Calouste Gulbenkian portrayed by an unknown artist, whom we certainly would be pleased to credit

by Almeida Faria

Extract in English

I first realised that I had fallen asleep with the lights on when I suddenly awoke and noticed that the light shed by the two bedside lamps was trembling. Still only half awake, I thought I could hear slow footsteps just above my head. Old wooden floors tend to creak by any change of temperature, so perhaps they were responding to the cool of the night. Creaking, yes, but making the walls tremble? I got up bewildered and barefoot, and still in my pyjamas stumbled over to the door and peered out into the corridor – silence, no one. I proceeded to the next door, wider and taller, that once connected the servants’ quarters with the rest of the house. Nothing – only a bust of the goddess Pallas Athena standing on a column multiplied by the mirrors lining the gallery that led to the main part of the house. For a few brief seconds, I believed that a pair of wings had just brushed past above me. I instinctively ducked, and, looking around, I saw in the mirrors a grotesque grimace of fear, my own. With the uncomfortable feeling that I had experienced something of the kind before, involving a monochordic raven once upon a midnight dreary, I walked across the marble landing and stopped at the bottom of the oval staircase with its pale stone and wrought iron banister that matched the ironwork doors of the lift. Suddenly I heard those slow footsteps again. Who was this insomniac wandering about at that late hour, on the top floor of a mansion in which I was supposedly the only guest?
When he handed me the card bearing the code to the front door, the man at the reception had warned me that he would not be back until Monday morning. The concierge and her husband, who lived in the basement, were too far away to hear anything. Perhaps the footsteps belonged to the guard who, according to the receptionist, usually took a nap on the sofa at the top of the main staircase, next to the library. However, those heavy, deliberate footsteps were from someone determined to waken the dead.
At the risk of meeting any thieves face to face – or one of those Furies that the darkness can unleash from even the most respectable attics – the demons of curiosity drove me to the upper floor, where the owner of the house once had his private flat. At the top of the twenty-seven steps – for some reason or other I counted them – I chanced upon a carved wooden door of imposing size, the potential access to exceptional secrets. Very slowly, I opened it. In a rectangular room much longer than it was wide, at the head of a table surrounded by twenty or more chairs with leather seats and backs, lit by a candelabrum, sat a gentleman – whose face I thought I had seen before, although I did not know quite where – looking perfectly calm. His pale skin and old-fashioned suit, blue overcoat, silk tie, grey trousers, waistcoat and jacket, all of it either from another time or rather timeless.
He was bald with fleshy ears, a straight nose and a round face dominated by a moustache and two bushy eyebrows; he was staring at me, his bright, oriental eyes half closed. The arch of his left eyebrow suggested a slightly ironic superiority, the air of a man accustomed to being in charge. There was even a certain wry delicacy in the sharp, wise smile, the lips of someone who seemed to be more of a Sybarite than a plutocrat. Despite his stocky build, his short neck, square trunk and the way he sunk into his chair, he commanded a certain respect.

He motioned me to seat. I muttered something about preferring to stand because of a problem with my back that made it painful for me to sit down and get up. He shrugged and in a guttural voice almost ordered me to make myself comfortable. I could not possibly be more comfortable, I lied. Another shrug of the shoulders, followed by the usual questions proper to a host: was my room suitable, was I pleased with the way my exhibition had been taken care of, had the paintings been hung to my satisfaction, would I like a cold drink? Although my mouth was dry, I said that I was not thirsty and needed nothing to drink at the moment. The gentleman then launched into a long monologue, as if this had been his sole reason for wrenching me from my sleep. In almost perfect French, he told me that this room had been one of the galleries of his ‘private hotel’ – this is how he described the mansion when not merely referring to it more modestly as his ‘house’ – and that the ample windows to my right had once provided the perfect light for his paintings, the reason why some of his favourites had always hung there.
‘The Reading’ by Fantin-Latour, for example, a painting I know intimately. It is in Lisbon now, but a few years ago, you would have seen it on that wall over there, between the columns and the door leading to one of my offices. It would be nice always to have them at hand, the two sisters it depicts: in the shades, slightly set back, the reader has her finger on the line she has reached when she realises that her listener, looking away lost in thought, is not paying proper attention. I deduce from her austere dress and the black veil – or, is it perhaps a black mantilla? – that the distracted daydreamer has suffered a recent sorrow. But the red shawl on her lap – on which she is resting her hands – as well as the very blue ribbon in her hair, give me some doubts. One of the sisters was the painter’s fiancée, the other remained unmarried. Can you guess who is who?’
Without waiting for an answer, he went on: ‘The reader is the fiancée, Victoria; the fair one is Charlotte, his sister-in-law-to be. I would have chosen the latter; Fantin, however, married the former, an amateur painter, a frequent visitor to the Louvre, a friend of other artists and, around that time, the subject of a portrait by Degas; despite all this, I feel that it was Charlotte he adored, if only for the number of times he painted her. Perhaps the feeling was reciprocal, although it is hard to tell from the lovely spinster’s eyes and her haughty attitude. I looked for other portraits of her: the seventeenth century style one in red pencil at the Musée de Lille; the pastel – a technique Degas took up from the Rococo period – at the Kröller-Müller museum in Otterlo; and the one that moved from the Jeu de Paume to the Musée d’Orsay and which you looked at yesterday. How do I know that? I was there as well. Fantin often takes me there.
He kept silent for a moment as he feared having said too much already. My own silence must have annoyed him. To break it, he asked whether I had seen the still life by Fantin at the Musée de Lyon, which Claudel described as carré de silence. No, I had not seen the Lyon painting nor, indeed, many others. My ignorance reassured him, so he went on:
‘I continued to lend Fantin paintings and others to several galleries, first to the British Museum and the National Gallery in London, then to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and thus I was deprived of them, until I had built and restored this ‘private hotel’, the basements of which – lined with white tiles, just like the corridor outside your room– were equipped with reinforced doors so the paintings could be stored down there if necessary. I gave ‘my’ works of art space to breathe, and I devoted the same attention to them as I did to the Church of St Sarkis in London, a project I commissioned in order to secure a place for my mausoleum and a monument in memory of my parents and of the Armenian martyrs. Did you know that, in a single day, thousands and thousands of Armenians were massacred in an attempt to exterminate our kind once and for all? I was almost fifty at the time, and I wept like a child. But I do not usually speak about the horrors we have suffered, nor do I nurse any resentment. I was a citizen of the world and felt no more bound to Scutari in Istanbul, where I was born, or to Armenia, for that matter, which I first visited after I had abandoned your existence, than to London, where I became a British citizen in 1902, or to Paris or Lisbon, cities I never grew weary of. Not being much inclined to religious fervour, I worshipped but two gods: art and nature. Nature has a repellent aspect: bestiality, death and stench. Art, however, rises above all that, even when it is dealing with terror or describing ugliness. Art can be disquieting and terrifying – in the way that angels are said to be terrifying – but also comforting and appeasing. Besides, I do not actually know if angels are terrifying; I imagine them flying invisible and untouchable, amongst the dead and mortals. Now that I have ceased reincarnation, stepping off the cycle of successive rebirths, I do not intend to join their circles, something which I both regret and do not regret. Angels must be alarmingly immaterial. Nature is more palpable. Not that I was mad about nature. When I bought a piece of land in Normandy, I did not even dream of settling there. I bought it just in order to design and create an English park. I started the project two years before the last World War. I would spend the weekends at the Normandie, by far the best hotel in Deauville at the time, and then I would spend the day directing and correcting the suggestions made by my landscape gardener. Other weekends I would walk in the Bois de Boulogne in order to learn more about botany and note down the names of the trees and bushes I intended to plant, forming an idea of the park I dreamed of. What fascinated me most was to shape it in my own way. I was more fortunate with this house, which served both as my private museum and official residence. It was my wife and children, Nubar and Rita, who actually lived here. I came here mostly because of the family, to nurse commercial and social contacts, in order to control things, check the finances, keep discipline amongst the staff and generally put up with the more tedious aspects of being a millionaire. Here I was at the financial heart of the city, near the banks with whom I worked, and I only began to like the house when I gathered under its roof some of the furniture you can see around and the collections that later went to Lisbon, but meanwhile helped me to spend whole days in this gallery, in the library or in my office studying investments or just contemplating my treasures. Wicked, envious people, even people very close to me, called me a miser, suggesting that I used to go through the dustbins to make sure the secretaries were not wasting paper. Nothing but lies and pettiness, of course, from people who did not understand that I preferred the company of my paintings to theirs. After supper, I would go to the Place Vendôme to sleep in my suite at the Ritz, alone or with whomever I wished. Not because I was a libertine, nor even, as I told my family, for reasons of security. The truth is that I hated spending my days and nights at the same place, and if I come back here now at night, it is because I no longer live here. No, my nights at the Ritz bore little resemblance to the licentious scenes depicted by Lafrensen, a secretive, sensual, Swedish painter, some of whose works I owned. They were not even nights of passion. After a certain point, my only passion was the struggle to conquer and possess certain works of art, some at astonishing prices, others at the cost of patience, persistence and some cunning, still many proved impossible to attain. Have you never noticed how few still lifes I have in my collection? One of them, the largest and showiest, by Jan Weenix, with its longtailed peacock and its hunting trophies, including a dead swan of rather dubious taste used to be on display above the fireplace in the round saloon. There is another, smaller, more discreet one by Monet, which I never much liked. My favourite, not surprisingly, was by Fantin, now in Lisbon; it shows a round vase of mauve and old-rose hydrangeas on a cloth whose folds are the work of a master painter – do you know the one I mean? There is a dish full of fruit and a pudding plate with strawberries on it, next to a bunch of redcurrants, two cherries, half a peach and yet another peach reflected in the shining blade of a knife deliberately positioned at the edge of the table to show off the painter’s skill at making it stand out from the rest of the painting. And don’t you find the tiny reflection of the window in the curved surface of the vase sublime? To see if I’m right, why don’t you visit my museum when you are back in Lisbon?”...

Abridged translation by Jorge Braga and Bodil Ashkenazy
Forlaget Ørby, Copenhagen 2015

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