Maurice, an idealistic painter in 1950’s France, is dragged into an art fraud against his will. He seeks a solution to his problem through a sigil spell, the kind of magic spell favoured by chaos magicians and artists.
The crisis of the fraud uproots him, wrecks his domestic life and drags him across three European countries as he flees the revenge he fears. The true definition of a master is gradually revealed.
The artist painted a lilac line. It undulated around the edges of the canvas and wandered nonchalantly towards the middle of what was to be his new painting-or would it be a sigil today?
He liked to paint both: compositions that were for no other purpose than to celebrate art, and sigils for the purpose of manifesting his desires. After a brief moment of thought he decided to make it into the former kind, and at once the red came in and fought with the lilac, nudging it at many points like a racing car trying to overtake its rival without making the driver crash.
Now he was going full tilt: yellow! Blue! Purple! Diamonds and crosses! A face in profile with an expression of despair, while another face nearby looked exultant. He was a servant of the great mistress Art. Everything he did was to please her, and himself, and (just incidentally at first but later gathering momentum) the audience.
Art has always been held to be a noble pursuit, by every one of the variegated human civilizations that have existed. So the artist had been granted leave by his peers to think himself noble, should he have wanted to. Like so many other artists he preferred to think of himself not as noble but as driven by madness. His art was a reaching out to others from the insanity within, to which he had been driven by the force that pressed down on him from its wellspring in the lands beyond this Earth. On looking at his works the audience glimpsed, even if only for an instant, the storm inside him that raged outwards, towards the external world.
None of us can know whether what we see is only a function of our own eyes, and peculiar to us as individuals. Maybe he saw a world of razors ready to cut him, and when his audience looked at his works they saw their own dysfunctional world equivalent to his world of razors, and just as eager to garner attention for itself.
He found that his skill increased when he did spiritual exercises. They fed the technical side of his art, and his abilities now were so refined that he could even copy other painters’ works and make his own look exactly like them. At the moment he concealed this ability because he did not wish to enter into the dangerous waters of art forgery. There was a lot of money to be made, but also libel suits and prison sentences, and worst of all a compromising of the purity of art. The stream of art descends from a mountain where plagiarism is unknown, and its motives are not understood. The grand masters and goddesses of beauty never lie-at least, not when the truth pertains to art.
The artist, whose name was Maurice, was not completely happy with his present canvas. He thought he should be painting this composition on a board made of a different material. But no other materials were to hand, so he carried on with broad, slanting brushstrokes, and with feathering the paint a little at the edges as if he was a home decorator instead of a purveyor of pure art.
The door opened softly, and Maurice’s wife came in. She had actually been a common-law wife for the majority of their time together, like most of the wives in the artists’ quarter of the town, and they had made it legal as an afterthought. They lived in a small town in western France and the year was 1954.
Maurice’s wife Patti had unwelcome questions for him about meat and vegetables and fish, items which belonged to the world outside the fine country inhabited by his art: the mundane streets full of shops and markets and dull houses with their ovens. He didn’t want to hear about that world today, nor at any other time.
Patti began arranging flowers in a vase on the table. Now that she had finished talking about the shopping she turned her mind to more creative activities, for Maurice had originally married her for her artistic flair. She placed a tall rose at the back of the arrangement in order that it might tower above the other flowers like a Madonna, unreachable above other women. Patti wanted her flower arrangement to speak as well as simply to look pretty on the table.
“Hand me some paints, Patti, will you?” said Maurice. “I’m in the middle of an important painting.”
“If both of us are occupied with it, the housework will never get done”, she replied tartly.
Maurice turned his back on her and carried on painting. He regretted the loss of those days when she would not merely hand him his paints but sit at his feet enraptured, or model for him for hours, and of course share her own paintings with him. Now she never painted, and seemed more interested in placing pictures by others strategically around the house.
For Patti her ‘moving on’ had been active not passive: an eager and strenuous engagement in new hobbies that were either sporting in nature, like exercise regimes, or domestic arts like flower arranging and decorating, and then there was also her work.
Maurice withdrew into himself and into a private world of art, as he did every day. There had been a sigil once to induce Patti to share his interests again, but his will had faltered a little amid the belief that she should follow her own road, and the result had been abstract rather than concrete. She thought more about his interests and told him what she had been thinking, but did not join in with them as she had done in the past.
Later that day, on reading the newspaper, Maurice discovered that a colleague of his, Benoit, whose work he had often proved to himself that he could copy exactly, had just sold a painting for over a million francs. He was the new darling of the art world, and Maurice found himself sorely tempted to liven up his monotonous life and marriage by forging a Benoit.
He shook away the thought along with the strands of hair flapping over his ears; he was forty and his hair was already starting to become thin. Violin music on the gramophone was in order, and also sweets from the round candy tin on the sideboard. These two things were what usually restored his equilibrium, but today he continued to feel unsettled, and even while painting he kept pausing and gazing out at his landscaped garden. He was proud that he had been able to afford to have his garden done professionally, financed by his painting and jobs as an illustrator.
Patti had jobs as well, at one time as an illustrator like himself but more recently cleaning and doing odd jobs in the offices of beneficial organizations whose work she agreed with-although not outright charities who would have requested her services free of charge. She belonged to several committees, and knew people who knew people who would pay her a little, while yet being outside the rat race, and helping others.
Maurice was thinking of turning in for an early night when the phone rang. It was his English friend Ed, the one he secretly called ‘my shady friend.’