Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Kindness of Strangers

This week I had a yen to reread something by Jean Rhys. Rhys was an early 20th-century British novelist who was born on the island of Dominica in the West Indies and is most famous for Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of the first Mrs. Rochester from Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre. From among my 1970s Penguin paperbacks of her works, I pulled out After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, the story of the sad life of Julia Martin, who drifts between Paris and London, kept afloat only by occasional donations from male protectors, much like Rhys herself had been when a young woman. Julia is a passenger in her own life, driven by whim and mood and too much alcohol, which helps her to forget her fear of the future as her charms begin to fade. A young Englishman takes an interest in her and she tells him about when she’d first gone to Paris when she’d been a regular model for a woman sculptor.  

“And then, before I knew where I was, I was telling her everything… that had happened to me, as far as I could. And all the time I talked I was looking at a rum picture she had on the wall –a reproduction of a picture by a man called Modigliani. Have you ever heard of him? This picture is of a woman lying on a couch, a woman with a lovely, lovely body. Oh, utterly lovely. Anyhow, I thought so. A sort of proud body, like an utterly lovely proud animal. And a face like a mask, a long, dark face, and very big eyes. The eyes were blank, like a mask, but when you had looked at it a bit it was as if you were looking at a real woman, a live woman. At least that’s how it was with me.

Well, all the time I was talking I had the feeling I was explaining things not only to Ruth – that was her name – but I was explaining them to myself too, and to the woman in the picture. It was as if I were before a judge, and I were explaining that everything I had done had always been the only possible thing to do. And of course I forgot that it’s always so with everybody, isn’t it?”

I was familiar with Amedeo Modigliani’s style but did not have any particular picture in my mind as I read the passage about the painting of the woman with the utterly lovely body and the face like a mask with the very big eyes. In fact I assumed that Rhys had made up a generic Modigliani to hang in the Paris studio of that woman sculptor in her novel.

But no more than a day after reading this passage, I saw a news report that a real painting by Modigliani, Nu couché, had been sold for $170 million, making it the second most expensive painting ever sold at auction. And when I saw a picture of the painting (see above), I realized that it perfectly matched Rhys’s description.

I have no idea if Rhys ever saw Nu couché but it would not be surprising if she had. Modigliani painted it in Paris in 1917 (he died of tuberculosis in 1920), and she was living among the artistic community in Paris by the early 1920s so it's certainly possible that the painting was in the possession of someone she might know.  

What did amaze me was that the painting was being sold on exactly the same day (November 9, 2015) on which I was reading Rhys’s vivid description of it. Talk about synchronicity in the cultural universe. It makes me glad to think that sad, lost Julia Martin, and presumably her sad, lost creator before her, was once sustained and encouraged by the beauty of the painting and of the woman it represents.