An Extract from ‘Specht and Son’

Creator decided to set about the job in exactly the same way as when he painted a portrait of a living person, in so far as it was possible. That is to say, he agreed on three sittings with Specht. During those Saturday meetings, which lasted a couple of hours each and took place at intervals of two weeks, they would talk about Singer, leaf through albums full of snapshots and watch videos of him. In the meantime creator made sketches that he presented to Specht – but he quickly realised that likeness would not be the problem, just as it wasn’t when he was working from life. The problem was the expression, or rather the turning to look, the characteristic gesture. From an artistic point of view Singer was a challenge for creator mainly because of his colour. New colours appeared on his palette – dioxide purple, carmine red, ultramarine blue, burnt umber, caput mortem and cadmium yellow. Creator explained to Specht that skin was the alpha and omega of everything that passed through his hands. You don’t look at my things just with your eyes but with your fingertips too, he had said to Minke Dupuis in Palazzo. He quickly decided that it would be based on one particular video, the one in which the person making the video in the early morning – or was it at dusk? – came into a room in which a dark, underexposed figure lay asleep on a large bed with green, almost turquoise, sheets. His knuckles against his mouth, his head was turned sideways towards the window, where the Venetian blinds opened slowly during the video, producing a pattern of bright stripes of light and making Singer’s eyes flutter – for he was the motionless, sleeping figure. The video stopped exactly there, just before the exchange of glances with the camera would have occurred.
It was difficult to estimate Singer’s age on the video. He was naked and, it seemed to creator, more angular than on the photo with the blond friends. If he was sixteen on the video, creator asked Specht, then how long before the video had the photo been taken? Specht’s memory seemed rather imprecise on such points. Creator realised that he would have to decide for himself how old Singer would be in his painting.
The green of the sheets is on the borderline, said creator, but anything of merit is bordering on kitsch. He wanted the pink of Singer’s lips and nails and palm to stand out sharply from the canvas. He was aiming for a Singer who was more childish, more touchable than on the video.
When creator saw the recording he knew immediately that Singer would be recumbent – and I just took my fate lying down. I was now, once and for all, a recumbent format. But I didn’t really mind, because I was completely beguiled by creator’s concentrated expression when he sometimes came and stood in front of me, without laying a finger on me. He had looked at Singer for a long while as he was projected larger than life on a white wall. He would skip from one image to another, playing them over and over for hours at a time, as if each time he might just catch the one glimpse of Singer that would finally get him working. And then he would tear himself away from the projection and look at me with a satisfied expression, as if he were trying to project what he had seen on to me. Once he even directed the projector at me, which was very disconcerting, not only because the light made me really hot, but also because I had a sensation of being in motion, although Singer himself was just lying there asleep on me. Creator quite quickly came to the conclusion that it was an inauspicious experiment, but it made me realise that I could consider myself lucky I had not come into the world as a film screen. I couldn’t do it – exist only to the extent that light moved on me. You would have to be quite a saint for that.
It was a sun-drenched scene, the one which creator would use as his base. As the recording played you could hear children’s voices through the open window where the Venetian blinds hung. It was Loutro beach, said Specht, and the ship’s horn you could hear was the boat to Chora Sfakion, which stopped off right in front of their house three times a day.
It’s paradise, creator had said, and Specht had smiled faintly.
We were never happier, he said.
Creator tried to ask exactly how long before Singer’s death the recording had been made.
Sometimes creator had the impression that the sight of the dead boy was too much for Specht. Beads of sweat glistened along his temples and he gripped the stick tightly, his knuckles gleaming white.
Creator pointed towards Singer’s upper arm, his visible shoulder and his thigh – something glistened there, sand from the beach, smudges of white gold.
Yes, I can see it too now, said Specht, I’d never noticed.
Skin, said creator. A painting is actually nothing more than a skin applied to a skin.
It was clear that Specht was doing his utmost to make creator forget that the subject was dead and creator played along with him more and more.
Very soon they no longer spoke of the boy in the past tense. That is the whole point of this project, said Specht. If I succeed in bringing Singer to life for you, it will seem as if you have painted from life. How can Singer still be dead then?
Do you understand? He said on another occasion. If you succeed in making people believe that you have painted Singer from life – then I have succeeded in bringing him alive for you.
And he also said: that way nobody’s dead.
Not a word was said about the circumstances of Singer’s death. The less you think about his end, the more alive the picture will be; as alive as a Felix Vincent, said Specht.

From Specht and Son (Specht en zoon, 2004)
By Willem Jan Otten
Translated by Lindsay Edwards

First published in The Low Countries, 2008