In the summer of 2007, a year before the death of my partner, Mari Tudisco, I took her to a renowned cancer clinic in Bavaria, Germany for a consultation. It was one of those exclusive, hushed, vine-covered private institutions to which celebrities and the wealthy slip discretely away to seek miracle cures reputedly unavailable elsewhere. In this way, before it was all over and Mari breathed her last brave, rattled breath in the hospice facility the following summer, she would try everything from clinical trial chemotherapy treatments, to holistic cures, to the ministrations of a Huichol Indian shaman said to own the gift of healing.
This summer of 2007 would be our last good summer, our last trip together to Europe. Mari was still relatively strong, and even though she knew in her heart that she was dying, she maintained her tremendous sense of joie de vivre; she laughed and loved and lived her life as she always had, as if each day might be her last. “We must accept finite disappointment,” said Martin Luther King, “but never lose infinite hope.”
The consultation at the Bavarian clinic offered little in the way of hope; the doctor there told us that Mari should continue following the course of treatment prescribed by her physicians in America, that they were doing everything possible given the advanced nature of her cancer. And so we returned to Nice, where we had left Mari’s 16-year-old daughter, Isabella, in a tennis camp.
On our first day back, Mari and I were wandering around the Old Port of the city, browsing in antique stores and galleries, which had always been one of our favorite activities together. Indeed, we had first met, six years earlier, in such a place in Tucson, Arizona. Now we walked into one of the antique shops; it was cluttered, disorganized, and dusty, the common natural state of such establishments. I can smell now the musty scent of that store, can see still the slightly dim interior, the jumble of old objects waiting for new life, the dust hanging languidly in the thin beams of sunlight that entered through the crusty windows, all so vivid in my memory of that day. It is both the joy and the pain of this writing life, the conjuring up of our ghosts to the page where they live on forever.
And now Mari stops before a painting resting on the floor, propped against the legs of an old rusted iron garden chair. The painting is unframed, frayed around the edges, damaged in spots.
“Jim, come look at this,” she says. And as I approach she picks the painting up, sets it on the seat of the chair, and takes a step back to study it. Mari is herself a gifted painter, with a fine eye for art. “I love this. Don’t you love it?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I think the artist was quite young when she painted it,” she says.
“How would you know that?”
“Because there is such a sense of joy and innocence about it. It is so full of the spirit and wonder of youth. Don’t you see it?”
“I see a bunch of naked people having a lot of fun!” I say, laughing.
I look on the back of the painting; a tag is pinned to the stretcher bar, noting the price, and: Orgie, Chrysis Jungbluth, v. 1925. And beneath that:
JUNGBLUTH, Chrysis. Boulogne-sur-mer, 23 janvier 1907 –
“Well, if it is accurately dated, you’re right about one thing. She was roughly 18-years old when she painted this.”
“Can we afford to buy it?” Mari asks.
In America, one quickly discovers over the course of a long terminal illness the utter inadequacy of one’s health insurance, how expensive a slow death truly is.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, I just can’t do it right now.”
Mari smiles gently, “Of course, I understand.”
We returned to the United States, and Mari resumed her cancer treatments, and the long agonizing journey we must all make to ash, to dust. Some weeks later, I came upon the business card I had taken from the antique store in Nice, and I remembered again the painting and Mari’s pleasure in it. It is remarkable the things we do, the totems we collect, as if secretly hoping that they might possess some magic properties to keep our doomed loved ones alive. And so on a kind of impulse, I phoned the proprietor and I asked him if he still had the Jungbluth painting. Yes, he said, he did. I purchased it via a bank transfer, and he shipped it to me in America, where I had it professionally restored and framed.
One evening during the holidays, when Isabella was spending the night at a cousin’s house, I gave the painting to Mari as my last Christmas gift to her. She was quite ill by now, very frail and thin, but she had always possessed a childlike side; indeed, all her life Mari exuded that same spirit of joy, innocence and wonder she had identified upon first viewing this painting. And now when I unveiled it before her, her face brightened, her eyes flashed and as sick as she was she became in that instant a young woman again, filled with all the hope and promise of life. “You bought it after all!” she said.
Mari studied the painting for a long time. “I want you to keep this for now,” she said, finally. “And after I’m gone, I want Isabella to have it.”
“Well, of course, it’s yours and then it will be hers,” I answered. “But just out of curiosity, why does a mother want her 16-year-old daughter to have a painting depicting an orgy?”
“I’ll tell you why,” Mari said. “You know as well as anyone that I’ve always been kind of ashamed of my body, embarrassed to show it; I’ve always had a complex about exposing myself. I don’t want Bella to be that way. I want her to feel as free about her body as the women in this painting. Look how happy they are, and so completely without shame. I love that! That’s what I want for my daughter, I want her to feel the same freedom, to feel good in her own skin.”
Mari died seven months later, and three weeks after that Isabella began her senior year of high school. Bella’s biological father had died when she was nine-years-old, and Mari had appointed me to be her legal guardian. And so I looked after her that year, before sending her off to university the following fall.
I did not show Bella the painting until Christmas of 2009, a year and half after her mother’s death, and exactly two years after I had first given it to Mari. Bella was 18-years-old then, becoming overnight a young woman, filled with her own dreams and hopes. She loved Orgie on first sight, in the same way her mother had that day in Nice. I explained that it belonged to her now, but that I would keep it until she had finished college and had a place of her own.
“I just want to be clear about one thing, Bella,” I said. “Your mom did not want you to have this painting in order to encourage you to participate in orgies!” And I told her what Mari had said to me.
After she returned to her college in Vermont at the end of the holidays, Isabella phoned me one afternoon. She had been chosen to write an essay on a subject of her choice, and to read it in front of the entire university—the student body, the faculty and deans. She had decided that she was going to write about the painting, Orgie, and why her mother wished for her to have it, and she asked me questions about the artist, and the date of the painting. I was busy finishing a long overdue novel whose progress had been delayed by Mari’s illness and death, and by my own grief process, all of which had largely closed me down creatively for several years. I knew little more about Chrysis Jungbluth then than I had when Mari and I first saw Orgie in the antique store in Nice. By now I had found photographs of some of her other paintings online, but I still knew nothing more about her personal life than this:
JUNGBLUTH, Chrysis. Boulogne-sur-mer, January 23, 1907 –
Isabella wrote a lovely essay about her mother and the painting. She is a fine writer, a gifted poet, a smart, kind, thoughtful young lady. But she had always been a rather timid child. Indeed, in this regard, Bella was quite unlike her mother, who was ready for any new experience, any new adventure. Mari had always pushed her daughter to try new things—to hike mountains, to swim in the sea, to eat unfamiliar dishes—and not always successfully.
Isabella performed her essay in the auditorium of the university, and afterwards she phoned to tell me about it.
“So how did it go, Bella?” I asked.
“Pretty well, I think.”
“Your essay was well-received?”
“Yeah, I think so,” she said. “When I finished the reading, I opened my shirt.”
“You did what?”
“I opened my shirt. You know at the end of the essay, after I told why my mom wanted me to have the painting, I unbuttoned my shirt and opened it.”
“You exposed yourself in front of the whole college?”
“And, of course, you weren’t wearing a bra, right?”
“That was sort of the whole point, wasn’t it?” she asked.
There was a long pause on the line, as I thought this over. “Wow, Bella…” I said finally, “your mom would be so proud of you.”
Such was the genesis of my search for the young artist named Chrysis Jungbluth—the discovery of this painting, Orgie, on the floor of the antique store in the Vieux Port of Nice. And if the painting itself was the seed of this novel, Isabella exposing her breasts to her university was its first sprout. Bella was roughly the same age as Chrysis Jungbluth had been when she painted Orgie, and now across the decades and through the medium of art, Mari had introduced these young women to each other, and somehow, I felt responsible for both of them.
I finished my long overdue family novel at last, a full seven years after I had started it. The painting, Orgie, now hung in my living room and I looked at it everyday, and everyday I tried to imagine the life of the artist. I began doing some research of my own, searching for Chrysis’s trail, at the very least hoping to put a date at the end of that inconclusive dash. I traveled to France, and spent some days at the Bibliothèque des Beaux-Arts, the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the Bibliothèque de l’INHA; I spoke to gallery owners and art historians, and on a wet, gloomy winter day I took the train up to Boulogne-sur-Mer, to see the town where the infant Chrysis had been born. Very gradually, the path of her life began to unfold before me. I followed it, and I am still following it.
Although the real names of a number of actual historical figures are used in this book, including, of course, the young artist Chrysis Jungbluth, this is a novel, a fiction, an act of imagination, and the characters here portrayed are strictly fictional re-creations.
November 1, 2012