“Both of Djuna” – Fiction by Joel Enos & Angela Enos

Seated female nude - Amedeo Modigliani, 1916
Seated female nude – Amedeo Modigliani, 1916

Art and artists are always making us look at models, but in “Both of Djuna,” from our Winter 2015 issueAngela Enos & Joel Enos make us look through the eyes of a model who’s looking at art, and artists, and how they look at models. And art. And also maybe themselves? There’s a lot of levels to navigate here.

{ X }

IT IS ALWAYS MORE INTERESTING TO BE A MODIGLIANI than a Sargent. The artist’s model thinks to herself as she sits, unclothed, on the wooden chair as their eyes all perceive and speculate and adapt her pieces and parts. It’s the interpretation itself. The act rather than the actual. Or is it actualization? Actualism?

Not for the first time she wonders if her inward view is more or less intense a gaze than that of those who view her from the outside. She’s sat for this particular group before. But today there are more of them than usual, new faces, new adaptors and interpreters. She rarely allows herself to ruminate, while sitting, on the many ways she will eventually see herself though someone else’s eyes. But with so many new eyes upon her this morning, she can’t help herself. I must distract myself from the distraction of anticipation.

So she looks back at them.

The young one with the wispy mustache that isn’t quite there won’t know any better than to be realistic. He’ll document every line and crease until he’s pushed me into a hard middle age. He hasn’t yet learned to take liberties with the canvas. The fear of being incorrect leads to harsh premonitions about my life.

The one that looks like a sea captain, with the cap on to shade his eyes, he’ll paint with period flair and later realize that he’s made me look like a snapshot of his mother from before he was born. I’ll like it, even though it won’t be me. 

The academic, the one with the accent– Belgian? Germanic? From parts uncharted of Meso-Britannia? She cannot imagine him existing outside of the geography of this studio. He’ll paint me truly and honestly, with the angle of my nose unflattering and the curve of my waist in precise brushstrokes. It will not be beautiful, but I will recognize myself in his work, even through his fingerprints in the oil. 

There is only one woman other than the model in the room. She sits away from the other artists, her easel not part of the half-moon cluster around the model’s stage. The model knows that this woman will work quietly on her own in a cloud of honeyed tea and turpentine in china cups. I will never see her work, but she will thank me at the end of the pose and disappear even faster than I do.

And perched on all of the easels, whether clustered or not, are her cousins. The two-dimensional women all share certain familial characteristics in the shape of their mouths, the protrusion of ears, but they are all distinct individuals. The model feels unsure whether any of her cousins are actually a representation of her self. But she knows the women on the easels are inarguably the girl on the stage. They are all Djuna in this moment, before signatures and initials have been scratched onto their surfaces and varnished into permanence. My part in this process is questionable. I am at best muse, but I might not be art myself.

Djuna is not allowed to shift or move, an impulse she swallows with great discipline. She knows that if she moves, she is betraying the job, the artists, and the moment. By moving she reminds them that she is a person. This changes their interpretations, and may ruin their visions of the object, the muse. To keep still as the hours progress, she meditates almost to the point of trance. She doesn’t like to think of death. But the immobility of the body often leads to a wandering of the mind that inevitably brings her to thoughts of immortality and its opposite.

There is something heroic about their impressions of her, when painted larger than life and with a perpetual glint of light playing just so off her irises. Conversely, there is secretiveness, a timidity enforced upon her image, when painted in miniature. The shadows around her seem to grow deeper on tiny canvases and her lips appear to seal themselves in a smirk or promising whispers. I like both these versions of me. Djuna feels an incomprehensible, almost shameful sense of pleasure when an artist has stretched their own canvas or cut their own panel to a size not found ready-made on shop shelves. In a room full of standard-size portraits, all her faces end up saying much the same thing.

When I’m made smaller than the size of a palm or so large that I take up the entire wall is when I become remarkable.

Always these thoughts of lasting impression bring Djuna to remember the first man who brought her to life on such a scale. The first time she saw him working on the portrait, the canvas stretched from floor to ceiling in the studio. He could have fit her entire body in the vast space, but he chose only her face. When she stood next to the portrait, it was taller than she was even in her heels. He laughed and told her that it might not be the best painting ever made of her, but it would certainly be the largest.

On breaks between bursts of inspiration, Djuna and the artist climbed steel bars set into the concrete wall at the top of the stairwell, emerging through a hatch in the roof. They chatted against the fierce winds coming off the river while taking in the view. He told her about his children and his work. She told him almost nothing, but he never seemed to mind. On one break that Djuna thought of often, he brought a camera and snapped a picture of her on the roof, in the wind, her gray scarf whipping through the cityscape behind her.

She saw the finished painting twice in the following year: Once at the opening and once at his memorial. She never saw it again, but it was still one of her favorites. She was enormous and luminous and was forever laughing at her own immortality, even after the burning fire inside the artist had extinguished.

Again the thoughts of death and immortality bring her to distraction. She shifts in her chair and hears the muttering of the artists who are again reminded and somewhat annoyed at the sudden realness of Djuna. She thinks of their interpretations suddenly changing from objective to personally offended at her tingling appendages, her human quality. One of them will purposefully focus on the slightness of her shoulders in contrast to the rest of her. She will look stretched, hunched, and pained. Another will add lines to her face. She will see herself as she will never become, older and aged not by nature but by someone else’s eyes. The artist can bring the model to godlike perfection or they can not only enhance but add flaws both imagined and all too painfully real. And those flaws remain on view for all to see forever.

She cannot allow herself to think down this path so she looks back again at her audience. They are staring, perceiving, interpreting, looking at those flaws and memorizing them publicly. Djuna sighs and wonders to herself, When do I stop being art and become myself again?

“Never,” says the other Djuna. “You do not cease to be art.”

During a break, a kind German outlines her feet on the stage with chalk, so that she may step out of her own footprints to stretch her neck and put on her kimono. This is when she roams freely on pins-and-needled legs. This is when she meets her cousins. They’re still standing where she left them, on the empty stage.

They are art. But what am I when on the other side of the canvas? The balance between Djuna and her cousins is offset by her mobility.

The sly ones will still try to snatch a quick sketch of her as she stretches or rests between posing. I am art as long as they can see me.

Sometimes, though rarely, they will actually approach her and talk. Once in a while they will ask her questions. But as it should be, it is usually related to their interpretation of her, her answer affecting what will happen to their creations, her cousins. The questions catch her off-guard but only because they are being asked.

At a minimum, her chosen profession requires a level of reliable bohemianism. She must appear on time and hold very still. And she must be fascinating. Or enigmatically give the impression to those around her that she might be.

The illusion is most heightened when she is in a private studio. Nude and perfectly still, she becomes an icon on her altar of drapery and cushions. If the artist so desires, the model ceases to be a living, breathing subject and takes on the guise of something else entirely, rendered immobile and immaculate. This is when Djuna experiences something else. This is when the artists tend to confess.

The less she says about herself, the more they tell her. She learns of their careers, artistic and not, about wives and lovers lost and won, travels to places they assume she’s never visited, what restaurant they ate dinner at. She listens, and they confess.

Some are arrogant and foolhardy, not realizing how many thousands of small luxuries they’re telling her about while she lets them look at her unclothed for money. These are the minority. Most of the men who give confession at her altar are good people with the misfortune to be terribly and absolutely lonely. They aren’t always aware of what they’re revealing, but it’s the common thread that ties all their faces together in her mind. Djuna sometimes wishes she could offer them some comfort, but it would be misconstrued. The dynamic is already in place and the balance is important, lest the upset make everyone involved uncomfortable. Instead she is silent, bearing witness.

This is the men. The dynamic with the women is its own beast, its own type of confession. There’s an awkward sociability and presumed sisterhood to it that sometimes makes Djuna much more uncomfortable than the pedestal of confession the men place her upon.

When she’s present, Ludmilla is always in the front of the group, as close to Djuna as she can get without upsetting the balance. She scribbles flat on her lap into a cheap notebook. Djuna can see her pages. Ludmilla is not talented, but she is enthusiastic. It means more to her to participate in this artistic community than to excel at it – creating beautiful art is not her objective. Ludmilla never speaks to Djuna when drawing. But at scattered art openings that Ludmilla rarely misses and Djuna rarely attends, Ludmilla has told Djuna many things.

It is hard to understand Ludmilla. Her accent spans the globe, its validity less important than its incomprehensibility.  But through her accent and awkward downward gaze, Djuna has pieced together a past for this artist who has created herself more deftly and with greater care than anything she will ever commit to canvas.

Ludmilla is of indeterminate middle age and hails from a country with boundaries that snaked and bit their own tails through Eastern Europe for generations before disappearing entirely and being rechristened after a war. Over cheap plastic cups of wine in crowded lofts, Djuna has learned of the two daughters, now grown women, who live in the old country. The stories are confused, sad. Djuna will nod but rarely respond. She does not understand enough of the woman’s past to comment on it. And she is trained to listen to artists, not to give them her opinions. Even in this setting of social interaction she is art.

When am I woman? When am I not art?

The thought comes to her almost like a premonition, moments before the end of the session alerts her that it is time to dress. Djuna steps out of focus and excuses herself, walking behind a curtain, behind a door, or into an apartment restroom with a toothbrush still on the sink. Sometimes there’s a mirror, but often there’s nothing but her bag, her discarded clothes, her dusty shoes. Her clothes feel foreign and surprising. The black dress! The green stockings! The blue hat! She puts her clothes back on like an artist adding layers with a brush, slowly remembering who this woman is who walked out of her door earlier that morning, who rode the train to this place, who waited on the stoop to be buzzed in, who undressed and became something else entirely.

Outside, Djuna’s cousins do not step out of their footprints or put on their second-hand kimonos. They do not wrap their red scarf around their necks and remember buying it years ago in a far off place. Her cousins remain art, with their left shoulder slouched and their right foot perpetually pointing forward, into some unknown world that is no longer hers. Djuna is leaving. But her cousins will be varnished to a high sheen and hung on gallery walls, sold for higher sums of money than she will ever see. Others will fade or crack, stored forgotten in basements or leaky attics, bubbling and blistering in summer and shrinking in winter until someone finds them and wonders who the woman looking out of them is. The third category, though, makes her the most melancholy. It encompasses the cousins who are executed with great skill, but by artists who hold themselves to a higher standard. They will be scraped off the canvas or painted over entirely. They will cease to be art, at their creator’s discretion. Her heart breaks a little for them but there is nothing she can do.

Djuna feels tearful, embarrassed by her own rapid transformation from model to woman again, shocked by her sensitivity and confused by her own emotions, she looks back across the sea of cousins awaiting their fate. She is surprised to see the other Djuna, still sitting perfectly in her chair; her feet still firmly, awkwardly planted in the footprints the kind German traced onto the floor.

Like her cousins, this Djuna is also still naked. Still still. But the artists are gone.  No one is looking at her now but Djuna.

The other Djuna has a faint sad smile on her face. Djuna knows she is questioning her self, seeing herself as others see her.

“This is not strange,” Djuna says out loud. “It just is. She is always art.”

I am only art sometimes.

{ X }

Pez Photography/Jeffrey Millies

ANGELA ENOS is a Chicago-based costume designer, artist and performer whose theatre work has been seen from Georgia to California to Detroit. Her designs were featured at the 2011 Prague Quadrennial and she is a frequent guest artist at universities.

JOEL ENOS has published work in A Cafe in Space and wrote the Ben 10 Omniverse graphic novels Joyrides & Parallel Paradox. He’s also edited comics, books and tons of manga, including the best-selling Naruto series.

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