The line went round the block just to see it – the first public unveiling of the painting they were saying was the key to his whole body of work. He had painted hundreds of canvases, but in his lifetime he’d never sold a single one. He’d died broke and alone and by his own hand at the same age Surlata himself began to paint – thirty-six. They all called him Surlata now. That’s how you know you’ve made it, when you’re just a surname. Only his mother called him Richard. She didn’t care for his work. She told him she had always been afraid of trees.
It was some newly discovered painting, they said. A lost masterpiece. Supposedly the last he completed before he died, and it was unlike any of the others, it held some vital clue to his vision and his death. Nobody could tell him more than this. Many had been waiting in the line for hours. Some didn’t know why they were waiting at all. One man didn’t even know the painter’s name.
Richard Surlata was a landscape painter with a signature style, known for his unique rendering of trees. He had never shown his work to his students but when the internet happened they discovered his secret and were mildly impressed – not by the paintings but by his fame. A Surlata could sell for five thousand dollars on a good day. That was more than many of the greats earned in their lifetimes. He would often remind himself of this fact in those moments when the little voice told him he was a fraud.
The line began to move at fifteen past the hour. They were limiting admission to small groups at a time. He just happened to be in Florence for the event. It wasn’t part of his itinerary. He’d overheard someone talking about it at the Uffizi only two days before. It was a brilliant stroke of luck. He thought it was a sign. His favorite artist. Agabus. A lost canvas. An unknown Gustav Agabus. His final piece. The key to everything.
It’d taken Surlata ten years to find his own voice, his style. He painted on the weekends and every day in the summertime. He developed a vision, a way of seeing the world. It had to do with edges, with light around the edges of things. He tried to convey this to his classes, but they were high school kids, not art students. They didn’t understand about seeing beyond. Light. Vibrations. The myth of stillness. The whole world was shimmering, if they would just open their eyes. If only they would see.
The line moved just ten feet at a time. In front of him was a German family, a married couple in their fifties and two kids the age of his students – a boy and a girl mesmerized by their smart phones. Behind him was a young American couple, backpacker types, college grads. Starry-eyed, tan, destined for easy greatness. Most of what he learned about the unveiling came from a description they printed off the web and read to each other aloud.
He was thinking about his own paintings. He liked them. They sold well. He had many admirers. He knew that he was a competent technician, a clever manipulator of emotion. He could make people feel things, he could move them. But he wasn’t great. He knew that but he never allowed himself to dwell on it. Something was missing from his work. He never discussed this with anyone, not his agent and certainly not his mother, who called his work false. I just don’t feel anything, she once said.
The backpackers were talking about light but what did they know about it? Any minute now, one of them would lay a claim on Vermeer. He could feel it coming. Textbook wisdoms. Parrots. As if they could possibly understand candlelight, the ineffable glow of dusk. Zones of transition, shadow, translucency. Borders. Boundaries and the blending of form. This was the domain of Agabus, who could render a simple chair as if it were the Eiger at sunrise. Clay jars, silver spoons. He could show you the spirit that belied the form. All is vibration. Frequency. Nothing is still. These were not simply paintings, they were treatises in physics, in metaphysics. And then he heard it. It was the girl. Please, not Pearl Earring. Too late.
He was close now. He would make the next group to be let in. The exiting parties filed out through the same door and he watched their expressions for any sign of revelation or satori. He saw nothing. Most were quiet, perhaps reflective. Others were immediately back into their alt-selves, checking their phones as if at any moment their lives would change forever. Perhaps the painting was over-hyped. If a great work of art couldn’t sustain a stillness for ten minutes what hope did we have as a society? He thought that more than likely they just didn’t truly see it like he would. For this he was prepared. He felt like his whole life was a preparation for this moment.
There was the requisite metal detector, as strict as an airport. Cameras and phones were not permitted. Bags were not permitted. A docent informed them that absolutely no talking was allowed. They would have ten minutes with the painting. They could leave at any time but not return once they’d gone. A pencil and a writing tablet could be brought in but that was all. No more than ten were allowed in at a time.
They ushered them in single file through a narrow corridor created by heavy crimson curtains that muffled all sound and instilled the feeling of mysterious passage, of birth. The lighting was perfect. A soft ambient glow from above. There was an artificial wind current so that the curtains undulated slowly. Nobody made a sound. Surlata was intentionally lagging. He hoped that at least a portion of the group would just glance at it and exit. He hoped he could spend some time with it alone.
The curtains parted to form a circular enclosure thirty feet high. The room was bare save for a dais in the center where the painting hung in mid-air as if levitating. Above was an oculus, a disk of clear blue sky. The group approached cautiously. Surlata hung back, trying to get a sense of what he was seeing from a distance. An orb? A stone? A loaf of gray-blue bread? It failed to register. But there was something compelling about it. A hole? People stared. The German couple with the teenagers left after little more than a minute. They vanished down a similar curtained corridor on the opposite side of the enclosure. He heard muffled laughter. Another person followed. The group became restless. Surlata stepped closer.
He could see now that it was a volumetric rendering of something very heavy and very old. That was his impression. And then it changed. Other people started leaving. He moved closer. It was either something very large or something very small. The scale seemed to be shifting. He stepped onto the dais and stood as close as they allowed. His head swam. What was he seeing? Light, but beyond light. Waveforms. First it was gray and then it was in vivid color. Red. Deoxygenated blood-red. No. It was cobalt blue. Ochre. Were they playing tricks with the lights? He looked up but there was no light source other than the sky.
He could see through the curtains. He could see through the walls, through space. Into the eyes of God. The past. All futures. Time rendered obsolete. Sight no longer mattered. Light was bestowed to us for this and only this. From the eyes of a dead man we can see the infinite. From his eyes to his hands to these crushed pigments. He builds a looking glass. Everything that is anything. Here. There. Before his eyes. before theirs. But they are the ones who can’t see.
First, it was the color that began to fade. The veil of color. The hue drained from the sky above the oculus. The walls became a monochrome of rust. Fading. The light was fading. He staggered off the dais and fell to the floor. The room went dark. Can they shut the oculus? He felt hands on him. They lifted him from the floor.
Where is the light? He said. Lampada?
They walked him down the muffled corridor and took him back outside. He felt the space open up around him, the sun on his face. But he could not see. There were voices. Motor scooters. The sounds of the street. He could hear birds. Someone was talking to him. He could hear a woman’s shoes on the cobblestones and the distant bark of a large dog, just one short bark. He felt the sun on his face and it was still warm and just as lovely in his new blindness. People were gathered round him now. He heard the concern in their voices. He knew that the line still stretched around the block to his left with all the people waiting to see the Agabus. It’s all about the edges. It’s all about frequency. But they wouldn’t see it. What did they know about the light?
He heard the Doppler approach of a European ambulance, the rushing of voices. They took him. They put him inside a cave-like enclosure and he heard the hollow whump whump of the doors. Then the strange siren. The short screech of tires. Italian voices. It was dark but his eyes were open. He saw nothing but the ghostly image of the Agabus floating, like a blue transparent snowflake lingering against a sea of black.
Vincent Louis Carrella is a writer, photographer and the author of the novel Serpent Box. His blog (serpentbox.wordpress.com) explores the spiritual and mystical dimensions of perception, synchronicity and time.
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