Two Painters

Magus first discovered the work of Claude Monet when he was seven years old. His mother and father took him to New York City for the weekend, and they went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Magus was not the type of child who liked museums. He liked daydreaming, and reading books and running around the playground by himself. The whole time they were there he complained and complained. Art was boring, he said. Or, why can’t I touch anything, or why is everyone so quiet, or can we go get something to eat now, or when do we go to the Broadway Show? This all changed when they got to the top floor of the museum. There was a special exhibition on Monet. Magus couldn’t take his eyes off of the paintings. When his parents told him come on, it was time to go, he hollered, and the security guards had to ask them to leave.

Magus grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. In his early teens he was a quiet young man who liked to draw and paint with a little oil set his father bought him for his thirteenth birthday. He had a stack of art books he liked to collect. Some were presents, some he’d shoplifted, some he’d taken from the library. He’d go through them and try to recreate the works of famous artists. It was a hobby, but it was also something more. Magus dreamed of one day being able to recreate the entire work of Claude Monet to such a degree that it would be impossible to tell the difference between an original Monet and a Magus. He didn’t start with Monet. Monet was too complicated. He decided he would work his way up from the artists in his books, and then he would start all over again with the real works, by traveling all over the world and visiting museums. When he was fifteen he decided that this was to be his life’s work.

Life in Cleveland was quiet for Magus. There were all the punk rock kids that hung out at his school, and then all the punk rock kids that hung out downtown, and then all the other kids his own age, but he never related to any of them, and whenever he talked to girls, he never knew what to say. Kids made fun of him, but Magus didn’t mind. He didn’t even pay it any attention. He would look at girls and wonder how Vermeer would have painted them. He would look at the guys and think of how awkward and underdeveloped and immature they looked in comparison to those portraits painted by the greats. But mostly, he didn’t pay them any attention at all. And painting was only his passion insomuch that Monet happened to be a painter.

When Magus graduated from high school he was a socially underdeveloped young man, with no friends and few interests outside of painting reproductions. His parents had been worried about him for a long time, but he didn’t care. The summer before he went to MassArt, a smallish art school in Boston, they sent him once a week to a therapist. The therapist decided he was just another ordinary young man, like anyone else, just a little shy. It didn’t reassure his parents, but Magus said why keep spending money to hear the same verdict over and over? He was anxious to get away from home.

Most of the students at MassArt weren’t able to relate to Magus. He would talk to a few students now and then before, during and after class, but then he would retreat to his dormitory and spend all evening reproducing paintings. He spent a lot of time at the Museum of Fine Arts. He spent a lot of time sketching and looking and going home to paint. He learned to appreciate detail in a way he never had before. There were details in the way the paint wrinkled on the canvas, and the texture of the paint and the heaviness or lightness of the brushstroke, and to pull off a perfect representation, Magus had to remember every detail, go home and recreate those details. To Magus it was the most challenging and wonderful time of his life. His abilities as a painter increased. The other students were often jealous and in awe of what Magus could do, but they’d also make fun of him. Magus can only paint things other people have painted already, they’d say. That’s not art, and Magus, you’re no artist.

This kind of talk never bothered Magus, because he’d never considered himself to be anything, let alone an artist. He simply had a goal in life, and he was determined to reach it. By his second year in art school he was able to paint Monet reproductions that could startle even the most advanced Impressionist Painting teachers at his school. They urged him to branch out and paint his own material. Magus, you can’t let a talent as large as yours go to waste on reproductions. Magus had no idea what they were talking about. After all, he painted what he wanted to paint, and they painted what they wanted to paint, and he never gave them a hard time about what they wanted to paint. Magus told them, I have never cared about painting. Just Monet.

Magus was asked to leave MassArt during his junior year. It was a miracle he even made it that far, because he rarely did any of the assigned projects. It was a sad day for everyone who knew about Magus and how well he painted. Several of the teachers petitioned against it, and said the school was making a big mistake turning away such a large talent. This kid would be The Next Big Thing one day, and how would MassArt explain expelling him over one little eccentricity of his? The administration said it wasn’t fair to the other students. Magus went back home to his mother and father in Cleveland.

His mother and father were very unhappy with him. They hadn’t liked the idea of him going to Art School to begin with, but now that he’d gotten himself expelled from Art School they were furious. They knew he was a talented and dedicated painter. He couldn’t just follow directions every once and a while for his parents’ sake, who had put down so much money for his education? Being back at home, and harassed by his parents and away from all the culture he’d been exposed to got Magus depressed. He started skipping meals, sitting in his room painting painting after painting of paintings in the series of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral. He rarely spoke with anyone. All he could think about was moving out again to a city full of museums where he could live in a little room and reproduce Monet. One day he got up and left home and kept walking.

Magus hitchhiked and walked all the way to New York City. He didn’t have any money and he didn’t have anywhere to stay. It was just turning spring, so things weren’t so bad. He slept outside on church steps, and spent his days at the museum. The only problem was that he didn’t have any money or a private room, so it was impossible for him to paint. He sketched all day long. He’d sit at the quiet little benches in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and sketch painting after painting until they kicked him out. But sketching wasn’t enough for Magus. He needed to be working.

He found a decent job at an art supplies store downtown. He’d been looking to work in an art supplies store so that he could get a discount on items he needed to buy later on, once he was making money. This allowed him to get a small room out in Brooklyn, and Magus was the happiest he’d been since his Art School days. He still rarely talked to anyone, even the people he worked with, but they liked him all the same because he did his job well and never caused any kind of trouble. A lot of the other employees were artists and would come in drunk or high or both sometimes, but that was never an issue with Magus.

Years passed, and Magus kept on at the same job. He’d work all day, then go home and paint. On the weekends he’d spend the day at the museum. Then he’d go home and paint. The more he saw of the museums the better his powers of memorization became. He’d stare at a painting for hours on end, and then go home and be able to recreate it flawlessly. After a while, he became assistant manager at his job, and he set up a little space in the back of the store where he could work on his reproductions during his lunch hour. An art critic for the New York Times who moonlighted as an amateur painter happened to see one of them one day, and was impressed. He asked Magus if he could do a write-up on him, and Magus agreed because he needed the money, and he thought maybe he could sell a less than perfect reproduction or two for an extra dollar here and there if people had heard of his name.

The response was enormous. Before long newspapers and television stations and radio personalities were contacting him about his unique gift. In the end Magus decided it was more trouble than it was worth. But there was no turning back for him. By the age of thirty-three Magus was famous in the art world. His reproductions were going for enormous sums of money, and art critics were hailing the Reproduction as the next step in postmodern art theory. Articles called Magus the most important painter since Warhol and Basquiat, and everyone seemed to be clamoring to interview him, meet him, or invite him to some exclusive Soho engagement.

Magus continued with his reproductions. He was making enough money to enjoy all the luxury and time he needed to paint. A benefactor put him up in a posh Soho loft. He cut back on his hours at the art supplies shop. Women were always propositioning him. Magus had no interest in relationships. Something was starting to happen. He was making the breakthrough – he could feel it. He had a collection of Monet reproductions lined up carefully on his walls – painting after painting – and whatever he couldn’t fit on the wall he’d put away somewhere. Each reproduction was an exact replica of the original. The Rouen Cathedral series – that was the problem. He’d mastered the water lilies, and he mastered the floating ice and he’d mastered – well, everything. Everything except for the cathedrals. There was something in the color and texture of the paint that had eluded him for his entire life. How did Monet manage to make it look just that way? And then one morning, over a cup of coffee, staring out the window of his loft at an old cathedral down the street, it came to him.

The next year almost no one saw Magus, though he was more talked about than ever. Rumor was that he was working on his greatest achievement yet. The art community was in a frenetic buzz over what he was working on. Magus declined all interviews and made no public appearances for the whole year. Some people said he was dead. Most folks just thought he was the quintessential eccentric reclusive painter. MassArt dedicated a wing of their school to his name. Old professors fumed about how they never wanted to expel him from their fine establishment, but what could they do in the face of the powers that be? The anticipation surrounding Magus’ newest work was overwhelming.

In the end Magus did finish his life’s work. The night he completed it he slept like a dead man. In the morning when he looked at it, it surprised even him. He went straight to the Met and looked at the originals for comparison. There wasn’t the slightest difference in texture, shape or color between what Monet had produced and what Magus had reproduced. On his way out of the museum reporters mobbed him. Had he finished his latest Masterpiece? Magus said, they are just reproductions. The crowd cheered, and the world felt like an illusion. Where were they? Were they back at his loft? Magus said: they are hanging on the wall in the Metropolitan. Then he went home and hanged himself.

-March 2004