight.”
We tried to take in as much of Robert’s masterpiece as we could last night while it still existed, forgetting about our original plan to go out for Algerian food to celebrate an especially good day selling artwork from our stalls in the plaza at Montmartre.
The next morning, all that remained were puddles of water colored with dissolved chalk. An occasional line or curve lingered, but it only made us sad to see it.
“All that work just—gone,” Jack said.
“Robert had to know it was going to rain last night and wash it all away.”
“That’s what makes it so crazy—and so Robert. It couldn’t have been there more than a day or so, we’d have seen it. He did it knowing it would disappear not long after he made it. I wish we’d taken photos.”
An explanation is in order. Robert, Jack and I all met as art students at IHEAP. We recognized each other as the only Americans at the school with any talent and quickly formed our own clique. We rented an attic garret in the Left Bank and moved in together. Our garret had two rooms not counting the bathroom—the entirety of which doubled as the shower—or the miniature kitchen with its abbreviated refrigerator and two-burner stove. We built a three-tiered bunk bed so we could share the single tiny bedroom between us. The not much larger living room, with its surprisingly good natural light, became our shared studio.
We learned French. We ate baguettes and cheese. We became better artists.
And we ran out of student loan money.
With an unpayable bill from IHEAP, we faced the prospect of returning to the US and giving up our Parisian existence. We took another route: we became illegal immigrants. We lived in the underground cash economy like the African refugees who became our neighbors after we gave up our Left Bank garret. Well, Jack’s and my neighbors. Robert didn’t agree with our plan to support ourselves by making art for the tourists and disappeared to follow his own path. We rarely saw him and when we did, he looked haggard and worn. We were sure he was living on the streets, feeding himself who knows how and obtaining the supplies to create his art by even more mysterious means.
When we saw Robert’s artwork it was something simple and public: a splash of abstract colored designs on the plywood covering a broken window or an exquisitely decorated box kite deliberately crashed into the high branches of a tree in the city park. It was all anonymous, but indisputably Robert’s work.
The morning at Montmartre is slow. The rain has redirected the tourists towards indoor activities and they finally emerge into the open air in the afternoon when the rain has dissipated. First the locals, then the continental tourists, followed by the British and finally, when there’s no danger of the rain returning, the Americans.
It’s embarrassing to be an American living in another country. My compatriots tend to be loud, clumsy and oblivious to their ostentatious mauvais ton.
“Par-lay voo English?” he asks.
“Oui,” I say. “A lee-tle.” If the tourist is going to buy anything, he’ll want to believe he’s buying from a genuine Parisian artiste.
“OK, good. Cuanto—how much is this painting?”
Cuanto? My God, this guy is an idiot. “Thees, eet ees, how you say, seventy euro.”
Have I started too high? I usually gauge budgets better but I’m still thinking about Robert’s artwork at Place de Stalingrad. How much would that be worth—assuming that there was some way for it to be sold? More than seventy. More than any of the crap I have on offer.
“I want some ice cream.” I notice for the first time the American kid standing next to him. Pimply face, obligatory tourist beret, egg-shaped physique. If there’s one thing this kid doesn’t need, it’s ice cream.
“OK, Eliot,” the American says. “I think I saw a place around the corner.”
I’m about to lose a sale. On a day like today when the tourists are hard to come by, that’s not a good thing. “Monsieur,” I call out to him. “Ees seventy euro but for you I make spay-shal prahz. You like eet for seexty?”
The American looks back at the painting for a moment, shrugs and walks away without a word.
Once he’s out of sight, Jack comes up to me and starts in, “‘Oui, a lee-tle.’”
“Détends-toi,” I answer. “We don’t want to scare off the tourists.”
“You’re doing a good enough job of that on your own.”
“I’m just having a crappy day.”
“Have you sold anything today?”
“Nope, what about you?”
“Three portraits. It would’ve been four if this one guy hadn’t decided he didn’t like what I drew and left without paying.” He shows me a picture of an overweight man with shaved head, sunglasses and a long goatee. A wannabe biker gang member, but in reality, more likely an accountant or something else ordinary.
“Merde, if I looked like that, I wouldn’t pay either.”
I return to what I’ve been trying to paint, Sacre-Cœur in impressionistic colors and brushstrokes, but I’ve got little more than an outline of the dome and some blue marks that I want to scrape off the canvas and pretend I never made. I’m using somebody else’s style to paint something I don’t care about.
A pair of tourists walks by. The husband, with the usual American assumption that English is an exotic language spoken by no one outside the boundaries of the U.S., guides his wife past me saying, “Not this one. I bet he has someone else doing his painting—just look at that canvas and tell me he’s an artist.”
I want badly to turn around to the American husband and tell him in my own native English free of faux accent that he’s right, I’m not an artist. I’m only a pretender. I don’t.
“What are we doing out there every day, Jack?” I ask at day’s end as we ride packed into the metro back to our apartment.
“We’re making art.”
“No. We’re making kitsch for tourists.”
“Fine, it’s not capital-A art, but would you rather be working in some office somewhere?”
“Maybe, at least then I’d have a steady income and maybe enough energy left to do actual art at the end of the day.”
“Hey, I enjoy what I do. Sure, I could go back to America and draw cartoons for sappy greeting cards or illustrate advertisements for Chinese toys and do real art in the evening but then what?”
“What do you mean, ‘but then what’?”
“I mean, right now, I’m at least choosing what I’m creating and people—granted they’re mostly idiots—pay me for my work. I’m not foolish enough to think that I would be able to sell real art. Nobody wants that.”
“Some people do.”
“Not in our experience. I’ve seen what happens to your occasional efforts towards doing real art. It sits in your bin until you end up tossing it or painting over it. And my attempts, well, if we had a cat, we’d have lining the litter box covered.”
My ears burn at Jack’s critique.
“Look,” Jack says. “There just aren’t enough people out there who want art. I’d say that there are probably more people out there who want to be artists than who want to support art. And most of the ones that think they’re supporting art are the ones who go on vacation to Paris and bring home our crap as a souvenir. Maybe they hang it on the wall when they get home, but more likely it ends up in the back of a closet until they toss it or give it to Goodwill. You think I don’t realize that most of my portraits that I sell will get tossed before the tourists go home?”
“You can’t really see it as dark as that.”
“You’re right, I see it darker. This is the only way I’m going to do the art that I choose. I have the autonomy to make these portraits the way I want to make them. If I go back home and get a day job, well, you know what happens eventually: that energy you have at the end of the day begins to vanish because nobody wants art. So, you give your energy to creating a hundred and one variations on Bucky the Naked Mole Rat for the latest ad campaign until eventually you can retire and spend your days watching TV and never picking up a pencil or a paintbrush again. That’s why I’m happy enough with what we’re doing. It may not be Art-with-a-Capital-A, but it’s not Bucky the Naked Mole Rat either. Or would you rather end up like Robert, making the art that you want but being homeless and living on the street?”
In the weeks that follow, I regain myself enough to make and sell my paintings from my stall in Montmartre. I’ve squelched the desire to make “real” art that surfaced after that night at Place de Stalingrad.
One day I’m walking along the Seine where the vendors have their stalls along the quay on the left bank across from Notre Dame. One bookseller has an abstract drawing in colored pencil offered for sale. It’s unmistakably Robert’s work. When I ask the vendor about it, he tells me the artist gave it to him in exchange for a book that sat unsold in his box for months. The drawing has been no more luck appealing to the passersby. He offers it to me for a Euro and when I hesitate, he hands it to me and tells me to take it, gratis.
D. A. Hosek's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Meniscus, Southwest Review, Switchback, Popshot, Blue River Review and elsewhere. He earned an MFA in fiction from the University of Tampa. He lives and writes in Oak Park, IL and spends his days as an insignificant cog in the machinery of corporate America. http://dahosek.com
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