Partisan Portrait

Donald Shephard

The Rhône eddied around the barge moored to the sycamores along the towpath. A grey-haired man in denim leaned on the barge rail and looked at the terraced trees above him. He watched his daughter’s eleven-year-old son, climb down the walls that retained the orchard soil. The French man shrugged. As he studied his grandson descending the limestone much of what he saw dismayed him. The boy, Jean-Pierre, wore grey flannel trousers, a grey long-sleeved shirt, and red hair stuck out from his school cap, his English school cap. Marcel thought it a drab ensemble. The route the boy chose, down the walls instead of the tedious switch-backed path of the terraces, relaxed his grandfather and induced a smile. Under that stuffy English exterior, he saw a spirit, like the red hair, impatient for release.

Marcel well knew the hunger to escape the mantle of control and discipline imposed by the Vichy government of Marshal Philippe Pétain and the Germans. During the war, he had ferried a downed RAF fighter pilot south to the Rhône delta where sympathetic Gypsies secreted the Englishman along the Riviera to Spain. His daughter, the only evidence of his late wife’s life, besotted by this exotic creature and tickled by his handlebar mustache, slipped away with the fugitive and married him in England.

One morning, as they ate their baguette and sipped their café-au-lait, Jean-Pierre questioned Marcel.

"Pére grand, what did you do during the war? Were you a hero of the Resistance?"

"I survived, that is all."

"But I hear stories and you sleep with a garrote under your pillow. At night, you jump out of bed every time a twig snaps under the trees. I think the war lives on in your mind. Were you in the Resistance or not?"

"You are shrewd, Jean-Pierre. Alors, after your mother left I continued to travel the Rhône from Lyon to Arles and I sketched potential ambush sites for the Resistance. My drawings enabled partisans to blow up German supply trains. I helped your father and others escape downstream and ferried arms upstream. Your bed covers the panel of a hiding place for men and arms."

When Jean-Pierre explored, he found a crawl space barely wide enough for two people to lie down. Slowly, over the next summers, he drew more information from the reluctant storyteller.

"Many did not escape, many suffered under the Germans, including the miller, who died at the hands of that butcher, Klaus Barbie. The strife continued after the war when vigilantes killed enemy collaborators whose bodies turned up in disused quarries or floating face down in the Rhône, but General De Gaulle brought order to the recriminations.

"Jean-Pierre, look forward to peace, trust and order. Do not dwell on the hatred, fear and chaos of war."

"Do you look forward, pére grand?"

"Alas, we have not found the Butcher of Lyon nor brought him to justice. I still work on that, I owe it to the miller’s memory, but painting almost fills my life. My landscapes of the ancient villages of the Rhône valley, especially the Ardeche region, earn my living. I enjoy rustic scenes of peasants, haystacks, and horse-drawn carts, of men wrestling grapes from stony ground, but my passion comes from portraiture, especially the self-portrait."

Jean-Pierre well knew his grandfather’s absorption with painting an exact likeness of himself. They spent their evenings together under the plane trees of the riverbank playing pétanque and discussing the problem of image reproduction.

"Yes, pére grand, I see your difficulty. If you raise your right hand, the image in the mirror raises his left hand and your painting is not accurate."

"Merde. Oh! Don’t tell your mother I taught you that word."

"I think she already knows it. I learned it from her."

"Yes, well, just don’t use it."

"No, pére grand."

"How do you say in English, it is not likely…"

"Fat chance."

"Yes, fat chance you will not say 'merde' ".

"Merde, I thought I had fooled you."

"Fat chance!"

They laughed together.

"What if you painted your portrait on the inside of a window? Would that reverse the effects of the mirror?"

"Peut-être …," the painter stared at the boy who presented a possible solution so effortlessly. Marcel wandered back to the barge absorbed in the problems of creating a portrait on the inside of a window.

At the end of summer, Jean-Pierre returned to England and replaced the colorful clothes of the French artist’s assistant with the grey mantel of the English pupil. Marcel wrote to say how much he missed the boy and related his resolution of the painting-on-glass problems.

His solution to creating an exact portrait on the inside of a window, involved replicating each stage on canvas in reverse order. As he created his likeness, he duplicated the layer of paint on a separate piece. First, he made two identical pencil sketches. Then, as he washed in the background, he made a third canvas with just those brush strokes. When he added some facial planes, he recreated them alone on a fourth canvas. In the end, he had eight works, one complete, and the others representing the ordered and exact replication of his brush strokes in stepped phases.

Finally, he reproduced each canvas on the inside of the window of the galley door of the barge. Since he started with the last canvas and ended with the first, he had created a painting in reverse order. He called it construction by deconstruction.

The likeness brought a great deal of local interest. His pétanque pals ribbed him, saying that this portrait with a chef’s toque and apron amounted to advertising for a wife among the villagers of the hills on the opposite bank, the Ardeche. When Jean-Pierre arrived in the following June, the boy joined in the teasing.

"Pére grand, who is this lady you court? Is she beautiful or a witch? Is she young or a hag? What’s her name? Do you love her? Does she love you?"

"Shush. Stop that nonsense. I married my art and my pipe years ago. Look at this painting by René Magritte. What does it portray?"

"It’s a pipe."

"What is written under the pipe?"

"Ceci n’est pas une pipe."

"What does it mean?"

"This here is not a pipe, but it is a pipe, clearly it is."

"Ah! The treachery of images, if it is not a pipe, what is it? Could I smoke it?"

"I see… it’s a picture of a pipe."

"It seems a contradiction but is actually true. It’s the same with words, they’re but symbols of the thing or action they name. If I want to romance the young and beautiful widow of the miller on the hill, I will go myself and not send a mere picture. Go to bed. I have a visit to make."

When the miller’s widow joined them for pétanque and their evening meal, she flirted with Jean-Pierre in pretense of making Marcel jealous. The widow and the boy formed a club, which she named based on their mutual hair color, the Association des Têtes Rouges, and he Anglicized into ART for short. She did not move into the barge, in her own way she remained faithful to the miller’s memory.

In 1987, Jean-Pierre drove his grandfather and the miller’s widow to the trial of Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. They heard the man who had tortured the miller claim, "When I stand before the throne of God, I shall be judged innocent." Jean-Pierre feared for Marcel and put his hand over the old man’s, while the Miller’s widow silently wept into her hands.

His mother, plagued by the relentless grayness of English winters committed suicide just as he launched his career as a financial planner. His father retreated into the doldrums of a pub habitué and drank himself into non-existence. Neither loss hit Jean-Pierre as hard as the passing of his grandfather. When, in his fifties and sure of his financial future, the grandson received the sad news, he compared the ease of his life to the horror of his family’s. Despite reading Thomas Wolfe’s, "You Can’t Go Home Again," he flew to Lyon and visited the site of his boyhood happiness.

At the funeral, the miller's widow wore an ancient black-laced gown. He winced at the crepe-thick makeup, the startling red slash of her lips, the clown-like rings of rouge, and the henna-dyed hair. They spoke briefly. He revived memories of the Association des Têtes Rouges until he realized she confused Marcel and the miller and did not know him. He left her to visit the barge.

The vessel, as derelict as the widow, lay lopsided in the river, its paint peeling, the water-damaged galley door gripped shut by its warped jamb, and the self-portrait of his grandfather, ruined by mildew and time, looked leprously back at him. Jean-Pierre stood on the sloping deck and gazed into his ancestor’s diseased eyes. He wrenched the door open and looked back though paint smears at the windmill on the hill where the miller’s widow lived. Did the lovers signal with lights across the river as he suspected as a boy, or was that a childish romanticism?

Jean-Pierre pumped out the barge and had it towed into a dry dock. The refitted vessel rose to life again, and floated evenly on the familiar waters of the Rhône. He repainted it to its old colors. Though these times lacked the treachery of the Resistance, and the pseudo-calm of the post-war peace, they still vibrated with life. Yet he sensed a missing element until he found a photograph of his grandfather’s window backlit by an oil lamp. He scanned the image and superimposed his own likeness, not drastically different from that of the old partisan. He manipulated the snapshot on his computer, adding the artist’s grey beard to his own face and, on a whim, replaced the chef’s apron with a miller's smock. The computer program imitated the deep impasto and craquelure. His grandfather labored for days at his oil painting while Jean-Pierre replicated it in an hour flipping the image horizontally with the touch of a key. He fixed the print to the inside of the window in the galley door.

That evening, he joined the villagers playing pétanque under the plane trees and endured their ribbing just as his grandfather had years before. The light faded and the players persisted, drinking pastis and arguing the finer points of the game until nobody knew the score. It took the harsh winds of the Mistral blowing down the river valley to flush them homeward.

Jean-Pierre listened to the wind whipping the Rhône as he lit the lamp in his galley and flipped crepes in his skillet. He added local tarragon sausage and goat cheese to the first and for dessert he filled the second crepe with cassis, and a suggestion of lemon zest. He poured a glass of Burgundy and settled into his armchair to eat and to read the Economist.

The galley door opened and the miller's widow, now stooped and wrinkled, hobbled inside leaning on a cane. He noticed the calf-length hooded robe and the black gloves. She glanced at him as she shuffled to his bed. The hood slid back showing her garish hair. She picked off her gloves, and removed her cape to reveal dry, sagging breasts and the creases of her naked body. She cackled.

"I’ve waited such a long time for your signal, my love."

Back to ... Stories | Home page