Short story: The Finish

Natasha May 26 October 2017

Anna could feel the sunscreen intermingled with the balmy perspiration she had worked up during the day, an oily film enveloping her body. It was an uncomfortable dirtiness she knew well, the familiar by-product of being a tourist in summer when you wanted to squeeze all you could out of the holiday, even if it meant foregoing a shower for an extra museum. But she didn’t quite see the point of this museum.

“Unfinished: thoughts left visible,” she read the title off the promotional banners that like breadcrumbs guided her and Rachel along Madison Avenue. “Remind me again why we’re going to an exhibition of works that aren’t complete?”

“It got a really great review in The New Yorker.” Rachel would know – she had been reading it religiously in the lead up to their vacation. Though she was only twenty-one, Rachel inhaled cultured like a septuagenarian with season tickets to the opera, ballet and theatre. She had planned the itinerary with the efficiency of a military strategist and with an evangelists’ zeal. For example, Monday: morning, Morgan Library & Museum; afternoon, MOMA; and in the evening, Midsummer Night’s Swing live music and dance class to keep up Anna’s spirits.

As much as Anna didn’t like to admit it, Rachel was normally right about these things, but, as the younger sibling, whinging was a privilege Anna liked to exercise. Then again, her whinging this time felt justified. The day before, Rachel had proposed that they should visit both the original Met and its newborn sibling, The Met Breuer, in the same day, which had seemed logical as a ticket for one museum gave simultaneous entry to the other. Though, when Rachel had said the Met Breuer was ‘right next to the Met’, Anna hadn’t realised Rachel’s conception of the term meant a half hour walk. You don’t think of museums as active work for the body. For the mind, yes – deciphering works of artistic genius, rewiring the brain to contemplate Mesopotamian ruins in one wing, Turner’s landscapes in the next – but standing around the entire day makes the legs go all jelly-like.

Neither had the energy to rush, and perceived the need to do so as a nuisance wrought by the other: Anna saw Rachel as unflinchingly dogmatic in her insistence upon making it to the guided tour of the Unfinished exhibition at 3.30pm, while Rachel couldn’t help but begrudge Anna the padding steps that had characterised her slow trudge throughout all the exhibitions that morning that had jeopardised arriving at the Breuer in time for the tour according to the schedule she had planned.

When Rachel finally stopped, Anna looked around in confusion. It appeared the Met Breuer was not at all like its grand neo-classical sibling; where the original was laden with marble and pillars, the new museum was a silver variation upon the box-like structure that modernity calls architecture. Pink-faced and heavy breathing late-comers, Rachel and Anna attached themselves to the back of the group and focused on catching their breaths as the curator began to explain the exhibit.

“This exhibition examines the term “unfinished” across the visual arts in the broadest possible way; it includes works left incomplete by their makers, a result that often provides insight into the artists’ creative process, as well as works that engage a non finito—intentionally unfinished—aesthetic that embraces the unresolved and open-ended.”

It was only by the time the group arrived at Klimt’s Frauenbildnis that the sisters had shed the frazzled cloak which lateness drapes the mind with.

Anna and Rachel looked into the tranquil hazel gaze of the woman in the portrait. Her face was the most detailed part of the picture; soft hair like russet clouds framed a countenance that was very pale and, though not beautiful in a conventional sense, had an undeniable mystery to it. Below, the body and dress were fabricated merely from charcoal sketches, which stood out against tentatively placed coloured patches of paint and imprecisely outlined ornaments waiting to be filled in.

“This is one of my personal favourites of the exhibit. Though you might not have guessed it by the look of the painting, its story is not a happy one. It both starts and ends in death. It was commissioned as a posthumous portrait of Maria “Ria” Munk, by her parents after she committed suicide on December 28 1911. Her fiancé, the writer Hanns Heinz Ewers had broken off their engagement via a letter. Klimt had painted two earlier portraits of Ria, neither of which had met the family’s approval, and he himself died before he could complete this third one.”

There was undeniable poetry about the incompleteness which characterised both the painting and the lives that surrounded it. And in that incompleteness in its blatant imperfection there was something tantalising and intimate. For the people gazing upon it, it was as though they were no longer in a gallery but looking at the canvas still hanging upon the artist’s easel, the paint still wet, allowing for its fumes to tangle with the brush strokes of their own minds.

Rachel thought about the cowardice of stinging words like those of Ewers, conveyed through faceless interactions like letters, or in today’s world, the telephone. She thought of Anna, the week before they left, dropping her mobile upon the floor and how then her body followed suit in crumpling upon her knees with the flaccidity of a doll. Something of Anna’s paralysis in the foetal position into which she fell must have been contagious, for Rachel didn’t know what to do. She didn’t have words that would make anything better and she hated wasted breath and time. Even in the gallery, the weight of silence and the expectation to impart big sisterly advice weighed upon Rachel.

She wanted to tell Anna about the rage she felt on her behalf, at Lance breaking up with Anna days before they were about to go on their long-awaited trip. But Rachel’s ire was a confused mixture of indeterminate ratio that was partially felt on Anna’s behalf and partially for herself. Rachel never could quite tell where the line lay between the love she had for her sister that made her feel her pain, and the indignation at that pain that was the venal result of its infringement upon her happiness.

This was their trip – their first one abroad, just the two of them, without their parents. It wasn’t an epic road trip or venture into some remote wilderness, but for millennial young adults brought up with all the middle-class comforts life could offer them, the experience felt novel enough of budgeting their money as well as time, staying in a hostel where a great plastic port-a-loo dominated the room, and assessing menu prices along rows of cheap-eat restaurants like they were on a scavenger hunt. Rachel had images in her head, ideas where their travels might lead them to, who it might lead them to – maybe a lanky musician in a jazz club in Brooklyn. But “Brooklyn’s so far out”, Anna had moaned yesterday evening. So instead, they had crawled, mollusc-like in their jet-lagged stupor, into bed before any of the jazz clubs had opened.

Looking upon Ria Munk, Anna wondered why the expression was so serene, at odds with the curator’s tale of lost love and life. Anna’s logic hypothesised it as the artist’s attempt to appease the grieving family, but then another sense emerged in which Ria Munk’s tranquil gaze was the expression of one who had been released from love’s sadistic tortures. Anna wished she could extricate herself from thoughts of Lance; memories and emotions, conversations and hypothetical scenarios were constantly seething in her mind like an unrelenting tide battering her tired soul. To the abuses of Lance’s ever present spectre in her mind was added a lurking guilt that was never far behind; the knowledge she was poisoning Rachel’s perfectly planned vacation with her broken-hearted lethargy.

The tour having finished, Rachel and Anna walked back to the hostel through Central Park, still straddling the world of the inner eye of all they had seen that day and the outer eye taking in the pleasantness of the evening walk. The humidity had eased and the strength of the midday sun was replaced by her more amenable sister, dusk. Though it was summer, most of the flowers were still out – violet bulbs and pansies lining the walkways, whole bushes with yellow trumpet flowers dripping down from them like fruit. Not in a hurry to be anywhere, the sisters stopped on a bench, and Rachel with a caress took her sister’s hand. Anna squeezed it back, understanding the gesture.

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