[Story] Beyond the surface

The room was dark and cold when he entered. The wooden planks underneath his feet creaked and squeaked with every step he did, just like his grandmother’s house. Whenever he visited them as a young child, he loved to sneak up and down the large old staircase in the middle of the night, trying not to wake anybody. Sometimes he succeeded. But in this room, the sounds evoked something different. He felt alarmed.

With trembling fingers he reached for the matches. Short and strong strokes should fire up the light. The first one breaks, the second fails, the third one finally produces a small, soft glimmer, just enough to bring light into darkness. He held the newborn fire to the candlestick and kindled it, spread the light and the warmth. Light came into darkness and shapes left the deepest shadows.

The room was empty. Only one lonely scaffold stood there, in the very center, and on it a canvas. He had a quick look through the room. Dark and dusty rectangles at the walls showed where once there had been framed pictures and shelves. Everything was gone. He shook his head. What could possibly have happened?

One week ago, just a couple of days ago, the room was full of life. He had visited his good old friend, a painter, a true artist, who was working on his new master piece. There were pictures on the walls thriving of colours, of joy, of happiness. He had bought new furniture to create an atmosphere of coziness. He was excited.

“Here, my friend,” the painter said as he pointed to a canvas hidden underneath a blanket. “Here I create my new master piece. It will be what I have never been before. A piece of love and joy, a piece of dedication.”

“Let me see!” he demanded, went on and tried to remove the blanket – but got stopped.

“Don’t you dare!” the painter shouted while grinning. “This will be a surprise. You will see something of mine nobody has seen before. At the right place, at the right time. The only thing I ask from you is trust. Trust me. Believe in me.”

One week. Now he was gone. He had left without a word or a note, not even the neighbours had noticed his departure. The only thing left in this room full of emptiness was this scaffold. And the canvas. The canvas which had been hidden underneath the blanket.

For some reason he hesitated. Should he dare to have a look? His friend, so full of eagerness, so full of joy, he had put a lot of emotions, of time, of energy into this piece of work. Now he was gone. What would this piece of work tell him? Show him? Evoke in him?

He took a deep breath and surrounded the scaffold. There it was. The true master piece of his friend.

It was a canvas completely covered in black.

For several minutes he just stood still. He breathed. But he did not understand. This was the famous master piece? This has been the work his friend had not wanted to show him? For Christ’s sake, he had spent money, energy and time in his friend’s work and abilities. He had trusted him. The only thing he had asked for was trust and dedication to his work. He received nothing at all. A canvas covered in black. Two emotions rose in his chest – a deep, dark feeling of anger. But also an emptiness, a deep disappointment.

The letter took him some time. Over and over again he tried to find the right words to his friend. He was gone, unreachable, was he? He didn’t care. Yes, he was a wonderful artist, but he had shown no feelings, no emotions, his paintings were just that: paintings. He was looking for something else. Something, that could touch his soul. His heart. Everything. And suddenly, the words came out of his mind, and he put them all on the paper. In many lines he told his friend what he never dared to say to him. In the end, he took a small nail and attached the letter to the black canvas.

Some weeks later, the artist was seen at an auction. The hall was filled with hundreds of people, all staring at the big black canvas at the stage. They were mumbling. They were wondering. What kind of picture might that be? Who should ever want to buy that? And nobody did a bid. Not a single person.

Then, the artist cleared his throat. A quick look to the auctioneer, silently asking for some last words. He did a step forward, and suddenly, in the light, everybody could see his face. His eyes, once sparkling in green and brown, full of life and joy, they were like dead. His face was pale and thin. His words were clear, but without soul. He was hollow.

“This picture is my life.” he started. The people stopped talking, some of them bent forward to listen to his words. While everybody was dragged towards him, he reached for his pocket and took out a small tool.

“This picture is my life.” he repeated. “Dark. Without any colour. Without any soul. Plain. And that’s what many people think. That’s what many people see. That’s even what I see when I look at myself.”

Tears came up, not just in his eyes, but also in his words, and still, his face showed no reactions to the words.

“This picture is my life. You look at it, you wonder, you cannot understand. None of you dared to bid. None of you cared about it. You were wondering, yes, but none of you asked.

“There has been one man, though, and he had asked. I have to mention him here, because I wouldn’t be where I am without him. At all. He cared. He asked. He listened. And reached for my life, and I reached for his. I called him my friend, and still, he was so much more. I gave him trust. I gave him dedication. Life is never white like an unpainted canvas, nor is it black like a surface covered in oil, I told him. He listened, he nodded, he agreed.”

While he was talking, he went over to the canvas and started to use his little tool on it. First in the top right corner, then in the top left corner. The reached for the center. And for the bottom.

“This picture here is my life. I presented it to him, pure and raw, as it was. There is no bigger gift in life I can give than life itself. I presented it to him, and when I closed my studio after I had prepared everything, I smiled. He would understand. Nobody else would. But I had told him.

“And he saw it. My picture, my life. He looked at it, the dark, black canvas. He stared at it. For a long time. And then…” he reached for his pocket and pulled out a letter, lifted it, a letter which was crinkled and winkled and wet of tears. “… then he did not understand.”

Standing in front of the picture, he took a small pause, and while they were looking at him, they could almost hear his soul break.

The artist, he stepped aside, and with a brief and strong movement he ripped the black surface of the canvas. Underneath, though, there was another picture, which had been hidden by the dark layer. The people gasped and it took them several moments before they were able to process.

Underneath, there was a picture so marvellous, so wonderful, they never had seen anything like that before. Shapes and colours were combined to a master piece of warmth and life itself. One older lady in the first row touched her heart and sighed fulfilled of empathy. There were open mouths, but overall, people feeled a change of mood. All their bad feelings, their bad thoughts, they were gone, and they started to feel life itself. There it was – the true master piece, the artist had spoken about. And it showed life itself. Birth. Youth. Adolesence. Love. Sex. Death. Everything.

“This picture is my life. Not the surface. This life was meant to be given. In the dark, encouraged by the words of someone special, it blossomed, it grew, it became what I ever had dreamed about. It took time, yes. And I did not dare to show it to him. I had to figure it out. I was vulnerable. I knew, he would understand. I knew, he would be waiting. This is not just some opus major, this is my life.”

The people started to overact, they rised their hands and shouted enormous sums towards the stage. The auctioneer’s eyes were sparkling, but before he could start the next round of bidding, the artist lifted his hand. Everybody fell silent.

“This picture is my life. I don’t offer my life to just anybody.”

And from the ground he took a blanket and wrapped his life into it. Hidden. Once again.