The Foreigner by Douglas Arvidson

Perhaps it is the wine that is giving him this feeling.  Instead of lunch, he has had not one, but three of those small bottles they serve in the cafeteria in the basement of the Gallery.  A fourth he has hidden in a side pocket of his jacket.  He has never had alcohol before.  He feels light-headed, joyous.  He is in America.  He is surrounded by beautiful Americans.

He is here to look at paintings.  The tour bus has dropped his group off in the great city of Washington and he has wandered away from the others.  He imagines he needs to get some distance from his countrymen to see what America is really like.  He is a foreigner, but he thinks he can blend in if only the richness of his breath and his white socks and woven leather shoes don’t give him away.  He imagines himself looking quite studious, quite serious, and perhaps even quite handsome.  He wears a shirt and tie, dark trousers.  He is not tall, not short.  They have been given deodorant and told to bathe every day because this is America.

He mingles.  The throngs gather in clumps around certain famous paintings.  This is a collection on loan from some rich man’s private gallery.  The works are apparently familiar to everyone but they can’t seem to believe they are actually viewing them—Matisse, Picasso, Seurat, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Renoir.  The crowd clusters, murmurs, stares, studies, grunts, moves on.

He mimics them.  He looks at the paintings and studies his program.  He wants to understand the greatness before him.

“Leaving the Conservatoire (Renoir, 1877)…from earlier in the artist’s career…an urban scene with fashionably dressed figures…

The people in the painting look like the rich people who run his government back home.  They are dressed in old-fashioned haughty black.  He wants to laugh at them.

He moves on:

“The Card Players (Cezanne, 1890-92)…Cezanne used farm workers…somber palette…carefully built-up brush strokes…compressed pictorial space…

In the painting, the figures lean over a table playing their game.  He tries to fathom its significance, but again it seems merely like a scene from his own country.  One of the players could be him, another his cousin.  It is like some kind of joke, some fine irony.  He has come so far to see Americans and they have come here to see paintings of foreigners.  He feels as though he has stepped out of the painting and could just as easily step back in, that he is not one of the viewers, but one of the viewed.  What a curious thing.

It is in from of Joseph-Etienne Roulin (Van Gogh, 1889) that it happens.  He is looking at the painting, then trying to read the brochure, but though he has spent the last two years studying English, the words are unfamiliar:

 …the work’s vigorous brushwork, intense color, and bold, flat patterning combine to create an arresting portrait of the steadfast postman…

He is amazed.  This could be his father, or his grandfather.  Or himself.  Everything is familiar, the beard, the old-fashioned uniform so much like those still worn in his country.  The wine is hitting him hard now.  He feels himself swoon and he even staggers a little.  He feels himself drawn into the painting, imagines the frame passing around him.

Then he turns and is looking out at the crowd.  He has become the postman.  He can even feel the postman’s hat sitting tightly on his head.  The people study him curiously; their eyes wash over him, their stares the stares of children.  One of the beautiful women leans close to study the peculiar technique.  Her lips are painted deep red, her hair falls in dark curls past her shoulders, her perfume fills him with an impulsive, mad desire.  She is standing next to a handsome young man who is dressed in a smart-looking suit.  She says to the young man, “Oh the power in his eyes! I just can’t believe I’m standing her in front of him.”

He, the foreigner in the painting is thinking:

       Yes!  And you, beauty are beyond anything I had thought possible.  Your lips are luscious, your perfume is overpowering, your dark hair enticing…ah.  You are an American woman and we know from the television you love to be kissed.  I know I am going to kiss you.  I feel my lips tingle in anticipation.​

So he kisses her and then, of course, there is bedlam.  It begins with a shriek from the red lips even as he is pulling away from them.  Their taste, berry-rich, has just begun to penetrate his senses when the dark, lovely head rears back, the eyes widen.  Her hand swings back and flings itself at him.  There is a loud smacking sound and a strong stinging on his cheek.

It doesn’t stop there.  It only starts there: Immediately he is out of the painting, back among everyone else but they are still staring at him.  The murmur of the crowd swells, grows, people step back.  The beautiful woman herself is now staggering as if she were the one struck.  The young man beside her has widened his eyes as if playing for time to decide what to do.

The foreigner who has stepped from the painting is now abashed.  What has he done?  Only kissed a beautiful woman who practically begged him to kiss her.  The wine has his perceptions swimming.  There is no place to run.  The exits are invisible beyond the people.  The paintings stare, the people stare.

Then the handsome young man, so nicely dressed, is after him, grabbing at his collar, roughing him up.  The foreigner, in a panic, spins away, staggers sideways into a wall, into a painting:

“Joy of Life (Henri Matisse, 1905-1906)…violent color and sensuous arabesques…a scene pulsing with primeval energy…

He slams into the painting, feels its hard corners, its unyielding stiffness.  Yet it moves slightly and there is the sound of alarms, sirens, bells, more shrieks.  The young man is persistent, clutching at him, yelling something, his eyes bulging, the pupils enlarged.  The foreigner does not know how to fight.  He slaps ineffectually at his attacker.  He wants to explain, to apologize.  The young man grabs him and now hits him in the face with a closed fist and the foreigner thinks, just before the fist strikes him, this, too, is just like in the American movies.

He falls backwards, striking a second Matisse:

“The Dance (Henri Matisse, 1932-1933)…a brilliant evocation of movement: highly simplified figures, subtly shaded for three-dimensionality, leap and loll in the three large panels to create a joyous dance that flows from right to left…

All around him people’s mouths have taken the shape of circles, dark holes in meat paste.  Eyes, too, are rounded, hands are up in defensive postures.  He has no idea of what to do.  The bus is parked out on the mall somewhere.  Even the tour leader, that great blabber mouth, could not talk him out of this one.  The only thing he can do is to try and ward off the worst of the blows.  But he is amazed when he realized that during this storm of emotion he is feeling a certain calm satisfaction:  It is as if her were art and art itself come to life.  These people want real art, they get real art.

The young man grabs him again and hurls him into:

“Acrobat and Young Harlequin (Picasso, 1905)…the isolation of these performers…the unfocused, melancholic expression of the two players…bohemian outcasts…boldly patterned costumes…itinerant street performers…a traveling theater…

The reaction of his body to the great painter would always be a mystery to him.  Perhaps it was just the rebounding force of the young man’s strength, but he likes to think that the acrobat and the harlequin had something to do with it.  That they had grabbed him and tossed him back into the fray as if to say, “We are all foreigners here, brother.  Go back out and deal with the American.  We wanted to kiss her, too.”  And that is why, when he bounced back out of the painting, his own fist was doubled up.  Somehow it landed on the nose of the handsome young man, staggering him backwards in to the arms of an oncoming policeman.

Later he was to think of the next instant as a masterpiece of his own creation.  The guide brochure would read:

The figures in the composition appear tragically, yet somehow comically, shocked.  Mouths are open in despair, the women pull back and the men, too, seem uncertain as to what will become of them.  The brilliant use of implied motion, the vibrant colors, the bold aggressiveness of the scene’s creator…

But it is over too soon.  He finds himself arrested, handcuffed, and, along with the young American, dragged roughly to a basement room where they try to interrogate him.  He pretends he doesn’t speak a word of English and, finally, when the authorities have ascertained that no permanent damage had been done, he is released.  He wanders out into the brilliant summer sun.  He can see the tour bus, see the small crowd of his countrymen milling by its door.  They are waiting for him.  The tour guide is pacing, arms waving in the air.  When they see him approach they all look at him accusingly.

As the bus pulls away it passes the gallery.  He looks at its great marble façade and feels inside his jacket pocket.  It is still there, the last little bottle of wine.  Right in front of everyone he takes it out and opens it.  They are staring at him.  He drinks and pretends to ignore them.

       …The artist has created a figure of striking appearance…the pursed lips, the unnatural paleness of his face, the way his body is twisted as he sits…a man who appears self-assured, but whose inner confusion is subtly revealed…





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