I didn’t belong there. I wandered through the succession of rooms, with a glass of overly acidic champagne in my hand. I looked at the other guests. Their self-confidence, the way they held their heads. Their facial expressions. They formed familiar little clusters, burst out laughing, glanced over at rival groups, occasionally glanced at the canvases, gushed noisily, turned away, murmured a spicy anecdote or scathing commentary into the ear of an acolyte, demolishing the opus they had just praised in the blink of an eye. The men wore jackets that were self-consciously casual. The women in little black dresses shrieked with laughter, and regularly reached up to touch their male partner’s arm or shoulder.
A gallery opening, with all its decorum. In fact, it pretty much lived up to the stereotypical image I had of such events. I did not attend this kind of gathering on any regular basis. In my fifty-eight years on this planet I have not, in the end, spent much time in the world of visual arts. This was only the second time I had ever been invited to this sort of occasion. The first time was over a quarter of a century ago. Back then I had gone with a friend who was feverishly exhibiting his work with other local artists. We had hung his paintings ourselves.
Whereas this evening, of course, was different. The painter was local, yes, but his fame had spread all the way to Paris and even abroad. Alexandre Laudin: living proof that art has no regard for either geographical or social origins—he was born and grew up in this provincial town, in a housing development where his parents still lived. But I imagined him comfortably ensconced in the tenth or eleventh arrondissement. Bastille, République. Where the pulse of life beats faster.
Laudin has done the town and its inhabitants proud. He is our cultural guarantor, the reference we like to slip into a conversation, just to show that it is not only in Paris that, etc. His name began to pop up ten years or so ago, if I remember correctly. Ever more frequent articles in the local, then regional and national papers. A discreet but steady ascension. Last week his photograph was on the front page. To announce this exceptional exhibition, a sort of mini-retrospective of five years of pictorial research. The paintings would be on display in this gallery for only two weeks before flying off to Rome, London, or Amsterdam, where admirers were beginning to grow impatient. But before going global, Laudin had insisted on this exhibition in his stronghold. The journalist had emphatically praised his loyalty to his place of birth. The message was clear: Alexandre Laudin, at least, did not think he was God’s gift. The opening was on a Friday evening. A private party. By invitation only. I remember smiling as I studied Alexandre Laudin’s portrait in the paper. I hardly recognized him. He didn’t look like the student I had taught English to, twenty years earlier. I must have had him in première, but he made no impression on me. I smiled, the way I did every time I used the verb “to have” to describe the relation between student and teacher. Monsieur Bichat? I had him in cinquième. You’re lucky you didn’t have that old bag Aumont. is is how we define ourselves, us and them. We belong to each other for a few months. Then we set one another free again. We forget one another.
Nowadays, of course, I would notice Alexandre Laudin. On the photographs that appeared in the papers he was staring at the lens with a hard, almost insolent gaze. He exuded money and self-regard. Physically, he seemed to have filled out considerably, whereas I recalled a skinny boy, a scrawny cat in the corridors of the lycée. He must have become an ardent member of gyms and spas. With his shoulder-length hair and three-day stubble he could have been the face of some advertising campaign for men’s cologne.
I had been very surprised to find the invitation to the opening in my mailbox. So I was one of the happy few, who nevertheless numbered close to two hundred, by the looks of it. I was flattered, naturally, but puzzled, too. I had rarely run into Alexandre Laudin over the last twenty years, and when I had, we merely nodded knowingly to each other, murmuring some bland pleasantry. We had no desire to hear about each other’s lives. I assumed my name had found its way by mistake onto the guest list of the cultural center organizing the event. Flattered or not, I had decided not to go. What was there to gain from that sort of party where I knew no one? I could already imagine standing around alone. How I would feel at loose ends. That I didn’t belong. I would rather sprawl on my sofa and read the novel I had started the day before. Or lose myself in the twists and turns of some English TV series about the trials of the aristocracy and their servants at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Yes, but. I’d had a trying day. Célia Richon, in seconde B, had been even more unbearable than usual. She scoffed at me with her half smile and rolled her eyes to the ceiling whenever I called her out on something. And of course the head teacher for seconde B, who is the phys ed instructor, could not understand how Celia could behave so differently in English class than in gym class. With me, the phys ed teacher added, perfidiously, the girl was adorable. I was well aware that beneath her carnivorous smile she was questioning my teaching methods, but above all being sarcastic about my age. Maybe it’s time to retire? In addition to which I was getting ever more exasperated with my final-year students, who spent all their time trying to sneak glances at their smartphones, and then the arrival in première littéraire of a troublemaker expelled from other schools. I couldn’t stop sighing, and Isabelle, my philosophy colleague, pointed this out to me. Clearly I had lost my passion, if I’d ever even had any, and with each passing day the effort required to command even a modicum of attention on the part of my students was greater, leaving me exhausted. I worried about the four years of teaching I had left, all the more so as we were in no way sheltered from any new ministerial decrees raising the legal retirement age to sixty-five or even seventy. I had two piles of papers to grade waiting for me, but when I got back to my cold apartment I didn’t feel like staying there. I turned the heat up all the way, to hell with saving energy, après moi le déluge! The invitation was in plain sight on the living room table. I stuffed it into my coat pocket and went straight back out. On the way I reasoned that at this sort of shindig there was bound to be a mountain of food and that if I went about it carefully I wouldn’t even have to make myself dinner. And when I got home it would be so hot in there I’d even be tempted to open a window. Bliss. In the meantime, I was going to stuff myself with hors d’oeuvres.
I observed the crowd. The discreet cracks visible in women’s makeup. The traces of cosmetic surgery. The creasing of skin. Fluttering of eyelashes. I heard laughter ringing false. This really wasn’t my world. I greatly preferred the anonymity of the movie theaters I often went to on a Sunday: the six p.m. show, so I’d be sure no one would bother me and I could sit peacefully in the third or fourth row, ready to be crushed by the screen and the images I immersed myself in, oblivious to the entire outside world. With films—as with novels, which I devoured with the regularity of a metronome—I gave myself no limits: I fell into every trap the author or director set for me, lost myself with relish in the labyrinths of a fictitious world. I think of that friend of Mary Poppins, the chimney sweep, and the amazing chalk pictures he drew: you could jump into them and become reincarnated. I dreamed of meeting him.
The paintings were no surprise. Over the years I’d seen several reproductions in the local paper and on posters around town. I’d also poked around online, and when the media began to talk about Laudin I’d even checked the website he’d set up to promote his work, a site that disappeared, incidentally, once his success was established.
Tall, gray, almost vertical figures, with touches of bright color. Crowds waiting with anxious expressions for something to happen. A cataclysm. Labored, deformed faces, eyes protruding. A disturbing vision of humanity, reminiscent of both Munch and Francis Bacon, with an incongruous nod to Bernard Buffet, now forgotten; reproductions of his paintings used to decorate our dining room when I was a kid. Enough to freeze the already chilly atmosphere that reigned during family meals.
There were other influences, no doubt, but I didn’t want to venture onto the slippery slope of comparison and analysis. My knowledge of art and painting generally was not that extensive. As a body of work it was interesting, but I was aware that the use of that adjective would cause the artist to grind his teeth if ever it were repeated to him. Disturbing, yes, but not really all that innovative. Above all, my gaze slipped over each painting and moved on, never arrested, never lingering. They evoked no emotion, and this was probably deliberate on the artist’s part. A cold, harsh world. An exhibition of dystopia. So be it. What bothered me more was that Alexandre Laudin seemed to be repeating himself lately, the same themes, same use of color, same brushstroke. As if at the dawn of his career he had hesitated on one of the lower rungs of the ladder that would take him toward the sun. I couldn’t help but smile at the pompous sentence I’d just voiced mentally. As I made my way through the rooms I ended up in the one farthest from the entrance. It was deserted, and looked out onto a little garden, plunged in darkness. Conversation and laughter from the main gallery area reached the room with a stifled, almost unreal resonance.
“You’re smiling, Monsieur Claret?”
I gave a start. There he was, in a corner of the room, leaning against the wall. He came forward, relaxed, lithe, sure of himself, emanating that sort of presence that only success and the prime of one’s mid-thirties can give—when an individual is making his way, and trial and error are behind him, and fatigue has not yet set in.
“Do you remember me?”
“Of course I do. How could I not. The papers and the internet keep us regularly informed. What are you doing in here? Shouldn’t you be back there in the main room with your guests?”
“I just escaped from there, to be honest. I need a few minutes of peace and quiet before I give my speech.”
“Then I’ll leave you alone.”
“No, stay. I’m glad to see you. Are you doing well?”
“I’m doing, which is already a start. Congratulations on your brilliant career, in any case.”
“I guess you never imagined I’d make such a career choice, when I was your student, did you?”
I glanced again at his canvases. Then addressed my reply to them.
“You know, as time goes by you realize you don’t really know the adolescents there in the room with you. It’s only after they finish the lycée that they really take flight. And make their choices. Their alliances. They rise, fall, struggle to get ahead. But by then, as a rule, we can’t help them any- more, because they’re no longer in touch. We were only with them for a very short time, over a very short distance. I’m flattered you remember my name.”
“I enjoyed your classes.”
“That’s kind of you. Having said that, I don’t think I taught you anything useful where art is concerned.”
He waved his hand, as if to brush away my objection.
“No one could have guided me down this path, I don’t think. I’d already set o on it a long time before. Oh my God, I sound like I’m giving an interview on the radio, one cliché after another. Forgive me. Whatever the case may be, in your class, I felt safe. As if, during that hour I spent with you, nothing could happen to me. I’m not sure that makes sense.”
“Not really, no, but it’s always nice to hear. So, apparently your next exhibition will be in Amsterdam?”
“First Madrid. Then the Netherlands. And I have to go to Austria in a few weeks to finalize a project with a gallery. I’m becoming European.”
“But you’ve started with this opening in your hometown. Your loyalty is touching, to use the words of the local paper.”
He guffawed and came a few steps closer.
“Let’s be honest, it’s mainly a way for me to talk big and act big around all these people, here, who used to think I was a complete moron. And it’s also a way to honor the local authorities, who have supported me, a lot. And to be sure of that support if I need their help. You know what it’s like, the life of an artist. Ups and downs. One day I will go out of fashion, no doubt.”
“You’re very pessimistic.”
“Realistic, rather. It doesn’t stop me from making the most of whatever happens. On the contrary, I’d say.”
We stood side by side for a moment, facing one of his oldest works. His vertical period, I call it. Towers, crushed people, an absence of sky. I wondered who would buy a painting like that. And where they would hang it once they’d bought it.
“I didn’t want them to exhibit the early work, but they insisted. A retrospective only makes sense if you start with the beginning.”
“Isn’t it a little embarrassing, a retrospective at your age?”
He shrugged and answered that at first, yes, he’d been somewhat surprised, then he got used to the idea, and the project couldn’t have come at a better time because, precisely, he needed to move, needed to change his routine, change his palette and even his brushstroke. He’d been absorbed in research over the last few months. Experimenting. He wanted to turn the page. He was telling me this when a tall blonde woman, slender and nervous, walked across the room, according me an almost scornful glance before she addressed Alexandre sharply. With a brusque gesture she pointed to her wristwatch. Laudin nodded. He gave my left shoulder a gentle squeeze. And was gone. A few seconds later there was a burst of exclamations. Applause. The cultural circus. I heard the beginning of his speech. His subtle irony. Brisk sound bites.
It was time for me to head toward the buffet the waiters had just set up. In ten minutes or so the guests would storm the food and it would be virtually impossible to get near the table. I found a strategic position, one that would allow me to both wolf down a few dozen petits fours in record time and then slip away quickly.
I had exchanged a few words with a celebrity. I was about to feed myself at the expense of a city council I had not voted for. A magnificent evening.
–Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Excerpted from Exposed. Used with permission of New Vessel Press. Translation copyright © 2019 by Alison Anderson.