‘A Blank Canvas’, a novel about the art world by Robert Hollingworth

Robert Hollingworth won the London Magazine’s Short Story Award in 2016 with The Abstractionist which went on to become the first chapter of A Blank Canvas.

In the novel, Hollingworth’s fifth, renowned abstract artist, the curmudgeonly octogenarian Giles Paumen, is the head of a family of artists, each of whom he considers less talented than himself. His son Laurence is a conceptual artist and lecturer – code for the fact that, unlike his father, he cannot draw at all. However, granddaughter Sophie has inherited the genes and is making a name for herself as a painter of massive portraits.

When a new national art prize is announced each Paumen generation secretly enters but they become embroiled in an art fraud which threatens to devastate their careers. Their narcissistic and insecure personalities are revealed and the art world is exposed in all its ugly and hilarious glory.

An extract from A Blank Canvas by Robert Hollingworth is republished below. The novel is published by Harbour Publishing House.

***

Giles Paumen, an elderly abstract artist, is sitting in the passageway at his wife’s wake…

On the other side of the hallway, Giles noted an irregularity in the wallpaper, a patch worn through to a different pattern underneath. It was probably caused by the handles of walking sticks that had once been placed in a mahogany umbrella stand, now empty, still positioned against the wall. Giles observed the raking light; it caught the worn region beautifully, a whole universe right there in Dawn’s hallway.

Park him in the passage, would they? Well, it so happened it suited him nicely, qualifying him to stay well away from the disagreeable proceedings. Guests passed right in front of him, though he refused to raise his eyes above the procession of scissoring legs. As each passed, he kept his good eye fixed on the worn region of the flocked wallpaper and decided his own assessment had brought that tiny universe into being. On the other hand, perhaps it was always there and it didn’t require the attention of an old abstract artist to justify its existence any more than he required the attention of this endless parade of – ‘Hello there, nice to see you.’ Some garrulous fool paused right in front of him, blocking the view.

‘I’ve been told to stay here,’ Giles declared, and glanced up long enough to identify the man’s haloed visage. He used to be an art critic for one of the newspapers. Giles tried to remember whether the monster had ever penned a kind word about him. Probably not. Critics criticise just as plumbers plumb, he’d once told an auditorium full of undergraduates, clarifying nothing.

He heard glassware clinking in another room and a cork popped – a distinctive sound more typically signifying festivity. Giles huffed. He could hear the polite chatter of acquaintances catching up when otherwise they would have no intention of it, taking the opportunity to drink good wine guiltlessly in the middle of a hot day. He looked down to see a big glass of red in his own hand – who had put it there?

Dawn came through the front entrance attended by a small throng and disappeared down the antique passageway. Ah, Dawn, what fond memories. Perhaps he should have told Helen about his liaison with her sister. Too late now. But would anything meaningful have resulted from such shared information? In truth, he wished he hadn’t been told about his wife’s own brief affair. The beauty of the past must remain with those who’d experienced it, or with those who were never there, nothing in between.

His sister-in-law shot past a second time, her haste clearly identifying her as the host for the day. She did not seem to notice Giles. They still enjoyed each other’s company yet, oddly, neither had ever raised the subject of that sudden infatuation of 1963. More than half a century ago, the year Laurence was born.

Dear Laurence; out in Dawn’s backyard chatting up Brandon’s ex-wife. He was Giles’ only child. We should have another, Helen had tried to insist. Let’s not ruin the planet, he’d countered, but perhaps he should have been a little more circumspect. He’d once said that if a species were to survive, it needed to reproduce itself and one other; especially true, he’d added, when it came to artists. He and Helen hadn’t quite managed it, popping out just the one. But a conceptual artist? Why couldn’t Laurence have been another abstractionist? No doubt his son was a product of his times, just as they all were – in another era he’d have been a cubist or a neo-romantic. But at least his son had created a granddaughter – what better reason for having one’s own child? Where the hell was Sophie, anyway?

Once more his view was impaired, this time by a pair of rather unusual knees, and he looked up to see Rebecca Maine, the owner of the gallery that represented him. She beamed down benevolently and began with all the appropriate phrases – sorry for your loss, wonderful woman, we’ll all miss her – before moving on to the subject of art. Giles gulped his wine and swirled the sediment in the big-bottomed glass. Whatever happened to claret? Rebecca suggested they should do another show of his work, soon. That soon might very well have been a polite qualification to cheer him. Or it could have been the generic soon: some bloody indeterminate time between now and his imminent death. Though it wouldn’t surprise him if she didn’t wait for the latter, a time when he was just dust blowing off the cliff at Portsea. It would make the show profitable, at least. Giles sighed. Nothing wrong with a bit of cynicism.

Rebecca Maine continued her reassurances, going on and on about the importance of gestural painting at a time when digital technology was so mainstream. Giles could feel a fart approaching, a neat bubble of gas working its way purposefully along his colon. He decided to allow its progression and, as she emphasised the importance of his perseverance at this difficult time, he released it in small increments, deftly, silently and, to his olfactories at least, without the slightest hint of malodorousness.

Helen would have laughed. What a gift to share a life with someone entirely relaxed about bodily functions – a kind of intimacy rarer than one might think. What about the day they’d stood side by side and urinated off the seawall at L’Escala! It was to honour the spectacularly good luck of having found each other, and a defiant gesture towards a future when nothing at all could dislodge their shared happiness. Pissing with the wind, they’d declared.

And today, in the fireplace. Well, what of it? I’m an octogenarian widower, he could have protested, and if Helen was here, no doubt she’d

‘You okay, Grandad?’ Through a watery film, Giles looked up at the lovely young girl before him. ‘We’re all going into the garden now,’ she said. ‘You might like to say a few words. Feel up to it?’ Sophie placed a hand gently on her grandfather’s shoulder. ‘I’ll leave you to collect your thoughts,’ she said and abruptly vanished.

Giles looked again at the floor. Say a few words. Of course he would. When was he ever short of words? In the past, he’d been called upon to explain the entire history of art, the theory of postmodernism, the workings of the existential mind. Though what words could possibly convey the beauty that had just recently disappeared from Earth? 

He swiped his face, conscious of the loose skin sliding compliantly beneath his palm. With his vision cleared, Giles was surprised to see a tiny infant crawling along the empty passageway, thumping its pudgy fists on the patterned hallway runner. It raised its bobbing head, too heavy for such a frail neck, and fixed its gaze upon him. Its eyes were of the clearest blue Giles had ever seen. A string of saliva fell from the baby’s pouting lip and connected to the worn carpet which caused the sunlight, refracted from the bevel on a hallstand mirror, to touch it with such astounding elegance that it moved the man, once more, to tears.

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