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16/09/2011

Dina

Debra Isaac

Note: The following is an extract from a short story describing a fictional meeting between the narrator and Dina Vierny, the muse of the French sculptor Aristide Maillol. Vierny died, aged 89, in 2009.

 

It was the young man working at the front desk who told me she was coming.

When I first came to the museum on Tuesday, he wasn’t particularly helpful. He sold me a ticket and seemed keen to limit my questions. You would have thought he was working at the Grand Palais with a queue of people impatient to get in.

But few people come here. It’s rather out of the way and besides, the holiday season is over. You see young people standing on the road next to trucks and vast plastic bins filled with grapes. There are posters in town for a festival marking the end of the harvest.

When I returned the following day, he greeted me more warmly but seemed surprised to see me.

Hello again. What brings you back?

Perhaps few people ever visit this museum twice. It is a small museum.

He looks young enough to be at university. He even smells like a student. I don’t think he brushes his hair, or perhaps he deliberately musses it up. Each time I’ve seen him, he’s worn the same Warhol T-shirt – Art is what you can get away with, imprinted on the face of the Mona Lisa – and beads around his neck.

Are you especially interested in Maillol? he asked.

I told him it was Dina who interested me.

Would I still be here on Friday?

You’re in luck, he said. She’s coming here on Friday.

This really is too much, isn’t it? That Dina should turn up in Banyuls just when I’m visiting? Isn’t it strange how one thing has led to another?

If I hadn’t read your book, we wouldn’t have talked about Dina. If you and I hadn’t met, I would never have thought of visiting the museum. If Charles and I hadn’t broken up, I wouldn’t have been free to come here.

The young man, whose name is Luc, says Dina hasn’t been back in two years. Apparently, a member of Maillol’s family met her in Perpignan this morning and has brought her to Banyuls. I’d like to talk to the man but Luc says he never speaks to strangers about Maillol. On the other hand, he may drive Dina to the museum so I may meet him anyway.

On Wednesday, I spent the entire morning at the museum. No one else was there – except Luc, of course. I could hardly miss the sculpture of Harmony; it stands alone in the first room.

You are right, it is one of Maillol’s best. The bodies of his women are all so similar – the nymphet breasts and melon hips – but I liked Dina’s inward expression in this one. The sculpture has a quietness, a meditative feel, perhaps because it was created here in these tranquil surroundings.

You would be furious, though, at the way they’ve done the lighting. It’s far too harsh and scars the surface (bronze, unlike marble, doesn’t eat electric light). There’s no need for it either. With the windows wide open, there’s plenty of natural light.

The museum closes between noon and four. Luc asked where I had parked my car. When I told him I’d walked here, he looked at me as if I was insane.

I said, Dina used to do it.

She had no choice, he said.

He offered to order a taxi from Banyuls. Or, if you really want to walk, he said, I could drop you at the main road.

I told him I would like to stay for a while, to sit in the shade of a tree and read.

Be my guest, he said, kindly, a little mocking. As you see, there are plenty of trees to choose from. Before he left, he came out to find me and gave me a bottle of cold water.

He has a motorbike, one of those flashing, powerful ones that wouldn’t look out of place at midnight outside the Hôtel Costes. The engine rattles the earth. Birds’ wings beat in the leaves when he starts it and the roots of the trees tremble. Everything waits.

After, when the noise has completely faded, the museum reverts to being a museum and the garden to being a garden.

If you sit on the grass for long enough, something else happens. The museum once again becomes a house where an artist-hermit spent his days, working, thinking, sleeping and eating simple food.

A figure in a beret stands on the steps, still as a church saint, his features carved in pine scented wood.

A girl with a knowing look appears on the path that runs beside the dried-out riverbed. Her skin is dark from the sun and she wears a chequered summer dress.

Watching from the shade of the cypress, you realise that one thing, at least, hasn’t changed. Then, as now, Dina’s visits were not ordinary events.

 

*

 

Luc suggested, tactfully, that perhaps it would be better if initially I stayed upstairs when Dina arrived. I’m sure he was told to say this by his cousin, Marie, who works part-time at the museum and is with him here today.

She is at least ten years older than Luc, reminiscent of those graceless curators you sometimes find with the mentality of prison wardens. She has a point though. The museum doesn’t officially open until later and it would look odd to have an unknown woman waiting at the entrance ready to pounce on Dina the moment she appears.

It’s rather arrogant anyway to expect to meet her, although I know what you’d say: don’t worry, make the most of the opportunity. How I wish I had your ease and self-confidence.

I remind myself that Dina never had any qualms about introducing herself to people such as Gide even before she became a public figure. Perhaps she will understand – and it’s not as if there’s no connection between us, although just now it seems somewhat tenuous.

Marie unnerved me, though. I came here early and was sitting in the garden when she arrived with Luc. He and I have got to know each other a little and today he was immediately friendly, inviting me to wait inside the museum. He introduced me and had obviously told Marie something about why I am here. But I could see she was unhappy with the situation, possibly angry with him for telling a tourist about Dina’s visit.

The museum re-opens at four, she said, and I thought she might bar my entry. Luc stepped back, into the shadow of the porch.

You propose an interview with Madame Vierny? Marie demanded, as if obtaining an interview might be a long process necessitating a formal request.

It’s not so much an interview, I explained, more of a coincidence.

Your grandfather knew her? she asked, making it sound like an accusation.

Even when I confirmed that my grandfather knew Dina, she seemed unimpressed, as if anybody might be in a similar position, as if this in itself conveyed no privilege. She went inside without asking anything further.

Have I got you into trouble? I asked Luc. Should I forget the meeting? I told him I was happy to go away, or remain in the garden.

Neither of us knew what to do but for some reason Marie returned and invited me to go inside. I followed Luc and he suggested that I come up here. He led the way, apologising about Marie, explaining that Dina had just called and asked her to find certain documents by the time she arrives, on top of the ones Marie has already dug out.

I’ve been here for more than an hour now, upstairs by the window. Sometimes a bird delves into the dark leaves of a tree and I hear a breaking twig. White butterflies cartwheel on and off the windowsill. The scents of the garden pour into the room.

Sometimes the silence interrupts my flow of words, inviting me to look up, to discern which object is insisting on my attention. And I see a drawing of Dina, a young woman asleep in the sunlight, naked except for a slip of drapery that falls across her thigh.

There is mischief there, giving the lie to Dina’s denial of anythingimproper between her and Maillol. Nevertheless, I believe what she saidis true. There is mischief but also playfulness and trust; a sense of love in observation.

I feel instinctively that Maillol did the drawing here, on an afternoon such as this, soft charcoal lines blended from the earth and peace that surround the house. He is working over there, in the shade of the cedar, his sense of Dina almost complete on the paper, when she wakes beneath the embrace of the branches, pretending that she hasn’t slept at all, that she closed her eyes only to create for him a deeper impression of repose.

He laughs, tells her she should go to bed earlier, and yet doesn’t dismiss her words for it is Dina who has chosen where to lie down, where to position her arms, and where to drape the fragment of linen that he has brought with him from the house. He has recorded the shape of her; she has chosen who she will be.

But now I hear tyres on the gravel, voices and opening doors. Suddenly I feel nervous and wish that you were here to give me courage. Like you, I am never happier than when I’m alone in a gallery or museum but how do you behave when the real thing appears, when the Venus de Milo pulls up in her car?

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