A Background Job
They had evacuated the paintings during the War. She did not know where they put them. Almost a month after the evacuation, she had received a call. They wanted her to give a tour.
‘But there are no paintings.’ she had said. ‘A tour of what?’
‘Of the paintings that are not there.’
And so she started giving tours of the empty museum. The walls were bare. In some places, they were peeling. The lighting still worked. It mostly cast shadows off of piping, and the occasional fire extinguisher. She did not remember dates or names, just colours, shapes. Sometimes the people on the tour would complain. ‘But who drew what was once here?’ They would say, and she would just shrug. ‘Would it matter what I told you?’ She said. ‘There’s nothing there.’
She particularly enjoyed remembering a nude reclining on the bed with her arm stretched out.
‘Her stomach protrudes slightly. There is a great deal of shade near the pubic regions. Her legs are tucked together, partly covered by a white sheet which is pleated and folded many times. There are slippers on the floor. One of them is open, turned to the viewer — the other is on its side, with its back to us. By the bed, are soft fabrics. They are mostly brown and a dull red.’
She would talk endlessly about the background. She forgot the figure completely, describing every bit of cloth she could remember. She knew how many tiles were used to build perspective, and that the furthermost one on the left was slightly smaller than the rest.
It reminded her of the life drawing sessions she would attend as a student. She would quickly sketch out the body. She saw it as a ‘thing.’ How quickly bodies became things when you looked at them for long enough. They floated.
After making a rough outline, she would focus on the walls. Other people called it background but for her that was it. She loved the peeling paint. The roughness of wood. The dustiness of concrete.
This short story was inspired by the evacuation of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg Russia during WWII. The painting shown is an editorial selection, and was not the prompt for this story.
Omer Friedlander was born in Jerusalem. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bastille, Litro Online, The Airgonaut, Notes, eyot, Eunoia Review and The Dial. His artwork was published on the front cover of the poetry collection And There Were Other Matters by Chagit Kahan. He is currently studying English Literature at the University of Cambridge.
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