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Alioth, Gabrielle (Sample Translation)

Der prüfende Blick
(The Appraising Glance)

Abstand
Nagel & Kimche, February 2007, 240 pp
ISBN: 978-3-312-00383-9
 

The Priest
 
“Maria Anna Catharina Angelica Kauffmann – of course I remember her. This is not one of those spots on God’s Earth where people forget.” The priest turns round and goes back into the house through the hallway. I close the front door and follow him. It was easy to find the old man; he still lives in the sacristan’s house next to the church. “I did not know where Schwarzenberg was when I applied for the position in this parish.”
 
I follow him into a low-ceilinged parlour; in one corner there is a yellowish ceramic stove.
 
“One of the students in the seminary said: ‘In the forest’, and it sounded like a joke.” The priest sits down in the armchair by the window.
 
I remember how I stood up on the pass for the first time myself. I had an eye for landscapes even then. They leave a deeper impression on me than people’s faces, and if I had the choice I would paint nothing else. The forest was surrounded on all sides by mountains, like a bowl; in it there were clearings with meadows, pastures, the village. The new roofs could not yet be seen, nor could the wooden beams painted with ox-blood.
 
“And what do you want to know?”
 
“I would like ... I was ...” Since that evening a few weeks ago when Maria convinced me to come here, I have been imagining how I would speak to the priest. Yet suddenly I don’t know where to begin. “Angelica ...” I am dazzled by the sun shining through the window. “When she worked on the church here, I was ...”
 
The priest did not recognise me, and I suddenly feel like a fraud. Why should he help me? What would make him write a letter to the famous painter on behalf of my daughter? There is silence in the parlour.
 
“Have you known Angelica a long time?” I ask in my embarrassment.
 
The priest sits up in his armchair. “She was young when I first saw her, almost a child. At least that’s what I thought when she stood in the church next to her father.” Johann – I should have started with Johann. “But I was young myself at that time. Two years earlier I had celebrated my first mass in a town down on the plain ...”
 
I nodded.
 
“That same autumn there was a big fire in the village here. The people took their cattle out to the fields. A few vagrants had squatted in one of the barns and lit a fire. The hot south wind blew the sparks from farm to farm.”
 
I knew the story.
 
“The few people who had remained in the village were unable to rescue their goods and put out the fire. Sixteen houses with stables, barns and the church went up in flames. The bells melted in the tower and ran into the mortar and masonry. ‘Oh chastisement, oh suffering, oh loss!’ Barthel Mayer wrote in his chronicle. “Barthel himself had rebuilt the church ten years before with another builder. The sacristan’s house remained undamaged, but the curate saw the fire every night in his sleep.”
 
Without waiting for the priest to ask me, I sat on the stool next to the table.
 
“There were many applicants for his position. The people in the village began rebuilding at once, and even before spring they had put a new roof on the church. Then a storm struck, laid waste to the fields, meadows and paths, tore down bridges and the scaffolding. When the curate’s position was advertised again, there were fewer applicants. I thought I had been chosen to stand by the victims in their need. That was how young I was then.”
 
The priest talks in the sing-song intonation that people have here, and Angelica had too when she spoke German.
 
“And then one morning the girl was standing in my church. Not pretty, but fragile – that’s how she looked, in her little silk dress that was too tight for her, the black velvet ribbon at her throat. None of the village women would have worn anything like that on a weekday.”
 
He had looked at her face, her dress, her throat ... I suddenly felt uncomfortable at the old man’s description. Is he talking like this to me because he thinks I am a stranger to the village?
 
“While I was speaking to her father she looked closely at the walls of the church. Johann, her father, wanted to know how long the stucco had been drying, and who would pay for the plaster which would be needed for the ground. I did my best to answer his questions. He was as ponderous as his brothers and his cousins, and there were already shadows on his cheeks. People had told me about him when I had hardly settled into my curacy here. Johann Joseph was the oldest of the six Kauffmann brothers, the first to have left. Simon and Anton had also become painters and migrated to Lorraine.
 
The sentences flow from the priest’s mouth as if he had spoke to nobody for days.
 
“Maria, his sister, who had married a man in the Veltlin, came back once. Many people here work on building sites round the Lake of Constance, and some of the master builders go to Bavaria, Alsace, as far as Tirol and Bohemia. The farms are too small, and the money the women earn by spinning and weaving is not enough to feed a family. In autumn the men come back, pay their debts, make new ones, as they sit in the pubs and tell each other about their experiences. Their pockets are never as full, and their adventures are never as bold as those of the lads who serve in foreign armies, wage wars for other masters, but they are unharmed and not troubled by homesickness like the mercenaries ...”
 
(page 17-20)
 
 
I can see the awkward young priest before me in his half-finished church, his blond hair already thin. Did we despise him too? I look around in the parlour. The books on the table are covered in dust, the cross is hanging crooked on the wall.
 
“On the very day after their arrival Johann and his daughter began working in the church. A few lads from the village helped put up the scaffolding. Johann cursed about the stucco. The girl was sitting in the light of a window, drawing. Over her little blue dress she was wearing a pinafore spattered with paint; her face was bright, as if she could hear nothing, her braids sat on her head like a crown. I wondered whether the father had plaited his daughter’s hair himself. On the table were the depictions of the apostles we had agreed on. The girl had placed squared paper on the copper engravings and transferred the contours of the heads to the squares that she had measured out on a cartoon. I asked her if it was boring to paint old men, and she explained that she had traced the apostles before, though not so much enlarged. I felt her father’s gaze as I spoke to his daughter, and the young man who had come with them from Milan was also present; Johann ordered him about like an apprentice. But in the lad’s eyes there was a luminous blue that I have often seen in others here while they are still young, as though heaven were reflected in their gaze.”
 
The stool I am sitting on creaks, and the priest turns his face to me. I see the grey veil under his pupils. When he starts to speak again his voice is gentler.
 
“God has granted my a long life, I have grown old, and perhaps time has clouded not only my eyes but my mind, too.” The words hang in the air as if he were speaking only to himself.
 
“I remember the desires of youth, I know that they took hold of my heart, and today I am no longer ashamed of it. And yet I don’t think I was drawn that way to the girl that painted in my church that summer, day after day. She stood on the scaffolding and traced the outlines of the apostles’ heads through the cartoon on to the wet ground, corrected and completed them freehand. Then with great haste she began to apply the colours, the red and blue cloaks, the white shirts, the brownish flesh. Again and again she moved the shadows in the faces of the saints, the folds, often only by the breadth of one brushstroke. Her mouth was closed, her chin stuck out a little; I could not take my eyes off her.” The priest’s clouded gaze rested on me without seeing me.
 
“When I had come to the village I had preached trust in God and humility to the people of Schwarzenberg. Now I talk about providence. Most afternoons I walked through the meadows with wild sage, daisies, poppies, and the soil at the edges of the paths reminded me of the colour that the girl mixed for the apostles’ faces. For the first time it seemed possible to me that people would one day trust me, and I was full of confidence.”
 
Again and again the priest turned up in the church and we thought he wanted to check on us. Johann was working on the Stations of the Cross. I could see that his robes were billowing, his soldiers were like shopkeepers and the head of the Saviour was bowed under the weight of the cross as if his neck had been broken. As soon as the figures were finished, Johann turned to the next picture, and I filled the sky above Golgotha with yellow-grey clouds. Angelica could only see their heads. For hours she could be crouching on the narrow scaffold made of boards and cloth, and sometimes it seemed to me she was shuddering when we finally left the church in the evening to go out into the open air.
 
“Autumn came, the days grew shorter. Father and daughter worked as long as the light in the church permitted. When Johann had finished the Way of the Cross, Angelica was painting the fourth apostle’s portrait. He explained to his daughter that she would have to simplify the folds of the clothes. Yet on the next day she painted over the angular surfaces, traced St. James’s cloak through the cartoon on to the ground once more, but more precisely than before.
 
I see Katharina bent over her sketchbook.
 
“I asked Angelica when she had begun drawing. ‘When she began seeing,’ her father answered for her. ‘Even before she learnt to write she could draw.’ We stood under the scaffolding. It was evening and Johann and the apprentice were just clearing away their things. The brushes needed to be washed out. The girl held them, wrapped in a cloth, with both hands. They were staying with Michel, Johann’s brother, in an attic of the house by the meadow, where there was hardly room for Michel’s own family. In the evening Johann sat in the Hirschen pub and talked. In the village they were telling stories. The girl had played with crayons even in her cradle. She could not walk yet, but had painted her parents’ faces on the walls of the studio. Johann had given the child strips of paper and shown her his sample books; she drew flowers and birds. ‘She wouldn’t stop,’ her father explained. He gave Angelica prints from his collection; she copied cities, buildings, people. ‘... and all by herself she mixed the correct colours.’ The villagers said her father had presented his little painting daughter in the palaces of the nobility, like a piebald dog. He had urged princes and bishops to let his wunderkind do their portraits. I asked about archbishop Maria Gostino Nevroni. ‘The Monsignor recognised my daughters gifts at once,’ her father replied. ‘Was it difficult to paint him?’ I enquired as Johann turned to the apprentice. She hesitated. ‘No, he sat completely still. Only his beard ...’ She shrugged her shoulders apologetically. ‘Today I would know how to paint it.’ She looked up to St. Paul ...”
The priest stopped. When he is silent his mouth is just a thin stroke.
 
“For a long time I asked myself why this precise moment had etched itself so indelibly on my memory. Angelica stayed in Schwarzenberg with her father for almost a year, and I spoke to her many times. I met her in the church, I saw her on Sundays at mass sitting between her cousins, observed her walking across the village square. Others watched her too because she was young, graceful, a stranger; and there was a gleam in her light brown eyes, on her hair ... Yet at that moment something else struck me. I looked up to St. Paul. Envy, I thought later. I was envious of him, envious that she looked at him in this searching yet masterful way, with her brushes in her hands, as if she were offering her skills to him as a sacrifice. Every time I went past the picture after that, I felt a pang in my chest, and I was sure that I wished she had looked at me in the same way, too ...”
 
The priest fell silent. Through the window of the parlour you could see the top of a tree and part of the outside wall of a house. I know this kind of pang in the chest.
 
“How close the past comes when the present disappears in the darkness ...” The priest speaks very softly.
 
If I squint, the leaves on the treetop turn into a green blur which is divided in two by a shadow. The wall is a reddish triangle at the lower edge of the window, darker on the right-hand side. You have to divide up what you see into areas, draw the contours, establish the relationship of the shades of colour, light and dark, without thinking what it is supposed to represent. Then it will turn into a treetop or the wall of a house quite automatically. You have to forget what you know in order to see what is there.
 
“A second moment from those months has remained completely clear in my memory.” His voice has become livelier. “The winter had already passed. It had been milder than in the following years. The snowmen the boys built on the village square collapsed overnight. Johann and his daughter worked every day. They had braziers put in the church, and they warmed their fingers at them if they could no longer hold their brushes. Now the snow had melted and the task was complete. Johann was urging their departure. The apprentice would stay on a while, in order to complete the backgrounds, the gold frames and the names under the heads of the apostles. Konrad von Rodt, the bishop of Constance, had called Kauffmann to Meersburg to decorate his residence. Johann had shown me the letter with the seal. The people in the village had seen it too, and some thought that the cardinal had sent for the father in order to get the daughter. When the ceiling was complete, Johann had painted two pictures for the side altars that he wanted to give his home village of Schwarzenberg. The people looked at them in silence. Had it been Johann’s idea to hang pictures of the dying above the two altars? He seemed to have a knack for painting the slack limbs, the breaking eyes; the little angels hovered in indistinct swarms. He painted the death of St. Francis Xavier on the right hand side, above the grave of the Blessed Ilga, and he put the death of St. Joseph opposite. In the left corner of the picture he wrote his own name.”
 
The altarpieces – Johann had been talking about them since our departure from Milan, and he made sketches. He was certain that the parish would also commission him to refashion the altars. When our time was coming to an end and nobody asked him, he decided to give the paintings to the parish as a gift. To paint a saint was the highest thing an artist could aspire to. The portraits that Angelica had painted of princes and bishops could, as Johann said, not be compared with the heads of the holy apostles which she was now copying from etchings after Piazzetta.
 
“Angelica” the priest continued, “worked on St. Matthew till the end. Again and again she painted over his head, moved the edges of the shadows. Yet the bald pate remained flat. On this morning I found her without her pinafore in the church. She had put aside the little blue dress weeks before. Instead she was wearing a black skirt with a red bodice, white sleeves, like all the women here. When she noticed me she pulled her mouth into a smile – an apology? I looked over to Matthew ... On the open page of his gospel stood: ‘Maria Anna Catharin Angelica Kauffmann fecit 1757’. “Because I have only copied the apostles from originals, I thought ‘fecit’ would be more honest than ‘pinxit’,” she hastened to explain, and it sounded like an entreaty. For once her father, who was standing in the choir at the front of the church, seemed not to hear her. ‘Maria Anna Catharin...’ I read aloud. ‘Angelica means like an angel’ she interrupted; ‘Monsignor Nevroni explained it to me.’ She suddenly seemed like a child again. Had the archbishop of Como also taught her Latin? ‘That was my godmother’s name. She was a nun – a friend of my mother’s,’ she explained.
 
(pages 23-30)
 
 
In Rome he had the best guides to the city show him the galleries. Nothing in them surpassed the Apollo Belvedere, a proof of Simplicity being the Source of Sublimity,* John Morgan stated. In the Caffè Inglese he met the notable travellers who happened to be in Rome, and when he was introduced to Pope Clement XIII in a private audience he found him “kind and polite”. But of all the people he met in Rome, John Morgan wrote, he had become fond of no-one more than Angelica Kauffmann.
 
My heart pounded when I finally read her name. At his inn back in Florence they had recommended him to get his portrait painted by this young German artist. The Accademia Clementina had accepted her, then the Florentine Accdemia del Disegnio, the oldest in Italy, had made her an honorary member – despite her youth and her sex – and for a few weeks now she had also been a member of the Accademia di San Luca. She painted all the Englishmen in Rome, Morgan wrote. David Garrick, whom he had seen as Macbeth at the Drury Lane theatre in London, was now also in Italy; he sat for her in Naples. The American physician pronounced it an unusual portrait. The most famous actor in the world is leaning over the back of a chair like a tavern-keeper, looking at the artist with a smile that is almost salacious. He is wearing a reddish-brown coat, his head is bowed in the attitude of a supplicant, and his broad, powerful hands are gripping the back of the chair, as if he needed something to hold on to.
 
More pleasing to John Morgan was the portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, which the artist was still working on. Winckelmann, he explained to me, was the foremost authority on the ancient world. His expertise encompassed all the antiquities in Rome. The scholar is sitting bent over a book, a pen in his right hand. His narrow face is earnest, he is gazing into the distance. His white lace cuffs and the yellow scarf he has put around his neck over his simple coat, wrote John Morgan, showed impeccable craftsmanship, and visible below the book was a relief of the three Graces – a reference to a treatise the scholar had written on the Graces in art. John Morgan wanted to have his portrait painted by Angelica, but at the very first meeting he noticed that the young artist was also in need of his services.
 
“With my practised eye,” he wrote, “I recognized the tiredness in her pale complexion and the gauntness of her delicate figure. I had studied female anatomy in London. Doctor Hunter, my teacher, has become medical adviser to the queen of England with sole direction of Her Majesty’s health as a child-bearing Lady, and we worked together in other areas, too.” Therefore John Morgan considered it his duty to ask the delightful Angelica about her state of health, and after she had overcome her understandable shyness she admitted to him that she did not feel well. In no way did his enquiries go beyond what was appropriate and included nothing, as he could assure me, that might have caused her embarrassment, but they revealed that her ailment originated in her stomach and could be attributed to a disturbance in the digestion, caused by her sedentary life and close application to painting. Angelica described to him how, from the time she was a young girl, she had become accustomed to eat nothing at all (or perhaps some fruit) during the day, in order to avoid interrupting her work in the galleries and churches. Now she was troubled by acid in the night and nausea during the day.
 
John Morgan prescribed a laxative and a tonic, made her promise to eat something at midday and take a walk every day. He explained to Angelica that the circumstances in which people took food were important, too – the place, the company, even the emotional state they were in. He told her about the time he was a young ensign in the war against the French. He had been led astray by companions and had killed the colonel’s chickens whose eggs had supplemented the meagre diet of the officers. For days afterwards his stomach reproached him for this selfishness. A little story was more easily remembered by a patient, as Dr Morgan wrote, than a long, learned discourse. They spoke no more about Angelica’s state of health. He didn’t want to put her under pressure, proper and modest as she was, and at the very next sitting for his portrait he could see that his diagnosis had been correct: she was feeling better.
 
So – it was a gastric disturbance. Angelica had often complained about the food that we got in our inn. It was too heavy, too oily, too salty, and sometimes she ate nothing for days on end, as if she had got out of the habit. For a while I had tried to persuade her to take some food, but the more I prodded her, the more resolutely she pushed the plates away. Johann let her have her way, as if this were merely a whim on her part, like the turban that she wore for a time, or the embroidered shoes that she bought in secret.
 
Angelica’s studio, the doctor wrote, was not far from the Caffè Inglese, a brightly-lit but not very big space. With its shelves full of little bottles, bowls, books, cloths, paintbrushes and scrapers it seemed to John Morgan hardly different from the rooms of an apothecary or physician. But John Morgan was not used to being examined himself ...
 
The appraising glance. Angelica had learnt to veil it with humility, to lower her head in a winsome fashion. Sometimes she even smiled. But when she was painting she needed it. She had to study her subject’s face and see what his features revealed and what they concealed. John Morgan had never been looked at this way – not by a woman. He wrote that her father was constantly present in her studio and I perceived relief in these words. Angelica conversed with her clients while her pencil crayon glided over the canvas. Her English was not particularly good but it was good enough, and it soon became clear that the artist and the physician had a lot in common.
 
John Morgan had lost his mother when he was a child, and in his thirteenth year his father had died too. Morgan knew what it meant to look after yourself and others from an early age. Had not he, too, cared for his siblings? All Rome was talking about the fact that Angelica had to feed her father. But they found an even stronger bond in the present than the past. With characteristic German – and American – conscientiousness they devoted themselves to their work. And so, John Morgan wrote, Angelica and he were both inspired by one great goal. He told her that he had resolved, after his return, to found a medical faculty at the Philadelphia College, the first in the New World. The teaching would be in accordance with the highest standards, it would clearly differentiate medical students from surgeons and apothecaries, and its graduates would not stoop to enhancing their income by selling salves and powders. John Morgan would not only be America’s best physician, he would also train the best American physicians.
 
I remembered the little questions that Angelica used to get people sitting for her to talk. It is easier to portray someone whose features are relaxed. She told Morgan how in Florence, in the Gerini Gallery, while she was copying a self-portrait by Rembrandt, she had decided not to make do with imitating the greats. She would strive for mastery of her own. No matter how much work, stamina and sacrifice was required, she would undertake to make her pictures perfect.
 
John Morgan was impressed by Angelica’s ambition, he was amazed that this “delicate person” was able to achieve so much, as if will were a question of physique.
Angelica showed him a painting that she had just finished; it was not a portrait. A young woman was leaning against a cliff. The wind was tearing at her braided hair, her white dress had slipped from her right shoulder, and in her left hand she held a kerchief with which she was drying her tears. Before her stood a man with a wreath of vine leaves in his hair and a staff wrapped in ivy in his hand. He was wearing a red toga with a fur showing underneath. Surprised, but joyful at the same time, he was leaning forward and stretching out his hand to the weeping woman. Angelica explained to John Morgan that this was Ariadne whom Bacchus had just found abandoned on an island; and indeed there was a little glimpse of the sea in the background.
 
I recognised the grieving woman in the white dress. After her lover had killed the Minotaur, she had used a white thread to rescue him from the monster’s labyrinth. But Theseus left her, asleep, on the island of Naxos, and sailed alone to Athens, “... she wants to hold him, she wants to be held ...” I was also able to identify the perfidious hero. With trembling hands I read on.
 
The painting had not turned out well, John Morgan decided. He thought that the woman certainly aroused pity, despite her crooked face, but that the man was unsteady on his feet, not like a god in nature, and his arm threw a strange shadow over his bare shoulder. The musculus biceps brachii seemed to have changed places with the musculus triceps, while the musculus deltoideus ... I skipped over the Latin names. The visible part of the body looked like a badly stuffed cushion, the physician decided. Angelica’s father didn’t seem to like the way it was painted either. His ignorance of the English language prevented him from saying anything, but his face contorted itself in an expression of sullenness while Angelica was looking at the painting with John Morgan.
 
 
Did Johann want his daughter to paint likenesses of well-heeled travellers for the rest of her days? The reservations I found about Johann in the physician’s letter were certainly prompted by my own distaste for him. Even when John Morgan described the patent weakness in the lungs that afflicted Angelica’s father and all the members of the Kauffmann family, Johann seemed despicable to me. I know that other people didn’t like my old master either. Just as Angelica was charming and generous, her father was mean and rude, and those who experienced his coldness must have found her warmth all the more pleasing. John Morgan was enchanted by Angelica, however much he tried to appear detached in his letter. There were several mentions of his fiancée Molly, the sister of a fellow-student, who was waiting for him in Philadelphia. He had even, as he admitted to me, had himself baptised in Edinburgh for Molly’s sake. The Society of Friends, which his mother had belonged to, did not practise baptism, and his father who had died much too young had belonged to the Baptists, who only baptised adults. As a man of science, John Morgan wrote, he never felt the need for baptismal water, but Molly’s wishes were more important to him than anything else. I wondered whether he had told Angelica about this. In his letter there was no mention of it, and when she wanted to give him a painting as thanks for his medical treatment, he asked her for a self-portrait.
 
He was not the only one to be captivated by Angelica. John Morgan wrote that he had befriended his famous compatriot Benjamin West. This name had meant nothing to me at the time I was in Milan. West’s parents, too, were Quakers. His father had been one of the first to free a Negro slave. His mother had given birth to Benjamin in the Friends’ meeting-house – she had been devastated by the sermon of a celebrated preacher about the moral decay of the Old World. The circumstances of his birth pointed to a great future for him. At seven years of age Benjamin West drew the face of a sleeping child. He could paint before he could read.
 
This assertion was not new to me; I had heard it before, when Johann spoke about Angelica’s childhood. And how unusual it was, John Morgan continued, for a boy from a world in which there were no pictures or sculptures to become a famous painter. As unusual as for a girl? I asked myself. Certainly Benjamin West had grown up amid magnificent landscapes, with forests, waterfalls, unscaled peaks. Yet the sight of Nature alone could not explain the development of a genius, the physician decided. Were not the Swiss, of all the peoples of Europe, the most unimaginative, though their country must surely arouse the imagination like no other?
 
(page 83-90)
 
 
(*TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The first-person narrator, Angelica’s cousin, is relaying the contents of a long letter – in English – from John Morgan, an American physician in Rome. Direct English quotations from this letter are here given in italics, though they are in roman font in the original.)
 
 

Translated by Tomas Drevikovsky
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