Courage and Choice
— Fierce Fiction by Lance Mason — December 24, 2018
A wise old art dealer in Amsterdam liked to tell a particular story, over appelflappen and coffee, of when he was not so old and not so wise. When he was beginning his career, he reasoned (and, age has told him, accurately so) that a dealer’s reputation is often founded in the quality of the art he himself collects. So some of his first endeavors in the field were in purchases of his own.
In those days, a report reached him of a small city gallery with a new exhibition, and so, early one day, he set out for it. It was December, and Amsterdam’s streets on winter mornings held a special fascination for him. New snow frequently covered the cobblestone and Belgian-block streets, and he liked to watch the bicycles’ tracks criss-crossing the carpet of fresh, cold powder. In the sunnier seasons, he would take his own bicycle and, with the girl of his fancy, explore the Indonesian district, the train station, and a park or two. The city was his birthplace, his home, and it never ceased to intrigue him. This lustrous day was particularly charming, and he travelled to the exhibit with newly-whetted senses, but no great anticipation.
While perusing the work with a few talented locals, he took special note of a garden landscape the size of a Flemish hanky, but done in oils on Burmese silk. While extraordinary to the eyes of our young connoisseur —in detail and color, in design and perspective—few others in his company that morning seemed impressed with the painting. I must have it, he decided, and went to inquire as to arrangements for a purchase.
Alas, he was told by the gallery curator, it had been sold.
Where could he find the artist?
Directions received, he was off straightaway. The artist was at home, was receptive and entertaining, but at last confirmed that the painting had been sold—or at least promised—to another buyer not yet arrived from America, but due very soon. It seemed hopeless.
Over the following months, the dealer travelled and examined hundreds of works, buying several, shrewd in all his dealings. Yet he often went to the gallery on the canal and viewed the oil-on-silk, for the buyer had been long-delayed in America, constantly assuring the artist of his return, and even sending a stipend as good faith.
Undeterred, the young dealer kept a place for the painting, hoping. Hoping hurt no one, and made for some romance in his reflective moments. Meanwhile, his own collection, tasteful and sound, yet modest, was becoming well known. As with many collectors, large and small, he was developing a pattern or, more accurately, a style in his collecting. He gravitated toward small and exotic works of unique—some would say peculiar—origin, rather than grand paintings of domestic scenes or subjects. Yet there was a void in his collection, in its pattern, one that he felt could be filled only by the single, exquisite oil.
As spring drew close the following year, he was making preparations for a summer’s tour of the continent’s more obscure, less frequented galleries and museums. One night he received a message. The artist of the oil, with whom he had become friendly over the past months, would like to discuss again the sale of the painting. Lingering hope bloomed anew, and he left for the artist’s house in great haste.
Talk went swiftly. The young dealer was near ecstasy. The buyer in America had stopped writing. The artist was becoming anxious that his work be part of a worthy collection, and be appreciated, but he had promised the American and accepted the stipend. But couldn’t he see how much this Amsterdam dealer offered in currency as well as taste for the display of his work? Certainly, indeed he could, which is why he would even consider the sale. Still, he could make no decision that night.
Nor at the next meeting.
Nor the next.
The dealer’s hopes waxed and waned with the rise and fall of the artist’s moods. And the dealer’s time for his trip drew nearer. Finally, he became desperate. He went to the artist in great consternation two days before he was to leave for the summer. Since it was apparent, he told the artist, that the latter was unwilling to make a decision, he would leave on the trip around Europe with no decision made. However, he said, the artist should weigh out the alternatives regarding the sale. If the American had not come by the end of summer to claim the painting, the artist must make the choice as to whether to sell to the Amsterdam dealer or hold out indefinitely for the American. The artist agreed, and the two parted company in good humor.
The dealer left Amsterdam with mixed emotions. Would he return to ownership or disappointment? At least the waiting would be over, the indecision ended. If it were disappointment, he could begin looking for another satisfactory piece to go in his collection. Yet he was optimistic on his own behalf. Albeit without sufficient cause, he admitted, he felt the painting would be his. He couldn’t know what was to happen during his tour.
In the main, his study of the foreign galleries was satisfying—Luxembourg, Brussels, Köln, Basel, Strasburg, Vienna, Prague, Florence, Avignon, Barcelona, Madrid, and, finally, Lisbon. Nearly every one held at least a few works that made its collection worth visiting. And in Lisbon he found a new dream.
Having left Madrid by the early train, he had gazed out to the austere hills made regal by the rising eastern light. He rode in the passenger carriage of one of the many seafood trains which ferried fresh fish, langostino, barnacles, shrimp—an unending array of mariscos—to Madrid each night, returning before dawn to the sea. As his small world of polished wood and glass clattered and rattled on toward Portugal, he had ruminated over the last many weeks and the marvelous works he’d seen.
Unlike many of his profession, he felt a heavy responsibility to represent the true value of the artworks he handled. He could not rationalize over-selling the merits of ordinary work, just as he could not contain his passion and enthusiasm for inspired pieces. This slavish adherence to his own perception, and the convictions that arose there, bound him up in ways that tested his confidence, but brought him freedom, too, from domination by mercenary cares. Some said this view interfered with business or robbed one of the freedom to deal. It was also about to dictate another turn in the life of this dealer and connoisseur.
He came upon the painting that was to change his life quite by accident. It was in a small, unpublicized Lisbon studio displaying the works of three Portuguese artists. “Artistans” might be a better word, for their work was not of the lofty heritage of Europe’s masters, but in a vein quite apart from that. It was lowly, in the sense that Galilee fishermen were lowly before Christ, but warm and truthful, noble and full of breath and vigor. It was work that depicted indeed the work of the fishermen of the villages around Oporto and Setubal. It stylized, as well, the ways of the old women and young boys of the seaside.
Of the three Portuguese painters, one of them seemed something more. Indeed, upon investigation, the dealer found that two of the artists had been serious students under one teacher in Lisbon, and had spent time working among the common people, tasting the life that they would paint. The third, though, while having also studied in Lisbon, and with the same teacher, had not merely tasted common life, but lived it. The son of a net-maker, he had grown up among the boats and beaches of Oporto’s waterfront. Most men of the coastal villages repaired their own nets, but mainly fished. Yet, in that local industry, the artist’s father had made a specialty of net construction and mending, and his son had toiled for thousands of hours in the sapping summer heat and harsh Atlantic winters, saving enough to live and study in Lisboa.
This artist had created one painting different from the rest, one painting which had caused our young art dealer to forget, for a time, the oil-on-silk in the little gallery in Amsterdam. This work had the grace and vibrance of life, the subtle whisper of romance, the true style and mastery of art. The scene—a north coast fishing cove above the mouth of the Douro—flowed out of the canvas. The teal-blue sea and opalescent sand played counterpoint to the stern and brooding basalt cliffs behind. The figures—fishermen, children, women, the village gente—were alive in cast and color. They moved. They groped, bent, strained, laughed, and cried out. They lived in the oils. The painter had imbued the paints with a warmth and attachment, defining a feeling which he knew as saudade, an untranslatable word for a melancholy sense of home. The unsophisticated purity of that emotion was the spirit of his art.
The art dealer was overwhelmed. He stayed in Lisbon for the rest of his allotted time, seeing the artist almost daily and discussing all the aspects of his work and development, and sharing much about the depth of art.
As the time approached for his return to Amsterdam, more and more of his waking hours were spent in desperate debate with himself over what to do about the two paintings, the fishing scene and the garden oil. The one at home would fit so well into his nearly complete collection, its design and grace unmatchable. But the Portuguese! Though altogether new, would it integrate with his other pieces? They were of a different ilk, a style starkly contrasting that of this beach-borne son of a net-maker. Would they have to go—to a separate gallery or display—and a new collection started with this earthy work as the center?
The day before his departure, the dealer was readying his things when the artist strolled abruptly into his room and asked, “Do you want my painting?”
The dealer was floored by the question, and attempted to gather himself for a reply. Clearly, the time for that decision had come—and his courage and adventure failed him. He could not subjugate his rational mind to his intuition. His desire spiraled up in abandon, but fell back in a tangle of fear and reason. He could not dispose of his present works and start again. He declined. The artist was sanguine in response, bid the dealer “Boa viagem,” and departed. The dealer sailed for home on the following day’s tide, assuring himself he had acted correctly, if conservatively.
Within the hour of his arrival in Amsterdam, the dealer was at the artist’s door. Had he heard from the American? What was the state of affairs? Was the painting for sale?
Alas, was the reply, the artist still had made no decision. After three months without contact with either the Hollander or the American, the artist was still as ambivalent as ever about the sale.
The dealer fought back his desperate anger. Surely not, he thought. This is resolvable. It can be won. But, as he watched the artist/owner’s fluttering hands and evasive eye, he knew the truth. No decision had created a decision. He left the artist’s house nearly delirious with disappointment and rage.
And now what? To go on searching to fill the void in his collection? To go back to Lisbon, bind the wounds, and negotiate with the Portuguese over his exquisite though naïve masterpiece? Or to dispose properly of the present collection and begin on still another tack? Months wasted in anticipation of a decision never made!
More months passed into nearly two years before the answer came. During that time, the dealer heard occasionally of the Lisbon painter, though never directly. He thought of the painting almost daily. Meanwhile, he called on the artist in Amsterdam from time to time, became more frustrated, and finally learned of an arrangement, and of the sale of the silk to the American.
One winter day, nearing Christmas, the art dealer arrived home from viewing a studio in a nearby city, and was given a letter by the housekeeper. He stared at the markings on the envelope in joyful amazement. They were from Portugal! The letter was from the Lisbon artist. The art merchant tore the envelope open and hastily read the letter. It was a proposal: the artist was coming to northern Europe, specifically to Amsterdam. He felt that his work had matured and was ready to be shown in other cities, and he would be amenable to whatever sales could be arranged.
A second chance! Surely it would be the dealer’s last, for when others in the wider art community of Europe saw the Portuguese work, it would be doubly difficult getting it into his collection.
Though in his letter the artist made no mention of the painting, the dealer fully realized now what, in truth, he wanted, and prepared himself to pursue it with no encumbrances. He made immediate arrangements for selling or otherwise relocating all of his present paintings. Yes, the disposal of his entire collection was precipitous, absolute and irrevocable, but now he was free again to choose, to create and compose a collection that could better reflect the vibrant scope of the new art he’d come to know.
The coffee had cooled, and the old man reached the end of his story. He studied his hands, reflecting, considering how fate, how luck and timing, had redirected the course of his life. His guest sat watching, surrounded by the wholeness of the dealer’s work, a body of artists and their art brought together in harmony, in obedience to the living expression of vision, light, and color. The master smiled a distant smile, and shook his head, bemused. “What happens to us,” he wondered aloud, “if we don’t have a second chance at courage?”
About the Author – Lance Mason
Raised in Oxnard, California, Lance Mason worked blue collar jobs through his education (UCSB, Loyola U, UCLA) and has taught at the Nat. Uni. Natal (Brazil), Otago Uni. (New Zealand), and UCLA. His short fiction and nonfiction have won numerous awards and appeared in various anthologies. A Proficiency in Billiards, a book-length collection of Mason’s essays, was released in 2016 to favorable reviews.
Mason has spent forty years exploring, living, and working overseas, including thirteen years in New Zealand, the setting for parts of two novels, The China Contract and The Eunuch of Shanghai. Rugby, cycle-racing, live theater, wine, and fishing have all interfered with his writing life. He takes himself too seriously at www.lance-mason.com.