The Last Painting, by Stuart Snelson

Whilst he was good at making money, he was even better at losing it.
His life had been one of aesthetic pleasures. He had surrounded himself with things of beauty. This was relative. Works in which he took pleasure others often found bewildering. More than one woman had walked out complaining about his oppressive tastes.

In the dark canvases, the twisted sculptures that overshadowed his home, he, at least, took great delight.

*

His diagnosis brought his lifestyle to a halt.

Breathing deeply, his doctor a blur, he considered the weight of the word. Terminal.

His sickness surprised him. Previously his life’s unhealthy interludes had all been at his own hand. Drink and drugs, their finest varieties, had been explored to death’s brink.

As his illness infiltrated, crept through him unbidden, he recalibrated his life accordingly.

His hospital recommended medicine that they refused to provide. Princely sums would witness its dispensation. Even then, it promised no curative possibilities, dealt solely in extension. With requisite funds, he could dull his suffering.

 *

Alcohol, drugs, these were downfalls he had overcome. Aestheticism still coursed through him. Art proved the unkickable fix. In its thrall he had lived acquisitively.

His house a gallery, he had curated an ever-changing exhibition around himself.

His favourite piece hung in his bedroom, a painting that had long transfixed him. Though he had owned it for close to three decades each day it revealed something new.

Not everyone shared his fixation. Whilst others were unsettled by its darkness, for him its abstract patterns were a source of great solace.

In its contemplation, he had been known to enter trance like states, a level of reverie that no other piece he had owned could offer.

 *

Upon diagnosis, his future did its worst.

He was ravaged rapidly. Friends winced as his illness physically belittled him, witnessed him shrink incrementally, a larger than life figure reduced to a skeletal proposition. Stricken, riddled, he dwindled.

Outside of friends, he would face the onslaught alone. Of the many lovers who had brought variety to his life, none had registered permanently.

Women, like money, had come to him easily but slipped through his fingers.

No wife would oversee palliative care.

No offspring would tend him as he succumbed to his disease’s merciless mugging.

He would debilitate in isolation.

 *

As he squared to death, he found himself in reduced circumstances.

At home he surveyed what remained, what could be traded for medication.

Most items of high value had long gone, sold to finance other ventures; he existed in a state of perpetual liquidation. Cash had always flowed, just not necessarily towards him.

The works that remained, with one exception, would raise only pin money at auction, would barely conjure cash for one course of treatment.

The expense unsettled him, pharmaceutical companies dispensing life at a premium, precious minutes exchanged for gold.

It was not an egalitarian situation. The upshot: if the poor didn’t wish to endure painful deaths then they should have worked harder.

What use were artworks to him now, friends insisted, before pointing out, somewhat insensitively, that he could not take them with him.

He overcame proprietorial desires. For a reduced price, dealer friends were reacquainted with pieces they had sold him.

At his own hand, his life was looted of decoration, his home divested of anything of value. He stripped himself of assets that he may extend his life.

For once he was investing in himself.

 *

As he struggled to rummage funds, friends stepped in, offered money for treatment, but he would not take their charity. Proffered alms were politely declined. They were debts, he knew, he would never have to pay back. But he was a proud man, had handled his life’s vicissitudes single-handed.

Until now, each setback had spurred an advance. He had absorbed whatever the world threw at him and progressed. He would not capitulate.

 *

Suffering, he considered the one remaining piece.

It was one of his earliest purchases. He had known the artist, had secured a sale before the bandwagon arrived.

Eventually the art market surrendered to his tastes, the artist finally granted canonical acceptance.

Prices skyrocketed accordingly.

Its value was greater than the house it hung in.

He could no longer afford the insurance, but liked to live dangerously.

He had said of other pieces that he could not live without them. He recognised now that this was not the case.

His relationship with this particular artwork, however, was different.

He was beyond curing, that much was certain, was in fact the one thing upon which his doctors had agreed. They quibbled only about his departure date.

Friends insisted he should invest in a good quality copy. Buy a reproduction, they had advised. He resisted their glib tips. He explained that it was akin to him suggesting they replace their wives with lookalikes.

His point was lost he felt, as most seemed amenable to the idea.

He couldn’t bear to sell it. It had been a part of his life for nearly thirty years.

 *

He lived now in artistic monogamy, admiring this one piece alone. No other works competed for his attention.

Transfixed he lived in its shadow.

He lost himself in its impastoed surfaces, its visible tensions. He found hope in its brutal energy.

All that remained of a former life, it felt like the greatest luxury of all.

In its contemplation, he entered a state of transcendence.

His thoughts adrift, he felt that he existed somewhere beyond this world. A lifelong atheist—there would be no deathbed conversions, sorry lips smitten with prayers—it was as close as he came to a spiritual experience. In a sense he became one with the work.

After all this time it still held his attention in a way no other piece had.

Its auction would see him off he was sure. In the sales room as paddles were raised, phone bids nodded in, he would sink to his knees knowing that never again would this piece be his. He imagined palpitations as bidding escalated, soaring above estimates, each price hike ensuring another course of treatment, another bid for extension, art as pharmaceutical pursuit, longevity linked to the sale of aesthetic pleasures, beauty traded for time. He would be bartering for survival. He pictured himself weeping as overalled men lifted it carefully from its easel, ushered it backstage never to be seen again.

He imagined it locked away where no one would gaze upon it. The thought cut through him. In a bank languishing, unappreciated, it would be tantamount to destroying it.

It felt selfish to banish a thing of beauty of to a vault.

To sell it seemed obscene, vulgar. Who could put a price on its effect?

No. He refused to sell it. It would remain. He would seek succour in its surface. It would provide a focus to the end of his life, a window into another world.

 *

The painting would outlive him.

With no heirs to consider, he assessed its future.

He could donate it to a local gallery, the scene of his artistic epiphany, a final act of benevolence.

He imagined its life beyond his. Hanging in the gallery, a small plaque beside it announcing his bequest, it would battle with sundry other works for visitor’s attention.

He took solace from the thought of future viewers, those not yet born bowing to its majesty.

As he weakened, he sensed himself entering the work, merging, his soul’s departure converging, a transfusion as they absorbed each other. He would live on posthumously, his connection woven into its very essence.

As tour groups gathered in the gallery, were directed to this work, would they sense his pain?

On his bed, he switched pillows so that he faced the wall, faced his painting.

It would be the last thing he would see before sleeping and the first upon waking.

It would be the last thing that he would see.

He would approach death with clarity, would not leave this life in a haze. He did not wish to spend his remaining time pharmaceutically fortified before entering the void, tranquilised, thoughts fogged, unable to focus.

There was no miracle cure. The medication would simply arrest advancement, ease his pain. It was a false hope. No chemist yet dispensed immortality.

Art would see him through.

Pillow-propped he lost himself.

He was drawn into its silence.

His deathbed became a perpetual confessional.

In the painting’s magnetic presence he atoned for indiscretions.

He saw his past, present and future in its darkness.

Let the pain do its worst. He would proceed.


Stuart Snelson is a London based novelist and short story writer. His stories have appeared in 3:AM, Ambit, Litro, Structo, HOAX, The Londonist and Popshot, among others. He is currently working on his second novel whilst seeking a publisher for his first. For a full list of links visit stuartsnelson.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter @stuartsnelson

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