"An Art Thief" - by Tara Isabella Burton
|Isabella lives between Oxford, England, New York City, and Paris.|
© 2008 Tara Isabella Burton
It seemed perfectly reasonable to Oz that they should be sitting – he in a fedora hat, and she in pearls – in front of the Werner Kronenberg Memorial Museum, plotting to steal a painting. It was the sort of thing Lamia would have suggested, the sort of secret longing that always shuddered in him when he walked down the halls of the Metropolitan Museum at home, the sort of plot that cast shadows into brilliancy, and set him treading on the edge of wonder. Oz – in his fedora hat that she had gotten him in Paris at a theatrical costume-shop, with his ascot around his neck and his hands in his pockets – had never been surer of the exponential infinitude of life than on the last day of their love-affair.
Because he was in love he had taken her through winding nights in Venice, had taught her to smoke a cigarette and laughed when she fumbled and dropped it still sparking into the Grand Canal. Because he was in love, he had gone with her to Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and together they had left flowers on the graves of the writers they deemed most relevant to the modern world – roses for Proust, lilies for Oscar Wilde. Because he was in love, he had watched the Adriatic with her as the sun boiled down into the west, and quoted schoolboy poems at her, and in her eyes he had seen himself in a fedora, himself in an ascot, and so he fell in love with her eyes. And because he was in love, Oz sat with her in Vienna, before the little house, planning to rob it.
His name was not actually Oz, but she had called him Oz for so long that he answered to it naturally, because in the world of their summertime nothing could seem more reasonable to him than to answer to a name that was not his own. She had begun by calling him Ozymandias, to tease him for something conceited he said to her on their first night in Paris, and because Ozymandias was difficult to say spontaneously she had sliced off only the first syllable, and presented it to him, and he had received it gladly. Her name was not actually Lamia, but when she had laughed at him, and kissed him, and first called it Oz, he felt it his duty to respond with something equally poetic, and after shuffling through the index of his memory came up with the allusion of Keats, and presented it to her, and she had received it gladly.
They were twenty-two and in love. They had graduated from college and then run eastward toward the Continent, felt the sea spray upon them at the cliffs of Dover and run into the smog of Calais with a fervent belief in statues and dead gods. They had met in a library and first kissed in an art museum. It was their last day in Vienna, and their last day in Europe, and they were sitting now in front of an art museum.
She was small and blonde and entirely unaware of the stage of her own existence. She believed in great ideals and unsuitably high heels. She liked books, and adventures, and summer nights against which a girl in love could paint all the constellations of her chaos. Before she was Lamia, she had been solitary, a slightly brittle, bookish thing who corrected others’ grammar and read German novels with a discomforting earnestness.
He was lanky and floppy-haired, and made up for his wide-eyed scruffiness with a broadly theatrical baritone. He liked civilization, good wine and fine talk and Brideshead gentility. He thought of himself as a misplaced Victorian adventurer – in fine command of fencing, and falconry, and flirtation – and he believed entirely in his own roguishness. Before he was Oz, he had been a golden university actor, swathed in scarves and swilling sherry.
They had always wanted to be art thieves. It had begun as a joke, a laughing, kissing conversation in the Louvre about how lovely it would be to seize upon a painting and to snare it, to hoard its beauty in a room shivering always with mystery, and with the memory of one’s own cleverness. It turned into a game – “Which painting,” Oz would ask her, and he would always ask her “would you steal – in this room? If you could steal any painting?”
And Lamia would think, and purse her lips, and at last point out one – or cheat, and point out two, and Oz would do the same, and in this way they learned great secrets about each other. Oz liked Renaissance art, beautiful faces, symmetry, geometry. Lamia liked the bizarre ones, the disjointed abstractions that made her shiver in delicious horror at the mind of the man who had made it. It was easy, thus, to divide their fantastical horde among themselves.
The first day in the Louvre, Oz had chosen Botticelli’s Three Graces. “I think,” he had said, and he believed himself to be very clever for saying it, “that it would be eminently civilized to have this on one’s mantelpiece?”
“Oh, well, in that case, my dear Oz,” she had said, and her voice was soft, and regretting something, “I’ll get it for you.” And she kissed him on the top of his nose, and laughed, and spun down the hallways, until her footsteps echoed away and a memory of her billowed skirts lured him down another corner.
She had stolen a postcard for him from the museum gift shop, and handed it to him as they ambled along the Seine. “There,” she said, and pressed it into his hands. “Your Three Graces. And you thought that we could only do it in movies.” She cast her eyes to the cobblestones, and he could not see himself reflected in them, and he could not see something in them that, if seen, would remain untranslated.
The rest of their trip had unfolded cinematically. They spent more money than they had and drank more than they could hold and spent nights believing that they were Adam and Eve in the morning, the dawn of creation and the beginning days of love. They had read books, of course, and loved books, and they had learned their lines from books, and yet it never occurred to them that anyone had been in love before them, or that anyone could be afterwards, and that the perceived singularity of their Trieste picnics and Verona wanderings was nothing more that solipsism. Occasionally they would commit an act of theft – larger items from gift-shops, jewelry from street vendors, knick-knacks from antique stores, Oz’s fedora – and in doing so they would feel that they possessed everything worth having in the world.
And then they sat on the last day of their pilgrimage, her head on his shoulder, his hand on her lap, in front of the Werner Kronenberg Memorial Museum on the Gumpendorferstrasse in Vienna, pondering a great theft of petty art. Lamia had chosen the place because she believed Wener Kronenberg to be a genius of the fin de siècle. (For artistic clarity, it is singularly vital to note that Kronenberg had been considered a horrendous mediocrity, even among the most outlandishly decadent of the Viennese Expressionists, and the decrepit old place’s continued existence was due solely to the tireless Philistine fanaticism of Kronenberg’s great-granddaughter, a thoroughly unsavory Frau Schumman, who spent extravagant sums of her husband’s money to ensure, if not her forebear’s place in the pantheon, at least the immortality of his childhood home. In doing so, perhaps she was injecting ambrosia into her own veins.)
“I think we should go in,” said Lamia. It was by now four o’clock in the afternoon, and the golden emptiness of the streets filled them with something inexpressible. “Don’t you think we should steal a painting this time – just for fun? We should actually steal a painting!”
“Oh, we must,” he said. “It’s really the only civilized thing to do.” His fedora bobbed in a nod, and he loved the hint of transgression in his affected seriousness.
And they entered the museum, and in broken German brokered student fares, and began to wander. The paintings were all atrocious, extravagant slashes of color, carnival contortions of faces, and Lamia frowned at them.
“Oz, if you could steal any painting in this room, which one would it be?”
He scratched at the beard he had been growing. “So many to choose from!” he said. “I’m thinking of what room it shall go in – in Sybaris.”
Sybaris was the eventual resting-place of all their stolen masters. It was a garden-villa on the coast of the Mediterranean, in Italy, surrounded by gargoyles and orchards, with three dungeons, an observatory, several libraries, and several more trap-doors. It did not exist; they spoke of it often.
“We’ve filled the conservatory, haven’t we?” said Lamia.
“Oh, twice over!” said Oz. “Any more art in there and we’d risk tackiness.” The idea of eschewing tackiness seemed to him, a great nineteenth-century gentleman, to be a law more pressing than that of gravity.
“How about the Theology Library? I like this one!”
“You don’t think this one would be a bit – blasphemous?” He motioned at a painting of two lovers, naked, whose legs twined at the kneecaps into tree-roots and tendrils.
Lamia shrugged. “Which one goes in your study?”
He chose one, making a great show of his artistic knowledge, and pointing out the history of certain motifs to her (she knew it already, naturally, but she received great pleasure from learning it again), and last she nodded and they continued further into the maze.
They passed a guard, whose drowsiness belied the illusion of Teutonic efficiency, and continued upstairs, downstairs, around bends. There were exhibits of juvenilia, of Kronenberg’s contemporaries (on loan from the Leopold-Statler – all, to Frau Schumman’s consternation, of vastly superior quality to the work previously showcased), even a bedroom set, a perfect replica of young Werner’s childhood.
“Look!” said Lamia, pointing at a wooden rattle, haphazardly placed between the bed and the window. “We should have grown up in that! I would have worn a corset and you would have learned to shoot and we never would have gone anywhere alone together un-chaperoned.” The light from the window eclipsed her face, and when she turned to him there was something unreal about her – as if she had been painted onto the surface of the world.
He came up behind her, and kissed her. “I wouldn’t want that,” he said, and it was almost a murmur.
She laughed. “We’d have to make some sacrifices,” she said. “Maybe I’d die young of consumption. But what years they would be!” And, suddenly, her voice darkened. “I’d die for a few corset-laced years.”
At last they came to the final room in the exhibit, the showcase room, the one to which Frau Schumann had given years of her life and decades of her husband’s salary. The paintings in this room were all portraits, twisted images of faded Habsburgs and dull-glinting crowns.
“I think he’s painting people’s souls,” said Lamia. “Can you imagine what it must be like to be Kronenberg – to look out of your eyes and see life look like this every day?” She motioned at a tragic-looking picture of a young maiden seduced by the incarnation of Death. For, to her, the idea that an artist might lie about what he saw was inconceivable – if Kronenberg painted a woman in such a distorted way, it was, naturally, because he was mad, writhing in the shackles of his own genius. (The truth, unknown even to Frau Schumann, who knew everything, was that Kronenberg had once wished to bed a mistress of Egon Schiele, and had thus attempted to seduce her by imitating, and so out-doing, her lover’s style. He thought he had succeeded; the woman in question thought he had more money than he did, and in the morning he was still a mediocre artist, and of this Schiele’s mistress was now intimately aware.)
And then Lamia gasped. “That one,” she said, and rushed towards it. It was a uncanny painting, almost transcendent in its ugliness, a portrait of a young girl waving at a window – calling, perhaps, to her lover. Her upper half was lovely, with only the slightest hint of fatality; her lower half, hidden from the view of the object of her wave, that of a serpent.
Oz considered it. It was disturbing – suitably disturbing for Lamia, he thought. And yet, in its metamorphosis, in the beauty of the girl and the look upon her face, and in the composition of the rippling tale, it had something for him as well. It slipped into his heart and constricted around his ribs, and because he did not know the painting was mediocre he loved it, too, because it reminded him all at once of the beauty of things, and the encroaching autumn-time, and he took Lamia’s hand and held it more tightly.
“Of all the paintings in this room –”
“This one,” he said.
“This one,” she said. She thought. And then at last she turned to him, and smiled without smiling, and said. “We really should, you know.”
“Oh yes, of course.” And he laughed without laughing. “We should steal them all.”
“No, only this one.” And her seriousness was unsettling. “We could, you know. It’s not the Met – nor even the Leopold-Statler. They’ve got – what? – one security camera, and one guard, and I doubt they can afford proper alarms.”
His reply was stiffer, now. “It’s really uncivilized, being so careless with art. But – of course – then again – it means that it’s easier for we dashing thieves to run away with it!”
“It’s not that big,” she said. “All you’d have to do is talk to the guard, and distract him momentarily. Maybe trip, and fall against a painting – that way, if there is an alarm – and I really don’t think there is – it’d go off. And then I’d grab this one – and go out, and run through the back garden…” She had seen the remake of The Thomas Crowne Affair once, and she believed in everything she saw in films.
“You’re really going to do it?” His laugh was only somewhat strained.
“Why shouldn’t I?” There was a silence. And then when she spoke she was quiet, anxious not to disturb it. “I didn’t mean it rhetorically – why shouldn’t I try my hand at stealing it?” And she stared at him with wry coldness.
Oz had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being tested, that this was a challenge, from the mind of Lamia, on the plains of kings and heroes. To tell her that she shouldn’t steal the painting, sane and civilized though such legality might be, was nevertheless an unforgivable breach of imagination. To betray her would be to betray himself, to shatter their secret and the secret of their names into molecules of mediocrity.
He hated her, suddenly, for putting the choice to him, and for taking the choice from him. It was her fault, he reasoned, for having first called him Ozymandias, for first having tied up love with theft, and theft with beauty, had first scripted and put to celluloid the wildness of their wanderings, until he could not exist – could not call himself by any other name, could not tip his fedora, could not quote a poem or see a sunset – unless it was bound up in the fervent adventurousness of loving her.
At last –“Why do you want to?”
And she understood the challenge, the parry, and wondered if she was losing him, if he would dare to believe with her, dare to walk on water, dare to venture only a little farther, and the fear that she had crossed beyond where he was willing to follow – he, who had followed her to Paris, to Rome, to Trieste and Verona and to Venice and at last to Vienna could not follow her a final step. The logic to her was simple – they dreamed of stealing art, and they dreamed of true love, and manifestation of dream into thing, according to the politics of fairyland, made no compromises. Somewhere inside her there was something rational, and it warned her that she had gone too far, and against it the self that was Lamia began to rage.
“I want to steal this painting,” she said, “because I want to steal a piece of art. I want to steal it, and fall in love with my own cleverness, and my own adventurousness, and because the Theology Library at Sybaris needs a bit of sprucing up.”
“Well, in that case –” he waffled around the notion of an answer.
“Do you think it’s silly?” There was something like desperation in her voice.
He understood. Somewhere, something in him met something in her, and they spoke together in undiscovered tongues, and he understood. “No, I don’t think it’s silly.” It was all that he could give her.
“I can’t help it – I want to. I want to have it – I don’t want to only look at it. You can’t live in a museum.”
He took her hand. They were standing upon the edge of something great, and terrible, and gaping at the unraveling of their conversation.
And then – “You know, Oz – it’s silly, this summer. It’s silly to think that we’ll just be wandering about, and doing great things – and then we’ll go back home, and go back to home-things, and do you realize I may never see you again?”
“That would be unthinkable,” he said. “Entirely uncivilized. We’ll write each other long letters – in quill pens, and green ink.” He owned no stamps, and a broadband internet connection. “And arrange surreptitious meetings in Vienna.”
She took his hand, and leaned close to him, and for a moment he thought that she intended to kiss him, but when her voice brushed him it was only a whisper. “I want to steal this painting, Oz. And I’m going to bring it to Sybaris. I must.”
She looked like a saint, then, like an icon frozen into the fanatic fantasy of two dimensions. Her bones hardened and her skin seemed to melt into them, until at last the transfiguration was complete and she was painted on the air, hanging in space, suspended by the power of her belief.
It was because she was beautiful, and because she believed it, and because without her he would be nameless, and nothingness, and all his talk of civilization would crumble into the barbarism of not loving her, of university parties and drunken nights and meaningless sunsets ending meaningless days. It was because to refuse her would have killed him, because to refuse her was to stare in the face the serpentine shadow of the man he would be at forty-eight. “All right,” he said. “What do you want me to do?”
It seemed less real, in the end, than all their talk of it – now, he thought, was the theatre, now the fedora and the costumes, now the strangeness and the sense of every action being lived a lie. She whispered instructions to him – talk to the guard here, distract him here, ask to see more about the front room, then dash out onto the Gumpendorferstrasse, and meet her (for Lamia would take the painting out through the garden) in the chaos of the Nachtmarkt. And then, at last, she kissed him goodbye, a cinematic kiss that stayed on his lips. When she kissed him, when she pressed her lips to him and wrapped her arms around the nape of his neck, she felt, and he felt, that the only truth of the world lay hidden in the rightness of their secret.
And as she wandered the room, a queer dedication on her face, Oz made his way back towards the front entrance, waiting with an impossible strain for an alarm, an arrest, an end to everything. He passed his eyes over the paintings again, and again they stared back at him, and again the strangeness of the world struck him, and he was afraid without knowing why.
It was almost autumn, and it was their last day in Vienna. It was almost autumn, and she was almost gone from him, gone with her pearls and her made-up names, her sunset kisses and her fumbling with cigarettes, and soon she would be pressed like flowers into his memory, and trotted out as a curiosity to show grand-children who had never known her, who had never shared her blood. He raged against the knowledge of it; he mopped his brow with his ascot and got it sweaty and disgusting and stuffed it back into his front pocket. The sun was beginning to settle on Vienna, and cast pink lights into the shadowless streets outside the windows, and he thought of all the dead Habsburgs with their chariots and their Mozart carriaging through them, and he suddenly felt as if he knew too much history, and too much of the future, and too much of everything, and he wanted nothing more than to sink into one of Lamia’s mornings, one of her tea-and-chocolate mornings, and steal the painting with her.
By the seventh step away from her he had realized it was impossible. It was a cruel logic; it was the triumph of his rational self. It was the triumph of a fat and gray-haired man with an expensive watch and a lucrative career, a wife, children – a man like Oz’s father, who worked for a morally conservative watchdog group in Washington D.C. – and yet it was liberating. He should not have to get arrested, Oz thought; he was not bound to Lamia, bound to her beauty or to her stories or to her names – no spirit called him to take a painting in his hands and run away with it, to become an initiate into Lamia’s golden, glinting world of Habsburgs and fallen cigarettes. He was free, free to live and die and free to fall from her.
And Lamia kept on circling the room, waiting for the genesis of her action to spring up from the seeds of her thought, staring at the picture of the girl with the serpent legs at the window, furious at the sun and sky and stars, furious at Oz, furious at clocks and train tickets and plane tickets and time because everything was taking her away from a moment in Venice when Oz had first taught her how to smoke a cigarette, from a sunset on the Adriatic, from a postcard she had stolen in Paris. She was furious at everything, and she was furious because within seven steps she knew that she would never see Oz again. She knew it before Oz did.
It is difficult to ascertain the precise order of what happened next. At some point, Oz made a halfhearted attempt to engage the Viennese guard in conversation, mixing up his German verbs. At some point, Lamia set her teeth together and prayed because she was a certain kind of Catholic, and believed that people as foolish and blood-made as the girl who had become Lamia, and the boy who had been called Oz, could hitch themselves to the rolling reels of celluloid, and become Technicolor. At some point, she seized the painting and wrenched if from the wall, and of course there was an alarm, and of course it went off, and at some point the Viennese guard, who had since drowsed back into semisomnolence, having found Oz particularly tiresome, leapt again to his feet and headed backwards, and Oz headed forward, and rushed out the door and ran away, away from Gumpendorferstrasse and Café Phil and Lamia and the threat of the police barking over him.
He rushed out of the garden at the front, and Lamia rushed out of the garden at the back, and he never knew whether she had made it, whether the police or the guard had got her, whether she languished in a Viennese jail and called for the embassy, whether she called for Oz, whether she used her real name in the court proceedings, whether she had taken the painting with her and founded Sybaris with two sticks and a match in some wild off the coast of the Mediterranean, in Italy, whether she saw the cigarette butts she had washed down the Grand Canal washed up again on some Sybaris shore, whether she thought of him, whether she was even alive at all, or had burned out in Tokoyo at twenty-eight, because she still believed that life could be compressed into ninety minutes, or two hundred pages, or a collection of notes. He refused to look at the newspapers for some time afterwards.
It seemed perfectly reasonable, he thought later, twenty years later, and looking up her name, her real name, which never seemed to suit her, in a telephone book, that he should have left her then, at the age of twenty-two, in the garden of the Werner Kronenberg Memorial Museum. He had an image of her, as he imagined her escape had been, imagined her with her hands clutched to the painting, the painting clutched against her body, her teeth set against the wind, raging against all the forces of the world, raging against the last day of their love-affair as she made a last, mad dash through the garden.
All work is copyrighted property of Tara Isabella Burton.
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