Falguière

12

Once upon a time, there was a sculptor who made a deal with the devil.

He had not meant to do so. Indeed, he had no idea that the devil was anything other than an ordinary customer, come to his workshop to admire his work and his models, and haggle over the price of a commission.

And yet, the deal was made, and, as so often happens, the result was not what the sculptor might have wished. Though the devil did at least pay well for his work, and promptly, too, which was more than could be said for many of the sculptor’s other patrons.

(Even the devil has his virtues, and a strict adherence to the terms of his bargain is one of them.)

Here is how it happened.

Self-portrait by Alexandre Falguière

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It was springtime in Paris, and Alexandre Falguière was feeling contented with life. The weather was finally – finally! – growing warm enough that he did not require a fire in the studio, he had been to the opera the night before and his head still rang with Mozart’s music, and his last painting had actually turned out rather well.

Better still, he had nearly finished his statue of Balzac, and had a new project to look forward to, suggested by his friend and colleague Auguste Rodin. They were each to sculpt a bust of the other, and then cast the busts in bronze, to exhibit at the Salon later that year.

Alexandre had been glad of his friend’s suggestion, as their relationship had been strained ever since the Societé des Gens de Lettres had rejected Rodin’s statue of Balzac, and then offered the commission to Alexandre. Alexandre had tried to find a way to apologise without actually apologising for something that wasn’t his fault, but Rodin had waved his half-apology away, with an uncomplimentary remark about the short-sightedness and artistic backwardness of the Societé. His confidence in his own artistic superiority would not allow him to be truly offended when another sculptor was preferred, especially when that sculptor’s style was so much more traditional than his own.

Alexandre had chosen not to hear the younger man’s remarks, and after a quick sideways look at his friend, Rodin had shrugged off his ire, and suggested the creation of the two busts, as a show of solidarity between the men – showcasing the old and the new styles of sculpture, as he said. Alexandre had rolled his eyes at that – there was nothing wrong with Rodin’s impressionistic style, but Alexandre preferred clean, classical lines, which hardly made him old-fashioned. Still, he had the commission, and Rodin did not, and if it made Rodin feel better to think in these terms, he wouldn’t argue with him.

And it would be enjoyable to pit his skills against the other sculptor, even if neither of them would ever admit that it was a competition.

Still, there were some weeks before they could begin this project, and in the meantime, Alexandre thought he might work on a few smaller pieces. Perhaps a woman dancing, or Diana with her bow? His model had not yet arrived for the day, and so he pottered around the studio, mixing his plaster of paris, and singing Don Giovanni’s seduction of Zerlina.

“La ci darem la mano,
La mi dirai di sì:
Vedi, non è lontano,
Partiam, ben mio, da qui.”

There I’ll give you my hand, There you’ll say yes: See, it is not far, my love, let’s leave from here.

A bass voice joined the duet.

“Vorrei e non vorrei,
Mi trema un poco il cor…”

Should I or shouldn’t I? My heart trembles at the thought…

Alexandre turned to study the man standing in the doorway. “I’ve never heard Zerlina sung by a man before,” he said. “I think I draw the line at calling you my beautiful beloved.”

His visitor laughed. “It seemed like a waste of a good duet not to respond. You have a fine voice, M. Falguière. Tell me, is your sculpting as good as your singing?”

“Better, I assure you,” said Alexandre. “My singing pleases my friends, but my figures please the world.”

“I see that you do not suffer from false modesty.”

Alexandre shrugged. “I speak no more than the truth. But see for yourself, if you do not believe me. I have a number of finished pieces here, and the plaster study for my statue of Balzac. They speak more eloquently of my skill than mere words.”

The man entered the studio, and began to look around, going from piece to piece. He seemed particularly struck by the young man with the rooster.

“What do you call this piece?” he asked.

“The Victor of the Cock Fight. I’ve made a few variations on that one, if you like it.”

The man shook his head. “It’s very fine. Very full of life. Why, one almost expects him to step forward  and speak.”

Alexandre smiled, and the man returned his smile. He drew a photograph from his waistcoat pocket. “Tell me, could you make a statue of this?”

Alexandre took the photo and studied it. A man and a woman in medieval dress stood, clasping hands. The woman looked up into the man’s face, and his head was bent as if he was about to kiss her. It was of little artistic interest, but he saw no intrinsic difficulty.

“Certainly I could, for a fee.”

The man smiled. “Certainly for a fee. But note – the likeness must be exact. I want the statue to be so lifelike that one might almost forget that it was plaster – that one might watch it at every moment, expecting the figures to draw breath. These two young people plan to be married and I would like to… commemorate the event appropriately.”

Alexandre smiled. His work had always been known for its sense of life and incipient movement. “I shall give them such life that those who look at the statue cannot but watch it, waiting for the kiss that must surely come,” he said.

“Perfect,” said the man. “Now, let us talk about a suitable fee.”

The Victor of the Cock Fight, by Alexandre Falguière

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Spring was turning into summer, and Alexandre smiled as he stepped back from the statue to compare it to the photograph. He really did have an excellent life. The sun was shining through the glass windows of his studio, brightening the room and warming it until he could almost imagine himself in Toulouse, his models were whispering happily together, and the sculpture itself was coming along nicely.

Riffler file in hand, he bent to work on the folds of the lady’s dress. There was some fine embroidery on the bodice and at the hem which he would fill in later; the drape of the dress at the side was what interested him at present, since he had the models there. The photograph only gave him the front of the statue, after all, but he would need to sculpt the pose from every angle. Alexandre began to sing as he worked, Mozart’s catalogue aria flowing easily from his lips.

“In Italia seicento e quaranta;
In Alemagna duecento e trentuna;
Cento in Francia, in Turchia novantuna;
Ma in Ispagna son già mille e tre.
Mille e tre.
Mille e tre.”

In Italy, 640; In Germany, 231; 100 in France, 91 in Turkey; but in Spain, 1003… 

“Are you counting the number of Diana statues you plan to sculpt this year, or just the number of mediocre paintings you will create before you realise that sculpture is where your true gifts lie?”

“Perhaps I am counting the number of commissions I will steal from you, Rodin.”

The other sculptor winced a little. “That was low.”

Alexandre shrugged. “You insulted me first.”

“Only because you are capable of so much more. This piece you’re working on now, for example. The detail is beautiful, but the grouping is static, conventional. And frankly, it’s not a very good likeness. You are better than this, Falguière.”

“Yes, well, we can’t all make nudes in bronze before we work on the statue we are actually commissioned for.” Alexandre shook his head. “I know, I know, one must understand how the muscles work, how the skin stretches and wrinkles over flesh before one goes to clothe it in stone or bronze, but there is such a thing as taking anatomical studies too far. I still have nightmares about that nude of Balzac. That pot belly…”

Rodin smirked a little. “Says the man whose work is an endless quest for the perfect feminine. Some of us like to sculpt real people.”

“In fact, that’s what this is about. I’ve been asked to sculpt the couple in this photograph.  A wedding present, I believe. The models are here to help me with the other angles.”

Rodin studied the photograph, then the sculpture. “It’s still very static. But you’ve captured the faces well. Especially the woman.”

“Women are always easier.”

“Only because you idealise them.”

Alexandre smiled. “And why should I not?” He gestured to a table. “Set up over there – I’ll be with you as soon as I’ve paid the models.”

Statue of Diane holding a bow, by Alxandre Falguière

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Summer had arrived, and the studio was hot to the point of being stifling. Alexandre did not mind the heat. File in hand, he circled the statue of the lovers, touching up the final details. He sang quietly to himself as he worked.

“Deh, vieni alla finestra, o mio tesoro;
Deh, vieni a consolar il pianto mio.

Come to the window, o my beloved; O come and dispel all my sorrow…

His song was interrupted by a dark baritone voice.

“Don Giovanni a cenar teco – m’invitasti e son venuto!”

Don Giovanni, you invited me to dinner and I have come!

Startled, Alexandre dropped his file, then laughed as his client entered the room. “That’s not the next line,” he said.

His client grinned. “It is not. And nor, I trust, are you an unrepentant libertine about to be carried off to the fiery flames of hell.”

There was something in the man’s voice that halted Alexandre’s retort. He smiled, and shook his head. “You come in good time, sir. I have just now finished the statue you commissioned.”

“That is why I am here.”

Alexandre’s brows went up, but he stepped back, and allowed his client to walk around the statue, viewing it from all angles. He drew out the photograph and compared it to the statue, nodding approval. Alexandre smiled. Despite the static grouping – and really, when a client was paying as much as this one, one had to give them what they wanted – Alexandre was pleased with the way it had turned out. There was, he thought, real affection in the faces of the lovers.

He watched as the man reached out to touch the plaster, and drew in a breath as under the man’s fingers, a nose grew a little sharper, an eyebrow a little more certain, a pair of lips a little fuller.

Alexandre stared at his client in horror.

The man smiled back. “You have done well,” he said. “The likeness is remarkable. And it is as you boasted. It is as if they are alive, and about to embrace. One can nearly hear their hearts beating.” He reached out and touched a finger to the breast of the woman, then to the man’s chest.

And Alexandre felt himself grow as still as plaster, because in that moment he really could hear two hearts beating within the sculpture.

His own heart began to beat harder in sympathy. “What… who are you?” he asked, and his client’s smile grew broader.

“Why, who do you think I could be?”

Alexandre could think of only one possibility. “I did not bargain with you for my soul,” he said, and the man – who could only be Mephistopheles himself – laughed.

“Oh, your soul is in no immediate danger, unless it be from the sin of pride. Now, if you wished to be as great a sculptor as your friend Rodin, that might be another matter…”

Fear gave way to indignation. “I am Rodin’s equal. His statues have great vigour and movement to them, it is true, but they are impressionistic, rough. He could not sculpt so truly to life as I can.”

“There’s that sin of pride again,” said the devil, cheerfully. “But consider – you may mimic life with great skill, but then, so does a photograph. Whose work, do you think, will be remembered by connoisseurs of the future?”

Alexandre said nothing. The heartbeats coming from the statue were loud in the silence.

“Who are those people?” he asked finally. “And what did they do to deserve this punishment?”

The devil’s smile grew sharp. “Gilles was a servant of mine, and he betrayed me. And Anne was the woman who tempted him away from my service.”

Alexandre would have thought that the devil would approve of temptation, but it did not seem politic to say as much.

The devil laughed again, reading his thoughts. “I am the only one who gets to tempt people,” he explained.

And, drawing his cloak around him in best operatic style, he stamped one foot, and sank through the floor, leaving only a pile of coins where he had stood.

And the statue, of course.

Alexandre examined it again. Apart from the heartbeats, it was very much like any other plaster that he had completed. He shuddered. He prided himself on sculpting people who seemed alive, ready to step out of the plaster and into the world. But this was not the life he had wished to give his work.

He did not much like the idea that he had sculpted a perfect prison for two souls.

Tarcisius the Martyr, by Alexandre Falguière

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The heat had broken overnight, and it was raining outside the studio. Alexandre stared out into the studio courtyard, his thoughts racing.

“Not that I want to criticise your process, but you might find that you get better results if you actually pick up your chisel. Or are you planning to shape the plaster by will power alone?”

Alexandre blinked, and transferred his glare to where Rodin was working on his bust. The rough shape of the shoulders and back of a head were already visible. He frowned. How had Rodin had the time to do all that?

“It’s been two hours, and you’ve hardly blinked,” his friend added. “Which makes you a fantastic success as an artist’s model, but not much use as a sculptor. And in deference to your hollow-eyed look, I’m not going to make the obvious joke. Falguière, are you ill?”

Alexandre forced a shrug. “A touch of a headache, nothing more. I may have overindulged last night.”

This was actually somewhat true. Unable to sleep after his encounter with the devil, Alexandre had risen from his bed to move the statue, with its horrible, living heartbeat, out of the studio and into the courtyard, where he should not have been able to hear it. But the heartbeats were somehow resonant, and he could hear them even in his bedroom, and so eventually Alexandre had sought relief in a bottle of Pastis. Unfortunately, he did not have quite the same head for it that he had had in his youth.

Rodin looked unconvinced. “That must have been quite some overindulgence. It doesn’t explain why you keep staring out into the courtyard, though. Are you waiting for someone?”

Alexandre shuddered. “God, I hope not.”

Rodin stared at him, and Alexandre sighed. “What would you say if I told you that I think I may have made a bargain with the devil?”

Rodin snorted. “I’d say you’ve been going to the opera too much. Your sculptures are good, but they aren’t that good.

He must be looking unwell if Rodin was willing to compliment his work, even in such a backhanded fashion. Alexandre almost smiled as he shook his head. “Not that kind of bargain.”

Rodin’s eyebrows went up. “It can’t be women. You don’t need help with that. And much as I’d like to think that the Societé des Gens de Lettres was under a diabolical influence when they preferred your sculpture to mine, I fear that the only influence involved was that of convention, or perhaps tradition. So what, my friend, is this bargain that you have made?”

Alexandre stood. “Let me show you.”

Bust of Alexandre Falguière, by Auguste Rodin

 

The sound of rainfall did not muffle the heartbeats nearly as much as it should have. The two men stood in the courtyard, umbrellas up to ward off the slow, misting rain, staring at the statue. Alexandre stole a glance at Rodin. The other sculptor’s face was unusually pale, and Alexandre found this somewhat consoling. It made his own fears seem less shameful.

Most consoling of all was the fact that Rodin could clearly hear the heartbeat, too, at least once he stepped out into the courtyard. The thought had crossed Alexandre’s mind last night that he might, just possibly, be going mad. It was reassuring to see that he wasn’t entirely alone in his madness.

“That’s appalling.” Rodin had found his voice at last.

Alexandre nodded. “You see why I was unable to sleep.”

“I’d feel the same way,” Rodin said, with feeling. “Really, Falguière – the entire essence of your art is its lightness, its airy grace – the feeling that your statues might take flight at any moment. But this…” he shook his head. “This is beneath you. I can see why you couldn’t bear to keep it in your studio.”

Alexandre’s heart sank. “Quite,” he managed, and turned away.

“The heartbeat is rather disconcerting, too,” Rodin added, and Alexandre rounded on him, furiously.

“Rodin, you bastard–“

The other man laughed, fending him off with his umbrella, then sobered. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t make light of this. It’s quite terrifying, in fact. But if you had only seen your face…”

Alexandre set his teeth. “He said the man was a servant of his, who had betrayed him, and the woman was the one who tempted him into betrayal.”

“Did you know he was going to…?”

“Of course I didn’t! What do you think I am?”

Rodin held up a hand, peaceably. “A sculptor. But not a jailer.”

Alexandre blew out a breath. “Quite. But I seem to have built a jail regardless.”

The two men stared at the statue for a long moment. The heartbeat was strong, constant, neither increasing nor slowing in place.

“I need to find a way to let them out,” Alexandre said at last.

Rodin nodded. “Would breaking the statue do it, do you think?”

“You are very eager to destroy my work,” Alexandre said, drily. Then he shook his head. “I’d rather not, to be honest. It might free them, but it might also kill them, and I have no way of knowing which.”

Rodin grimaced. “Best not, then.”

“Only as a last resort, say. It might be the only way.”

“Hmm.” Rodin looked at him. “So what did the devil give you, anyway?”

Alexandre laughed rather bitterly. “The money he owed me. I took the commission, built the statue, and he paid me. Cash on the nail.”

“If only all our clients were so reliable.”

“Unless he winds up being paid twice. I didn’t offer my soul in the bargain, but I can’t help wondering whether I’ll lose it anyway, if those two remain imprisoned in my work.”

“That’s a nasty thought.”

“I have a nastier one.”

“Oh?” Rodin looked concerned.

“The more I think of it, the more I feel certain that the only way I’m going to get those poor souls out of my statue is by bargaining with the devil a second time. And I don’t think he’ll take cash.”

Bust of Balzac, by Alexandre Falguière

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It was evening, and the rain had turned into a full-blown thunderstorm. The rain was pelting down on the courtyard, and lightning flashed repeatedly, giving the statue of the lovers an eerie light. By any natural law, the thunder should have drowned out their heartbeats, but Alexandre could still hear them, quite plainly, through the storm.

It was, he felt, a fitting scene for the summoning of a Devil.

His voice shaking, he began to sing Faust’s recitative from Gounod’s new opera.

“Mais ce Dieu, que peut-il pour moi?
Me rendra-t-il l’amour, la jeunesse et la foi?”

But what can this God of theirs do for me? Will he give me back love, youth and faith?

He stopped. He couldn’t do this. It was one thing to summon Mephistopheles for a meeting, entirely another to use Faust’s ill-fated words. He had never considered himself a particularly superstitious man before, but then again, he’d never accidentally completed a commission for the devil before, either.

“You really should stick to Mozart. You don’t have the voice for Gounod.”

Alexandre jumped as Mephistopheles strolled out of the shadows towards him. The devil laughed, and sang softly.

“Me voici! – D’où vient ta surprise?
Ne suis-je pas mis à ta guise?

Here I am! Why are you surprised? Is my attire not to your taste?

Alexandre tried to suppress a shudder. “You sing that very convincingly,” he said.

The devil shrugged. “I ought to. I inspired the role, after all. And I do have one or two operatic basses at my disposal. More tenors, of course. They don’t get nearly so many opportunities to play the villain in song, and so are more inclined to play it in real life… But I am boring you. You did not summon me to speak of opera.”

Alexandre would have preferred to speak of opera. Instead, he turned away to light the lamps. He was pleased to see that his hands were not visibly shaking, though he could feel his heart pounding in his chest.

He sat down at his work table. Mephistopheles flung himself lazily into the chair opposite. He ran a finger over the table, and reached out to pick up a small figurine that Alexandre had been working on a few days earlier. Alexandre felt suddenly glad that Rodin had taken his half-finished bust with him when he had left that afternoon. He did not like to think of what Mephistopheles might have seen in it.

He took a deep breath. “I would like to make a wager with you,” he said.

The devil leaned back in his chair, smiling. “Interesting,” he replied. “What do you want from me, then? Fame? Wealth? Talent? For me to take that statue away with me?”

Alexandre hadn’t considered that possibility. It was undeniably tempting. Still, he shook his head.

“I want you to free the couple you imprisoned in my statue,” he said.

The devil raised his brows. “Your statue? I believe I commissioned it.”

“The statue you commissioned, then.”

“I went to some effort to trap them in there,” the devil pointed out mildly. “It’s hard to see why I should let them out.”

Alexandre said nothing, and the devil smiled again. “Very well. Let’s say I was willing to bargain for their release. What would I get out of this wager?”

“If I lose, then my soul as well as theirs. I presume you have theirs?”

“Oh, I don’t think it’s wise to presume.” The devil looked at him thoughtfully. Thunder rumbled loudly overhead, and the room was lit suddenly by lightning. “You would offer me one soul, but ask for two as your side of the wager. This hardly seems equitable.”

“I can hardly offer you anyone else’s soul!”

“Can’t you?” the devil wondered. “You wouldn’t be the first to do so.”

Alexandre was silent, thinking furiously. Thunder cracked again, closer this time. The devil watched him, his expression amused.

“How about this,” he said. “If you lose, I get your soul, and you must also accept another commission from me. But this time you will know what my commission means.”

Alexandre shook his head. “I’ve already said I will not offer you anyone else’s soul. Accepting a commission from you would be doing exactly that.”

The devil grinned. “True,” he agreed. “But you could pretend to yourself that it wasn’t.”

“That would not change the truth.”

The devil rolled his eyes. “Since when did artists become such moralists? Very well, then. Supposing I accept your stakes, what wager do you propose?”

Alexandre relaxed a little, back on safer ground. “Another sculpture,” he said. “But this time, I shall sculpt you. If I can bring you to life, show your soul in clay, then you will liberate your two prisoners, and have no further claim on me.”

“Hmm.” The devil shook his head. “I don’t think so. We both know that you can bring stone and clay to life. That is hardly a fair wager, especially when you are asking for two souls to be staked against one. No. If you want to win back the lives and souls of the two you helped me trap in the stone, you will have to work harder than that.”

The devil looked around the studio in a leisurely fashion, then back at Alexandre. He smiled. “I hear you fancy yourself a painter. Capture me on canvas – show me, soul and all, in paint, and you will win your wager.”

Alexandre’s heart sank. “I am a sculptor,” he said. “I paint, yes, but for the love of it, as I sing for the love of it. I do not have the skill to capture your soul in paint.”

“Then you will lose the wager, and with it your soul and, I think, your love of painting. That is a much more reasonable stake, wouldn’t you say?”

“To stake my soul against a certainty? Certainly not!” Fear gave way to anger, but the devil just laughed again. Hail clattered on the roof, echoing the sound.

The devil continued to speak in the same soft voice, but Alexandre had no difficulty hearing it.

“My dear M. Falguière. You summoned me to your house. You attempted to make a wager with Mephistopheles himself. Did you truly expect me to bargain fairly? Surely you know better than that.”

Alexandre was silent. He did.

The devil smiled. “Here is the wager then, and you may take it or leave it. You have until – well, let’s be traditional about this. You have until the Feast of All Hallows to capture me on canvas. If you succeed, then the pair in the statue will go free, and you, too, will be free of all penalties. If you fail, then my former employee and his lover will remain imprisoned, and I will take your love of painting, and your soul as well.”

“And if I do not accept the wager?”

“Then all will remain as it is. You will remain an excellent sculptor and a fair painter, with a living statue in your courtyard, and just as much chance of losing your soul to Hell as any other man might have in your shoes.”

This was beginning to sound like a better deal by the moment. Alexandre sighed. Thunder began to rumble again in the distance.

The devil spoke again. “You do not have to decide now. But beware – I will know what you decide, and once you pick up a brush with the intention of portraying me, there will be no turning back.”

Lightning flashed, and the devil’s face was lit, as if from within, by a blue light. Alexandre blinked at the brightness of it, and when he opened his eyes, he was alone in the studio.

Man Smoking a Pipe, by Alexandre Falguière

+++

The storm had cleared, leaving the weather hot and humid again, and the sun shining into Alexandre’s studio was almost oppressive. Alexandre had a headache, and it wasn’t being helped by Rodin’s ranting.

“What were you thinking? This is a terrible idea! You’re a sculptor, not a painter.”

Alexandre carved a groove, and then another, in the plaster, detailing Rodin’s beard, hair by hair.

“I am, in fact, a painter,” he said, mildly. “It’s true that I have more experience as a sculptor, but I’ve sold my share of paintings.”

“Fine. You know how to put paint on canvas. But can you really paint well enough to defeat the devil?”

“Are you here to sculpt, or to lecture me about my failings?”

Rodin threw down his chisel. “I’m here to stop you finding novel ways to commit suicide. This is not an opera, Falguière. Deals with the devil never end well.”

“For a man who claims to be one of France’s cultural heroes, you are remarkably ill-informed about opera.”

Rodin glared at him and Alexandre sighed. “Deals with the devil never end well in opera, or in any other genre. But you don’t understand. I have already lost one deal with the devil, without even knowing what was at stake.” He glanced at the courtyard, and Rodin followed his gaze.

“Couldn’t you just… send the statues away somewhere? So you couldn’t hear them?”

“I doubt that would work. I can hear them at home just as loudly as I can here. I could even hear them over the thunderstorm, and at Marqueste’s soirée the other evening. Distance doesn’t seem to matter, and nor does any other sound.”

Rodin looked momentarily horrified, then shook his head. “Well, can you just ignore it then? Or – I don’t know – do something less suicidal than sell your soul to the devil to salve your conscience? How is that even logical, anyway?”

“I can’t ignore it.” He smiled at the younger man. “You wouldn’t be able to, either, for all your arguments. Look at it this way: I’m already lost. I was lost from the moment I agreed to make that cursed statue. This is the end of the opera, and I’m damned just as surely by that statue as I would have been if I’d known I was making the pact. If anything, this wager might be the thing that saves me.”

Rodin shook his head again. “That can’t be true. Why would the devil offer you a wager for something he already has?”

“Because he doesn’t have it yet.” Alexandre smiled a little. “But if I don’t take his wager, he will have it regardless. Sculpting the statue didn’t deliver my soul to the devil. But if I know that those are imprisoned by my hands and never attempt to release them, then I will have given my soul to the devil as fully as if I had been complicit in their imprisonment from the start. As I see it, the only way I can save myself is to win the wager. If I wager and lose… well, a fast damnation is no worse than a slow one, and at least I’ll have put up a fight.”

Rodin stared at him for a long time, then sighed. “I think you’re mad. I think none of this makes any sense at all. But I also think that if I had to live with that endless heartbeat in one of my statues that I’d go mad too.”

He sat back down at the table. “Come. Sit down and let’s finish these busts. I’d like to immortalise you before you lose your soul, or your mind, or whatever it is that comes first. And we can talk about how you are going to win this wager. We need to get you some portrait commissions, to start with, to get you back into practice. Hell, I’ll sit for you, if you like. We can call this bust a study for the portrait, even…”

Alexandre smiled, and sat down opposite his friend.

Bust of Auguste Rodin, by Alexandre Falguière

+++

It was the best portrait Alexandre had ever done, and it wasn’t good enough.

He was a good enough artist to know this. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a good enough artist to figure out just what he needed to do to fix it. Rodin, beside him, clearly felt the same way. He put an arm around Alexandre’s shoulder.

“You’ve done well,” he said. “I didn’t think you had it in you, to be honest.”

Alexandre’s smile was grim. “I don’t have it in me. Come, Rodin. You might as well tell the truth.”

His friend sighed. “I’m truly sorry, Alexandre.”

Alexandre embraced him. “You’ve been a good friend, Auguste. Now, go. I don’t want you to be here when he arrives. One of us caught is bad enough. I won’t be responsible for your fate as well.”

Rodin nodded, returning the embrace, then left the studio.

Alexandre waited. The studio was cold, today. He had lit a fire that morning, but the heat dissipated as soon as one moved more than a few feet away from it. This was good. It allowed him to pretend that his shivering was from cold, and not from fear.

He looked at the painting again, and sighed. It really was fine work, and the hints of fire in the background brought out the rich auburn of Mephistopheles’ hair.

“I’m impressed.”

Once more, the bass voice came from behind him. Alexandre did not turn. The devil, he suspected, was trying to raise his hopes, the better to dash them. But he knew how to judge his own work, and he would not be fooled.

Mephistopheles came to stand beside him, looking at the painting. “That really is remarkable work. The mouth is particularly good. Frankly, you’ve come much closer than I expected.”

“But not close enough.”

“Well, no. But that was never going to happen.” The devil smiled. “Cheer up. You’re in good company. And at least you made the wager for a selfless reason. That puts you in a distinct minority.”

Alexandre wondered why, exactly, this was supposed to be comforting.

“Anyway. I won’t keep you. I’m not in a taunting mood today. I’ll just take your soul, and be off.”

He made a gesture towards Alexandre’s chest, and Alexandre braced himself.

Nothing happened. The devil frowned. “I said, I’ll take your soul now, and be off.”

He gestured again, and Alexandre started to feel a stirring of hope.

The devil frowned again. “I’m disappointed, M. Falguière. I thought you were a man of honour. Yet you have hidden your soul from me. That is no way to keep a bargain.”

Alexandre blinked. This was news to him. He opened his mouth to respond, but the devil had already turned away. “Aha!” He picked up the painting. “Clever, M. Falguière. But not clever enough. A painting may be destroyed, after all!” And he threw it into the fire.

Alexandre cried out in horror – he had worked on that painting! – then a second time in pain, as the painting caught fire and he felt himself engulfed in flames.

And… then he didn’t. The painting blazed on, and he felt nothing. Well, not nothing, precisely. He rounded on the devil, who looked strangely shaken. “How dare you destroy that painting? It’s one of my best works!”

The devil scowled at him. “So much so that you put a portion of your soul into it – and a portion of mine, as well! Tell me, what else have you put your soul into?”

Alexandre shook his head, uncomprehending, and the devil snarled in rage and pushed past him, overturning tables and smashing plaster figures as he crossed the studio. Alexandre fell back, gasping – each smashed figure was a double blow – of rage and sorrow at seeing his work destroyed, and of sharp agony, as the tiny part of his soul that went into every one of his works was broken painfully loose and flew back to him. Each piece of his soul hit him like a blow, rocking him backward on his feet, and rendering him incapable of pursuit.

But dimly, amidst the rising turmoil inside him, Alexandre began to feel a stirring of hope. He only had a few works in his studio. His other work resided in museums, on churches and public buildings, in the homes of his patron. And if everything he had done contained a portion of his soul, then perhaps he was safe after all.

Enraged, the devil threw open the door, and stormed into the courtyard. There were only a few statues there, and they were mostly marble; the devil could do no more than chip them.

Alexandre followed him outside, wincing with pain as he walked. “And will you destroy every painting I have ever made? Ever statue I have ever constructed?” He shook his head. “Not even I know where all my art has ended up.”

The devil rounded on him. “You have cheated me,” he said. “But I will have you in the end.”

He stamped his foot, and a huge crack appeared in cobblestones of the courtyard as the ground began to shake. Two statues fell to the cobblestones and smashed into pieces. Alexandre jumped back into the doorway of his studio for shelter as the devil disappeared into the crack he had made.

There was a brief silence.

The ground trembled once again, and the plaster statue of the lovers fell and shattered into a thousand pieces.

Alexandre gasped and doubled over in pain. Was he free of the devil then? And what had happened to the lovers? He couldn’t hear their hearts beating any more, so they were evidently no longer imprisoned in the statue.

“Good God, what happened here?”

Rodin was at the door behind him, and Alexandre frowned. “I thought I told you to leave!”

“I did, but… this will sound strange, but a few minutes ago, I felt a strange, stabbing pain in my chest, and then I felt the earthquake, and thought I should come back. It looks like your studio must have been the centre of it.”

“You could say that.” He looked around shaking his head. “All my work, gone.”

“Not all of it, surely.”

“No. And that is probably what saved me.”

Rodin frowned in confusion. “How did that painting end up in the fireplace?”

“Oh.” Alexandre began to laugh. “The devil came for my soul. Only it turns out that I put a little of my soul into everything I create, and so he couldn’t get at it. But he tried.”

Rodin blinked. “A little bit of your soul in everything you create. Are we doing magic now?”

“Just art, I think.”

Rodin let out a long breath. “Right. Art. Preserving souls in plaster and clay and bronze. Just what I do in my studio every day.” He looked around the studio and shook his head. “What a horrible mess.”

Alexandre sighed. “I can’t believe he destroyed that painting. It’s the best thing I’ve ever painted, you know.”

“I know. But you’ll do more, and better. You know that you can now.”

“No.” Alexandre shook his head. “I think I’ll stick to sculpture from now on. I don’t have the heart for painting.”

The devil had, after all, got something from his bargain.

Rodin looked around the studio again. “The lovers are gone, I see.”

“Yes.” Alexandre looked at his studio and sighed. “I won’t miss that everlasting heartbeat, but I wish I knew what had become of them. He got my plaster study of you, by the way. That’s probably what you felt earlier.”

Rodin looked perturbed. “That’s a strange thought. But you’re probably right. I’m glad that I took my bust of you with me when I finished it.”

Alexandre blinked. “Actually, that might have saved me, too. If I put part of your soul into my bust of you, then you probably did the same for me.”

Rodin shook his head. “I’m still not sure I’m on board with the idea of putting little pieces of my soul – or anyone else’s – into my sculpture. I mean, your lovers with their heartbeat would seem to be the logical extension of that, and there was nothing good about that situation.”

“True. Still, I suspect that all artists do something of the sort. At least, if they are any good they do.”

“Oh, are you complimenting my work now? Do go on.”

Alexandre laughed. “You don’t need compliments from me. Your sculptures are rough and impressionistic, and one can never forget that they are stone, but nobody could deny that they are compelling.”

“And I didn’t even have to do a deal with the devil to get my most recent commission.”

“Probably because even the devil couldn’t put up with your insufferable vanity…”

And, bickering, the two friends began to clean up the studio.

Woman surprised bathing, by Alexandre Falguière

+++

Far away, in the town of Nice, two lovers are embracing, freed from the stone in which they had been imprisoned. The woman moves stiffly, as if she has forgotten how to move her limbs, and her left side is covered in bruises and abrasions, as if she had recently been flung to the ground. The man looking down at her so lovingly is in a similar state, though his injuries are on his right side.

They are in the wrong century, they have no family, and their situation is more than precarious. But they are in love, and it is enough.

Music, by Alexandre Falguière

 

Once upon a time, the devil made a deal with a sculptor.

He had hoped for this opportunity. Hell has few really excellent artworks, and a sculptor’s soul is nothing to be sneezed at.

And so, the deal was made, and yet the result was not what the devil might have wished.

(He didn’t even get any artwork out of it, but really, that was his own fault. The devil has always had a very short temper when he is thwarted.)

Sculptors are a tricky lot, with their souls wedded to their stone.

Opera singers are much easier.

Somewhere in Paris, a tenor prepares for his next performance as Faust. He is singing in front of his mirror, practicing the recitative that Falguière murdered so badly just a few months ago, and he’s doing quite a good job of it.

The devil appears behind him. The singer’s eyes widen, and his voice falters, but it doesn’t matter, because he has just reached Mephistopheles’ entrance.

The devil smiles. He has been watching this tenor for a while, and has reason to believe that this will be a productive evening.

He begins to sing.

“Me voici! – D’où vient ta surprise?
Ne suis-je pas mis à ta guise?

 

station

Falguière is a station on Line 12 of the Métro in the 15th arondissement, which is in the south western corner of Paris.  The station opened in 1910, and was originally part of the Nord-Sud company’s line.  It is named for the Rue Falguière, which is in turn named for Alexandre Falguière.

Alexandre Falguière (1831-1900) was a French sculpture and painter from Toulouse, and was quite famous in his time, though he seems to have fallen out of fashion significantly, and it’s hard to find much written about him now.  The main biographical detail that everyone writes about is the fact that he and Rodin were friends, and that he was given the commission to build a statue of Honoré de Balzac after the Societé des Gens de Lettres rejected Rodin’s statue.  Rodin apparently had the commission first, and was supposed to take eighteen months, but he seems to have dived into a ‘method sculpting’ view of the project, taking seven years, reading all of Balzac’s work, visiting his home town, and doing multiple studies of Balzac, many in bronze, including a nude which he never intended to have as the final sculpture but made so that he would have the proper figure to go underneath the monk’s robe he wanted to put him in.  The Societé lost patience, and demanded back their money, and then when Rodin finally completed the statue, they didn’t like it anyway, viewing it as grotesque.  So Falguière got the commission.  And then Rodin suggested that they sculpt busts of each other, to show that they were still friends.

This was a nice story, but not really enough to hang an entire character on, so I did a bit more research and found a catalogue of an exhibition of his work that was presented shortly after his death, and in his honour, which began with a brief biography / obituary written by Léonce Benedite, an art historian and curator and a friend of Falguière’s.  Or perhaps a ‘frenemy’, since he had a tendency to by mildly patronising about Falguière’s peasant-like connection with nature, and evidently didn’t think he was too bright.  He also felt that Falguière should have stuck to plaster and terra cotta, and stayed away from marble and bronze, which I suspect to be a subtle insult.  But he did mention two useful things.  One was that, although Falguière was a much better sculptor than a painter, he really did love painting, and was always more excited about completing a painting than a statue.  The other was that Falguière loved to sing – anything from Henry VIII to Saint-Saëns, apparently, but especially arias from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  In fact, apparently he would turn up at parties and about the first thing he would do would be to look for an accompanist – who he would then drive mad by wanting to sing things too fast or by skipping bars…

Anyway, since I’m a singer myself, I couldn’t resist adding a little bit of Don Giovanni into the mix, and also a little of Gounod’s Faust, which seemed thematically appropriate.

The element in this mix was the 1942 French Film, Les Visiteurs du Soir, which has a script written by poet Jacques Prévert.  This film was a piece of wartime resistance propaganda disguised as a fairy tale about the Devil sending two of his envoys to disrupt a wedding by seducing the two participants – but of course, one of the envoys falls in love with the bride.  The Devil is so angry that he turns bride and groom to stone, but their hearts continue to beat within the statue, much as the heart of France remains alive even under Nazi Occupation.  Subtle.  I have used the fairy tale, but have not retained the wartime resistance meaning.

My thanks once again to Alison U’Ren, who did her best to fill in the great gaping pit of ignorance that is my understanding of art history in general and sculpture in particular.  If I have said anything particularly stupid here, it is certainly not her fault, but it’s likely that anything particularly smart or insightful came directly from her conversation.

The pictures are all as captioned and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.  Sadly, I was unable to obtain a copyright-friendly version of the statue from Les Visiteurs du Soir, but a quick look on Google Images will find it for you.

 

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Montparnasse-Bienvenüe fleur12left Falguière
fleur12right Pasteur