Thirty-five paintings, practically all the same: indescribable
black scribblings on a black background.
The day they arrived at the gallery I unpacked them
one by one, going faster and faster, wanting to see
the surprise and the splash of colour. At first glance
everyone thought they were sinister. Even Jacques, my
colleague. He’s the master picture-hanger, I’m just his
“We’re pushed for time, young ’un. Doors open in
twenty five minutes!”
The director of the gallery only gave us four days
to set up the exhibition, all the paintings and three
monumental sculptures which nearly did Jacques’s
back in. Strips of torn steel soldered together, piled up
to twelve feet high. Two whole days getting them in
position, with two of us at it. I can remember the look
on the movers’ faces when they delivered them. “Can’t
they do stuff which fits in a lorry, these useless artists?”
Removal men often have trouble, with contemporary
works of art. Jacques and I do too, even though we’re
used to it. We don’t always know how to take them,
these pieces. Literally and figuratively. We may think
we’re ready for anything, but we never know quite
what’s going to appear from the back of the articulated
Twenty to six, and the private view officially starts
at six o’clock. The champagne is chilling, the waiters
are all done up in their ties, and the cleaner has just
finished vacuuming the five thousand square feet of
carpeting. And we always have a last-minute problem;
it never fails. But it takes more than that to panic my
“Where are we putting it?” I ask.
That’s the problem. Hanging thirty-five homogenous
paintings all in the same family is easy. But there’s one
little lost orphan amongst them. When I unwrapped it
I thought at first that it had got in there by mistake,
and that I’d already seen it somewhere else, in another
collection. Unlike the others, this one is very colourful
with lots of bright yellow and something dazzling about
it, an academic portrayal of a church spire emerging
from surrounding colour. It’s lighter, more cheerful,
you could say. Joyful even . . . but I don’t think that’s
a term approved by the upper echelons of the art
We kept it till last. The gallery director, the eminent
Madame Coste who specializes in the 1960s, has
breezed through without helping us out.
“That painting’s a problem, I know, it doesn’t sit well
with the others. Find it a discreet corner where it can
breathe a bit. Go on, I trust to you, see you later.”
A discreet corner . . . How would this little yellow
thing show up amongst all these big black ones? They
were quite nice, actually, but terribly aggressive.
Jean-Yves, the restorer, can’t stop laughing at the
sight of us going round in circles. He’s lying on the
ground with his white gloves on, touching up the corner
of a painting that was damaged during the setting
up. He’s almost finished.
“Only a quarter of an hour left!” he yells to wind us
up a bit more.
Visitors are pressing their foreheads against the glass
door, invitation in hand, and already drooling at the
thought of the canapés.
“Try over by the window,” Jacques says.
I hold the painting up at arm’s length. He stands
back a bit to see if it works.
“Hmph . . .”
“We’ve only got ten minutes,” I tell him.
“It’s still hmph.”
He’s right. There’s an unfortunate contrast between
the spotlights and the daylight. The Minister may be
coming to the private view, and if we’re found here like
a couple of idiots with a painting still in our hands
Mother Coste will have a fit. It reminds me of the time
we got a piece from Australia two hours before the
opening. It was in a wooden trunk, fifteen bottles filled
with varying amounts of water; it was called “Shark”.
No photo, no instructions, and the artist was at the
Biennale in Sao Paulo. The visitors were starting to
scratch at the door. In a terrible effort of concentration,
Jacques tried to get inside the artist’s head. Click:
if they were arranged in a particular order, the water
level in the bottles created the outline of a shark, jaw,
dorsal fin and tail. We finished just in time. Everyone
admired that particular piece – and I admired Jacques.
He’s walking in circles, furious and calm at the same
time. Jean-Yves has finished his touching up and is
“Hey, you’re quite a double act, you could entertain
the gallery . . .”
“Shut it,” Jacques says serenely.
He draws a hammer from his tool belt and takes a
hook from the pocket of his overalls.
“I’ve got it, young ’un.”
He hares off and, carrying the painting, I follow him
as best I can into a room where there are already four
paintings. He takes two down, puts one back up, paces
round, takes the others off . . . they’re all on the floor,
I can tell this is heading for disaster, he swaps two
over then feverishly reverses the decision. Liliane, the
attendant, comes by, key in hand, and warns us that
she can’t delay the opening. Jacques doesn’t listen to
her; he carries on waltzing to a rhythm even he doesn’t
understand. An expanse of wall has just appeared, he
plants the nail without even measuring the height.
“Go on, hang it there,” he tells me.
I hang the painting and look all round the room.
Everything is on the wall; the black ones are lined up at
the top end and the yellow one is on a “reverse” wall,
you don’t see it as you come in, but only as you leave.
Isolated, but there all the same. I don’t even have to
check it with the spirit level.
Coste comes in, all fidgety and dolled up in her
“That’s great, boys, you deserve a glass of champagne.
But go and get changed first.”
With our overalls and our hammers, we look pretty
untidy. Jean-Yves comes over to the yellow painting and
looks at it very closely.
“It’s a real problem, this picture,” he says.
“We’re well aware of that.”
“No, no, there’s something else . . . I don’t know
what it is . . . A mixture of oils and acrylics . . . it’ll never
last. And there’s something weird about the spire,
don’t know what but . . .”
“People can paint with whatever they like, can’t
The first visitors are coming slowly into the room.
“Does this picture have a title?” Jean-Yves asked me.
“I have no idea.”
“Odd . . .”
With her firm smile, Coste asks us if we could leave.
We do as we’re told.
Ten minutes later, all fresh and clean, we meet up
again – Jean-Yves, Jacques and myself – by the reception
desk where Liliane is frenetically handing out catalogues
to journalists. The words “Etienne Morand Retrospective”
are written in white on a black background.
A waiter offers us a glass each. I decline.
“Why do you never drink?” Jacques asks.
The hall is filling with the usual hubbub, and people
are gathering round the enormous sculpture in the
“I don’t like champagne.”
And that’s not true: I love it, but after six o’clock I
have to have an absolutely clear head. It’s going to be a
long evening, not here but not far away, just up the
road. It would be too complicated to explain all that
Jean-Yves looks up from the catalogue and closes it.
“The yellow painting’s called Attempt 30, and it was
Morand’s last piece of work.”
“Why his last?”
“He died not long afterwards, of cancer. And there
are no others called Attempt. It’s odd to paint nothing
but black and then to finish with yellow.”
“Oh, that’s all part of the impenetrable mystery of
the creative process,” I say. “God knows what goes on
in a painter’s mind. Especially if he knew he had cancer.
It didn’t stop him making sculptures with a blowtorch,
so why not use a bit of yellow . . .?”
But Jean-Yves is right: the painting is odd. What
intrigues me more than the colour is the image. All
the rest of Morand’s output is completely abstract,
and then there’s this extraordinarily precise church
spire . . . I really feel I’ve seen that combination of
colour and subject before. It’s funny, it’s as if the
painter wanted to conclude his work with a denial of
everything he had done before, with a hint of . . . a
hint of life. . . But I don’t have time to ponder this:
“Aren’t you going to stay?” asks Jacques.
“You never stay. After six o’clock you whisk out of
here like a whippet! We don’t see you for dust! One
day will you tell me what you do after six o’clock? Are
you in love?”
“What is it, then?”
I start my life, that’s all. My life happens somewhere
else: it starts after six pm and ends late into the night.
I take my coat and give a general wave. I’m always
bored at private views, anyway. Liliane asks me to come
by tomorrow to fill in a form with my hours and get my
pay. A fond wave to the whole team and a long goodbye
to contemporary art. Now I’m concentrating on
my own art.
Monsieur Perez, the concierge, sees me leave.
“So, youngster, off to find your friends!”
“Yup! See you tomorrow!” I say to cut any conversation
short, as usual.
And it’s over . . .
I come out of the gallery and head quickly towards
the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré. The days are getting
longer, the streetlights are not yet lit. Good old
February, especially the end of the month. A bus passes
and I cross the street on a green light. I cut across the
Avenue Hoche and pull up the collar of my coat; it’s a
stubbornly cold winter. In the Place des Ternes the
flower market is getting prettier by the day, and the
staff at the brasserie throw out binfuls of oyster shells,
it’s still the season. I’m in a good mood this evening,
and I’m going to bring the house down.
On the Avenue Mac-Mahon a Renault 5 beeps at me;
I never use the crossings – never mind.
I look up before going in, just to see the huge sign to
the temple. My temple.
ACADEMIE DE L’ETOILE
I take the stairs up to the second floor to get to the
room. I take a deep breath, wipe my hands on the front
of my coat and go in.
The lights, the sound, the smell, the coming and
going. . . I’m at home. Benoît and Angelo give me a
welcoming squeal, the players perched on the mezzanine
look down at me, and I raise my hand high. René,
the manager, pats me on the back, and the waitress
Mathilde takes my coat. People are playing, smoking,
having a good time. I need this, all this explosive life,
after hours of concentrating on nails and picture
hooks. The audience are not the same brand of people
you get at private views. Here, they don’t think about
anything, they even forget the game, they cheer and
heckle or they can even stay silent for hours. And I’m
like an addict who becomes himself again after the first
fix, at nightfall. And happy with it too. The neon lights
are on over every billiards table except for No. 2: it’s
reserved. I spot a boy getting up from his chair shyly
and coming over towards me. I don’t know why I
think of him as a boy when he’s at least my age – early
thirties. He barely opens his mouth, but I cut him
short straightaway, still staying as polite as possible,
“We were meant to meet at six, weren’t we? Listen. . .
I’m really sorry but this evening there’s a game with
the second-ranked French player. I’m not playing, but
I really don’t want to miss it. I’ve got you here for
nothing . . .”
“Uh . . . it doesn’t matter, we can put the lesson off
till tomorrow,” he says.
“Tomorrow . . . ? Yes, tomorrow, and, in return, I
won’t charge you for it. At about six, like today.”
“That’s fine . . . but this evening, can I stay? I mean
. . . can I watch?”
“Of course! You should really make the most of the
opportunity and book a table to get some practice, to
do a series of ‘breaks’.”
To make this clearer, I starting positioning the balls
that René has just brought over.
“No more than eight inches between the whites, and
– with the red one – vary the distance: start off with it a
hand’s width from the one you want to strike. Don’t
worry about playing for position for now.”
“What is ‘playing for position’? You’ve already told
me but I’ve . . .”
“It’s when you play a point and try to get all the
balls as close to each other as possible, to prepare
for the next point. But we can do that a bit later,
I play the stroke as slowly as I can and hold my
position so that he can memorize the movement.
“The most important thing is to stay absolutely
parallel to the baize, I can’t stress that enough: the
slightest angle, and you’ve had it, okay? You strike
the upper part of the ball with a tiny bit of sidespin to
the left and you’re rolling.”
I don’t feel like going back over all the different
phenomena hiding behind that one word “rolling”.
Not again, it took me a good hour in the last lesson.
And you can get to the point where the expression
doesn’t mean anything any more, they either feel it or
they don’t, and it comes to them gradually. The boy
doesn’t look very sure of himself as he picks up his
brand new cue, runs a line of blue chalk over the tip
and puts the balls back in position. I turn away so as
not to put him off.
Everything looks ready at No. 2. René has just taken
the cover off and is brushing the baize. Langloff, the
champion, is screwing his mahogany cue together over
in a corner. He lives in a far-flung suburb and hardly
every comes to Paris, just for the national championships
or exhibition matches, and sometimes, like this
evening, to visit his old friends. His game is a bit austere
with no flourishes, but his technique won him the title
three times. He was thirty-six back then. Every time I
see him play I steal something from him: a mannerism,
a gesture, a shot. It will take me years’ more work to get
to that level, that’s what René tells me. But he can tell
In fact, I haven’t come just to watch: I know that
Langloff likes playing three-way games, and René has
promised to suggest me for this evening’s match. I’ve
been thinking about it all week, that’s why I was in such
a hurry when I left the gallery.
René is talking to Langloff. I can see what he’s up
to; he’s talking to him about me. I cross my arms and
stay sitting on my seat, looking up at the ceiling. It
isn’t easy playing with a much younger player. I would
completely understand if he refused.
“Hey, Antoine! Come over here . . .”
I jump to my feet. René does the introductions, and
Langloff shakes my hand.
“So, are you the child prodigy? René tells me you’re
pretty tough for a youngster.”
“We’ll see about that. How would you like a three-way
How would I like it? How do you think!
This evening I really mustn’t let my friends down. I
shake hands with an old boy who spends all his time
holed up in here but hasn’t played for two years. “My
arthritis!” he says when I suggest a little warm-up. He
is sixty-nine, and I am sure he would still hold his
ground pretty well. And when I think how long he has
been playing I reckon that, at thirty, I have another
forty years ahead of me. Forty years of learning. Forty
years of pleasure, of jubilation every time a point is
made. Sooner or later I will put in for the Championship.
All I want is to score the points, I want prizes for
beautiful shots, I want to be able to do things which
defy the laws of physics, I want the mahogany cue to be
an extension of my index finger, I want the balls to
take up impossible angles, to obey the most absurd
orders, for them to be propelled by remote control
by my hand and my will. Billiards is a pure universe:
everything becomes possible . . . and simple. You never
play the same shot twice in your whole life. Three
spheres in a rectangle – and everything is contained
My life is here, around this rectangle.
Forty years to go.
Angelo is playing with us. He has just positioned the
balls to determine which of us will play first. He has a
thick wop accent, and he always says “when it rolls on
velvet, you know it’s billiards.” I take off my watch and
ask for a minute to warm up, just to see how the cue is
responding. My hands are fine; they know what to do
all by themselves. My eyes are getting used to the light
that shimmers over the baize and stays within the
confines of the table. We can start.
My mind flashes back to my old uncle Basil. I would
have liked him to see me this evening, he taught me to
play in the first place, in Biarritz. I was eighteen, I
could run fast, hit hard and see far. He was on the
brink of senility, it took him ten minutes to cross the
room at the café, and he wore bifocals. But he only
had to pick up his billiard cue and he would show
me how you could flirt with geometric perfection:
those beautiful spheres knocking together, spinning,
I really was hooked for forty years’ worth then.
In the last six games I have only got to my feet eleven
times. Angelo has left us together, Langloff and myself,
for the last two hours. My best break earned me twentyfour
points in succession. Langloff watched me with
a strange look in his eye: not really worried, more
intrigued. We all knew he would put us in our place,
but I kept on at him with the determination of a terrier.
At one point I even played a variation of a shot he
played last year. I thought it was so beautiful that I
spent hours practising to get it right. He remembered
it, and it made him laugh. I barely heard the cues
being drummed on the ground to acknowledge the
shot (our form of applause); I was hypnotized. Everything
has worked for me this evening, specially the
“screw” shots. When I opened my eyes again, the fluorescent
lights were all out except for ours, and there
were a dozen or so aficionados watching us in silence.
Angelo was there, chalk in hand, keeping note of my
score with undisguised joy. René had lowered the
blinds, as he usually does after eleven o’clock. Langloff
concluded the match magnificently on a point off
no less than five cushions – well, you have to end on
We all cheered. René switched off the lights over
No. 2, and Langloff took my arm to take me to one side.
“You had me going there, young man.”
“You must be joking! You were three sets up on
me . . .”
“No, no, I know what I’m talking about. René tells
me you don’t have a coach.”
“Well . . . Yes and no . . . I’ve got René, Angelo and
“You need to step up a gear. I’ve got my last Championship
this year, and after that I want a youngster to
bring on. You’ve got what it takes. Trust me.”
René comes over to join us and pats my cheek; I
don’t know what to say. He agrees with Langloff: I’m
their great hope in this place.
“Think about it, young man,” says the champion,
putting on his mottled grey fur cloak. “We could meet
up again towards the end of the year. Think about
it . . .”
As soon as he leaves the room, René and Angelo
thump me on the neck.
“If you say no, you’re a loser. With him as a coach
you’d be ready for the Championship in a couple of
I feel a bit lost: this has come from nowhere. I need
to get out to think it all over, in peace, in my bed.
I put my wooden cue away in its case and said
goodbye to everyone.
“See you tomorrow.”
Once outside, I took a taxi.
As I lay in bed with my eyes closed, the waltzing balls
carried on spinning in my mind for some time.
I’m not recovering from these late nights very well
at the moment; maybe it’s because of my bedding.
With the pay I get today I can afford to buy a new
mattress. The gallery has just opened, and Liliane is all
bright and fresh. Mind you, it is eleven o’clock already.
“Jacques has dropped by already, at nine o’clock. He
Still half-asleep, I sit down near the reception desk,
which still has an empty champagne glass on it.
“Did it go on late?”
“Till midnight,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe how
many people there were. How about you, what time
did you go on till? Given the state you’re in, you must
have had a wild time.”
The only answer I can manage is a yawn.
“I’ve drawn up your payslip, all you have to do is
check the hours, and I’ll go and get Coste to sign it.
And that’s Antoine off out of here with his money in
his pocket, vanished from the face of the earth until we
dismantle the exhibition, am I right?”
It’s true that I never set foot in this place between
setting up and dismantling an exhibition. Jacques is
the one who takes care of maintenance, once a week.
“Who do these works belong to?” I ask.
“To the nation. Morand gave them to the country.”
To the nation . . . to everyone, in fact. Partly mine
too, then. Coste told us she had met Morand when he
came back from the United States and that she had
very much liked his work. She really wanted to put this
“The Ministry of Culture has loaned us the pieces
for a month,” says Liliane. “When they’re dismantled,
they’ll all go back to the depot. You’re pretty keen on
the depot aren’t you, Antoine?”
Sure, I like it. It’s a huge reservoir of works of art, a
stockroom for part of our heritage. I work there in the
summer when the gallery is closed, in leaner times. It
was Coste who pulled some strings to get me the job.
“When is the next exhibition, actually?”
“March 22, you’ll have four days to set it up. And,
given the type of pieces, it’ll be quite a workout.”
“What sort of stuff is it?”
“They’re installations, objects mounted on plinths.”
Bad news . . . I fear the worst. I hate that sort of
thing, weird objects, African statuettes with personal
stereos, toothbrushes mounted on breezeblocks, basketballs
in aquariums and all sorts of other stuff.
It’s the post-Oxfam effect. For three years now, contemporary
art has been competing with a bric-a-brac
shop. It’s the cult of the practico-inert: you look at a
tin-opener on a plinth and you ask yourself all those
questions you would never ask in your own kitchen.
Fine but . . . Jacques and I just can’t help laughing. I
can’t count the number of times I’ve had to tell visitors
that the ashtray and umbrella stand were not part of
“Can you keep an eye on things for me for quarter of
an hour? I’ll go and get your cheque.”
This is the usual procedure. I quite like playing the
part of the museum attendant, and it means I can
wake up slowly. But it actually involves the work of a
Titan; you really need an extensive knowledge of inertia.
People often find museum attendants funny, they
wonder what they’re thinking about, or people say that
they are in love with one particular piece of work, that
they spend their days daydreaming, sitting there for
thirty years with their eyes locked vaguely but doggedly
onto the same still-life. Usually it’s a plucked pheasant
and two rather ripe apples on a willow basket. But here
it’s more likely to be a willow pheasant and a rather
ripe basket on two plucked apples.
Out of curiosity, I glance at the visitors’ book to
read the praise, insults and graffiti left by the guests
yesterday evening. By looking through this, even the
very day after the private view, you can tell whether an
exhibition will do well or not. And it’s not looking
good for the Morand retrospective. “Rubbish, and it’s
the taxpayer who’s footing the bill ” or there’s “A beautiful
exhibition. Congratulations” or “I can do just as well,
and here’s my address” or even “Thirty years too late.
Contemporary art doesn’t stop in the 1960s!”
I really like this big white book, it’s the only way the
general public can express their opinion, anonymously
or openly, about what they have seen. The Morand
Exhibition won’t get ten visitors a day. But people do
realize they are taking a risk when they go into a modern
art gallery, they don’t necessarily expect to see
anything beautiful or decent. Otherwise they would go
to the Louvre. And those who, like me, don’t know
much about it, and who manage three shy little steps
over towards something impossible to approach . . .
well, they deserve the right to scribble a little something
in the visitors’ book.
A man comes in and smiles.
“Is it open to look round?”
“Is it free?”
“Yes. Come on in.”
He doesn’t even glance at the sculpture in the foyer
and goes straight into one of the other rooms. Not
hanging about, then. He is wearing the complete
panoply of the gentleman farmer. If I had some money
I would dress like that: a herringbone suit, almost
certainly Harris tweed, a beige shirt, a glossy brown tie,
big English shoes and a crumpled Burberry over his
shoulder. Let’s see when I get my next pay packet . . .
And if Liliane thinks of bringing back a cup of coffee
. . . I could leave here on top of the world with a
cheque in my hand and a long, lazy afternoon ahead
of me. To relieve the boredom, I pick up a catalogue
and leaf through it, trying to find the painter’s
Etienne Morand was born at Paray-le-Manial (Burgundy)
in 1940. After studying at the School of Fine Art he left
for New York in 1964, drawn by the Abstract Expressionist
movement. He took a close interest in the techniques used . . .
I stop reading abruptly.
A sound . . .
Liliane still isn’t back.
It may not be very important, a spotlight that has
fizzled out or the wire stretching under the weight of a
painting, but I have to get up. Unless it’s that visitor
who has decided, as so many of them do, to try and
straighten a picture with a little nudge of his thumb. If
that’s what it is, I will have to follow him up with the
I’ll have to do a quick round of the room at the
end – softly, softly – even though I hate acting suspicious.
As I make my way over, the crackling gets louder.
I arrive in the room and the man turns round. I
scream . . .
“But . . . !! You’re . . . you’re . . .”
I’m trying to find a word, an insult perhaps, but I
don’t know what people say in this sort of situation.
He gives one final jerk with the Stanley knife to
free the canvas from the gaping frame. The yellow
I stammer, whispering various words that stay stuck
in my throat.
He calmly finishes the job.
I want to reduce the distance between us, but I can’t
take a single step forward, pacing ineffectually in front
of an invisible, insurmountable wall.
Terror . . .
I lean forwards, twice, without succeeding in moving
my legs. I need to break through the bricks, but the
soles of my shoes stay rooted to the spot. He is getting
flustered too, crumpling the canvas and only managing
to screw it into a ball under his Burberry. In
order to get out he has to get past me, to walk round
me or plough right through me; he hesitates, the
same wall is stopping him from taking any initiative,
then he shakes his head and brandishes the Stanley
“Get out of the way . . . this is nothing to do with
you!” he shouts.
I don’t know anything about fighting, I ought to
jump at his throat or maybe . . . or maybe I should run
to the exit and block the doorway . . . shut him in . . .
I really should step towards him, not let him see that
I’m at a complete loss, empty . . . my arms are hollow, I
can’t get them over this wall of terror.
“Get out of my way . . . for God’s sake, get out of my
I clenched my fists before taking off and launched
myself at him. I clung to his collar with both hands and
dragged down on them furiously to try and get him to
the floor. He struggled, and I fell with him. Kneeling
on the ground, my fist crashed into his jaw, I struck
again, then turned my head, and the blade of the
Stanley knife came and planted itself in my cheek. I
screamed and released my grip, he drove the blade
deeper into my flesh, and I could feel my cheek ripping
right down to the jaw.
I stayed motionless for a second. A sheet of blood
glided down over my neck.
I cried out.
Sputters of blood spurted from between my lips.
Then a great gush of it meant I couldn’t utter a sound.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see him getting
to his feet and picking up his raincoat.
I forgot how much it hurt, a surge of anger heaved
me to my feet. He started to run. I lurched after him
with one hand on my cheek, trying to hold back goodness
knows what – the blood streaming down my
sleeve, scraps of flesh, I don’t know, all I could see was
him, his back. I ran a little faster and threw myself
forwards to bring him down. He spun round and fell to
the floor in front of the sculpture in the foyer. He
drummed his heels into my face, something cracked
not far from the gap in my cheek, and my right eye
closed of its own accord.
With the other eye I saw him regain his balance
on his knees and pull himself up on the sculpture’s
plinth. With one hand he gripped one of the metallic
branches and pulled on it to bring the whole
lump of metalwork down on its side. He gave me
one last kick in the face, I howled like an animal and
brought my arms up over my eyes: everything went
I forced myself to look up.
I could feel myself slowly receding. I felt the blackout
rising in me like a hiccup. Just the one.
But before that there was a brief second in slow
I registered everything at the same time: the silence,
the heat, the flow of blood over my body.
And that silvery avalanche which started oscillating