I am my Portrait
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Life is so mixed up with fantasy; please allow me to fantasise a little and describe my conception.
Let’s not go into the frame; whence the wood and gilt, who the carver (lovely job), although I know who the frame-maker was: Hermann Richter in Prague. Decent people. I knew another frame that….no, I digress.
Liesl was 4 when I met her. Her father, Leopold, always called her the full Lieselotte. Never ‘my darling’, ‘my special’, or even ‘Liesl’. Her mother, Paula, often called her ‘Liesl’, but it was usually in a quiet voice, out of earshot of her husband, furtive glances in his direction to check whether he had overheard. I sensed tension in the air. No violence, not even anger. But it was there, hiding in the corners, hanging in the musty air of the drawing room (the only room I ever saw in the house of the family Block).
Liesl was a strange mixture. Every time she walked in the room, I saw sparkle in her eyes; I felt it. It was as if she expected every coming moment to be fun, to be bright, to be a treasure chest of excitement. But it was invariably downhill from there. That atmosphere would be back, dragging the sparkle away and replacing it with, at best, inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness and, at worst, misery.
Same thing happened when she would break off posing and go over to where Hans rocked in his wooden cradle. He was about 14 months old when I first appeared on the scene. A lovely child, but very quiet. Deep, blue eyes. A real thinker. Liesl would run over to him and he would flicker a smile at her. But then it was back to thinking. She would tickle him, he would laugh, even scream with delight. But once her tickling ceased (“Go back to the table, Liesl, Professor Nechleba is waiting”), his thoughtfulness would be back. And it would not be a one-directional stare. His eyes would scan everything around him, even linger. But not stare. He was always dreaming, thinking, contemplating. A very adult look. Only the creased forehead was missing. What was going on in that mind of his?
Liesl was a very obedient child, but you could see it was usually mixed with reluctance. Well, I could see. Poldi (his brothers called him that – only his brothers) did not see; Paula was not permitted to see. There was always a split-second pause after the command (I mean, request), as if she was always being held back from going in her desired direction.
When posing, she hummed. All the time. It was not a joyful hum, but the hum of a patient person, in control of herself, able to blot out the world about her. She was not occupied, but was making herself occupied. She could stand there for hours, appearing to have made up subjects to consider, a life to plan, characters to be. Only when her little left leg started shaking, did Professor Nechleba realise that it was time for a pause. Liesl would come out of her world – and rush to the toilet.
Nechleba was a wonderful artist. He knew his limitations, so would not attempt to communicate images which he himself could not understand. His life was full of ladies. A wife, 3 daughters, 2 mothers-in-law, 1 sister and 1 sister-in-law. (He did not get on at all with the 3 brothers-in-law). They all loved him, he loved them. He said the right things at the right times, was always polite, listened to their chatter with apparent interest, warmed each time one would enter the room. And they would feel warmed.
So he painted mostly portraits of ladies, usually young, and in the case of Lieselotte Block, very young. She was only four.
The biggest problems concerned the appearance of the peonies. It was Leopold who dictated the way Lieselotte was to wear her hair, which dress to wear, which shoes. He even criticised the pose that the Professor hesitantly insisted upon. But the peonies were Paula’s choice. “Like giant roses”, she would sigh, “So deep in colour; so warm”. Leopold did not object. So Liesl had to hold one of the peonies in her hand, while the others stood next to her in a vase.
Liesl could stay still all day, but not the peonies. In the vase they were acceptably sturdy, starting to go limp after perhaps 2 days. But the poor one suspended in her right hand was forever wilting, like a dying swan. No, like a wilting peony. Every 2 hours or so, Professor Nechleba would down the palette, artfully wipe his fingers on a cloth, always the same cloth, and quietly exchange the peony in Liesl’s hand for a new one. This he would take from a 2nd vase, not part of the painting; the vase of reserve peonies of identical size and colour. Liesl would hardly notice. The professor would gently prise open her little fingers, exchange the flower, softly enclose her fingers around the stem again, and carry on.
6 sessions at the Block house it took, over a 9-day period. Then I was carried by coach to Professor Nechleba’s home for the finishing touches: black, and more black. Had he also sensed the atmosphere in the house?
Then some more brightness in the eyes, highlight in the hair, white in the lace fringes of the arms and hem of her dress. He painted hope in those highlights, defiance against sombreness. Liesl would never be afraid of the dark, and in the dark, she would be a light to those around her.
Yes, that’s how he wanted her to be.
I was delivered back to the Block home on December 23rd, 1908. I was hung just inside the entrance area, where everyone who entered the house would see me.
Liesl spent hours in front of me. Sometimes she would don the same dress, slip on the same shoes, grab some flowers (never peonies; I don’t know why) and just stand there, thinking. Like looking in the mirror. In fact, she would actually make faces, change expression, expecting me to do the same. When I did not, she sank into thought again.
Hans was starting to walk when I arrived in the home. He would stand just below me, patting the wall within inches of my base. Or was he smacking the wall? With a baby it is difficult to tell, but he did not seem to warm to the sight of his sister covering a whole wall of the house, while he could see nothing of himself. No mirror; nothing.
Almost 30 years I remained there, not moving. Everything around me moved, in many strange ways. Liesl got bigger. So did Hans. Even Leopold appeared greater. Only Paula shrunk.
Liesl went to school. She often brought friends home. Leopold would close the study door, Paula would sit in the drawing room, darning and sewing. Hans never appeared interested. For most of his early years, he had just 2 friends, close friends, and they would spend all their time together, locked in quiet discussion, almost secretive. In hot weather, it would be outside somewhere. I couldn’t see. Otherwise, in Hans’ room, I think.
They all got used to me.
In the early 30s, life around me seemed to become sharper, noisier. I had no trouble hearing what was going on.
Liesl had become an actress, much to Leopold’s disgust. They would often argue over her work. She dreamed of attending the Max Reinhard school in Vienna. He forbade it. Paula cried. Leopold had even appeared on the stage with his daughter in the local theatre. Yet he still did his best to deny her the opportunities of making a career out of it. (I had a playbill stuck up on the wall in front of me for many years. Liesl playing Elizabeth I in Schiller’s play – and Leopold in one of the smaller parts). Was he proud of his daughter – from that back-stage point of view? Or was he watching over her; watching her?.
Leopold had become even more arrogant. He was a lawyer, with his office on the main square. There were whispers when he was made president of the local bank. He had ‘joined the party’, which apparently made such appointments far easier. Hans also became a lawyer, and worked for his father.
Liesl was a rebel. She married young; a man called Goettinger. No one knows from where he came. No one knows where he went, after their divorce. Leopold did not like the man, Hans didn’t care, Paula was not allowed to express her opinion.
Well, maybe Hans did care, for he married …..when he was only 24, and she 21. And three years later, he died. There were rumours about what happened. ‘Shot while escaping’, ‘shot himself’. He certainly had continued to be overly thoughtful, excessively frustrated, and must have picked the wrong girl.
In 1938, so much happened. The family had been devastated by Hans’ departure. Paula more pain-filled than before, Leopold more unbearable. Goettinger was forever drunk, even bringing other women to the house, passing in front of me, oblivious to the fact that I was a reflection of his wife. Liesl had moved away, to the town of Brno, and was appearing on the stage there.
I never saw them again; any of them.
One night, I heard the sounds of glass being smashed.
On another, it was the door near me that was smashed. Men in uniforms burst into the room. Initially ignoring me, they ran into and through the house. There were rumblings of destruction, vicious laughter, ignorant fury and dirty hands. I too was grabbed and taken away, stashed in an open truck with others like me. They were silent; as was I. Candelabra lying next to me, a silver tea pot over there, a pair of mahogany chairs, too frightened to look at each other, a brass curtain rail, in the middle of a rolled up curtain, thick and old, and carpets, many of them, rolled, folded and flung on top of each other.
I was the last to be loaded onto the truck. I was first to be unloaded and carried, quite carefully – with orders being barked from somewhere behind me – into a dark hall. A strange thin man was sitting there, typing, typing and typing some more. He appeared to be copying down the barks, which in turn appeared to be repeating whispers from men, crouched in front of, behind and among us.
The lights went out.
Ages later, there was light again. But I was covered by cloths, and surrounded by boxes, paintings and piles of unrecognisable things. I was carried, put down, loaded onto and unloaded off, left standing in the cold, carried down stairs, leant against the wall. I fell down, I was picked up and straightened. The hands were softer, themselves and to me. But I was still left in the dark.
I felt unseen. I was unseen for many years.
I am a painting; I need to be seen. To be stored without hope of exposure is… unforgivable. What kind of a mind does it take to forcefully hide something like this. It is artistic murder – articide.
For what appears to be eternity, we are in the dark, a musty atmosphere slowly enveloping us. We do not speak, but we know. We cannot see, but oh how we feel! Objects of art feel close to each other, a brotherhood. We are a species that, inside, is one. Unlike a chameleon, our ‘skin’, our outer layer, strives to be different, in form, colour, material, design, texture. But inside, we want to be appreciated, loved, owned, kept, passed on and remembered.
We don’t like the dark.
November 1st, 2003. Over 53 years since dark had become my life. To make it more difficult for me – and more wonderful for those who found me, it was mid-day, and a beautiful sunny day. I was carried gently upstairs and leant against another wall. The sheet that had become my burial shroud was soothingly slipped from my frame. Had I had hands, I would have covered myself. I had lost the sense of artistic pride. There I was, in whatever glory I possessed.
I looked around, and there were three ladies smiling at me. There was almost triumph in their eyes; I tried to blink.
They left me there, in the same position, for some days. And every time one of them passed me, I received the same warm, admiring and happy glances. They were slowly bringing meaning back into my life. Pride was bursting through.
There was more to come.
On November 4th, two new faces were brought into my presence.
I had been carried into even better light, and there the two of them staring at me. She was constantly switching her look from him, watching his reactions, and back to me, almost expecting reactions from me. He just stared at me with a look of wonderment, like an explorer’s first view of the lost city of his dreams. Were it possible, I would have vibrated with pleasure. His look penetrated to my core.
It was a feeling I had never before experienced. Of homecoming. The darkness in my life, in Liesl’s life, was letting in light.
I have since learnt the identity of this couple – and I know their story.
He is Liesl’s son, Stephen. She is his wife, Aviva.
Liesl had grown, had survived the times that had taken the lives of Poldi, Paul and Hans. She had escaped the home she loved that had changed to a world of hate. She had found love and had married Eric. They made their separate ways to the land of the free, where they had married. They had two boys, Michael and Stephen.
From somewhere during the misty years of family history that we have difficulty placing, there appeared a little black and white photo – a photo of me. Who took the photo no one knows. In whose wallet or bag it had been carried, or in which album it had been stuck remains a mystery. On the reverse side, Liesl had written, in her distinctive style, my vital statistics:
100 x 130 cm
Gold frame 6 cm.
As is often the case, no one talked about me until it was almost too late. Liesl had long before passed away. Also Eric. Stephen and Michael had rarely spoken to their mother about her background; her family. They kept in touch with one of Liesl’s cousins, who was getting very old. But otherwise just accepted that that side of their family was just not there.
Stephen travels, so he has opportunity to make many contacts, including with the past. He started looking for me.
In Czechia, Prof Nechleba is known. Some of my colleagues are on show at the National Gallery in Prague – and almost all of them are portraits of young ladies. Liesl was perhaps the youngest subject of all.
Initially, I was nowhere to be found – I was in darkness.
Stephen did not give up. He could not believe that something so beautiful – his thoughts, not mine – could be lost forever, recorded only in faded black and white.
He was informed that in Liesl’s home town of Trutnov, there was a state-owned museum, featuring historical exhibits from the local region. Stephen wrote to Mrs. Rysankova, the museum’s director. He attached a copy of the photo. Does she, by any strange chance, have an idea of the portrait’s whereabouts?
By chance, Stephen and Aviva were, at that time, in Berlin. They planned to come to Czechia within a few days, partly for business, but mainly to visit the north-west region of glass-making. They love glass.
Mrs. Rysankova answered within hours: “We have the painting”.
Stephen and Aviva drove to Czechia, had a shorter look at the glass, then, instead of driving straight to Prague, they turned left, and drove 200 kilometers along country roads to Trutnov, Liesl’s home town.
It was the first time for them to be in the area. Stephen was excited; Aviva felt excited for him. She has family trees going back centuries. She understood the warmth of such knowledge.
At mid-day, on Monday, November 3rd, 2003, they entered Mrs. Rysankova’s office. For the first time ever, they lay their loving eyes on me.
This was the dawn that for so long had been missing from my life. Now, through the physical layers of age, I was sparkling.
On October 29, 2004, Liesl would have been 100 years old. Stephen vowed to everyone that, in time for that celebration, I would be home.
It took all that time for Stephen to prove I was Liesl, and that I had once hung at Poldi and Paula’s home.
Early in October 2004, Stephen received a message from Mrs. Rysankova. I was free to be collected.
By coincidence, Stephen had anyway planned to be in Prague for an exhibition. Early on Thursday, October 16, he arrived by overnight train from Germany. Instead of attending the exhibition, and with the full knowledge of his customer, Stephen hired a car and drove to Trutnov.
I am told it was lucky that he arrived in one piece, for he drove with his mind on his mother: Liesl.
Since the day I had been carried out of the underground darkness that had been my prison for over 60 years, I had inherited a special admirer: Mrs. Rysankova. Once I had been put on display for Stephen and Aviva, not knowing what my fate would be, Mrs. Rysankova had hung me above her desk in her office. She had told one of her assistants that she was perplexed (her word – in Czech) to have had such a lovely painting as me down in the archives, never seeing the light, never having the chance to give pleasure.
Perhaps she hoped that Stephen would not be able to convince anyone of my provenance, but she did not let that feeling show. She seemed genuinely keen that I should find home once again. Such a special girl as me deserved – no, required to be surrounded by those that really care. Family.
When Stephen walked into that office, he was confronted by a smiling Mrs. Rysankova, and a television team. He was pictured giving flowers to Mrs. Rysankova, shaking hands with her, and between them, gently removing me from the wall and into his possession. His hands gripped me firmly, as if they would never let go.
Now I have a new home. I am in Israel, which, considering the story of Liesl’s family, seems prophetic. I have a new family, for Liesl has 2 granddaughters who now enjoy standing or sitting in front of me, using me to get to know their grandmother. Aviva often pauses between chores or relaxing with coffee, sometimes while commercials are playing, and not only ponders me, but talks to me. I know she regrets never knowing Liesl, and now she is making up for lost time.
I shall be cleaned a little, perhaps have better lighting. But I could not be happier, for now I am looked at, appreciated. And loved.
I am home.
January 1, 2005
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