by Ralph Dutli
He’s lying in his dazzlingly white bed and in actual fact thinking about the word happiness; it seems to feel so totally strange in his life. This word, really? Does it have to be? One that’s similar to it, perhaps, but there is none similar to it. Being considered the most unhappy painter in Montparnasse was a solid protective shield. The aura of unhappiness would spare a person the world’s intrusiveness. The unhappy one is bountifully left in peace. He becomes unassailable, do you understand? That splendid prejudice protects him like a body odour grown too strong. Unhappy Soutine! All of Montparnasse sighs. Terrible childhood, crushing poverty, destructive hatred of his own pictures, crippling stomach ulcers, incurable shyness, absolute isolation. And finally the occupying forces and their henchmen are in pursuit of him. Hidden in a hearse!
Or he was second-last on the scale of misery, as he always was: the tenth of eleven. The painter of hopeless humanity, they said, of the degraded and humiliated, they said, of hunger, they said, of tortured animals. The crucified turkeys, the rabbits hanging by the neck with their skin already removed or about to be removed – all of it he himself, they said. They probably even thought he was also the ox skeleton with blood poured all over it.
Death, shimmering so brightly, had called him to be an eyewitness. Death doesn’t want to die unseen. Death is triumph, and it has glorious plumage! The hen with the blue neck, the quail’s dark veins. Death was exacting; it wanted to be painted in many colors. Unhappiness, to be sure, but in a bewildering, surging jubilation of the retina. Him they had overlooked. He was invisible. And wanted to remain that way.
Andrée, a satellite of the planet Montparnasse who painted, once questioned him directly in her clear voice. She was the only one who’d ever dared:
Have you been very unhappy, Soutine?
He was amazed by the question, not even understanding it at first. But he still remembers what he answered in the hearse and in the sheets of white heaven:
No, I’ve always been a happy man!
And she claims his face beamed with pride and joy.
Last updated August 31, 2015