Story 1 in "A Generation of Intimists": A Four Part Series of Unrelated Short Stories Based on Niche 19th Century French Art
By Emily Menges
Some History Before We Start
In the final few decades of the 1800s, the conservative members of the art community in Paris, who were generally in the habit of criticizing anyone and everyone, spent even more of their time than normal in increasing levels of irritation. First the impressionists came on the scene: Manet and Monet (who are two different people), Renoir, Degas, and crew. These artists began ditching the idea of visual perfection, had no real interest in historical and mythological subjects, and instead chose to depict the world as it actually appeared to them at a specific moment in time, which resulted in loose and free brush strokes, painters setting up easels in public parks and bustling city streets, and a distraught group of Parisian art lovers who didn't understand why all the new paintings looked unfinished and amateur. In other words, the impressionists were shaking things up, and they strove to show the world how it truly was, beautiful and imperfect.
This shift toward the "every day" subject matter was one of the many roots that twisted late 19th century art on its path towards what we know of as 'modern art' today, and among the stepping stones of that path emerged the Nabi Brotherhood. The Nabi Brotherhood - a group of young artists in Paris - witnessed the emergence of Impressionism and felt they could could evolve their art even further by adding a missing piece, emotion, which would shift the paintings away from fleeting moments in nature to a "more emotive understanding of the world." Nicknamed the "generation of intimists", they prioritized the conveyance of sensation in their art, a movement which began weaving its way through literature, music, theatre, and art in Paris and the world. While all of the members had varying styles, in their own way they each explored “the comforts [and discomforts] of the interior life and all the emotions it aroused.”
While their manifesto is long and their paintings diverse, I was recently introduced to a couple of the Nabi artists’ work and latched on to a few particular principles: 1. The idea that because of their aforementioned focus on evoking emotion, the actual subject matter of the art became largely besides the point; and 2. By understanding how the private lives of every family is individually nuanced, it then invited the viewer - as an outsider who has been momentarily invited in - to construct their own narrative of what may be going on before and after each snapshot in time. These artists set the scene, drew out emotion, and left the rest up to the viewer.
Obviously you can see the attraction of this form of art to someone like me who, as a writer and reader of fiction, through books, has been allowed into the world of characters and homes and lives and felt the emotions the characters must feel as they skip innocently and often ignorantly through the pages. However, reading is more or less passive; we can construct opinions, but the narrative is largely set. Or is it? I wanted to try something different. In the four stories of this series, I tried to mimic the intentions of the Nabi artists, but in written form. I chose one painting each by four of the Nabi artists as a sort of writing prompt and constructed my own written portrait, a snapshot in a life, that focuses more on evoking feelings and sensations than the actual story being told, and purposefully left room for the reader to fill in the gaps. My hope is as you read, it will elicit some sort of feeling or memory, and allow you to make decisions about what is going behind the scenes.
The content doesn't really matter, the narrative is incomplete, and the emotions are yours to feel, whatever those may be.
Story 1: Minuet of Princess Whatever the Fuck
Introduction: In the late 1800’s, as was true around the world for most of recorded history, music was an important part of domestic life whether it was used as entertainment, education, or leisure activity within the household. The Nabi artists considered music and painting “sister arts” and depicted musical subjects and scenes to evoke certain moods and emotions they wished their art to take, and to represent the normality music brings to everyday life. The subject of this short story is a painting by Maurice Dennis called Minuet of Princess Maleine. In my story, Minuet of Princess Whatever the Fuck, I wanted to take you into an average day of a brother and sister during their weekly piano lesson.
Nothing in this world is as difficult and painful as holding in your laughter when it is of the utmost importance that you hold in that laughter.
Madame Penny Levine (MPL): “Let’s hear the progress you’ve made on the Minuet, my dear.”
Marthe (M): We were exactly four and half minutes into our piano lesson, twenty three and a half minutes to go. I was at the piano.
Nichols (N): We had barely started our piano lesson and Marthe was on the bench. It was always the job of the one observing to hold and adjust the metronome as requested by Madame Penny Levine, our piano teacher.
M: Nichols was sitting quietly behind Madame Levine. In his lap, the metronome was relentless and judgmental in its precision. If approached, I would have sold my soul to any interested party - heavenly or hell-bound, or anything in between - to grant me the slightest bit of progress I knew I had not made on this blasted Minuet. My heart was pleading with my fingers to rise to the occasion, but unfortunately the ten little headless chickens were not much concerned with tempo, let alone striking the proper keys, and could not be persuaded.
MPL: “Stop. Your fingers are like pencils. From the top.”
M: Our mother had warned us to practice, that these lessons cost real money from a real paycheck that our father earned from real work at which he toiled away each day. But alas, we could not be bothered. It was spring afterall and the sun which had teased us for the last few months had finally begun making a more steady appearance in the last few days, and we had spent every afternoon basking in the glory of idleness and procrastination.
N: Mom was not pleased last week when that old hag, Penny, stormed out of the house, huffily ranting about our lack of interest and focus and grace - our lack of any positive attributes for that matter - and how out of all the 47 children she taught in a given week, we Formiga children were the least likely to master anything other than a C and possibly D scale, if in fact we ever mastered a D scale without stumbling over the F sharp.
MPL: “From the beginning. Nichols, slow the tempo for your sister.”
M: Yikes. How could I tell the old lady that this disaster she was witness to had nothing to do with the pace at which I was being expected to play, and instead the blame certainly landed on my determined avoidance of the so-called "grand" piano from the moment our lesson concluded last week - assisted, I must admit, by my stark inadequacy at playing two notes with two hands simultaneously. My point being, "To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom," according to Socrates, and "The 'grandness' of an object is a matter of opinion,' according to Nichols.
N: I slowed down the metronome and mimicked smacking the Madame over the head with it in the eyeshot of Marthe alone. Her eyes narrowed in the type of concentration only applied when attempting to hold back laughter or tears. I knew Marthe didn’t care quite enough about her piano pursuits to draw tears, and thus I cracked a smile and gleefully continued my charade.
M: It was taking every ounce of my concentration to keep my face blank. What Nichols couldn’t see was that mother had sidled into the sitting room and stood leaning against the far wall, and her narrowed eyebrows, which had been daggers on me and my underwhelming attempt at the Minuet, had now slid to the center of my poor, ignorant brother's back. I returned my eyes to the keys, deciding to employ our only saving grace.
N: Marthe is using the pedal! In a minuet! I quietly jumped to my feet in mock standing ovation, clapping silently yet enthusiastically, Madame Levine woefully unaware. The pedal would bleed the keys into one another, making it near impossible to determine whether my genius of a sister was not only on or off beat, but even playing the correct notes at all!
MPL: “Foot off the pedal. This is a Minuet, not a Sonata.”
M: Mom had raised herself off the wall, a bad omen for everyone involved. Nichols had returned to his seat and was fiddling silently with the little, ticking contraption in his hand. The Madame was ranting about popping the notes instead of gruesomely suffocating them, or something to that hyperbolic effect. I bit my lip, pleading with myself to keep my face clear of any reaction. I thought about death - my own death, the death of our bunny Carrots, the death of everyone I loved, the death of my brother at my mother’s hands if he didn’t stop whatever the fuck he was doing to the metronome - hoping the carnage I was imagining would trick my brain into keeping the rush of laughter perched precariously in my throat at bay.
N: The batteries fell into my hand and I wiggled my eyebrows at my sister as I slipped them into my pocket. Marthe closed her eyes softly, no doubt praying for the smile on her lips to remain uncracked.
MPL: “The metronome, Nichols.”
N: “It’s not turning on.”
MPL: “It was working a moment ago.”
M: Nichols shrugged. My eyes moved from him to my mother who had turned her back and was retreating without a sound. Oh god where is she going? I had to do something to distract at least one of the furious adults from exacting their wrath on my brittle little brother and me. I took a breath and began to play the minuet from start to finish, ignoring Madame Penny Levine's multiple demands to "stop, for god's sake." When I had finished the last note and let it ring out in its entirety, I turned slowly to my audience, which had returned to three. This time mother had joined Nichols on the ottoman with a full pack of batteries in her hand. Nichols was white and horrified at being discovered mid-sabotage. Penny simply stared at me in disgust.
No one moved (nor applauded my fabulous recital), so I stood, looked each member of the room straight in the eye and sunk into the deepest curtsey I could manage without toppling over.
The Madame huffed and snatched the sheet music.
Mother scowled and stormed from the room.
Nichols fell from his chair, howling with mirth, the metronome slid silently across the floor.
What a grand afternoon it was turning out to be.
Despite her obvious repulsion, Madame Penny Levine would be back next week to witness yet again just how little progress it was possible to make on the Minuet of Princess whatever the fuck.
By Emily Menges