Nudes, the exhibition of the reclusive artist Lucas Dérangé at Le Grand Palais was turning out to be the artistic hit of the season. It had enraptured critics and public alike. Even in these last few weeks people were arriving like the endless migrations of wildebeest in Africa from all over Europe; many more came from as far away as the USA and Asia. All agreed that Nudes was a sensational show, the experience of a life time, but when asked why they could not explain.
“You just have to see it,” was all they could say.
Though he lived in Paris and was an art historian Guillaume Dubois had still not seen the exhibition.
“I will wait until things calm down a little,” he had told his colleagues two months earlier. “It will be less crowded.” But things did not calm down: the exhibition became more and more crowded; the opening hours were extended and now in its final week Guillaume could not get tickets. He called his friend Michel Palmier in the Ministry of Culture.
“Do me a favour Michel. You know the Nudes exhibition?”
“Who doesn’t? But it has finished, hasn’t it?”
“Not until the end of the week. And I need a ticket.”
Later that day Michel called back. All the tickets were sold out but he had heard on the grape vine of a special closing down event on the last day. It was by invitation only and he had got an invitation for his friend.
“Will you be there, too?”
“I’d like to but I shall be in Washington en mission.”
“Will Dérangé be there?”
“Hardly likely. Even if he was no one would know. We do not really know who he is let alone what he looks like.”
“Well, the curators must have met him. And he is the enfant terrible of the art world.”
“Have you ever seen an interview with the artist? Certainly not on TV. Nor in print I think you’ll find. I have never been able to learn anything about him. After all, that is more your field than mine, Guillaume. You certainly must see the show.”
“It’s not my period, but I must say I am looking forward to it.”
“If the artist does turn up you’ll tell me all about him.”
“Of course. And Michel, thanks a thousand!”
It was a light summer evening when Guillaume walked down to the Grand Palais from the Champs Elysées. He was surprised to find a sizeable queue forming on the steps outside the main entrance to the vast but elegant art nouveau building. Even though they were all invited guests there was quite a crowd and not all of them were obvious art buffs or cultural dignitaries. There were ordinary couples, families, students and older people. They were mostly French, he thought, but there were a few foreigners, probably from the embassies and international arts organisations.
They all filed through quickly and efficiently. There was no reception committee and certainly no sign of the artist. To Guillaume it felt much like entering the exhibition on a normal day.
The entrance lobby contained big portraits of men and women standing against a neutral background. Guillaume had seen works by Dérangé before, a characteristic marriage of fashion photography and painting. They were usually larger than life, naked and powerful, almost threatening; many often had an erotic charge, the women usually challenging, forceful. Guillaume had been led to expect that visitors to this exhibition would immediately be confronted by overpowering nudes. True, there were tall figures in this first gallery, portrayed in an imposing, almost regal fashion, but what was odd about them was that they were all clothed. In fact they were wearing overcoats. The two metre tall woman in the painting to his left, indeed, wore a fur coat and an expression of amused disdain, almost a smile. Guillaume smiled back, suddenly understanding the enigma. The woman was of course quite naked, but beneath her furs. It was deliberate irony.
Yet why were the figures in all the portraits clad? Had he been misled by the hype? Guillaume stepped into the next room prepared for a bigger disappointment. It was not that the exhibition was not striking, majestic even, but so far he had not seen a single nude. He wondered whether this whole show were not a case of the emperor’s clothes. In the story a child declares, “But the emperor has no clothes.” Here it was quite the reverse.
As if to enforce this idea a little voice piped up,
“Mummy, what has that man got all over him?”
“They are called clothes, darling.”
“What are they for?”
Guillaume looked at the mother and child and saw to his astonishment that they were quite naked. Slowly it dawned on him that everyone else in that large gallery was naked yet they were walking around unconcerned by the fact as though this were their natural condition. Were they models, he wondered, were they also exhibits, but then to his consternation he found that he, too, was wearing… nothing at all. His short lived panic was less about his modesty as concern for what he had done with his ticket, his wallet and his mobile phone. But in the same way as an anaesthetic begins to relax a hospital patient, so these worries floated away and Guillaume was left in a state of benign well being.
Quite calm now he went barefoot with the throng, completely at ease as they seemed to be. Everyone’s attention was riveted on the paintings. It was as though they had never seen clothed figures before.
“It must be very uncomfortable,” one trim blonde was saying to her companion.
“Very heavy, I should think,” replied the well hung man.
At one end of the gallery an expert was explaining to a small group of visitors what clothing was for. Beneath a painting of a tall woman in a short, scarlet skirt and matching stilettos, one of the group asked,
“What has she got on her feet?”
“Shoes,” said the expert. “You will notice shoes in many shapes and sizes. Some were designed for different tasks or a certain look, high heels were worn by women convinced it made them more attractive.”
This raised a titter among the flat footed crowd and another question.
“Could they walk in them?”
“With difficulty, but we are told they got used to it. Some women became quite skilled.”
“Bravo!” said a short, thickset woman with a wild forest of pubic hair. “What won’t we women do to look sexy!”
The concept made Guillaume reflect on another fairy story, that of the Little Mermaid whose every step was agony. He shuddered and moved on.
As he progressed through the gallery he became more and more captivated by this exhibition. Baffled but engrossed he wondered whether this was how people used to dress. Did they go about their business all covered up? Did they eat with clothes on, make love, sleep in them?” Certainly these portraits were provocative. They made you think, ask questions.
Emerging at last from the exhibition through a large black door Guillaume found it quite natural that he had all his clothes on again. He checked that his wallet and his phone were in his pockets and looking about him saw that all the other people were dressed as they needed to be as they emerged into the summer twilight. He had half expected some kind of reception with drinks, amuse- gueules perhaps and a few closing speeches. Instead he found himself standing outside the Palais, the slow milling crowd gradually thinning into the night.
“How did you find the exhibition?” he heard a man ask his wife.
“Magical,” she replied.
“Strange, isn’t it, how some artists make you view the world through quite a different lens?”
“Quite remarkable,” she agreed and the couple made their way hand in hand back up to the Champs Elysées.
When Michel returned from his official “mission” to Washington he called Guillaume.
“Did you make it to the Nudes?”
“Yes, it was very remarkable in its way,” said his friend, though he could not remember what it was. He had been trying all morning to write a piece about the show for the journal Art Today, but he could not quite put his finger on what it was that had so struck him about the works.
“I gather Dérangé was there after all.”
“Was he? I didn’t see him I am afraid.”
“You might have done. As I said, no one really knows who he is. But rumour has it that he is already working on his next show. It might cause an even bigger stir, I think.”
“Surely it will take time to accumulate a collection as big as Nudes.”
“I think he has in mind something smaller, more intimate. A little bird has told me that his next models are taken from life from the visitors to that exhibition. Perhaps there’ll be a huge picture of you,” he joked.
“Hope not. I don’t much fancy being a poster boy, Michel,” replied his friend.
“You’ll fancy it even less,” laughed Michel “when you hear this: there’s even a provisional title. The Public Unclothed. I cannot think why. It’s probably ironic.”
Guillaume remained silent.
For more of my stories see "Stories for Sale" Circaidy Gregory, Press paper back or on-line