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The Portrait: a short story inspired by Hockney

Published 7 September 2016

How can a portrait describe the relationship between an artist and a sitter? How does that differ in a written portrait? In our creative writing course, participants were asked to take inspiration from our current Hockney Portraits exhibition to create a short story.

  • Led by the novelist Alba Arikha, a four-week evening writing workshop at the RA explored the complexities of developing credible “portraits” and individual characters in the context of fictional creative writing. Taking inspiration from the Hockney Portraits exhibition in the first instance, the workshop considered the “conversation between sitter and writer” and the connection between the artist and their subject matter. Marta Medico Pique’s story was chosen to appear here from a number of fantastic short stories submitted at the end of the course. Please note: all characters and events depicted in this story are entirely fictional. Any similarity to persons, living or dead, or to actual events is entirely coincidental.

  • The Portrait

    The assistant walked Violet to the studio after the introductions were made. Violet stood in the centre of the room and looked curiously around her. She then turned her attention to James, the assistant, who was trying to engage her in conversation and observed her getting the material ready for the session. A series of laughs came from the nearby drawing room, where her mother had introduced her daughter to the artist and said goodbye. Violet tightened her grip on her grey notebook and her eyes darkened. James motioned towards the chair where she would be posing and Violet went about trying out different positions while covertly watching James’ movements. James placed a stretched canvas on the easel and, from where the artist would soon be standing, he looked at Violet. He took in the innocent smile, the confident bearing and the deep attention she paid in testing each position. He observed how the morning sunbeams were falling upon her, making her honey-brown locks shine. He was enchanted by the angelic aura of the child. Violet moved the lapel of her pink dress as if she was already bothered by it; she could tell it would be a hot day. James returned to his task and took some charcoal sticks from a wood-and-glass cabinet that was at the back of the room. He walked back to the easel and left them next to it on the big oak table where brushes, paint and tools were laid in an orderly fashion.

    “Excuse me”, said Violet to James. “Could I have a glass of water?”
    “Of course, I will get one for you.”
    “With ice, please.”

    The instant James left the room, Violet grabbed the charcoal sticks. She went directly to the armchair that was next to the table and placed the sticks under the seat cushion. An unexpected noise of chatting and laughter made Violet freeze. She listened: the chatter continued somewhere else and was fading slowly. She then leaped towards the cabinet and hastily explored it. A key was in the lock of the door; she turned the key and took it. Violet heard steps coming from the corridor and rushed to the chair. James returned into the room and saw Violet where he had left her.

    “Thank you, I was very thirsty”, said Violet with a smile.

    James walked towards Violet and she stood up from the chair. She grabbed the glass with one hand while sliding the cabinet key into the pocket of the assistant’s blazer with the other. A moment later, the wrinkled artist arrived in the room humming La donna è mobile and James started moving his arms imitating a conductor. Everybody laughed.

    “Hey girl, are you ready?” Violet nodded. “I know this can be a bit tiring so please choose a posture that is comfortable for you.”

    James saw that the session was about to begin and left. The artist first scrutinised Violet, and then extended his arm mechanically to the side in order to reach the charcoal sticks he always used to sketch his portraits. He found the table surface and slid his hand over it: but there was nothing there. He now looked at the table and saw no trace of the charcoal. He frowned and a small guttural noise escaped from his throat. He moved towards the cabinet and tried to open its doors, but he soon realized that it was locked. Violet noticed the artist’s distorted face.

    “Is there something wrong?”
    “Nothing is wrong. It’s just that James normally leaves the material ready for me.” He paused for a moment, and then continued: “and this cabinet always has the key in the lock. It’s very strange.”
    “Maybe it fell when he closed the doors. Let me help you find it.”

    Violet hurried to the cabinet and went on all fours to search around the cabinet. Meanwhile, the artist called James and he appeared right away leaning against the doorframe.

    “Did you take the key from the lock?”
    James looked puzzled. “The doors are locked”, added the artist, pointing to the cabinet. “It’s impossible. It must have fallen. And I don’t recall locking the cabinet either, but- ” The doorbell rang. “This is bad timing; we’re not expecting anyone. I will be right back.”

    James left and the artist started searching on the floor as well, pearls of sweat appeared on his forehead. “I must apologise, this has never happened before. It sounds like an excuse, but I mean it.”
    “Don’t worry, we have time,” said Violet smiling.

    James returned with fast steps, moving his arms exasperatedly. “It’s her mother. She can’t find the car key, so she can’t leave. She says it is not the first time it’s happened to her; she’s sure it will end up appearing, as always. She’s asked to search in the rooms she was in.”

    The artist saw a fleeting, mischievous smile on the otherwise candid face of Violet and his eyes sparkled. He nodded: “That’s okay, go help her find the key. Don’t worry about us James, we’re fine here. Violet, why don’t you go sit in your chair.”

    The artist went to the windows and opened them; a cool breeze entered and refreshed the room. The artist inhaled deeply and then dragged the armchair in front of Violet, who was already sitting with her notebook in her lap. The artist’s eyes met Violet’s.

    “What are you doing here, dear?”
    “I came to make a written portrait of you.”
    The artist grinned, “How so?”
    “I write in my school journal. Normally I write stories, but you are famous so I will write a portrait of you: Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man, something like that. This might even land me an award or something.”
    “I see. So you like to write, would you like to be a writer?”
    “No, I don’t want to starve. My mother says almost all writers starve, like her friend. I would like to be one of the few who don’t, but I don’t want to take the chance.”
    The artist laughed heartily. “Come on girl! I don’t think you should worry about starving, your father being-”
    “You don’t understand”, interrupted Violet, “I don’t want his money. It takes your life away to take care of it; I would rather have a family, and a home, and time.”

    The artist remained silent for a moment and his face turned serious.
    “Now Violet, why are you here?”
    Violet turned her eyes down.
    “My Mum wants to hang me in her new living room.”
    “Why would she want to do something like that?”
    “Because I’m her pet. Don’t you see what a ridiculous dress she made me wear? She only wants to show me off.”
    “Well, fortunately enough, she didn’t notice your butterfly tights.”
    “She wouldn’t see anything that is not on the surface.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “Nothing. I mean nothing.”

    Violet was trembling and kept looking down. She exhaled with a deep sigh and felt the breeze through her hair, cooling her face.

    “You know, since they divorced and sent me to that boarding school in England they see me five weeks a year each. This week is one of those, and what does she do? She flies me here to imprison me in this chair. Then, she will hang me on her wall and I will be shipped to my Dad wherever he might be, because I haven’t been to our Zurich home for a year. We are always in hotels somewhere with his new wife. If at least I had a sister…even a brother would do.”

    The artist inclined his body forward and put one hand on Violet’s knee.

    “Violet, I will not paint you if you don’t want me to. I will talk to your mum and say I cannot take the job; I assure you she will never know that the decision has anything to do with you. Painting, for me, is not only about money.” He paused for a moment, “However, I think I can help you, but you will have to trust me. And in exchange for your time, I will answer as many questions as you need for your piece.”

    Violet thought about it for a while and finally agreed to pose.

    “Excellent,” said the artist with a grin. “Now we only need to find my charcoal sticks. Do you have any idea where they could be?”
    Violet smiled shyly. “You are sitting on top of them.”
    “Oh!” said the artist standing up cheerfully. He raised the seat cushion and picked up the charcoal sticks. “Here they are!”

    James strolled into the room.

    “Her mother found the key between the cushions of the sofa, it must have fallen when she was sitting there… She will be back later to pick her up.” He cleared his throat and slowly raised his hand holding the cabinet key. “I found the cabinet key in my pocket. I must have taken it without noticing; maybe I got distracted, I don’t really know. My apologies.”
    The artist winked at Violet and they smiled at each other.
    “Mystery solved then!” said the artist.

    The first session of the portraits finally began and they continued uninterrupted for a week. During the last day, the artist and Violet made the final touches to their respective portraits.

    “I have finished now,” said the artist. “Are you done with yours as well?”
    “I am. Do you want to see it?”

    Violet handed her grey notebook to the artist. She then sat in front of his portrait, discovering herself through someone else’s eyes. The artist looked at her expectantly and Violet smiled and nodded.

    “Was it worth trusting me?”
    “I think it was, we shall see.”

    The artist read Violet’s account of him and got very moved when he read the last lines. He was used to the typical praising jargon of critics, but this was personal. Violet wrote: “Michael Pollen is not only a consummate master of the brushes, but he is also a rare listener: he listens with his body, his ears, and his eyes. I will never forget the experience of being painted by Mr Pollen, because he is the first person who has truly seen me.”

    When Violet’s mother arrived, the artist welcomed her into the studio. She went in babbling cheerfully, walking with fast little steps, excited to see her little angel captured forever on the canvas. She directed her eyes to the finished portrait and her joy started to vanish as the seconds ticked away, giving way to a contracted face.

    “I don’t understand,” muttered Violet’s mother turning her head to the artist, “this doesn’t look like my daughter. This is not what I expected.”
    “I’m sorry you’re disappointed, but this is indeed how I see your daughter.”
    Violet’s mother raised her tone. “Then, you must see her wrong! She is always happy and so independent and self-assured! You should have bothered to get to know her! She looks so vulnerable, so afraid, so serious here. Why have you done this to her?”
    “I have not painted anything that I don’t feel is there,” the artist replied. “We have spent many hours together this week, and rest assured that I’ve had enough time to get a good look at who she is. I am the artist; I paint what I see, and this is how I see her.”
    “But for Heaven’s sake, look at her!”

    She turned to her daughter. “Violet.”
    She looked down and said nothing. “Violet!” she insisted. She clenched her fists, her lips tightened. “Violet?” she now said in a faint voice. “Look at me!“

    She remained silent, looking at her feet instead. Her face distorted as she held back some tears. She looked at the portrait and back to Violet. She cried: "Why don’t you-?”

    Her breath caught in her throat; she let her tears fall. Finally, she had seen her.