August 2018

It had been far too long since I had come by Colette’s place on the Rue Artois, that little loft with the outside stairs over the bar she ran with an ever-rotating crew of hired hands. I had been in a dark place, personally and professionally, with only the barest snatches of contact with the woman I loved. But when my conference in Montreal was finished, and the long flight home complete, I promised myself that I was going to make it up to her. I slipped into town unannounced–a surprise. Picked up her favorite flowers, posies, and a gift. I knew she was usually around just after sunset, taking a little personal time in her loft before the night’s business began. I planned to meet Colette that night and, if things went well, asking her to marry me.

If that seems a little naive, after I had been gone so long and had such relatively little contact with Colette, remember that I was used to nothing. Calling her once every two weeks, writing a letter once a month…this felt, to me, like I Was pestering her. It never occurred to me that to someone who craved the interpersonal as much as she did, it might come off differently.

When I arrived at the stairs to Colette’s loft, there was another man there.

His name was Robert, and he was very kind. From the posies in his hand, it was clear what his intentions were, but he was also there with his parents, an older more genial Robert and a Jeanne. They were kind to the point of being almost insufferable, completely ignoring Colette upstairs to attend to me. I suppose what I felt was written plainly enough on my face, but if you’ve ever been in such a situation, you know that even the kindest saint cannot comfort you in the throes of such darkness.

Remembering where Colette hid her key, in the third flowerpot in the garden, I let myself into the bar and pulled out the cheapest bottle they had. I scattered a few francs and whatever other coins were in my pocket onto the countertop in recompense, and started to toss back fiery mouthfuls. Robert, pere, and Robert, fils, followed me in. They kept telling me how they had no idea, how sorry they were, how I shouldn’t blame myself, how they were to blame. Looking back on it, I am frankly touched by their compassion.

In the moment, though, I did my best to ignore them and continued hurling back hard liquor. I probably would have done it until the bottle fell over empty or I did, had Colette not finally come downstairs to see what all the fuss was about.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Over time, the marshes took over and poisoned most of the once-fertile land, and saltwater intrusion meant that the area became overrun with mangroves and other hardy life.

Nevertheless, the chapel persists, perched on its solid crag and with access to a lens of freshwater and some catchments. While its hall is never filled with worshipers—and, indeed, never has been—it is still tended by a monk from the Order of St. Christopher.

The monks treat it as a test of silence and isolation, but they have been known to aid the unwary and the unfortunate who stumble upon this isolated folly.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Much like the “Sepia Lady” a pattern seems to follow the “Rusted Duke”–in this case, it is always given as a gift, and the person who bestows it seems to have a major tragedy occur not long after, up to and including their own death. The painting left the hands of the Russian government during the Revolution, when it was smuggled abroad to Harbin in China. When Harbin was taken by Japan, the painting was given to a Kwantung Army captain as a bribe, who in turn gave it to the one of the commanders of the infamous Unit 731 biological experimentation unit. Amused by its provenance, the commander adorned his office with it during the worst period of Unit 731’s atrocities.

The “Rusted Duke” is believed to reside in China still, though its exact location is disputed. Likely candidates include the underground annex of the National Museum of China in Beijing, the secret Ministry of Culture warehouse in Xianjin, or the Beiyang Cultural Preservation Complex near Dalian. It’s been claimed that an official desire to destroy the work has, so far, been balanced by its great value.

Former premier Deng Xioping reportedly considered offering the painting as a goodwill gift to Franz Vranitzky in 1989. He was said to find the idea “side-splitting” but was ultimately dissuaded by an aide, who feared the fates of the others who had gifted the portrait would befall his leader.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Szolnoky Laszlo’s only other surviving work, the “Rusted Duke,” appears to be based on a 1820 portrait of the Duke of Glückstadt which was widely reproduced and distributed. Since it was made by apprentices of the de Ijesser school in Amsterdam as an advertising tool, and over 500 are known to exist today, it’s likely that Szolnoky used one of these copies as a model. Unlike the de Ijesser dukes, however, Szolnoky’s Duke is smiling and is depicted in front of a landscape that can best be described as fantastical–it appears normal, but upon closer inspection many minor impossibilities and inaccuracies appear. It seems that Szolnoky intended the piece as a parody, though one must wonder how an artist infamous for using the blood of kidnap victims as his paint could have any notion of parody at all.

Like the “Sepia Woman,” Szolnoky painted the “Rusted Duke” for a foreign nobleman–in this case, the Grand Duke Alexei Pavolvich of Russia, second cousin to Czar Nicholas I. The Grand Duke commissioned the painting during his time as an attache to the ambassador, it seems, and may even have provided the de Ijesser it is based on. When the emperor requested its return from St. Petersburg, the Grand Duke instead gifted it to Czar Nicholas II as a gesture of defiance. He did not live out the year, being stricken by scarlet fever during a tour of Vladivostok. Nicholas II did not care for the painting and gave it to one of his ministers not long before his own assassination.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

When the “Sepia Woman” entered private hands through unclear means after the 1918 revolution, it was prominently displayed in the Goldenthal Gallery in Stuttgart. Looted by the Nazis after Hans Goldenthal was rounded up in 1937, the “Woman” appears in a portfolio of stolen artwork prepared in 1943–the low-quality snapshots from this catalogue are the only other known photographs of the painting. Taken by the Soviets from Dresden in 1945, the “Sepia Lady” is believed today to reside in the Pushkin Museum annex, restricted from public display due to the official denials of any art looting at all from the government.

And through it all, from every link in the chain of custody, each owner stole the “Sepia Lady” from the previous one, and each owner died or faced deep misfortune soon after losing it.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

One of only two known works of the ‘mad painter of the Carpathians’ Szolnoky Laszlo, the “Sepia Woman” depicts an upper-class woman dressed in clothing appropriate for an upper-class Vienna woman circa 1840. It is unknown if this woman modeled for Szolnoky–considering his brutal painting methods, one rather doubts it–but it seems clear that he used some sort of reference, whether it was another painting, a manikin, or even an early daguerreotype. The woman’s distant expression and the many questions surrounding its provenance have attracted intense interest to the present day, up to and including otherwise unfounded speculation that Szolnoky painted the woman with her own blood.

The “Sepia Woman” was saved from the emperor’s purge of Szolnoky’s works because it had been sold to a wealthy merchant in Stuttgart, and the king there declined the emperor’s demand that it be surrendered; in fact, intrigued by its provenance, the king confiscated the work for his own collection. It was during this period that the only surviving high-quality photographs were taken of the work.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Horrified, the jaegers killed Szolnoky on the spot, ramming him through with their bayonets. The prisoner, a pauper from the valley, could only murmur a few words before he succumbed to sepsis in the days that followed. The emperor absolved his men of the murder and ordered all of Szolnoky’s portraits to be rounded up and burned, with their ashes buried in an unmarked but consecrated grave.

Only two Szolnoky works are known to survive: the Sepia Woman and the Rusted Duke.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Four months later, just after his niece’s birthday party, the emperor sent a contingent of men to check in on Szolnoky. Annoyed, he gave orders for them to recover the artwork if complete or the payment if not. The artist, however, proved elusive—in fact, he could not be found at all. Now livid, the emperor dispatched a unit of jaegers to find Szolnoky no matter the cost. And find him they did, in a secluded cabin in the mountains, many hours from the nearest village. Few of the villagers would talk about the artist, much less admit to seeing him, and the jaegers soon found out why.

Szolnoky was in the midst of the emperor’s commission–it was about half painted. But there were no pigments, no ink, no oils. Only a pathetic and half-dead prisoner, chained next to the foul remains of his dead predecessor. Szolnoky would, every so often, dip his brush in the man’s open wounds, and healed incisions covered the man’s forearms and back.

The portraits were, in fact, painted in blood.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

In the latter days of the empire, after the great compromise but before the Emperor lost his only son and heir, it was common to compare the empire and its peoples to the greatness of the past and to find it wanting. The great painters, musicians, and other luminaries who had once established the imperial lands as a beacon of enlightenment and civilization seemed to depart for other lands as soon as they arose.

For a time, many named the painter Szolnoky László was cited as a counter example to this. Hailing from a noble but relatively humble lineage, he worked only with shades of brown in contrast to the vivid colors favored by other artists of the time. His works, impressionist but representational, showed a true mastery of his limited color palette, often appearing more vivid and energetic than their mere colors should suggest.

Szolnoky, a self-professed perfectionist, worked in seclusion in the mountains and took six months to a year to finish a commission. Nevertheless, nobles from all over the empire sought out his services, and eventually the Emperor himself contacted Szolnoky for a birthday gift to be given to his niece. The artist agreed, but either did not notice or disregarded the unusually tight timeline of three months for completion.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“I was cast out,” the thing croaked, through strained vocal cords greased by salt and embalming oils. “They take whom they wish from the tombs of old and raise them to work alongside the newly embalmed.”

“So why did they cast you out?” I asked, shuddering as the desert wind spiraling off a nearby dune filled my nostrils with the creature’s grave scent.

“I did not obey,” it said. “Most of the others remember nothing of the before, or are afraid. Those of us who do remember and are not afraid are cast into the sands. I have been wandering for I know not how long.”

“And who were you? In the…before?”

“That, I will keep to myself if you do not mind, stranger. It is unbearable to think about.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Next Page »