BEGIN ANYWHERE, Danzig says. The shoulder, the rib cage, the thigh, the ankle. It won’t be an accident, even if it feels that way right now.
He stands in his classroom at the Art Institute, the students arranged on chairs and stools in a rough circle with their sketchpads and charcoal, all sixteen of them waiting for the model to take the first pose on her platform.
Find a place where your line wants to take a journey, he says. Some curve in any direction, a place where skin meets light, meets shadow. Let your hand tell you. Begin there.
It’s almost the last class of the semester, and he is deliberately talking about beginnings, not endings. He keeps promising himself he is never coming back, but he keeps coming back. For the third year in a row, he has made a vow not to return in the fall, but he’s finding it hard to take his own word seriously. Even when he is shouting at his students, feverish to convince them to care more, he feels his own intensity in doubt, wonders how much he still cares himself. He used to relish the moments when they jumped at the sound of his voice, but now he is no longer sure that anyone even flinches. Their anonymous, hopeful faces may not be enough to save him.
On the worst days, he feels that he must be getting old and used up. The youngest students who pass him in the hallways barely seem to acknowledge he is alive. To them he might as well have one foot in the grave.
But wait. At fifty-eight he can still attract plenty of attention when he wants to. It’s just a few of the women, girls really, who infuriate him with their disinterest.
HE STANDS BESIDE his faithful skeleton, the one that dangles like a marionette on its wooden stand, its bleached bones as familiar to him as an old friend. This is the invaluable prop he calls Doctor Memento, for memento mori, though Danzig is sure most of the students imagine he must be referring only to his own death and not theirs; they’re so young they are still convinced of their immortality.
He is not allowed to touch the models; that’s one of the rules of the Models Guild. And so instead Danzig will rest a hand on Doctor Memento’s shoulder blade, tap a fingertip on his collarbone. Today, he casually holds the good Doctor’s left hand as a form of mild entertainment or even consolation. Later, he will gesticulate with its digits for emphasis, always reminding the students to keep track of the bones.
Look closely, he tells the students. Deeper. This is the predictable architecture of the body. This is how you pay attention to the truth.
Twenty fresh faces arrive in his class each semester, young men and women with barely tolerable moods and attitudes, startling shades of dyed hair and ubiquitous piercings. Fifteen weeks ago there were twenty of them, and now there are sixteen. Though he used to be able to predict with surprising accuracy which of them would leave, this semester there are more stubborn ones than he had counted on, furiously scratching at their sketchpads.
It takes a few weeks or sometimes just a few hours before he knows whether or not anyone in the room has talent. In the first few meetings they are blurry and indistinguishable to him. Now, he sees that several are frowning or grimacing, already prepared to be dissatisfied with the first gestures on the page, already wanting to tear sheets away and throw them aside.
He admits with a private sigh that there is not a single student who engages him right now. For a long time, the opposite happened, and a student would get under his skin by being infuriatingly incompetent. There was one girl last year whose drawings were always filled with oversized, unmatched hands, lopsided mouths, heads shaped like eggs or apples, eyes too high or too low.
You’re just not looking, he had growled at her. Do you mean to tell me these hands belong to the same person? You’re not even trying.
He knew she probably hated him, his icicle heart, his mouth twisting and cruel. She thought he was a mean bastard, and she was right. He was. She left the class and never came back.
They seem younger than ever, these students, almost another species. He swears to himself he was never that young, never that naively arrogant. On certain days there might be one or two who remind him of those first Americans he met, all those years ago. The Occupiers, his father had called them. Soldiers. But he has mostly forgotten.
Begin again, he says.
SOME YOUNG WOMAN with peroxide hair about an inch long and a silver stud through her tongue (she is yawning, even now) seems to be glaring at him. More likely she is angry at the world, but Danzig takes it personally, so he is angry at her too. In the past he would have managed to seduce her after the first or second week of the semester, just to wipe the glare off her face. But this is what outrages him as much as anything: she doesn’t seem to register him in any way as a sexual being. She turns her back almost every time he passes near her.
He might have reassured himself with the certainty that she doesn’t like men at all, but in fact he’s seen her more than once with her pierced tongue in the mouth of a leather-encased, acne-scarred boyfriend, who drops her off and picks her up on his motorcycle.
So it’s just Danzig who doesn’t appeal to her. All that sexual heat and none of it for him.
He tells himself he doesn’t mind, not about her or about any of the rest of them. He has made no promises and told no lies. And he is about to forget each one of their names.
TODAY’S MODEL is getting undressed behind a folding screen. So far he can only see the back of her head, noting very dark brown hair, cut in a kind of thick bob above her jawline, windblown and messy. There have been so many models—easily hundreds over the years, possibly as many as a thousand—so many whose names he cannot remember and probably never knew.
Just last week his model hadn’t shown up at all, and Danzig had posed for the class himself, stripped down to his jeans and bare feet, determined not to squander anyone’s time including his own. He is still vain enough to know that his muscle tone is reasonable, his back and shoulders powerful enough to be compelling anatomically.
The students could work with a piece of clothing for once; it wouldn’t kill them, he said. And here was a chance to practice contours half hidden under fabric, folds and creases and what they used to call drapery in the days when nude models were rare and for men only.
He used a long stick kept on hand for prying open and closing the high casement windows of the room. He held it like a staff of Moses, aimed it like a javelin, used it to prop his arms like a weary shepherd. He imagined himself through their eyes: his blond hair going gray at the temples and on his exposed chest, his charcoal-stained fingers. Rocking almost imperceptibly on the balls of his feet, he reminded himself to bend his knees, all of this giving him a renewed appreciation for the balanced stillness of his models.
All of the students seemed to work especially seriously that day, a little shy of him at first and then with increasing eagerness, obviously hopeful in the face of his silence that this might be a once-only chance to work without his correcting hand hovering nearby. For now Danzig’s hands were elsewhere, held in a foreign gesture that had nothing to do with their own hands, except that it had everything to do with getting his hands to look as real and as still as the ones they saw when they looked up from their easels.
He was there for them to study all they wanted, a body twice their age at least, maybe three times, and suddenly a figure in space with a look that might have surprised them had any of them been curious enough to decipher it carefully. He felt vulnerable, subject to a persistent gaze that made him worry about what they thought of him, whether the young women saw him as old and unattractive, past his prime; whether the young men saw him as weaker than they’d ever allow themselves to be, a man without much of a future, a father figure who needed, basically, to step aside so that the youth and promise they held could stride ahead and take over the world.
BEGIN AGAIN, he says today, even before the model has stepped onto the platform.
It’s not just a beginning every time you see a new model, he continues, but every time you face a fresh page. It’s that necessary leap into the unknown. And even though you know you’re compressing the infinite possibilities that exist just before the first line is made, you still have to make a commitment. It’s a direction that can be changed even when it declares itself to be irrevocable.
They look at him, at least a handful of them still willing to hang on his every word. There are several, he knows, who stopped listening weeks ago. They draw and fail and draw the same thing all over again. They’re like dogs with bones, stubborn and single-minded.
It’s their loss, he thinks, but never mind. They’ll end up where they started, with or without me. If I’d really wanted to be one of those eternally patient fathers I would have stayed with Andrea and raised the child where I could have some say. Never mind.
Still holding up Doctor Memento’s left hand to point it at them, he looks at nothing for a few silent moments, feeling a low hum of expectation and anxiety in the air. Maybe a few of them really are afraid of him, as if he is the enemy, not the work itself.
The day he modeled for the class, he thought he overheard someone refer to him as The Kaiser. The comment was low and muttered somewhere behind his back. He was caught so completely off guard that he barely admitted his own shock; it was too absurd. He would have expected worse, in fact, but they didn’t know anything about their own country, much less about the rest of the world. All they recognized was his blond hair and blue eyes, his imagined lineage on display. But he brushed it off.
What did they know? he asked himself. What could they possibly know?
YOU CAN NEVER HOPE to be able to finish a painting unless you truly know how to start, he says. Unless you’re willing to practice that first movement over and over. To turn seeing into a stroke.
He gestures with his arm, moving it like a swimmer, and the arm of Doctor Memento moves too.
Stroke, he says. Learn how to pull yourself through the water. Feel the pure balance between tension and release, the arm loose and strong at the same time, finding exactly where the angle works best. Part the water as if you could divide it into Before and After.
The model steps out from behind the screen and looks at him neutrally, with apparent calm, though her gaze is aimed just past him, over his shoulder.
She is lovely, he thinks, not beautiful in the usual boring ways. There is something else.
He does his quick, expert appraisal. Dimensions, he thinks; that’s what she has. Space between her features, her breasts, long arms and legs and torso. Smooth unblemished skin, those very dark eyes, a full mouth, even without a smile. Her fingers are long and tapered, and she is completely unadorned. No makeup or jewelry or tattoos. Just a pure unveiled being.
He says what he always tells the models: that he wants her to start the session with twenty one-minute poses, and up she steps onto the platform.
What he will remember later is that Billie Holiday was playing, that the light pouring through the high windows was diffuse and fog-colored, that as far as he could tell none of the students truly realized just how good she was, from the moment of her first pose until the unraveling of the last one.
He will remember pacing back and forth between the platform and his skeleton, taking its hand and dropping it, taking it back again. For the first time in all his years of teaching he barely notices himself talking about bones, about the need to remind them what the body is made of, the mathematics of anatomy, the beauty underneath beauty.
He can only see her.
© 2006 Elizabeth Rosner
Elizabeth Rosner's BLUE NUDE
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Reading Group Guide
Elizabeth Rosner’s luminous second novel, Blue Nude, takes modern history’s greatest atrocity and expresses its consequences—and a hope for redemption—in the lives of two people thrown together by accident. Born in the shadow of postwar Germany, Danzig is a once prominent painter, now teaching at an art institute in San Francisco.
Increasingly haunted by his dark inheritance, he finds himself unable to create. When Merav, the Israeli-born granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, becomes Danzig’s muse, both realize they must face the wounds of history that each of them carries. Bringing together the past and present lives of Merav and Danzig, the story moves forward and backward in time and place: from a California art studio to the ruins of Berlin and back again.
In subtle yet profound awakenings, both artist and model begin to transform themselves as well as one another. Blue Nude becomes the literary equivalent of a masterpiece of visual art: elegantly composed, vivid, see more