A glimpse of my mother through Edouard Manet’s oil painting, ’Au Bal.’ (Extract).
As I get closer, she turns away from me. She looks over her shoulder and out through the neo-classical window at the courtyard below. Two transvestites glide through the crowd on stilts, revelling in the glitter of flashing cameras. Stewards like statues, standing firm in pointed brown leather boots and knee-length ponchos, glaring, but watching nothing in particular. Fashionistas flaunt themselves between the clusters of onlookers and photographers, flawless and uninhibited by doubt and anxiety.
I’d worked my way through the swarm of people earlier, skirting my way along the wall and yearning to fit in, or to stand out—I hadn’t been too sure. I look down on my coat again, worn stubbornly through two winters despite having neither a hood nor a warm lining. I swear to myself that it didn’t look this shabby in the mirror this morning. The elastic of my jeans start to feel slack around my knees where they’ve crumpled from the day’s walking. I feel sluggish, below par.
My eyes return to her, but she is still distracted. I will her to turn around, but she looks on.
I don’t necessarily go to galleries for the art on display. I go for the space in between. When I lived in Dublin I used to go into the National Gallery on my way home from the university. Now and then, when I felt like I needed to learn something, I’d latch on to a few utterances of a guided tour as it passed. But most of the time, I would wander in my own company. I had little knowledge of any painting there to begin with – or art in general for that matter – but gradually, I began to learn how to read them. I began to build my own relationship with them. Some would stick for a while, calling me over on every visit. But others I would return to a stranger, unable to uncover what I had before – mere fleeting fancies. I would move on, leaving an image that was to my eyes both whole and utterly incomplete – menacing, as if it would come to life only when my back was turned.
Rooms in galleries are, for the most part, hollow. They are empty; the furniture has been taken out, and with them, the purpose they once held. In darkness, devoid of people and still, they are little more than abandoned hallways. The hangings on the walls are silent, muted along with their past. But as I walked around, the setting sun igniting the feather-fall of dust in its beam, the sound of my step reverberated through all the things that linger in the gap between the frames.
In daytime, the place is filled with people; their lives, their thoughts and their contemplations. The paintings, in their turn, are privy to all these feelings. Facing each other over a vacuum, cut off from those around them, they are often met with meddling eyes; people searching for significance, meanings, truths. They might not care what we feel, or what we see. But they will tolerate everyone in their turn. They exist as objects of admiration to the trained eye, but also of reflection. The chasm between the image and the onlooker becomes a myriad of experience with each new glance offering a new understanding, weaving into it a new outcome.
The Courtauld Gallery wasn’t busy. Most of the clatter had been absorbed by the opening weekend of London Fashion Week in the courtyard outside, the noise amplifying the emptiness on the second floor. I stepped into the Impressionists’ room and saw a woman sitting on the wooden bench in front of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. I hovered by her side a while as she examined the image in front of us. I recognised the picture of a jig-saw I’d helped my Dad with some years ago. Mam would always get him a new one at Christmas and he’d sit for hours every evening, studying every morsel in front of him. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even think to take off his suit jacket.
I remember thinking that the picture was a strange choice. She looked miserable, and I wondered why anyone would want to paint someone who looked so sad. The image of the man in the mirror wasn’t done very well, I said to him one night as I examined the lid of the box. But Dad was tired, and it wasn’t up for discussion. Could I see a piece that looked like it could be part of a tangerine?
As I made my way under the doorframe to the next room, now home to Van Gogh and Edouard Manet, I realised how much comfort I felt in the steady echo of my footsteps as they followed me in. When I saw her she was standing over to the corner of the room. The lower half of her evening dress cut off by the frame, the rest of her only hinting at her person. The colour of her flesh was still there, but her limbs were out of sight, suspended in a place beyond the wooden pane. Her hair was tied up by a clip – a single, bold brushstroke – and brushed behind an ear that was no more than two thin flicks of dark paint.
Unlike the other faces I have already passed, she is different. The eighteenth-century nobles on the previous floor had been immortalised in their wealth, their gaze fixed so confidently on whoever stood before them that you’d almost be sure they were looking back. Their costumes were impeccably drawn, and a careful pose – the pursing of lips, the deliberate placement of hands – left no doubt about their perceived power and importance. Name, persona, reputation—all determined, unblemished by subjective interpretation.
Manet had given her proportion, but the rest of her features are left only roughly defined. A whisper of an eyelid grazes the space above her nose, her body shape tucked tightly under her dress. The colours on her dress have started to run, too, and she almost looks like she’s trying to melt away from the frame, to be set free to walk amongst the crowd below.
At first I thought that she might’ve been turning away from him, like someone who doesn’t like having their photo taken would turn away from a camera. After all, who was Manet to try to pen her down? Or to contain her multitudes in one snapshot, adorned in a ball gown and prim as a picture? She seemed defiant rather than shy, not one to put on a show when there was nothing to say. I admired her for a while.
But now I’m starting to take it personally. I’m urging her to turn around and look at me, so I can see her. I want her to show herself to me as she is. The longer I think, the more I speculate, interrupting her story with my own version of it. She allows for my intrusion, though she doesn’t seem to acknowledge it. I find myself uncovering her eyes with my own, placing them where they should be and fighting with the plain fact that they are not there. I imagine the slow curve of her head as she turns to face me, but what I visualise doesn’t quite fit. And as soon as it comes, it dissipates into a thousand dots in front of my eyes and she is looking out the window again. Stubbornly.
When I was twenty, I decided that I needed to give my fringe another go. I had one up until I was six when I swiftly decided that I was too old for it—they really weren’t for grown-ups. I then spent the next year growing it out, much to the despair of my mother who had to force me into tight plastic hairbands every morning to keep the thick tuft out of my eyes.
I arrived back at my flat feeling renewed, rushing to the bathroom mirror to inspect my new look. My eyes lingered for a long time, adjusting themselves to the new reflection and seeing another’s more clearly than they had for a long time. My reaction was the same as that of the people at home when I saw them the following summer. Dad didn’t say much at first, but he eventually managed a ‘very nice’ when I pressed him for a reaction, just like mam used to have to do.
It still happens sometimes. ‘…Gwenllian?’ they ask. I nod and smile, knowing what’s to follow. ‘For a second I thought I saw your mother there!’ they say, and I feel guilty for a second, thinking that I’ve deceived them somehow.
When I was growing up, people would always comment on how similar we were, but we never really saw it. We discussed it in the car on the way home from getting the paper. Do you see it? She would ask. No, not at all. Probably for the best. But there she was, years later, in the mirror of my Temple Bar flat in Dublin.
I have few pictures of her. She didn’t like to be photographed. I have one that was taken of her paragliding in France. She’s looking up at the lens, and she’s smiling. Not for the photograph, but because she’s happy. I was too young to join her up there at the time, but I’ve done it since. I tried to replicate the picture myself, as if I’d be able to show it to her one day. But my eyes are squinting from the sun’s glare and my smile is unconvincing, clearly terrified of dropping the camera to the lake below. Only hers made it onto the wall.
When I first looked at Manet’s portrait, I told myself I was seeing my mother. The smudged features like the gradual retreat of her face from my memory. The part of her that others saw in me, I could – for a while – throw onto the canvas in front of my eyes. There she was; turning away, refusing to look me in the eye in case I might think that she was really there. Her hidden expression resonated in me the countless times I have tried to conjure her image in my mind, and failed. Or the times I have strained to hear her voice, and instead only managing a passing remark – distant, as if she was already half way through the door.
The tone is still there if I dig deep enough for it; but the pattern, the melody of her accent, had disappeared – the muddle of gog and hwntw, north and south. I heard it on a holiday tape a little while ago. It was taken on a holiday in Majorca in 1994. We were having dinner at a restaurant and she asked me to stand on the plastic chair to sing a nursery rhyme. ‘C’mon’ she said, encouraging me, whispering along to the first line. ‘Adeiladu ty bach, un, dau, tri…’ But I didn’t recognise her voice.
But, looking at it again, I realise that it is me. What I’m seeing is my own desire to rid her from my body. Not to free myself of her—and certainly not to forget her—but to release her from my futile grasp, so she might stop running away. I’ve long given her a voice to replace the one that’s lost, and the words to say when I ask and she refuses to answer. I have been recklessly smoothing over the gaps, and she has become almost irretrievable.
I follow her gaze once more to the courtyard. I look down again at my jeans and walk, diligently, to the next painting.