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Arts CriticismCreative

Self Portrait of A Tragedy

The walls were sectioned like a maze in an already tight space, pushing the shoulders closer to each other without ever touching. The bleached surfaces covered every side of the wall, maintaining a neutral atmosphere within the gallery. Andrew occupied a space in a corner that was furthest away from his own work, cutting off any possible association he had while still keeping an eye on it. He wasn’t embarrassed by it, but he didn’t want anyone to know it was his either. He simply wasn’t ready to be openly seen with his first exhibit. Instead, he studied the reactions of every guest that lingered in front of his piece, trying to deduce their reception from the smallest body language. The furrow of an eyebrow or the purse of a lip, every reaction was scrutinized even if they weren’t related to his painting.

The visitors came and went until Andrew was the only one left with the curator, and he finally stood at the spot before his piece as the critics did before him. He recognized every careful stroke he made, slow and calculated, blending together the vivid colors of yellow, green, and everything in between until they glowed in harmony. It was exactly how he planned it, with no deviation nor adjustments.

“Everyone could tell, you know.” Andrew turned to face the curator that recruited him. “Even though it looks stunning, everyone could feel the mechanical nature of the painting. The rigid lines, the carefully chosen palettes. There’s no emotion behind them.” Andrew stared blankly at the curator. “Originally, I was hoping you could get some new perspectives from the guests.” A pause while the curator recalls the event. “Seeing as that didn’t happen, maybe looking other artists’ work could do you some good. I’m sure you’ll come up with something great in the future.” 

His eyes wandered to the painting next to his and he strolled around the rest of the gallery, studying the pieces of his contemporaries. They first appeared normal, but as he looked closer, he began feel a swelling in his chest. He experienced the ray of hope only perceivable from the bottom of a well, turning into a sense of insignificance within the vast Scottish moors in a blink of an eye. Every step he took, a new profound emotion flooded his body. He finally pulled himself back into the white maze after he walked a full loop of the premise and returned to his own painting, the calculated lines he was once proud of now dull and uninspiring. Unable to bear looking at his own painting any longer, Andrew made his way towards the exit, averting his eyes from the other paintings haunting him from the walls. 

Self Portrait of A Tragedy

The lock clicked behind him as he returned home, carelessly putting away his belongings and sitting down in front of an empty canvas. The blank space called out to his mind, the emptiness erasing all of his thoughts and taking away the strength to lift his paintbrush. There were no flames, nor even any tiny sparks within him, just a void that sucked up all of his energy and motivation. The essence of time was lost as Andrew stared at the space in front of him. Maybe only mere seconds have passed, insignificant and unmemorable. Or an era, the rise and fall of an entire civilization buried and forgotten just outside the apartment. But in the end, there was still nothing on the canvas. It remained off-white, like a blanket of ashes after everything had been burned away. 

The few days after the exhibition took its toll on Andrew. Every time he tried to start something, memories of his curator’s comments would stop his brush millimeters away from the canvas, second guessing each decision he used to make with confidence. Each day without progress added weight to his hand until he stopped picking up his paintbrush at all, sitting in front of the easel from day to night trying to decide on a subject. One evening, he noticed another man at the window staring back at him. The stubble on the stranger’s chin was disheveled and his eyes were sunken and dark. The image fascinated Andrew. Even though he understood it was his own reflection, he did not recognize himself behind the fatigue caused by the restless nights. Just then, he knew exactly how to start his next piece. 

A full-body mirror was bought and set up in front of the easel. Andrew began to paint himself, each line scaled to his exact physical measurements, and the colors were compared until they blended perfectly with real life. The painting appeared exactly as it did in the mirror, down to his tired eyes and shaggy clothes. When he was about to start painting the background, he hesitated. He looked up at his apartment, surveying the gray walls that bent around him in sharp corners, the dishes that piled up in the sink, and the unwashed clothes scattered around the floor. Turning back towards the canvas, Andrew washed off the gray coating on his brush and searched for a new color, trying something that he had never done before. For the first time, he painted without rulers or lines, pulling up memories buried deep within him of green and blue and white. The lines curved and bent freely until he found himself sitting in the middle of a hilltop, a spot he had picnicked with his parents from a forgotten time. The soft grass waved under an invisible breeze and the sky shone in the warm spring afternoon. 

That same painting hung on the wall of another gallery as Andrew observed from a few meters away. It drew more attention than his previous piece. A constant flow of appraisers and art enthusiasts sought out the unknown creator who displayed the peculiar perspective. Despite the positive reception, Andrew still felt like he wasn’t ready to be seen with his own art. It didn’t truly reflect himself. As the lights turned off one by one around the exhibition, his curator approached him again. “Congratulations, you just sold your first painting.” Andrew replied with a smile. “I’m not sure what happened, but keep it up. They all liked it.” 

The news gave him a new direction. There were no more days where he lacked inspiration. He painted from his memories. Sceneries and moments that were buried by time, slowly recovered with every stroke of his brush. Shattered pieces of him returned, filling in the spaces that once drained his motivation. The rulers he once relied on were hidden beneath his accumulating pieces as his strokes became more freeform, starting and ending based on a feeling that emanated from his chest. 

Self Portrait of A Tragedy

Every new painting he presented, Andrew stood a bit closer during the exhibits, blending in with the other visitors. From studying their body language at a distance, he began to eavesdrop on their conversations while still hiding the fact he’s the painter. The more people that talked about his art, the more he painted. When the mirror became too small for him, he replaced it with a bigger one that filled the entire wall. He depicted a night at harbourfront, the sparkling skylines reflected perfectly on the still water, or the scenery of glaciers in the Rockies, the magnificent white peaks towering above the lonely painter at the base.

As Andrew devoted to his paintings, they became more than just his memories. They were the emotions that plagued him at night, the restlessness that kept him up and pushed him to keep painting for the upcoming exhibition. Andrew was given the center position in the venue, all spotlights on his latest piece, the promotions highlighting a new direction he had taken. For the first time, he stood proudly in front of his painting, ready to respond to anyone who approached him. But anyone who came left shortly with a frown on their face without exchanging a single word with him. There were no warm receptions, no praises or appreciations that he used to overhear from the guests. 

It was the first painting he had to bring home since they started selling, and Andrew placed it back on the easel. It was a self-portrait without the signature sceneries that marked all his previous art. Even though the lines were soft and arched, they felt hard to the eyes, and the colours contrasted with each other. The same palette that used to provide comfort in other paintings alienated him as he studied it. It was exactly how Andrew envisioned it. How he saw himself in the mirror every time he lifted his paintbrush. He hung that painting right next to the mirror so that it would be there staring back at him every time he looked up. 

Empty paint bottles and caps scattered the floor of the apartment, the hollow plastics echoing whenever Andrew walked around the space. Canvases lined every wall around the apartment, each piece a different variation of the self-portrait. After a few unsuccessful exhibitions, his curator dropped him, but he never stopped painting. Every morning he would study himself in the mirror, and start on a new canvas. With each iteration, he felt a step closer to the perfect portrayal of himself. The numerous different faces stared back at him each night from all angles, creeping into his dreams and occupying his unconscious mind.

Self Portrait of A Tragedy

He dreamt of standing in his childhood home, the familiar kitchen counter and dining table towering before him. His mother was standing behind the table, the aroma of fresh pancakes and syrup permeating the air. In his hand was a crayon drawing that he placed on the table. They were crude stick figures that could not distinguish between the family members, three identical humanoids standing inside a house that bent in unnatural angles. His mother praised him anyway because it was something he was proud of. She pinned it on the fridge where he could see it every day, hoping to always remind him of the happiness that could come from his drawings. However, that didn’t last long. During an economic downfall, his family was forced to move to a smaller apartment and that picture was lost during transport. Since then, all Andrew wanted was to create art capturing the present that would be recorded permanently in history. 

When he woke up, he returned to his new routine of sitting in front of the easel and studying his features in the mirror. The worn-out expression that was slightly out of touch with reality, and the frenzied eyes that concealed an endless fervor. His original self-portrait was there right next to his reflection, comparing his two selves, but what he created was vastly different from the two. The shade on his paintbrush had gone dull, a lifeless gray as a result of all the colours mixing and merging on his palette without care. Every stroke was a remnant of a colour that was washed away centuries ago; a fraction of its original hue. His painted eyes looked dark and sunken even though they weren’t, his cheeks were pale without the rushing of blood beneath the surface. There were no smiles on his face, but the corner of his mouth still curved slightly into an unnatural grin. A sense of grotesque creeped from the painting even though the proportions weren’t unnatural, an optical illusion made by hundreds of little inaccuracies across the canvas. The cheek bones were slightly wider and the nose flat against the linen, just like a face pulled and stretched across a flat surface. But the eyes seemed to reach deep within, past the wooden frame behind it. 

When it was finally finished, Andrew draped a black cloth over the painting and shattered the reflection in front of him with a hammer. He had finally created his perfect portrait that truly reflected himself, and did not require a mirror anymore. In its empty space, he hung the painting. There it stared back at him every day, greeting him every morning and bidding him to sleep every evening. No one else ever saw the painting hidden away in his apartment. 

On the day he sold his last painting, Andrew continued to keep some distance from it, jumping from one group of guests to another and listening to their comments. He could hear all the positive reactions from the people around him, yet he couldn’t find the strength to accept the painting as his own. It was the usual arrangement. The easel and the painter, transported away into a far off memory. He was back in his childhood house, streaks of white snow dashing across the window. But within the walls, the yellow and orange ambience warmed anyone who stood in front of the painting. His crayon drawing was there on the fridge, identical in his memory as the day it was drawn. Everyone around was praising his work, but Andrew couldn’t recognize the artist within it. The hopeful eyes that were drawn with bright hues and soft strokes weren’t his, and the drawing he was once proud of felt distant, the significance of it lost somewhere in time. It wasn’t him, but the artist that everyone built in their head and expected to see.

 

Why I wrote this piece:
Using the topic of arts, I wanted to create a story that reflects the constant pursuit of success and approval from society that sometimes lead to the loss of passion and direction, whether it is in professions or hobbies. While not everyone is a painter, the sacrifices made in response to the pressure placed by society could be universally understood.

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Self Portrait of A Tragedy