At The Gallery Of National Art


Short Fiction by C.D. Rose

 

I am a Warder at the Gallery of National Art and I pass each day in silence. I sit in a narrow chair and watch the pictures on the walls, the people who wander by and the motes of dust in the thick air. I am a Warder at the Gallery of National Art and my work is precious to me. As a Warder I protect the art of my nation from thieves, and cast light on it for the curious. Though my work may seem simple, depth often passes unseen: I am both guard and guide.

 

The guiding is not so common. On occasion I am called on to direct those looking for a specific piece of National Art, though rarely am I asked questions about it. Although I say my work is precious to me, I do not love my job. I am a Warder after all: my job is to sit, and guard, and guide, and this I do.

 

The guarding is constant but in truth makes me fearful. I worry about violent confrontation, much as I know the possibility of such confrontation to be slim. Those who desire to steal are far more likely to enter the Gallery of National Art by night when I am at home and sleeping in my bed. And yet I am on constant watch for those who make repeated visits and display more interest in security cameras and skylights than the National Art itself. There have however, been few thefts at the Gallery of National Art in the time I have been a Warder here. If you are seeking stories of dangerous criminals foiled with aplomb and derring-do, I apologise, for I have none.

 

Among my serried days of dust and silence, few moments stand out. While I have no love for my job, nor do I hold any hate, and sometimes I am startled into feeling. This morning, for example, a young girl came to me and asked me a question at which I marvelled.  I have been thinking on the answer to her question for some considerable time now, and still have not found it.

 

Yet there are other days when I am filled with the void. In this respect I believe I am much like the rest of humanity. I try not to think of such days, and instead, as I sit on my narrow chair, I consider the times when I have had the opportunity to explain pieces of our National Art. Many visitors, especially those few who come from other countries, shuffle along in silence, their noses pushed firmly into the guidebook. Guidebooks are given out free at the ticket desk, or, should one prefer the illustrated and coloured version, at a small cost. A number of visitors choose the audioguide and pass me by as though I were invisible. I sometimes believe the cumbersome headphones render me so. One day, perhaps soon, there will be no further need for Warders at the Gallery of National Art and I shall be made redundant, but this day has not yet come. Visitors will still need to know the location of the toilets, and I do not believe this information (on the ground floor, next to the café) is imparted by the audioguide.

 

I say I am much like the rest of humanity, but in truth I do not know. Does much of humanity veer between wonder and the void? I do not know, because as a Warder at the Gallery of National Art, my work allows me little space for friends.

 

I prefer it if visitors ask why the pictures are organised so, or if a certain artist could be said to pertain to a specific school, or who the figure in a portrait is, or where the events shown in a particular painting took place. Sometimes they ask how they may widen their knowledge and understanding of the art of our nation. I even like it when they ask me if we have any Rembrandt or Caravaggio, any Velasquez or Vermeer, and I patiently explain that no, we have none, because this is a gallery of National Art. These questions are posed less frequently now. Perhaps the new guidebook is more accurate and better annotated, or perhaps with the passing of time I have faded like the delicate cartoons we keep in Room 12.

 

Faded as I may be, I like to think it my very presence which wards off thieves as they scan the Gallery for potential loot and security lapses. There have been no thefts on my watch.

 

As a Warder at the Gallery of National Art, I know the contents of each room eidetically. The third picture from the left on the main wall in Room 23, for example, depicts a house whose brick façade is painted in a delicate duck-egg blue and has a single lamp illuminating its door. I know this house well, because it is the house where I live. As I enter the Gallery in the morning or leave at night, I often glimpse the painting and think of my home waiting for me. In winter, by the time I arrive home the pool of light around the door has not expanded but intensified, while the rest of the house has vanished in gloom. At the same time, I believe the picture stays exactly as it is. I find my key and open the door and climb the three flights of stairs to the small flat where I live alone now, and I eat at my table before sleeping.  My life is quiet, circumscribed. I am a Warder at the Gallery of National Art.

 

Although there have been no thefts on my watch, a man once attacked a work of our National Art. His eyes were set a little too close together, his hair was threadbare, and he wore a jacket with a broken zip. He made several circuits of the Gallery and I noticed him because he was alone, and I always take special care to notice lone visitors, not because I believe them potential criminals, but because I find their singleness palpable. His forehead glistened and though alone, he spoke aloud. Each time he passed his voice grew, his words ever denser and less comprehensible. On his fourth circuit he pushed his hand deep into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small hammer, the kind you would use to nail a picture tack into a wall, and he approached the large statue of King Ata which stood in the middle of the room, and he set about the statue with his hammer. A splinter flew from the King’s kneecap, his toe was smashed and his arm came off in but a few seconds. I shouted for help but none came so I restrained the man myself. It was not difficult. His heart was not in it.  He did not really want to kill God as he later told the court. Perhaps he had wanted to kill his father. I do not know. I am not a criminal psychologist. I am a Warder at the Gallery of National Art.

 

Today is a good day, not only because of the question the girl asked, but also because I am working in the portraits wing of the Gallery, sitting directly opposite a tiny picture the size of a small envelope, the type of envelope which would contain a hand-written invitation to a birthday party or a lightly-perfumed love letter. The picture is of a young person who, I believe, looks exactly like me. Were I ever asked to name my favourite picture in the Gallery of National Art, I would choose this one. It is not a well-executed picture, the brushwork jagged and approximate and the paint laid too thickly, but even though I am now undoubtedly older than the anonymous figure in the picture, and although no one has ever pronounced on the likeness, I feel it a mirror into another version of myself.

 

Some days are so slow I count the bricks in the walls, or measure the size of the room using measurements I have only in my mind. It is surprising that no two rooms in the Gallery are exactly the same size. One day I returned home to find that I would be living alone. My small flat is still the same but has a hole in it like the discoloured space which remains on the Gallery wall when a picture has been removed.

 

Another painting I love, though I cannot explain why, is the strangest picture in the Gallery of National Art. Many visitors walk directly past this picture, thinking it merely a blank canvas. It hangs in the landscape rooms, though it is not quite a landscape: it is a picture of nothing, if that is possible. It shows an enormous plain, not quite desert nor quite tundra, endlessly unfolding. Though empty, it pulls with the gravity of an enormous planet. I do not understand its composition, it has no banal trickery of the eye, no geometric cleverness, but works with perception in such a way as to seem infinite, though of course I know that cannot possibly be so. Once, the Gallery completely empty, I stood so close to this picture that I feared the touch of my breath would damage its paint, and I let it envelop me. The picture ceased to become space, and became time. It is inexplicable and vast and that is why I love it so. The ghosts who frequent the Gallery sometimes crowd around this picture, perhaps because it reminds them of where they live.

 

I am a Warder at the Gallery of National Art and in my job every day is like a recurring dream: always the same, and always different.

 

Visitors from abroad sometimes come to me and say it should not be the ‘Gallery of National Art’ but the ‘National Gallery of Art,’ and I tell them as politely as I can that they are mistaken. This is not a national gallery, but it does house national art. This Gallery is a home to art that displays our nation. They call me a guard, these visitors, or they call me a guide, and I say I am not a guard or a guide but it is my job to do both of these things because I am a Warder at the Gallery of National Art.

 

The ghosts are heavy today. Sometimes months pass without one visiting at all.

 

In winter I eat soup and black bread, in summer yoghurt and nuts, and I keep despair tightly sealed in a jar hidden at the back of the top shelf of the cupboard I rarely use. When I think of sadness, I think of the delicate cartoons in darkened Room 12, covered with a heavy felt blanket.

 

The works in the Gallery of National Art are not grouped along lines of chronology or artistic group, I sometimes have to tell visitors, but into landscapes, portraits and histories. There are pictures of the natural beauties and wonders of our country, there are pictures of the important people in the development of our nation, and there are pictures of the battle of the River Slem, the signing of the Treaty of Vla, the building of Liberation Bridge and the opening of the Gallery itself.

 

Even though it is not my job as a Warder at the Gallery of National Art to decide such things, based on my long contemplations and my admittedly infrequent exchanges with visitors to the Gallery, I have sometimes wondered if there may be better ways to organise the pictures. I think the works should be gathered into rooms for circular, rectangular and triangular pictures, perhaps, or those made by left- or right-handed artists, or rooms containing true and false works. Works painted by day, and those by night. The differences are subtle, but essential.

 

There are questions that are never asked of me, and sometimes I am grateful for this fact. Were I asked, for example, I would be obliged to tell anyone who should ask that the small but intricate landscape which hangs in Room 13 is not in fact by the artist named on its label, but is actually a forgery, painted by a less well-known but no less interesting artist. The story of the forgery is more interesting than the story of the real painting which I now believe hangs in the bedroom of a man who cares very little for it, but it is perhaps a story best left untold.

 

Since the day the man with threadbare hair attacked the statue of King Ata, I have felt less safe in my job. It is only on days like today, when I am asked a question which illuminates me, that I still feel confident that my work is precious.

 

More than the pictures, the thing I love most about being a Warder at the Gallery of National Art is the silence. Even on the rare days the Gallery is crowded there is always a silence so deep it cannot be disturbed. Over time the silence has grown so dense that not even noisy schoolchildren or gaggles of tourists can disturb it. The silence always has a further fold that can be entered, thick with dust, a lovely carpet that covers the days. Even whispers are muted by the Gallery’s silence, a silence so heavy it could slow time itself.

 

I am a Warder at the Gallery of National Art, and I am familiar with the Gallery’s many ghosts. I have spent years watching them pass through the halls. There are the painters who still want to change their paintings. There are those who were lost here, or had nowhere else to go. One I do not know: a small child who wanders the galleries. Some are like us, but smaller, while others are shadowy, never quite in focus, as if moving too quickly or too slowly for us to perceive, blurred like photographs.

 

I love the play mornings on the first Saturday of each month, when sticky children are ferried in to spend two hours seeing wonders before being returned to their bored parents who have not known what to do without their now-enchanted sons and daughters. One picture the children always love is the massive landscape which covers an entire wall in Room 27 and is populated by the many mythical creatures who inhabit our country. I, too, love this picture, as it reminds me of the animated features I watched with Uncle Joris so many years ago. Some children do not return from the play mornings, as they have vanished into that picture. I sometimes think I should like to do the same thing, accompanied by the music of flute and glockenspiel.

 

The ghosts in the Gallery come and go frequently, some with more or less bodily form, others totally invisible, merely manifesting as a strong smell. There it is now: roast bacon. Cigarette ash. Nail varnish.

 

Some days an ache dulls the small of my back, or my legs begin to twitch, and I have to stand and pace the room slowly. Though this is uncomfortable, I am content because I know then that, yes, I am alive, and, yes, I do exist. Though I see the ghosts, I am not yet one of their number.

 

Some pictures in the Gallery baffle me, no matter how many days I pass watching them. One such picture shows two people standing on opposing sides of a river. It is maybe the River Slem which runs through our country. They face each other, and regard each other carefully but without recognition. It may be a history picture, but the people are not famous. One is much older than the other.

 

A fuzzy shape hovers beside one picture in this room, a dark portrait of a troubled merchant, and I am the only one able to see it. I think it another ghost, and believe it to be the picture’s painter, for ever stuck on a pentimento he still bitterly regrets. I see the ghosts of the future too, sometimes, the ones who have not happened yet, but will.

 

Another picture I do not understand is a still life showing a table piled with lacemakers’ bobbins. There are so many of them, so intricate. The detail, the reels of thread untangling and retangling.

 

I had a surprise today: a man I recognised came into the Gallery. This is not so surprising in itself as I recognise many of our frequent visitors, but this man is not a frequent visitor. The reason I know this man is other. This man, older now, his unshaven chin hanging from his shrunken face and a felt cap on his head, is the man who forged the landscape painting in Room 13 and was complicit in consigning the original to the former lover of the man in whose bedroom it now hangs. I took the excuse of the regular break I am permitted to follow him as far as the room where his handiwork is displayed. He stood for a good while before the picture, grinning and muttering to himself, taking pleasure in his craft and, quite possibly, in his deception. I do not consider him a bad man, but wish he had put his talent to better use. I wonder about the man who tried to destroy the statue. He has never returned. I do not know what happened to him.

 

I was once asked if I had ever wanted to do anything else in my life, and I could not reply, because this is all I have ever done. I am not unsatisfied with my life. I think about my favourite picture in the Gallery, the portrait who looks like me. I wonder if this was a self-portrait, and if the artist looked like me. I have never wanted to paint. I like looking. I am a Warder at the Gallery of National Art.

 

Only one picture in the Gallery of National Art scares me. It shows three forest wolves walking in a circle, each closely pursuing the other. One of them looks out at me. They have eaten of the darkness, these wolves, and they know me. Taken in time, they are trapped in the picture, and one day I fear they will escape.

 

‘On the ground floor, next to the café,’ I say, and smile, because I do not know if my questioners understand me. I have sometimes thought that I should give my voice to the audioguide. I should like to be here, long after I am gone, whispering answers to questions yet unformed directly into the ears of careful listeners and casual visitors both.

 

In our history section we have a picture of King Ata talking to a commoner. The king is in disguise and the commoner is blind. Everyone knows the story, but it is not so familiar to foreign guests, who often walk past the picture. I like to wonder if one of them is a king in disguise, or that I might be a king, ready to give a revelation to a passer-by, to condemn to death, or hand them my crown. I think that I am not a Warder at the Gallery of National Art, but that I am every one of the people who has passed, is passing or will pass through its halls.

 

Today has been as similar and as different as any day, but it has been one of the better ones. This evening, as I was preparing to leave an old woman came into the Gallery and told me how she had held my hand, many years ago, and asked me a question which dazzled me, and to which I could not reply and to which I have never been able to find the answer.

 

When she spoke to me I tried my best to reply but words failed, because I am unused to being asked such questions, because my head was full of the sad and angry man who attacked the statue, the person who once loved me, the pictures I love and fear most in this Gallery, and all the ghosts who have come today. I could not speak because I was already off duty, because I am unused to speaking, because I am a Warder at the Gallery of National Art.

 

 


C.D. Rose has written Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else and The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (both published by Melville House), as well as a trail of short stories (most recently in the collections We’ll Never Have Paris, Love Bites and The Book of Birmingham.) He is currently editing a new edition of the stories of Maxim Guyavitch.