Easter Monday in a Shop Full of Paintings

“I still remember when I bought my first piece of art,” he said. “I was young like you, and I still have it you know. And now – well you see where it can lead you!” He looked around at the crowded walls of his shop. Paused a moment.

“It is a virus,” he continued. His voice rose, stifled only by the constraints of polite conversation with strangers. The classical shop music babbled on behind him. “And now,” he made the shape of a syringe with his fingers, then stabbed himself in the arm with it, squeezed the invisible plunger, “now you are infected.” He smiled broadly. We smiled back.

“You see, I buy a painting and hang it on my wall, yes? And I am looking at it every day and then in five years I look at it and I see something new, you know? It is quite magic for this to happen.

“But they can only be original. This can only happen with original ones. I think it is the paint. Over time, the colours, they change. You have white, it may become cream. And then where you had once green next to white, now you have green next to cream. It is different yes? A different painting. Only slightly, but it changes.” He looked at us for consensus and we nodded in agreement.

“So now you have an original,” he said, gesturing at the plastic bag dangling from Martin’s hand, “and you will do this too.” He paused again, cast his gaze over the walls.

“You see, it is all in the colour. Everything is in the colour. You see this one?” He walked over to one of the paintings on the wall to the right. “This one, it has too much sex, but you see, down here.” He moved his hand over the blocks of colour towards the bottom of the painting, to the side of the naked woman. “This blue and this green, they are very nice together, yes? And this yellow here…” He paused. Stood back.

“Do you know what etching is?” he asked suddenly. Martin shrugged.

“It’s, uh, with a pencil,” I attempted, “quite small, close-together lines? Very detailed?”

The man shook his head and lead us back to the front of the store. “No no no. I will show you, so that you may know a bit more about art, yes?” He started flicking through the stand of unframed sketches and paintings on paper, looking for an example of an etching. He kept getting distracted by particular prints and pulling them out, showing them to us, telling us briefly about the artist or the technique or how it should be framed.

To me though, most of them appeared extremely ugly – garish, tacky renditions of Charles Bridge or European outdoor cafes in unnatural shades of green or pink. Tourist stuff. One of them had even used what looked like aluminium foil. The one Martin had just bought was the one there I had seen and liked.

But to the man in the shop handled them with great affection. “Look, this one the artist painted in both sides, to save paper. They do that often, some of the artists. To save money.”

After a while he found the etching he was looking for and explained the technique to us, which had nothing to do with pencils, but involved some sort of complicated procedure with copper plates and acid, and a number system of some sort to retain the value of the originals.

“The French call it l’eau forte,” he explained. ‘Strong water’. So that is what the alchemists used to call acid in the Middle Ages, you see. So they call it ‘strong water’. I am French, so this is how I know this.”

“What a nice guy!” Martin said after we left the shop. We were in more of a hurry now, Martin’s bus back to Berlin left in just over two hours and he hadn’t even packed his stuff up or eaten breakfast. “Yeah yeah, he was really cool,” I agreed.

We walked briskly towards the bridge back to the city centre side of the river. “‘It is a virus,'” I imitated, “‘and now, you are infected!'”

“I think it is quite right what he says actually,” Martin said soberly. His German accent inflated his vowels and muddied his consonants slightly. “I bought my first piece of art, and now,” he raised the plastic bag on his arm, “I think I must be infected.”

– Zoe Barron


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