Big Cheesy Novel

Who Wouldn’t want Cheese, “Art”, and an $800 Offer?

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Bonnie led Tom through the labyrinth of the Louvre, occasionally referring to the map of the English-language guidebook she had bought at the museum entrance. Since she’d planned her must-see list months before, she was quickly able to plot a course that would get them exactly where she wanted to go. They had a lot of territory to cover in a few hours, and Bonnie intended to cover all of it.

After a quick glimpse of the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, they circled around the Winged Victory of Samothrace before surveying —briefly — French, Italian and Spanish paintings. Hundreds of years of artistic creation, millions of hours of artistic effort, and they buzzed by in a blink of the eye. She knew she’d have to skip most of the antiquities, the Asian, Pacific and Islamic art, and all of the decorative arts: the furniture and ceramics and jewelry would simply take up too much time.

She’d see as many of the European paintings as she could, having memorized the Louvre’s holdings in Professor Arndt’s art survey class. She’d even independently studied more of his vast collection of slides and art history books, coming to campus the previous summer to be well prepared for her planned Louvre trip. She could hear guides busily explaining, in several languages, the content of Arndt’s lectures as well.

It was quickly becoming clear to her that the museum experience of in person viewing added little more to what she already ‘knew’ about each artwork — she had been required by Arndt to understand the scale of an artist’s work, so seeing the relatively tiny Mona Lisa portrait dwarfed by the large room where it was on display told her nothing. It had been easier to see the detail and understand the intimacy of the work from Arndt’s slides and books. Nothing was enhanced by her presence near the actual painting. In fact, standing too long in front of it only made her grow anxious. She was ready to move on far sooner than Tom, who actually seemed transfixed by the woman’s knowing smile, the translucent layering of oils.

Bonnie wanted to be closer, some how. Not physically exactly. That would have been impossible anyway as guards and a glass case prevented anyone from getting too close to the world’s most famous painting.

Bonnie reflected that tiny motes of dust caught on the edge of Mona Lisa’s frame or nestled in a lock of Venus de Milo’s marble hair — places that may well have felt the artist’s paint brush or the chisel — were better positioned than she was; but a dust speck couldn’t interpret or translate the experience Bonnie craved. Yet she felt inferior to the perspective of the clinging dust specks, inanimate though they were. They at least touched the artwork. Bonnie knew that what she was missing went beyond mere touch. She craved a kind of visceral union with the artist. Having made her own lame, fragmented attempts to capture the world around her and her memories in pencil, pastel, and sometimes in paint, she understood there was so much more to artistic creation that what could be seen hanging along the Louvre’s beautiful corridors. And there was so much more she wanted to learn than would ever be satisfied by reviewing Professor Arndt’s slide carousels and hearing his lectures.

“Are we going to whiz by everything here?” Tom complained. “We seem to be on pace to do that. I wouldn’t mind slowing down.”

His remark barely registered on her. She actually sped up the pace.

They came at last to a quiet, narrow room adjacent to the Italian paintings of the 17th and 18th century. There she spotted an almost insignificant-looking, smudged drawing. On a nearby bench, she set down her tote bag — one she herself had sewn from denim, embroidered with a phrase from a Beatles song (“and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”) and decorated with peace-sign patches. She took off her coat, revealing a bright green patchwork smock top over a darker green turtleneck, one she’d brought along just for the purpose she had in mind. She thought it reminiscent of an artist’s smock with big pockets that were handy for holding her drawing supplies.

The moment she took off her hat, Tom laughed.

“What is that?” he said.

“A 16th century Italian drawing,” she said inspecting the framed drawing closely, “of a young man’s head.”

“No,” he said. “Your hair. All those crazy curls on top of that green get-up. You look like a piece of broccoli.”

The speedy tour past the Louvre’s centuries of treasures had made her forget all about her hair. And his insulting comment made her forget about all the paintings except for one they’d just seen:  a 15th century Bernardino Luini painting of Salome carrying the severed head of John the Baptist. She knew how inappropriate it was for a girl attending a Catholic college to imagine herself as an exotic dancer, with Tom’s head on the plate, but the anger and embarrassment made it hard not to.

“It’s actually the latest Parisian style,” she boasted loudly. “I just had it done this afternoon in a très chic salon.”

“I’ve seen a lot of Parisian women today, and none of them looked like that.” He slouched on the bench, apparently exhausted.

“It’s just catching on,” she said, turning away. She flipped open her sketchpad to a clean page, and began to translate the placard affixed near the drawing.

Tom walked to her and read over her shoulder:

About 1491. Initially attributed to Correggio, now considered a work of Michelangelo Anselmi. Anselmi’s early activity in Parma coincides with Correggio’s work in the church of S. Giovanni Evangelista.

Bonnie smiled and added another line, which Tom read aloud as well.

Correggio tried to take credit for another artist’s work. He was a big, fat cheater.

“Right,” he added, yawning and arranging his six-foot frame on the hard wooden bench. “Wake me up when you’re done copying this guy’s brilliant work.”

She frowned and said nothing more, opening up a small container of pencils, charcoal and chalk to begin her drawing.

Bonnie began by drawing a faint, charcoal outline of the face, marking lightly the subject’s eyes, nose and mouth. She then switched to red chalk, shaping and then deepening the shadows along and under the young man’s jaw. In moments she forgot everything around her, including Tom’s snores from the bench. She felt both calm and energized.

She had been surprised by meditative state of mind she could only achieved when she was sketching, though the yoga instructor in her required phy-ed class had attempted to get her into a similar state. But Bonnie’s inflexible body could never form the lithe poses of Ms. Ryan, nor was she ever able to achieve alternate nostril breathing, or pranayama, which supposedly would help stamp out her always present anxiety and merge her left- and right-brain thinking. All she could concentrate on during yoga class was how painfully the crotch snaps of her leotard were digging into the delicate pelvic region tissue.

Through drawing she could achieve a relaxed but creative state of mind; her usual self-consciousness cancelled out by the intent, focused concentration on her drawing. The dissatisfaction she’d felt the moment they walked inside the Louvre vanished as she’d connected to Anselmi’s work in the most intimate way imaginable: by recreating it, with her own hands.

There was a moment when her self-confidence took a dip, and the judgmental world began to gnaw at her briefly, sounding a lot like Tom’s mumbled complaints in his sleep. Then she saw how her initial rough drawing didn’t bear much of a resemblance to the picture in front of her. Then she felt inadequate to the task. Like the long meditative period, this moment of self doubt occurred every time she drew, causing her to want to give up and throw the drawing away.

But she had learned not to give up. She pushed passed the brief setback, and her self-consciousness receded once again, along with her awareness of Tom’s snores. As her fingers became ever more smudged in red chalk and charcoal, she carefully placed a small clean cloth under hand to avoid marring the drawing while she modeled in cheekbones, eye sockets, and the soft waves of the young man’s hair.

Eventually she added the last touches – a few highlights in white chalk on the nose, forehead and cheekbones, where the planes of his face turned to the light. She propped her notebook along the wall and stood back to look at it from several feet away.

“Bravo,” a voice said. As she turned to see who spoke, she noticed a trio of high-school-aged French girls, all wearing matching school uniforms, watching the sleeping Tom with rapt attention. They whispered excitedly amongst themselves.

The man who had spoken had been observing both her and the quiet drama of young girls admiring a handsome young man. He walked up to Bonnie. “Nicely done. I’ll buy it from you since I can’t convince the Louvre to sell me the original. It’s one of my very favorites. How much would you like?”

“Buy it?” Bonnie’s right- and left-brain hadn’t quite disconnected themselves, allowing  a full return to reality. Who was this man? And why would he want to buy her drawing?

“I must apologize for not introducing myself first,” he said, holding out a hand. “William Oldenburg, III. I run the Oldenburg Gallery in New York City.”

Bonnie took his hand. She’d heard of the Oldenburg Gallery and had, in fact, checked out a book with photos of all the works it contained. It had one of the richest collections in the U.S. This Oldenburg must have been the grandson of the oil tycoon who’d made the family’s fortune early in the 20th century.

William Oldenburg, III, was a rail-thin, middle-aged man dressed in a herringbone-patterned shirt unbuttoned to his breastbone, a leather bomber jacket draped over his arm. His hair was platinum, and Bonnie wasn’t sure if it was because he was prematurely gray, or if he’d dyed it that color. His face even appeared to have make-up on it – mascara and a hint of eye shadow, touches of blush on his well-defined cheekbones.

“Bonnie Huber,” she said. “Of Saint Agnes College, in Minnesota.” She doubted he had ever heard of it.

“Bonnie Huber,” he said, smiling warmly. “Very lovely to meet you. Please call me Billy. And name your price, I meant it,” he said. “And I’ll be sure you don’t undersell yourself. I knew you were from the Midwest even before you mentioned Minnesota.”

How was it so obvious? Was it the hair? The earth shoes? “Um. Of course, I’d be happy to give it to you,” she said.

“I expected that. Nonsense. I won’t accept less than $800.”

800 dollars! Bonnie’s jaw dropped.

“And even that’s less than it’s worth. So I’ll throw in dinner, tonight. Your friend,” he said nodding at Tom, “is invited as well. At least I assume he’s your friend though in that pose he looks like the vision of one of Michelangelo’s slaves.”

Bonnie was sure she saw Billy lick his lips when he glanced at Tom. The three girls were still keeping watch over him, quietly chattering in rapid schoolgirl French.

“Let’s just say he’s an acquaintance I ran into,” Bonnie said, nudging Tom’s shin with her foot.

“You and your acquaintance are welcome to join me for dinner,” Billy replied. “No discussion on that point. We’ll negotiate your price over wine and whatever you like at one of Paris’ best restaurants. Here’s my card,” he said, handing her an expensive-looking business card bearing his and the gallery’s name.

“My driver is right outside the Rue de Rivoli entrance. You know where that is?”

She nodded.

“Just meet us there and we’ll head off to dinner.” Billy put his bomber jacket on and strolled off.

“What’s going on?” Tom said, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. The three girls scattered like startled pigeons, then settled on a bench across the room.

“We’re going to dinner with one of America’s richest men,” Bonnie said, “who happens to want to buy my drawing for $800.”

“What? You’re joking, right?”

“His car’s waiting outside,” she said, showing him the card Billy had just handed her. ”He’s prepared to wine and dine us right now.”

“This I gotta see,” Tom said, standing and stretching while Bonnie put her art supplies away. “800 dollars? What else do you have in that sketchbook?” he said, reaching for it.

She remembered that she did have several other drawings she had no intention of showing anyone. And one in particular she would rather die than have him see. She snatched her sketchbook away and tucked it in her tote bag. “Hands off,” she said. “You’re lucky to be getting dinner out of this deal. After tonight, your next stop is the embassy so you can be on your way.”

“Fine with me,” he said. “I’m starving. Let’s get what we can from this guy, before he moves on to his next find.” As they headed out of the drawings gallery, they passed by the three girls. She followed Tom’s eyes as he looked at the girls and dazzled them with his best King of Sunray High smile.

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