This story was first published in The Copperfield Review, April 29, 2015. Copyright is held by the author.
“Gentlemen: good morning.”
Daudet rose to acknowledge the entrance of Herr Direktor F. Schlegel, as did the rest of the masters, Gianetti a beat later than the rest because he had been sketching. Gianetti was always sketching. It seemed to be an eccentricity he required of himself as the only Italian on faculty. Daudet himself was the only Frenchman, but he knew better than to indulge in mannerisms. Gianetti was begrudged because he could draw like an angel, and because he represented Rome, whose ancient and eternal beauties these Austrians had to honor; they paid no such homage to Paris.
No one spoke until Schlegel was seated and had arranged his papers to his satisfaction. Then Horst arose.
“We have an excellent group of candidates today, Herr Direktor. I think you will be pleased.”
The porter began to lay out the portfolios, letters, and references of the two-dozen-some hopeful young artists seeking to sit the examination for admission to the Akademie der bildenden Kunste Wien, the Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna. The masters had already gone through the pile, weeding out the obviously hopeless, the inept, the vulgar. Now it was left for Herr Direktor to pass his judgment.
Schlegel put on a pair of pince-nez and carefully perused each applicant’s work. He would make a few remarks: “I like the way this fellow handles line,” or, “Technically excellent, but hardly original.” The rest of the faculty would nod. Sometimes, rarely, voice a differing opinion (“Respectfully, Herr Direktor, I believe the use of color shows promise”). And then the committee would vote: admit to the examination, or turn away.
Gianetti, if he had not been following the discussion, simply abstained.
Daudet had long since gotten over his squeamishness—the raw empathy these young hopefuls could induce. Their souls, their identities, passion, hearts, bled out upon canvas and lain tremulously at his feet: how could he subject it to the coldness of judgment? Who was he to pass on the worth or unworthiness of another? These days, now, he barely even thought of it. He possessed a studio just off the Ringstrasse, six hours of teaching per week, a favorable spot at the yearly Imperial Exhibition, portrait commissions, the appellation “Meister” — after many, many years’ effort. If these hopefuls wanted the same, they had better be prepared to stiffen their spines.
In his heart, though, Daudet knew the students did not envy him his position, however comfortable. No, they looked upon it with scorn. What they wanted was only this: to be the name spoken with awe in ages hence, the work that endured long after the bones were dust, honoured with the only form of immortality man could hope for. That was what everyone wanted, at the beginning.
Well, Daudet had accepted that such things were beyond his control. Let them learn, too.
Horst was spreading the last applicant’s work on the table with his thin, bloodless hands. Schlegel sat forward, a frown threatening to topple the pince-nez.
“What is this . . . ?”
Horst hastened to mollify him. “Ordinarily, Herr Direktor, I would not waste your time. But . . .”
Daudet looked again at the applicant’s work, innocuous as it was: architectural studies in watercolor mostly, several views of the Cathedral, a village scene, a vase of flowers; postcard pictures, well-drawn, nice little pieces, but hardly of the caliber to move, to evoke, to affect — or win their maker admission.
“It is the second time the young man has applied to us, Herr Direktor. I thought perhaps we could consider … determination, you know, and dedication . . . He writes—” Horst passed the Direktor the applicant’s letter. Schlegel read it with raised brows.
“Well, he has some ideas.”
“These are daubs!” That was von Riemann. “Like a schoolgirl’s!”
“But to have come this far without formal training . . .” Kramm, like Horst, had voted to pass the applicant on.
“Yet he failed the examination last year —”
“—His first try. Why not give him another chance? We are an academy of instruction—”
“Precisely. Not a charity school.”
“Gentlemen!” Schlegel massaged his upper lip. “Why are we discussing this?”
The masters looked at one another.
“There is something . . .” Horst sounded helpless.
Yes, they all felt it, there was something, but what? Daudet wondered. The young man’s anger? His dissatisfaction, his hatred of his father and by extension all authority? His thinly veiled desire, embarrassingly naked under the gaze of this committee, to find in Art a turret from which to fly the banner of his own superiority? But how did that differ from their other students? How did it differ from themselves?
“He has everything of the art but what it is,” said Gianetti.
The table turned as one toward the Italian, who gestured with his pencil as he tried to explain.
“He can see the art here,” Gianetti touched his forehead, “he can recognize it here,” he tapped his heart, “but he cannot make that seeing, that recognizing here.” The Italian spread out his hands, blunt, brown, and surprisingly coarse, more like a fisherman’s than an artist’s. “Maybe he can draw well enough, paint a little, yes, but it comes out as nothing, as empty. Whatever we put in these lines to make them live,” Gianetti indicated his sketches, “he does not have it. He knows it, knows enough to feel its power, but in himself he has it not.”
The masters were silent. The uncreative artist: didn’t they all know, didn’t they all fear this most wretched of creatures? Didn’t they wake in terror in the darkest part of the night sometimes, afraid that all their success hitherto was a delusion, a fluke, and the light of the coming day would serve to reveal them as the failures they truly were? Each day, Daudet passed people on the streets, clerks, laborers, petite bourgeoisies, who would never create a masterpiece — and he envied them. Their minds were simple and commonplace; they did not lament those unachieved master-works because they could not conceive of them. Far better to be that way. Far better than being forever in thrall to art’s mystery, driven by its power, tasting of its ecstasy, and yet capable of producing only stillborn work.
Every few terms, a student shot or hanged himself. It was usually put down to debts or a woman, but too often it was a case of this other thing. Art, it seemed, if it could not create, would destroy.
They would have to be careful.
“I see here . . .” Schlegel was looking at a file. “I see here that last year, when this applicant failed to pass and demanded an explanation, he was told that, while unsuited for painting, he showed some aptitude in the field of architecture. Would we concur in this recommendation, gentlemen?”
The committee looked at one another. Well, he was a good enough draftsman, wasn’t he? And one could get by in such a discipline with only attention to detail, some facility with line and angle — there would always be clients who could be satisfied with the most trite and soulless of structures, as long as the roof didn’t leak. Architecture! Yes, that would do nicely.
“Perhaps . . .” said Horst, “yes, perhaps it would only be a frustration to the boy if we allowed him to sit the examination a second time.”
“Architecture is clearly his place,” agreed Kramm.
“I will make a note, then,” said Schlegel, and placed the applicant’s portfolio on top of the pile of those not admitted to the test. There was a great, relieved shifting of positions; this young man’s insecurities and inadequacies would become someone else’s problem.
Schlegel retrieved his pince-nez. “If there is any more business, gentlemen? No? Then I shall bid you good morning.”
The masters rose and remained standing while Herr Direktor made his way to the door, breaking off, once it closed behind him, into quietly conversing or (von Reimann and Kramm) arguing groups. Gianetti wandered off to sketch somewhere. The porter began to clear the table.
Daudet lingered a moment and picked up the last applicant’s portfolio. The paper he used was cheap; Daudet pictured the boy counting out his coins — so much for paint, so much for beer, so much for lodging — each week. Perhaps he had an orphan’s pension, perhaps his relatives sent him money. He would not seek employment, but would sleep the morning away in some cramped boarding-room or hostel, going out with his easel in the afternoon to sketch on the streets and corners, burning with the desire to be noticed, yet seized with indifference if anyone stopped. Dining late, he would meet two or three seedy friends, and they would talk, about art and politics and life, how much better it could be, particularly for them. Daudet sighed. It was all so depressing.
Why imagine that the world would ever remember the lives of Francois Antonin Daudet, or this boy, this young Bavarian with the funny name — Daudet glanced at the printing on the back of the portfolio — Hitler, Adolf Hitler?
Daudet dropped the papers back onto the table, and hurried to catch up to his fellows.