It hung there. On the wall in the hotel-room by my bed, it’s mysteries to be gazed out, explored, and expounded. It seemed to catch the eye, lead me in, begging me to explore its lines. Some may have cast their glance and ignored its subtle messages, it’s subliminal interests, it’s brooding conjectural symbolisms. The painting contained three lines, three areas, three intense clouds and spaces. From the top, reaching down two thirds was an intense orange sky or rectangle. Then came the thick/thin black line. I call it this because I cannot quite decide if it was actually thick or thin. What I mean is that the line had weight, substance and gravity. There it was hanging beneath the orange and above the White which occupied the bottom third of the picture. I say the orange occupied two thirds and the white one third and the black between, which of course would offend the mathematical mind, but strictly speaking, conceptually, the black wasn’t part of the picture, only a divider, a marker or ruler, cancelled out by the intensity of the other two colours.
You could easily have overlooked it all, walked on, found something less abstract, more tangible, easier on the mind.
My eye was held at first by this thick/thin black horizontal line, which extended continuously, east west across its canvas. This line, about two inches thick, slightly beneath the centre seemed to me to be ground zero for the whole picture and the very life and death of it all, but maybe I was wrong about that, I will let you decide . . . . This black seemed darker than night, denser than shadow, blacker than the oils which made it up and deeper than the eye which made it. Later as I drove away, I wondered at the hand which held the brush, the mind which applied the paint and the vision which he held in his eye.
I seemed to see him then and see the life he had been living and the thing he sought to portray.
I knew his name already, it was Emil. His was another world to mine. A world which for four long years had been blood soaked, war torn and a world from which he had emerged, deafened and shaken at the brutalities he had seen, the carnage of it all.
The thick/thin black line. The earth, the trench, the unit, the infantry line, the insanity of mens vomit chucked up and earth chucking out bits of dead horse, flakes of guns and mortars, human arms and testicles, old kitbags and remains of laughter which hung In the air, mixed with death cries and cries of gulls and crows who already ripped up the flesh, thankful for this thin/thick black meal.
This line was just beneath the middle. I saw it now in my minds eye as I drove away, he painted. It was 1919, war had ended one year ago, but the memories were still so fresh and raw. Emil hadn’t wanted to put death anywhere near the middle and normally of course, it should have belonged at the top or the bottom. I mean, where would you put it? You who lived in peace and security all these long years. Emil was 20 when he painted that dense black line, that piece of shrapnel in the middle and for you at twenty, life would be long, death far far away and in a normal life, it should be so. Some may put the line at the top, a darkening sky, a hierarchical vision, colour, colour, bright and blue and green and free and yellow and passionate red. Maybe your childhood at the bottom and getting darker to the top as the colours fade. Another person, equally secure would have the black at bottom. The humus, the swamp, the night from which we emerge, fading, fading always fading into brightness, gradual, the day dawning, the night receding.
Emil had painted this thin black line first. I saw it now. He had Thrown the brush down as the tears rolled down his cheeks. The 33rd horse regiment, were all in that line all together, sleeping now, before their time. It had aged his soul. It had shocked his youth at 19, ended it and beaten it to pulp like the mush he had walked through. He rose from his easle at the window, he took up a raincoat, went out again to the driving winter rain, the wind beating like a drum on his umbrella, black as well, a covering, like that line on the canvas, surrounding and overshadowing. How can I escape this.? I am alive yes, alive to tell this tale. Alive to this hell of memory.
How can I tell this tale, how can death be in the centre? How can death hover so near the bottom of it all.
Emil walked along the cliffs, looked down at jagged rocks below, ancient breakers which churned up foam, crashed relentlessly on the rocks in the swell. Bits of driftwood washed around. Emil heard nothing with his ears, eardrums shattered by artilliary barrage upon senseless barrage and in his mind he heard echoes, frayed laughter from before, cries again and now silence. It went on. He stumbled on to the village. it was deserted, only black crows laughed and clawed and reigned it seemed. The army had had that too, turfed out his kin and requisitioned each house. All the memories, the history, hundreds of years of clinging on to that soil, hundreds of years of peaceful living, blown to bits. You can win a war but lose so much it seems. Emil stumbled on into the church.
The door creaked and slammed, it shut. It tried shut out the world, the war, the horror, the end of his youth, it could not. He sat, he stared. He stared at the depth of colour with his tormented artists mind, he stared At the lowering sun continuing its course toward the horizon. Orange , Emil remembered. The colour before the war, everything bathed in such a serene light. He remembered the hue of the oranges in mothers fruit bowl, just a few days before his call to arms, how he had taken it and peeled off its orange skin, then savoured the fruit inside. He remembered the glow of the fire at home, dad, peaceful with pipe in hand, brother laughing and showing off how he would kill the enemy. Shreds of his own laugher now rang hollow and frayed, but here was the orange colours of that tim, intact at the altar.
Below the orange, a thin black line, below that, pure white like a dazzling snow hung the altar cloth and in the centre of it all the arms of the cross, the figure of Jesus Christ cruelly dying. The image rose into the orange glow and with its shadow fell down upon the altar cloth. It seemed to spring from the blackness, touch the sun and rise below. It rose below, yes thought Emil it rises below, it rises from a blow, it rises from below.
Emil didn’t wait, suddenly he had completed his vision for a painting, a meaning which he knew could only come from the altar, like a gift from above.
Emil ran, out of the church, down through the rainswept village with its houses void of rooves and people, ran out, back along the coast path, back to the cottage, flinging open the door. He took up a clean brush then orange paint and painted the top two thirds of the canvas. The memories of yesterdays of youth, of Home, of warmth, of sunlight. He painted steadily, evenly, enjoying the feel of the colour in his eyes. The orange had life, depth, warmth and being. He remembered how the figure on the cross had entered into it and given it new life, as it rose up out of the black.
When the orange was done it absolutely glowed. It sat upon the thin black line, powerful, intense, many experiences rolled together. Then Emil remembered the White of the altar cloth. It’s white had been quite pure, whiter than the canvas. Emil struggled to get that purity now, kept applying layers, till there it was, it seemed to hover and shimmer, below the black, above the frame, occupying the bottom third of his canvas. It was eternal that white. Everlasting life. It contained the blood of Christian martyrs a waiting Gods justice at the opening up of the fifth seal, it contained peace, below the ground for those who’s shadow Jesus had graced, it contained hope for those mowed down ,hope beneath the thin black line.
I was still driving, it was still 2019, one hundred years had passed. I shook myself back to the present. My mind remembered the painting again and the hotel room, There was no cross upon the picture, I don’t know why Emil had never portrayed it, yet I know instinctively it was the source of his hope, his resurrection from the damage of the war. A hundred years on, the cross still colours the my life with that orange glow and beneath the thick/thin black black line the White of resurrection descends to eternal day.