THE UNKNOWN OF THE PORTRAIT
Paul, even if he believed, like others, that painting had ended with the impressionists, kept on painting. He had always painted still lives, also still lives with..- flowers, bouquets of flowers, vases with flowers, flowers scattered on the ground, and even single flowers, even sunflowers, of course. But, instead of looking at Van Gogh, , he rather had, as a model or reference, painters as Vermeer and Caravaggio, as Velasquez and Rembrandt. He had never thought to paint portraits.
If now he was entering the largest museum in that city in Northern Europe, far North of where he lived, it was because of…..a dream. In that great museum there was an exhibition on the portrait from the 15th to the 20th century. The exhibition was entitled ____THE FUTURE OF THE PORTRAIT___Although Paul was convinced that the future of the portrait belonged to the photography, he nevertheless came to see the exhibition, where the portraits were all painted portraits.
As soon as he entered the museum, Paul went to the room with the portraits of Rembrandt, where there were also some self portraits of the great painter, who had portrayed himself in every age of his life, with an insistence, indeed with a fury that Paul could never have had. No, he would never have been able to stand in front of a mirror to portray, as time went by and left its marks on him, on his features, on his eyes, ( to portray), with his face, also ….the work, the action of time on his face, as instead Rembrandt had been able to do so admirably.
Of course, looking at Rembrandt’s self portraits, one could not fail to recognize that, as the time went by and the portrait, indeed self- portrait subject aged, wasting away, and he lost the glamour and the freshness of youth, the painting of Rembrandt became more and more precious, more and more excellent.
Hanging from the walls of the room there were five self-portraits of Rembrandt, which portrayed his face in different ages: as a young man, in his maturity, and as an old man. Ah, but unfortunately there wasn’t exactly the one Paul had come for, which was Rembrandt’s last self-portrait, painted a few months before his death. We can say that Paul had come to the exhibition for that self-portrait, since it had been with the face, with the features of that self-portrait that Rembrandt had appeared to him in a dream , and he had asked him to go to visit the great exhibition____THE FUTURE OF THE PORTRAIT____ In his dream Rembrandt hadn’t asked Paul to visit that exhibition to see his own paintings, but for the exhibition itself . And Paul had seemed to understand , for the theme of the exhibition, the portraits through five centuries.
“ Ah, but I’ve never painted portraits, and I don’t even intend to start painting them” Paul had said to that old Rembrandt, solemn-looking in his old age, with a stubborn expression. “ But it doesn’t matter” the old Rembrandt had told him then.” It’s not for this reason, to start painting portraits, that you have to….you absolutely have to visit that exhibition” On awakening Paul did not remember if the Rembrandt who had appeared to him in dream had told him the reason why he absolutely m had to visit that great exhibition. He seemed to hear Rembrandt’s voice saying: “Secret----there is a secret…you will find out...” But as soon as he woke up, he felt ( had felt) he absolutely had to visit___ THE FUTURE OF THE PORTRAIT_____ So he had bought the ticket online, had taken the first available flight to A., and he had left.
Disappointed not to be able to looking at the last self-portrait of Rembrandt, Paul was in front of an equally famous self-portrait , the one which portrayed Rembrandt young ( as a young man), with disheveled hair….Someone had said that in this self-portrait Rembrandt had portrayed himself as he was running. This too was a wonderful portrait, a true masterpiece. “ Then, do you recognize yourself?” Peter heard a shrill voice asking.
“ Yes, I would really say that there is a certain similarity between your face ….and that of this young Rembrandt “ The same voice said again. Oh, but it was someone who was addressing just him! “ Oh, but I’m not so much young anymore” ( oh, but I’m older), it came natural to say to Paul, before turning his head and being able to see whose that voice was. To his right, not far from him, an elderly man, tall and slender, was watching him with a pointed gaze, and he seemed almost pleased, even amused. “ Oh, you are still young enough to recognize yourself in this portrait….you know, it happened to me too, when I was young….It seems it happens to a lot of people. Eh, how much they are able to attract, even to suggest… certain portraits….”
“ I really…I hoped to see the last self-portrait of Rembrandt, but , damnation, there isn’t “ Paul snorted . “ Eh…the last self-portrait, it seems there were some problems with that painting” The elderly man said, thoughtful, as he looked at the watch he had pulled out of his jacket pocket. “Problems? Problems of what kind?” Paul asked , alarmed, while he heard again Rembrandt’s voice saying : “ ….secret….there is a secret..” “ There are those who claimed Rembrandt’s last self-portrait, which we all know…____you don’t need I remember you where it is, I think_____well , those…claimed that painting would be a fake. A fake executed in a workmanlike manner….but however a fake” The elderly man, who had come very close to Paul, whispered these words on his face. “ No! Rembrandt a fake! I cannot believe i!” Paul cried. The elderly man waved one hand to him, to lower his voice. “ Ah, my dear young man, there is really no need to start talking about fakes right….in such a place” the man said softy, in a very low voice. “ What does it mean? Does it mean that museums abound with fake works?” Paul asked, impatiently, in a loud voice ( aloud) . “Oh, come on…yes, you are young….but you too must understand that we really can’t talk about fakes….just in a museum”
“ Oh, of course…I beg your pardon. But, you know, hearing that…the last self-portrait of Rembrandt is a fake, it upsets me, here” Paul spoke in a sad, sorry voice.
“ Oh, I can understand you….oh, and how if I can understand you. Ah, this news doesn’t upset only you, I assure (you).” The elderly man said in a paternal tone.
“ And to say that I came to visit this exhibition precisely…..just to be able to see that self-portrait of Rembrandt “ Paul ended up to say. He, however, did not feel like to confess that he had dreamed Rembrandt with the features of his last self-portrait.
“ Ah, then you must be a painting expert…Maybe you pant too? But, sure , you are a painter….and I bet you paint portraits !” The thin elderly man said sure, looking intently at him, with eyes lit with curiosity. “ Yes, I’m a painter, but I don’t paint portraits. I have never painted portraits.”
“ Ah, but then you’re about starting to paint portraits! I bet!” The man said, looking at Paul with an enquiring, and even evaluative gaze. “ I don’t really think about it” Paul said. He found(it) strange that the man, who looked like a professor, after having learned from him that he had never painted portraits, ( he) had not asked anything about his painting. Ah, but that elderly man, perhaps a professor, looked like a portrait buff.
“ Ah, the avant-garde…the abstract painting, and….everything that came later….ah, in my opinion, they are not worth a millionth part of what a portrait of 1500 or 1600 is worth….And even portraits of painters who are not excellent as Rembrandt, … because in the portraits there is the history…do you think about it?”
The elderly man, perhaps a professor, had started talking about the portrait in panting, when photography did not exist , and he talked about it with more and more enthusiasm , he seemed not even aware that he, taken by the fervor, was speaking aloud, too aloud.
“ Ah, the strength, the evocative capacity of portraits of centuries ago, mostly portraits of well known , even important people, yet , to me, as anyone else, it can happen to recognize myself, to recognize youtself in a portrait of a Pope or an Emperor of Velasquez…..Oh, it can happen to me, to you, to anyone else, to find something in a face of centuries ago____and I don’t speak only of features, but also of looks, of expressions ____which are also ours, or, if you prefer, that still appear on our faces….. Tell me, don’t you find (it) extraordinary that you can recognize yourself in the face of a man who lived four hundred , five hundred years ago? Or that you can recognize, in a portrait of centuries ago….maybe the face of a friends of yours, of an acquaintance of yours, or even of your father or your uncle, or your grandfather? And how can we not think that this resemblance, mine, or yours, or of someone else with the face of a person who lived ( existed) centuries ago, cannot, does not want to tell us, to reveal us something about ourselves, here now, in front of that portrait?”
“ You know, since photography existed, not to mention cinema , with its first and very close ups….well, I think that to keep on painting portraits, I mean realistic portraits, ( I think) it doesn’t make much sense “ Paul found himself saying, but rather reluctantly, since he had come to visit the exhibition mainly because of what Rembrandt , appearing in dream, had said him: Paul had absolutely to visit ____THE FUTURE OF THE PORTAIT____” You ‘ll see….there is a secret…you will find out” Rembrandt had whispered. And instead at the exhibition not only the last self-portrait of Rembrandt there was not, but he had just learned, from that strange man, fond of the portrait, indeed of the portrait painting, that there were those, presumably authoritative voices, who claimed that the last self-portrait of Rembrandt was a fake.
“But come on, speaking of the evocative capacity of the portrait….let’s see what you say m about a portrait that you surely know” the man said, inviting Paul to follow him in the next room.
“ Ah, you mean the Gioconda, don’t you?” Paul asked, while he kept on thinking about the Rembrandt who had appeared him in a dream. “ What is it I have to find out, Rembrandt?” he kept on wondering. “ No, it is not the Mona Lisa….even if this portrait is nevertheless a work which fears no comparison, not even with…..the Gioconda” the man said, appearing more and more strange to him. “Here, this portrait” the man said, who had brought him in front in front of that face which, however admirable the portrait was, had always caused a certain restlessness to Paul, indeed that pointed gaze, that ironic smile, had the power to awaken fear in him, fear of a bad encounter, fear of something unpleasant that was about to happen…to him. Paul also remembered that the man portrayed in that painting by Antonello da Messina, known as The portrait of an unknown sailor______even if recently , due to a seal on the back of the painting, it had been established that the man portrayed would not have been at all an unknown sailor, but a powerful bishop, also ambassador of Frederik II of Aragon_____looked a lot like the owner of the gallery in which he had made his first exhibition. The same scornful, rather than ironic smile, the same stinging, but indeed even arrogant look, but with an impeccable style .
“ You know, this portrait, truly admirable, whoever is the man portrayed ____whether he is a stranger, an unknown , as it has been believed for a long time, or indeed a man of power, this does not matter to me____this portrait therefore, it seems that it has the faculty, the strength or the power to arouse in those who are looking at it, in those in front of it, like you, like me in this moment, the feeling that makes you say: “ But this is the face of my brother, or of my uncle….however of someone I know” Tell me, does it happen to you too?” The man asked, swinging on his slim body, his hands in his trousers pockets. “ Yes, it happens to me too” Paul said, thoughtfully. “ Ah, well! This portrait is truly a jewel . It has a great strength of attraction, of seduction, I would say. Looking at this face it seems to be not only in front of someone we know, but also in front of someone who knows much more about us than what we can know about ourselves. Do you see what an inquiring and wise look on this face?”the elderly man asked. Paul just nodded. He would have wanted to say that the portrait aroused fear in him, but he didn’t dare. Instead he said that, however magnificent that painting was, he was more interested in the portraits of Rembrandt, of Vermeer, of Velasquez…..and also of Francis Bacon, of course. Then Paul moved towards another room of the exhibition, leaving the man in front of the portrait painted by Antonello da Messina. “ Ah, of course, everyone has their tastes, their preferences….I prefer this portrait ___of a man of Cefalù___to all others in the exhibition, so I remain still here looking at it” The man said when they parted.
Paul lingered in the exhibition halls, passing from one to the other, often returning to linger in front of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, and always returning to wonder again why precisely that, the last self-portrait was not there…..Damnation, what a rip off, since he had come to visit the exhibition precisely for that self.portrait. Rembrandt, he, had appeared to him in a dream with the semblances with which he was depicted in the last self-portrait. And Paul came back again wondering what was the secret which he should have found out. He was standing in front of the self-portrait of Rembrandt as Democritus when, having heard footsteps approaching, he turned. Behind him, not far from him, here he comes, a man dressed in black, with a witty look and an ironic smile, with a face identical to the Unknown sailor by Antonello da Messina. And that man was looking at him, he was looking right at him, like he was saying: “ Oh, I finally found you”
Paul, trying to stay calm, had hurried out of the room. He was sure, he felt that man, whose face seemed come out of that Antonello’s painting, was following him. Paul hadn’t looked back, but he was sure that the man with that face was following him. He could hear his footsteps behind him, he recognized his approaching footsteps. He had to escape. Paul quickly earned the exit. Only after he was out of the museum did he turn to look behind him. The man with the face identical to that of the portrait painted by Antonello was standing at the door, looking at him. That man was threatening him with his gaze, he would have followed him, he would have reached him, and then it would have been the end for Paul. He, Paul, was sure. He had to escape, he had to find a shelter. Paul ran across the square and he reached the main street. The wide street was occupied by a procession of demonstrators who raised signs reading : FREEDOM FOR POLITICAL PRISONERS! FREEDOM FOR JOURNALISTS! The march was on its way to the Turkish embassy for a sit –in protest against the violation of human rights in Turkey. Paul looked over his shoulder : that man, the man who frightened him so much, was not there. Paul slipped into the procession of demonstrators, trying to hide among them, and he, walking, kept on turning back, now and then, to check if that man had followed him, but he didn’t see him.
The procession reached the Turkish embassy , and the demonstrators sat down on the street in front of the embassy building. Paul too, after looking around, sat down among them, who were shouting protest slogans, who were clamoring for the release of political prisoners
In all that din Paul was still frightened, he feared that the man, that one who seemed come out of the portrait painted by Antonello , had followed him , and that, when he least expected it, he would have seen that man reappear next to him.