It had vanished! Only the blank canvas stared back. A hard surface, white: 40-inch X 30-inch, now empty.
An ugly space!
The image had vanished!
Rohit was devastated.
How could it be? No sign of vandalism. Nothing! No knife cuts. No defacing.
He felt distressed.
Modeled after Albrecht Dürer’s Self Portrait at Twenty-Eight, it showed Rohit directly facing the viewer. With brown hair, small beard and eyes looking directly, the self portrait of the Mumbai-born and Paris-based painter looked confrontational, unsmiling and grim, against a black background. The colours were muted. Overall execution was superb.
He had called it Self-Portrait of a Pensive Painter.
The painting hung on the wall facing the door of his rented small apartment on the Seine River. Angled in a way that any guest—there were many—first faced the work towering above the small, slender and sallow creator, bowing slightly, thus allowing the startled visitor to get arrested first by the painting, and then, the beaming artist who, in drunken revelries, often anointed himself as the direct descendant of the German expressionist and a future Picasso with an ethnic background going back to the Roma!
Uncharitable friends dubbed him as a charlatan and a pretender, and some arrogant critics dismissed him as a cheap salesman hawking self.
He said he was a Shakespearean jester.
In the last five years of his stay in Paris—in many apartments with girlfriends that swooned upon this exotic species from the Orient and discarded him soon for unbridled toxicity and self-indulgence for some other lean hungry unsold painter; and he, picking up other star-struck girls desperate for art connection in a carefree culture that still valued, mostly in the south side of the city, art and literature, as the cultivated virtues and were in constant love with the idea of an artist as the perpetual outsider, an eccentric outlier who might bring immortality to those in their charmed circles; if gods were happy—Rohit was able to generate some noise and get passing notice, some rare rave reviews, in the blogs about salons and a bohemian lifestyle, according to the bourgeoisie, now defunct in Paris; a lifestyle, a way of living on the edge, dangerously, almost anachronistic, in a pandemic-hit era where survival was tough, in view of economic recession, food inflation, job insecurity, terror threat, and climate change.
Who cares for a starving artist about to change the world through their art?
Rohit said, I do.
His idea of caring was hitting the pubs and staggering home, dead drunk, carried on the left shoulder of a pal or a GF, slightly less drunk, the party mouthing expletives at the solid world of finance and commerce!
Of course, Paris being Paris, even the cops ignored these shabby artists—others hardly cared.
As a calling card, Rohit carried replicas of his self-portrait and passed them on among the riff raff doing the rounds of cafes and pubs, including one or two reviewers or art correspondents.
They threw them down in the bins once he left.
He sometimes came across those crumpled pieces on the sidewalks, his bearded visage looking back. But he remained undeterred. “We are in the business of marketing and selling ourselves!” he often said.
His morning and evening ritual was fixed: looking at the face that directly engaged the eyeballs of the watcher/viewer.
He stood before his self-portrait and stared, enraptured, at the frontal image, in an act of deep reverence.
His last ex—a Serbian refugee who worked in a pub—called him the Narcissus of the Millennium.
He countered: “Are we not all narcissists? All of us? In this age of social media?”
He had a valid point.
He was obsessed with the self-portrait.
He created a series of these self-portraits. Posted them on social media. Series of canvases featuring front face or in profile, one-third side, eyes glancing slyly at the eyes of the future beholder/s.
And fell increasingly in love with them all!
This romance came to such a frenzied stage that he could not paint anything else than self.
The critical point where he could not stand the self-portraits of others on social media.
In fact, he hated others for an act that he was equally guilty of—hawking self on the open market, in a most unashamed, unapologetic way.
Rohit finally started unfriending and unseeing others of his ilk, suffering from self-love, unable to bear them.
Hated them for a similar propensity—Be seen, get counted! That was the command, the popular refrain that ensured peer pressure and a mad scramble for peddling self and moods and pics for this manufactured Me-Only! generation of hungry but one-sided consumers of trivia, and by extension, the wider world, outside his small attic room that incidentally looked out upon a cul-de-sac.
Two things happened subsequent to this mental and emotional state.
One, he lost the ability to paint, one fine rainy afternoon, cooped up in his tiny cave and tinier shell.
And…and, believe it or not, the self-portraits, one-by-one, disappeared, one late night, stormy, moonless, gothic.
Only the empty canvases remained hung, mocking the degenerate narcissist, as the storm and wind battered the city.
He could not believe. This was something devilish.
His stupor was over.
Like a mad person, he furiously began painting the canvases but only blood dripped—no image.
I am going mad! I have become mad!
He shouted, as his girlfriend snored blissfully.
A classic Catch-22 situation: He realized he was perfectly sane: The mad don’t talk madness.
Assured, he ran out and found a whole world of the poor; late commuters and homeless, out there, being battered by the storm.
People huddling together under mackintoshes and plastic; a community of the marginalized seen by Victor Hugo, Zola, and Van Gogh.
He sat with them, completely sober and began painting the next day, some sublime paintings.