Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Who's Afraid of Rupert Bunny?

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Who's Afraid of Rupert Bunny?

Article excerpt

Although she had a fertile imagination, he doubted she would have invented that Rupert Bunny had painted her. He had been surprised that she had even heard of Bunny.

He was somewhat disappointed by the Rupert Bunny exhibition but admired the self-portrait mistakenly described, in a note beside it, as one in which the artist's hand masked his face. People writing on painting, he thought, rarely see what is before their eyes; Bunny was not hiding his face at all, his fingers were merely holding a cigarette while he observed coolly. The visitor, who so far had spent 30 years in Italy, asked how Bunny had sized up Melbourne on his return in 1932 after 46 years in Europe.

And he asked also whether Bunny had sized up his mother. Years before she had claimed more than once that Bunny had painted her when she was a young woman, adding that he had been struck by her beautiful blue eyes. His mother had often reported that people expressed admiration for her beauty but he had suspected these reports may simply have illustrated her dictum: praise yourself if nobody else does.

Crosshatched creases marked all her face except her nose. But even now, in an old people's home, she would hitch up her skirt to seek confirmation from him that she had shapely legs. Moreover she said that the visiting doctor had told her he had never seen such clear eyes as hers. Exceptionally clear, she added, which was all the more defiant because, as a result of a botched cataract operation, one pupil was enlarged and askew.

Although she had a fertile imagination, he doubted she would have invented that Rupert Bunny had painted her. He had been surprised that she had even heard of Bunny.

During his fortnight in Melbourne, which included a daily visit to his mother, he wanted to clear up the mystery. She would introduce him to other inmates at lunch or in the television room and lament, in the privacy of her bedroom, that they were not lively enough. Although she had made friends with several, she had a keen eye for the foibles of all. She complained that nurses stole clothes from her wardrobe; however, his brother said nothing had disappeared, indeed that she had somehow obtained a nurse's brooch. Her face had changed: formerly heartshaped, it was leaner, which made her nose seem longer. Her hair, only now graying, which used to be permanently waved was a side-parted helmet. He was reminded of a Plantagenet royal in the silk cigarette cards he had played with as a child. She was grieving for the loss of her husband but also of their East Malvern home where, after his death, it had become too dangerous for her to continue living alone.

"Well-furnished and comfortable," she said as if to herself. "Go and take a look--I'm told they've added two rooms at the back. See if the garage door is still blue--remember I wanted it the same color as the lounge ceiling."

Like other inmates, she was wearied by the bleak wait for her own death. At times this ultimate destination was forgotten but occasional deaths of inmates were chilling reminders in case anyone felt comfortable. There were gradations among the inmates: some slept as they sat before the television screen in the common room, some watched it without understanding, but others had opinions about the programs.

His mother's bones seemed chicken-thin when he took her arm and he was afraid she would fall while scuttling along because she talked over her shoulder to passersby. But she was better off than those who had to work their way forward using walking frames.

She had always loved being taken to restaurants but now was not confident enough to accept his invitation. At times she confused which day was which or relatives' ages and complained that her mind was "all a fuddle." He encouraged her to obtain window plants in order to see things grow and have a sense of the future, but she was not interested; he was discouraged and it seemed a weak idea even to him. …

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