Willem Jan Otten, Scribe
This novella just manages the balancing act that’s necessitated by telling its intriguing tale from the perspective of a fine piece of canvas.
Portrait painter Felix Vincent buys the canvas for a special purpose but uses it to earn money to help pay for the house he loves.
Vincent (whom the canvas calls the Creator) has exclusively “painted from life” but goes against these principles to accept a commission from an ageing art critic called Valery Specht to “paint from death”.
Vincent swears to tell no-one about the painting’s subject and Specht assures him that, in painting the portrait, “You will be saving a life.”
With the canvas narrating the story, readers are given a sensual and specific analysis of the act of creation and insights into the role of artist as observer and observed.
There is a painful incident in Vincent’s past that involves “not looking” and readers learn how this drives the artwork’s development.
At one pivot point the canvas perspicaciously asks a question relevant to artists and all morally-motivated human beings, “Who are we if we look but do not see?”
Liam Davison aptly said in The Australian: “Without being overtly religious, Otten is particularly alert to the Christian tradition of representational art and to the liturgical connotations of resurrecting a lost son through a creative act.”
The canvas also tries to understand who it is people talk to when they have something really urgent to say: “They think there is a father — that’s what it seems like to me. Even though they can’t be sure he’s there, they think he is. That must be it. They need someone who never ever lets them down.”
There are dark moments in The Portrait and deep themes about secrecy and self-destructiveness, so don’t go in with blinkered eyes.
David Colmer’s fine English translation means that if you don’t speak Dutch (or Dutch-canvas!) but want to understand more about artists, their creative process and the self-delusions or disclosures this might involve — you now can.