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The Faun of Rome: A Romance

by Oscar Wilde, edited by Nate Maturin

Nate Maturin, Author

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Chapter 5: The Sculptor's Studio

While Miriam continued to work diligently at her art, a weary restlessness drove her abroad on any errand or none. In such a mood, she went one morning to visit Kenyon in his studio, upon invitation to see a new statue of his, which was now almost settled in clay, and on which he had staked many hopes. In all the difficulties that beset her life, it was Miriam’s impulse to draw near Hilda for feminine sympathy, and the sculptor for brotherly counsel, and so she visited his studio with a dual purpose in mind.

That studio was in a cross-street between the Corso and the Via della Ripetta. Narrow, gloomy, and bordered on both sides by tall and aged buildings, that lane resembled so many of the Roman streets that without a firm sense of one’s surroundings, it might easily have been mistaken for any other part of the city. Between San Giacomo and Santa Maria, however, the lane had a charm for its more perceptive visitors, amongst whom we may count Miriam. The studios of sculptors are often but rough and dreary-looking, sharing their primary characteristics with a stone-mason’s workshop. Kenyon’s contained but one room of bare plank floor and plastered walls, with the remainder of his apartments more comfortably and socially arranged. In that workroom, Kenyon was joined by two of his most trusted assistants. A skilful workman beat out chisel strokes with ease and sure effect; another was at work on a bust, nearly completed, shaving off delicate slivers that left behind little heaps of marble dust to attest to their dismissal. Here, as in all such studios, one could witness the process of actually chiselling the marble with which modern sculptors have so little to do. In Italy, a class of men exist whose mechanical skill is exquisitely fine, perhaps finer than that of the ancient artificers who wrought out the designs of Praxiteles, or even of Praxiteles himself. Whatever representation can be effected in marble, they are capable of performing, if once they have the object before their eyes.

And so it was to this work that Kenyon himself turned. In lieu of a table and drawing paper, some hasty sketches of nude figures in various poses were arrayed on the whitewash of the wall. The sculptor’s earliest glimpses of ideas that might at some later point be condensed into imperishable stone were ranged alongside a few roughly modelled miniatures, in clay or plaster, exhibiting ideas as they advanced towards immortal marble. Kenyon himself at this moment worked upon an exquisitely designed clay form, perhaps more interesting than the final marble itself as the intimate production of the sculptor’s own hands, and being nearest to his imagination and his heart. Once complete, a plaster-cast from that clay model might be taken, in which the beauty of the form vanishes, submerged again into the material of its shape. It is with but such a shape that a sculptor must present his mechanically skilled assistants, and a sufficient block of marble, and so instruct them that the figure is imbedded deep within the stone and must be freed, allowed to resurface with pure white radiance in the precious rock of Carrara. In due time, without him touching the work even with his own finger, the figure that must have existed there since the limestone ledges of Carrara were first made will be freed from its encumbrances, the suffocating embrace of the outer marble, and emerge to make him renowned.

Entering this thrum of activity, Miriam stopped an instant to look at a half-finished figure, the arms and legs of which seemed to be struggling against their bonds in order to scatter and dissolve the hard marble around them by their effort. Kenyon threw a veil over the figure upon which he was working and stepped across them room to receive his visitor. He was dressed in a lilac blouse, with a little dark red cap atop his head; a workman’s costume which became him just as well as the formal garments which he wore whenever he passed across the threshold into the mundane world beyond.

“Your studio always makes me fancy that our individual fates exist in the limestone of time just as these busts and figures in their blocks of marble. We fancy that we carve it out, but its ultimate shape is all prior to our action and mocks at it.”

Kenyon gave half a smile at Miriam’s ponderous greeting. He had a face which, when Time had worked upon it—or had her assistants do so—but just a little more, would offer a worthy subject for an artist such as himself: his features were already finely cut, an ideal forehead, deeply set eyes, and a mouth delicate and sensitive behind the light-brown beard that obscured it. “Miriam, I will not offer you my hand. It is grimy with Cleopatra’s clay.”

“Quite right, Kenyon. I will not touch your clay. It is too earthy and human, and I have spent the morning with my own work that is too nervous and full of agitation. I have come to try whether there is any coolness or repose among your marbles. What have you to show me?”

“You may look at everything here,” replied Kenyon. “I love to have you and your fellow painters look at my work. Your own art throws a light on mine that allows you to see it with an unprejudiced eye, more valuable than that of the world generally, and of my fellow sculptors, too. We are never able to judge each other fairly.”

Pleased with his gentle invitation, and happy to turn her mind to concerns other than her own, Miriam looked around her at the specimens in marble and clay, comprising most of the designs that Kenyon had thus far produced. He was still too new in Rome to have accumulated a large gallery of such things, although he had been there several years together. What he had gathered were chiefly his attempts and experiments, in various directions, as he acted as a stern tutor to himself. His failures, from which he profited greatly, he thus displayed alongside his successes, which showed great merit and greater promise, the delicacy of form and suggestions of skill amplified by the pure, fine glow of the new marble.

Miriam first admired the statue of a pearlfisher, beautiful and lithe, who had got entangled in the weeds at the bottom of the sea and now lay dead among the rich shells and seaweeds. “What a strange efficacy there is in death, but physically the form has not settled itself into sufficient repose”, Miriam remarked, recalling Kenyon’s criticism of the Dying Gladiator.

He chuckled. “Miriam, your keen insight into artistic form spares no-one, and I’m grateful for it. Perhaps try this other offering?”

He led her to a piece in another style, a grand, calm head of Milton, moulded after the long and careful study of all known representations of the poet with whom Kenyon shared a birthplace. The bust over the poet’s final resting place in Grey Friars Church, and the original miniatures and pictures, wherever to be found, Kenyon had sought out and mingled the special truth of each in his own work, after long perusal and deep love of Paradise Lost, Comus, and L’Allegro. The sculptor had succeeded, even better than he knew, in inspiring his marble with the poet’s genius. Other faces there were, too, of men whose immortalisation will puzzle posterity, but whose petrifactions will no doubt serve to build stone walls, or burn into quicklime, as well as if the marble had never been blocked into the guise of human heads. It is an awful thing, indeed, this endless endurance, the near indestructibility, of marble; the idea of leaving our features as an ivory ghost among strangers of another generation ought to make us shiver. It bids us to measure the little time during which our lineaments are likely to be of interest to other human beings.

“Milton I allow, as a figure not likely to see a diminution of reputation in this century, or the next, but these other men I do not recognise and wonder at the labour that has gone into memorialising them.”

“They each have something in them that was to me a fascination; a turn of the mouth or angle to the chin that I sought to capture, and once wrought, forgot. They serve me as reminders of types rather than of men,” Kenyon explained.

“It would be a better state of mind for man to be content to leave no definite memorial than the grass that springs above his grave. It will be a fresher and better world when it flings off this great burden of stony memories,” Miriam said.

“Miriam, this goes against my whole art!” Kenyon explained. “Sculpture gives men natural delight, and it appears to me a proof that it is good to work with all time before our view, and to allow those memorials that will survive to do so.”

“Kenyon, we must not quarrel. Fling your heavy stones at poor Posterity. Truly, I think you are as like to hit the mark as any of your fellow sculptors. These busts, much as I seem to scorn them, are the work of a magician who turns feverish and hot-blooded men into cool and tranquil marble. What a blessed change! Would that you could do as much for me, Kenyon!” For a moment, Miriam had lost herself amongst the marbles and their predecessors, but now Kenyon looked at her askance, and she flushed a little, although the chink of the workmen’s chisel and the dull thud of their mallets went undisturbed. It was to little purpose that Miriam approached the gulf between her and Kenyon, to call out, “Help, friend!”, or to try his wisdom with her the solitary struggles that drove her weary restlessness. It is too often that an artistic individual is set ajar with the very world, and from pride or self-sacrifice, the wish to spare others pains, pines instead of demanding friendship and intimate communion.

Kenyon, his sense of delicacy too keen to allow him to press his friend further in the present company, only smiled and said, “I would gladly model your fine, most expressive face, Miriam, if you will only sit for me.”

Miriam patted the shoulder of Milton and shook her head. “That was not what I meant, Kenyon.”

“Let me show you something else.” Kenyon took out of his desk an old-fashioned ivory box. The cream surface had yellowed with age, but it was richly carved with antique figures and foliage that had still a sharpness of representation. It might have been wrought by Benvenuto Celleni himself, or at least was evidently of his school and century. That pretty little box might have once served as a jewel-case for a grand lady at the court of the Medici, or the coffer of a noble brother of that family. “Do you recognise this?” Kenyon asked, holding it out to his fellow artist.

“It is very beautiful!” Miriam exclaimed with a smile of pleasure as she cupped the box in her two hands and tried its lid. “But its contents even more so.” Having lifted the lid, no blaze of fine gems struck her. Instead, within, lapped in a fleece the colour of the original ivory itself, a small and beautifully formed hand, delicately shaped in marble. “It is as fine as Loulie’s hand with its baby-dimples, which Tyrrell showed me at Florence, and expresses as much as Harriet’s clasped hands of the Brownings, symbolising the heroic union of those two individual poetic personalities.” The lid securely tilted, Miriam reached into the coffer to test gently the flowing lines of that sculptured hand. “Touching such lovely fingers, one might believe that a virgin warmth might steal into them, and flush pink against the delicate cream of its surrounds. You have wrought it passionately, Kenyon, in spite of its maiden palm and dainty fingertips. However did you persuade her to let you take her hand in marble?”

“She is a copyist and appreciates the need to work from life at times to remind oneself of the movement of flesh and living things, but I stole it from her in a sketch, there on the wall.” Kenyon gestured to the whitewashed walls that bore his efforts in charcoal. “The entire hand as it is now is but a reminiscence.”

“She, too, did not have the time to spare to sit more traditionally for you?” Miriam asked with a little purse of her lips. “It is strange that, with all her delicacy and fragility, Hilda makes the impression of being utterly sufficient in herself, and so I suppose has little care for seeking out the immortalisation of your art, Kenyon.”

“That is very true, Miriam. You and she, like a good many women distinguished in art, literature, or science, lead lives in which to sit for hours at hand as the mere projection of a beautiful aura or personality is too much to bear. I have the Old Masters as my competition for your interest and attention as models, as well as connoisseurs! But one day I will persuade you both to sit.”

“Well, perhaps she may sprain the delicate wrist which you have recreated to such perfection. In that case, you may hope. But now, show me your newest work, Kenyon, your latest passion.”

“Here it is, under its veil!” Kenyon laid a gentle hand atop the veiled head, such as it was. “It is a mere bust, I am afraid.”

“One day, Kenyon, you will be the first brave sculptor to attempt a Venus in a hoop-petticoat, and your efforts will confirm in all the sculptural sceptics that, except for portrait-busts, sculpture has no longer any right to claim a place among the living arts. So it is best that you have made this one, your best, a bust.”

“You are severe about the future of my art,” Kenyon replied, half smiling, half serious. “Although you are not wholly wrong. We sculptures are bound to accept drapery of some kind, as our ancestors before us, and we make the best of it. Veils can be made translucent in marble as in lace. But to adopt the costume of to-day and give it a sculptural form would be to ask too much of even the most skilled in this inartistic age.”

“It would be a boulder, indeed!” rejoined Miriam, laughing. “And yet there are not, as you will own, more than half a dozen positively original statues or groups in the world, and these few are of immemorial antiquity. A new group or attitude would be too much for the forms of the day.”

“Pray stop, Miriam,” Kenyon cried, lifting his hand from the clay model beneath its veil, “or I shall fling away my chisel and take up your brush, and then we must be competitors instead of friends.”

“Dear Kenyon, I would not have that,” Miriam said, placing a hand on his arm; “either the competition nor the end of our friendship.” One of the angles of his shoulders elevated in a momentary twitch before he lifted his hand and again placed it upon the veil of the sculpture.

“Have no fear, Miriam. As long as the Carrara quarries still yield pure blocks, I shall endeavour along with future sculptors to revive this noblest of the arts, and to people the modern world with shapes of delicate grace.”

“My friend, I have no fear that you will do your utmost to beautify the world in which you live.” She gestured around the room.

“Be gentle, then, with this intended Cleopatra, upon whom those fragile hopes are pinned.” He drew away the cloth that served to preserve the clay’s mobility, and stood apart to allow Miriam to contemplate the sitting figure.

Cleopatra was attired from head to foot in a costume of ancient Egypt, minutely detailed, studied from the strange sculpture of that country, its reliquaries, drawings, and other artefacts, exhumed from pyramids and graves and dispersed across the globe for curious viewers to apprehend. The stiff Egyptian head-dress had been adhered to, and it was upon this that Kenyon’s hand had lain during their talk. And yet the historic and queenly garb was alive with the sensuous charms of a woman aware of her attire’s capacity to accentuate her beauty and her majesty. Although captured in repose, Cleopatra sat tall with that marvellous quality of liveliness that distinguishes that which is about to rise from that which has sunk down. Apart from the fever and turmoil of her life, yet the woman seemed about to rise again, or to lift an arm to pass judgment over some quarrel or quandary or another. She awaited, so it seemed, Marc Antony’s arrival in Alexandria, assured of her position both as queen and woman.

“The face is a remarkable success, Kenyon,” Miriam breathed, admiring the head of the figure from all angles. Kenyon had not shied away from the true, Nubian lips of Egyptian physiognomy, and that artistic courage had been rewarded. Cleopatra’s beauty was revealed as all the richer and triumphant than if he had employed the Grecian type, his excesses heaped upon themselves until an excess of excesses fascinated the viewer. “Her expression is of heavily revolving thought, with a great softness in her frame, but she seems at any moment prepared to act, as quick and cruel as fire or the sea,” Miriam remarked. “Tell me, Kenyon. Did she ever try, while you were creating her, to overcome you with her power and beauty? Were you not afraid to touch her as she grew towards warm life beneath your hand?”

Kenyon laughed. “I have never yet accomplished Pygmalion’s trick, Miriam; although if I were to achieve that greatness, I would wish for this form to be the chosen one.”

“My dear friend, do not lament your failing to cast Venus’ own spell. It is your best work!”

“It is like all my works, a concretion of thought, emotion, and toil,” Kenyon said in return, “but I am glad that you admire it so. I kindled a great mental fire and threw in the material; from the heat uprose Cleopatra as she sits there now.”

“The greatest marvel is the womanhood that you have so thoroughly combined with her imperial state. I recognise its truth. I fancy her conscience is still as white as any of a figure of the more ethereal type. Where did you find that secret?”

Kenyon observed his friend with care. Her voice was filled with much emotion, sounding unnatural all at once. “I can only say that if there is womanhood in her, then I would needs rely upon you to show it to me, Miriam. She is as she arose from my mind, but as to a source, I could not name one.”

“Oh, my friend!” Miriam would have cried, except the presence of Kenyon’s two assistants bid her hush her voice. “You see farther into womanhood than you perceive yourself, in your sharp view of the essences of personality. Would that you could help me!”

“Miriam, dear friend. If I can help you, speak freely.” Kenyon’s response was frank and kind, and he reached out to take Miriam’s hand in his own. It fluttered for a moment, warm and panicked like a winged creature, before it grew still.

“I fear not, Kenyon. I fear that it is only a morbid sense of my own mortal smallness that moves me to such absurdities.”

“Miriam, I would help you.”

“Would that I knew how you might, Kenyon.”

Reluctant to force a confidence, and perhaps unconsciously aware of the mystery in which Miriam was enveloped, Kenyon pressed her hand.

“For my griefs, I know how to manage them, unless perhaps you might have the skill to petrify me into a marble companion for your Cleopatra.”

“If ever I can serve you, it would be an honour, but I fear I am not yet at that height of my powers.”

“Then let this moment be forgotten. A man might drown himself in plunging after my secrets, just as your poor pearl-diver.”

Kenyon laughed. “I am done with diving for the day, but perhaps I might interest you in a walk? I had thought to visit Hilda this afternoon, if you would join me. I need only change my jacket and my hat.”

“Gladly. I will wait here with your Cleopatra.”

Kenyon slipped into an inner room and returned a moment later, attired more fittingly for the company of respectable young women. They went down the stairs, and found Miriam’s shadow waiting for her on the street.

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