The lights were dim. I could smell the chlorine from the bar. Bar. Business Center. Fitness Room. Pool: All in the same hallway. The bartender shot me what I took as a disappointed look when I ordered an iced tea. Some hotels put me in the mood for a sip of good bourbon or a martini. There are hotels that consider every angle of their aesthetics. Even when I don’t want a drink, my hand wants to hold those glasses. The type of places that bring you into a fantasy through diligence and what only appears as intuitive good taste. This wasn’t that type of place. This was one of several hotels two turns from the exit of the interstate. All across the country, these sort of hotel hubs popped up over night, like mushrooms next to an abandoned gas station. It wasn’t a place that locals went. With the exception of one woman at the bar, there were no other customers.
I decided to wait for Alain upstairs.
I’ve been staying here for four days, but there’s little evidence of that each time I enter my room. The place stinks of haunted passages. It smells of boredom. It was the type of place Alain would say lacks history, but was also what he suggested it when I told him I’d be in town. This afternoon he’d called asking if he could visit me. He sounded out of sorts.
When Alain entered the room he threw his coat on the bed, immediately pulled out his ipad and slid his finger across it. You wouldn’t just jump on somebody’s bed at home, but in a hotel, even this one, domestic manners tend to change.
‘You remember the painting I’m sure.’
The tighter the sheets are drawn, the more pleasant their touch as the corners come undone and they begin to follow your body,’ he’d told me the first time we’d seen the painting. Its subject was beautiful; overexposed and calmly restrained, but Alain claims he never fancied the image in a sexual way. The girl looked too young and too confused for his tastes. Her nose irritated him and he found her slim figure underfed, but it was her awkward pose that bothered him most. He noted that her arm was draped over her knee as if somebody else had dropped it there. She was not excited by her admirer and as an admirer of the painting, Alain was not that excited by her. On the other hand, I always thought she seemed to be looking for approval and he surely did approve. All the qualities that irritated him only made him appreciate the work more.
He had acquired the painting in Austria. It was dated 1794 and signed van Loo. The image was of a woman wearing only hand knitted wool stockings with the garter tied on. She was not quite lying on a made bed. Behind the bed a portrait of the young woman was hung on the wall. Her back was turned to the artist. Beside the bed, wood burned in a small fireplace. The work had been considered a great discovery in the early 1990’s when it was found at a flea market and rumors circulated that it was the last work of Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo, the author of the only existing portrait of the Marquis de Sade. When this could not be proven, Alain was able to drive the price down to his liking.
Alain admired the inviting view of the painting, but had fallen for the small waves in the bed sheets, and the tantalizing thought of what he would never see. More than model and motion however, he had fallen for a painter that failed to seduce his model, yet painted her in a manner so provocative for it’s period, so against the tendencies of the time, that the work had been buried from the future. The content had seemingly little to do with the artist’s imagination and Alain took it as a critique he shared for romanticism. More than that, I think he loved both the woman and artist he could never know. The painting excited him for its brashness and failures in a more profound way than he reacted to the model’s beauty.
‘Now look at these images.’
The first was an old photograph, which could very well have been the source material for the painting had it not been taken nearly two centuries later. The clues were undeniable, located in her body, and the objects around her. A TV had been swapped for a landscape oil painting that could have been a Dunouy. A small radiator had been exchanged for a chimney. The sheer nylon that traced her legs was transformed into thicker wool. The give away however, was her elbow.
‘There’s just the first one I found,’ he said and swiped through another dozen images of the same young woman. In the other photographs, there’s more trust, even tenderness between model and artist. They seem to be growing together. Her body becomes fuller and her face a touch plumper. One image looks like a school photo, another could be an ad, the woman appears playful, licking her lips and beckoning the artist and viewer towards her. She looks increasingly happy and a rosy glow seems to rise from her cheeks.
Alain’s painting was based on the least striking of the images. This was one of the things that rattled him. There were probably other paintings and some of those were sure to be more appealing to him than this one. This was however, obviously a minor concern.
‘These images are signed, stamped and dated,’ he said. Signed by Louis Auriac. Auriac must be van Loo. The model is listed as Marion Boulanger. The dates range between 1962 and 1965.’ He was rambling out details, hoping I could find the corners of the puzzle, but there weren’t any. We were talking about role-playing now. I needed a safe word.
‘The stretchers on the painting are new,’ he muttered. ‘I knew that when I got it, but after seeing these I did an infrared analysis.’ There is no way the surface was painted in 1795 or even 1905, though experts remarkably traced the deepest layers of the work back to the mid 1700’s.’
Are you crazy? You paid less for this work than you did for the shoes you’re wearing and now you shelled out money for that? Maybe the guy was having a go, falsifying dates to increase the price. It’s a flea market painting that was rescued and given new flesh. So it’s not a van Loo, you knew that already. Leave it alone.’
‘I am afraid I can’t. My current interest goes far beyond the painting. It’s the old flesh that currently fascinates me. There’s much more to it than you’re seeing.’
Another day. Another city. Another hotel. Another job. Art never fails to drag me to strange places. This one was a gem.
The hotel doesn’t feel like a corporate after thought. It’s got dignity; a sense of magnificence and an ‘only style counts’ air about it. Not a single staff member has nails unless they are painted. Every detail is trimmed, clipped and considered. It would be stuffy, but the stiff refinement seems to freshen the air. Alain had given me an envelope full of cash to pay for the lunch.
Alain asked me to meet with a woman who had amassed a collection of Auriac photographs. I was ten minutes early. She was already sitting at the table, slowly buttering a slice of bread.
The hotel gave me a tingle of Déjà vu. It reminded me of a place I’d visited with Alain years ago in the south of France. I was a kid back, but have vivid memories of the hotel director riding with us to the presidential suite and blathering on about how Michael Jackson, Ronald Reagan and other iconic personalities had lodged there decades ago. I tuned him out before he blushed in enjoyment at legends of decadent parties full of secret behavior.
When the elevator stopped, we stepped into a large open room. A painting hung on the far wall. Alain walked over the window and stared down at the pool. ‘Something’s not right,’ he declared and we were back into the elevator before I ever got a good look at the work. That was the first time I’d seen the decisive power of his intuition. Soon after, this painting appeared in the papers for all the wrong reasons. So did the dealer. Nearly 20 years later here I was. Meeting in another hotel, paid to locate something that my old friend refused to describe.
My dining companion was almost as economical with her language as Alain had been in the south of France. She tapped her heel on the cold marble floor, swallowed a small bite of the bread and skipped over the pleasantries.
‘I think you’re wasting your time here. I can’t tell you much about Auriac. I was searching for nude pin ups on eBay and acquired the photographs there. I mailed friends who work as dealers, contacted brilliant librarians and French vintage photo collectors hoping to find out more about Mr. Auriac, but these were the wrong people to ask. I learned very little.’
‘I’m just here to try the pieds paquots and talk about beautiful women with a beautiful woman.’
She laughed just a little bit. ‘You’ve been working for that Frenchman for far too long I see. I suppose he sent you to find Auriac.’ ‘Teach art too long and you think you’re a detective, is that it? He told you my theory.’ She wasn’t quite aggressive, but on another day I might have taken her that way.
‘Yes, he did. You believe Louis is Louise. Now that would be something. A woman dressed as a man who works as a painter pretending to be a photographer. Alain feels this adds narrative to the painting, and that the gender of the artist is not important though the added layer of secrecy and what some would have called deviancy definitely is. It’s precisely your theory that has encouraged him. That’s not exactly why I’m here.’