Lucy Walters graduated from a degree in Theatre at the University of York in 2015. She is an aspiring playwright, comedian and dramaturg, who currently works in the finance industry – naturally.
Should the quest for female empowerment require the shedding of traditional female roles? By creating a binary opposition between femininity and strength, are women damaging their relationships to each other? Does conforming to traditional roles limit the potential a woman has to be dangerous?
During my final year of university, I wrote my dissertation on the influence of Thatcherite Politics on the representation of women in the works of Alan Ayckbourn. The tension between Thatcher’s position as a powerful woman and the impact her policymaking had on other women was striking. Considering this tension inspired me to think further about the ways that women can be a danger to each other. The Painter presents a power hungry female leader who has adopted negative attributes associated with masculinity and contrasts her with the painter, whose talents and desires have been rendered insignificant by a regime that prioritises aggression and violence over creativity, emotion and compassion. The Painter’s rebellion through the femininity that the Commander rejects demonstrates the danger that these stereotypically feminine attributes can present to a society which has misunderstood their potential impact
Dry gravel crunches under shining leather boots. Blood is gently wiped from brass buttons. The rising sun catches the tips of bayonets as they slice the morning air.
All these sights wash over the painter like waves breaking over a rock. She makes the finishing touches to an existing portrait as they approach. She does not know it yet, but she has just completed the final work of Elisabeth Linetti’s Blind Men; In 100 years’ time, critics will analyse the haste in her brushstrokes, an unusual break from her careful detailed style. She splatters the canvas, the floor, herself, in colour.
War has dribbled slowly through the land like water through a cracked roof tile.
Once, she painted beautiful things, but she cannot remember beauty; it has abandoned her. Words like that have lost their meaning: lovely, pretty, cheerful. All of these words seem flimsy and intangible. She feels as though if she tried to say the word “pretty” it would shatter into sharp shards in her mouth before ever reaching the foul world outside.
Elisabeth Linetti is not pretty anymore. Her red curls are matted, her pale skin is ridden with blemishes, her bright eyes dimmed fragments of sea glass. Her whole body has frosted over.
As she sets the final dab of colour in place, she gazes around her studio. A collection of beggars all swathed in rags sit blindfolded on each canvas.
They do not knock but she knows they are outside. A gunshot assaults her ears and the door swings open on its hinges.
The woman who enters did not fire the gun. Her white gloves are pristine, her burgundy lips immaculate. Battalions of blonde curls sit in rows on her forehead, pinned in place like butterflies in glass cases. She sits on a stool that the painter has already prepared. Her lieutenant follows and stands beside her, holding the gun that blasted through the lock.
The Commander has come for a portrait. She had admired them in the halls of her enemies as she strolled through in the aftermath of battle. They had depicted themselves as invincible, but she had crushed them underfoot like freshly fallen snow. Greatness cannot be bought, but it can be won, the words of her first broadcast speech. Now she had fought, she had won, and she had achieved greatness. She has come for her portrait.
The painter retrieves the canvas she has reserved. She does not meet the eyes of her victorious leader.
The painter concentrates, waiting for the best light. The sun crawls at an agonising pace across the sky. She concentrates on the painting, on the colours and lines that she creates with every movement.
She does not think about what she is painting.
What she is painting is a woman, who is now declaiming to her lieutenant.
She has won another campaign, she says, she has taken The West Gate, and the markets in the East, and now she is just days away from a victory in the North. In the occupied lands, she has won different victories. Poverty has been removed from the streets of the Western Ports, and the alleyways have been cleansed of the homeless.
The painter knows this is no philanthropic triumph. Why waste a mouthful of bread on a beggar when a bullet solves the problem faster?
Child mortality has dropped to one in ten thousand in the Eastern states.
The painter knows that this is because there are barely any women left deemed “worthy” of the gift of motherhood. Her own womb sits in her abdomen, newly barren, after she did not meet the requirements set out by the state health examiner. Her heart cries out for the child she will never have.
The Commander rambles on. The painter closes her ears. She does not want to hear about any more victories. Every new city claimed means more graves that must be dug, more names drifting over the radio waves.
And so the painter concentrates. Noon has passed, and there are no clouds to hold in the heat of the sun. Nothing in the room retains warmth.
Inwardly, the Painter curses her diligence. The painting does not have to be good; the subject has no taste. Art is the only area in fact, in which she does not discriminate.
The painter has a good reputation and the Commander knows this. The leader will not look at the canvas, so large that it had to be carried in through the window by two soldiers. The lieutenant assures the painter that she will be reimbursed for the cost of the glazier that removed the glass. The painter does not believe this.
The painting has been commissioned by the new government.
The painter would not have lifted her brush for anything less. A government commission is as much a death threat as it is an honour.
She swirls gold and bronze shades together, sweeping the paint across the pale pink circle that forms the face. The face has no features. No eyes. No nose. No mouth.
The mouth she will paint last. She does not want to look at the mouth.
Her studio is cold, because the window was north facing and the gap in the wall is letting the wind in. It blows through the painter’s flesh and gathers in her bones, turning her to ice.
The hours roll through the studio, as if caught on the wind, going by so fast out in the world and then settling to that slow, icy breeze in this room.
The woman explains that she is doing great work in the south, the prisons are full to bursting. She smiles and smacks her lips, she requests a hot drink.
The painter looks up, but the lieutenant has already pulled out a Government Issue thermos and is filling a cup for their mistress. Of course, the thing would never have allowed herself to drink from an artist’s cup.
The painter watches the shaking hand of the lieutenant as they hand their master the cup. The shaking hand betrays the fear beneath the surface. The lieutenant catches her eye, and a moment of agreement settles between them. They are both at the mercy of this woman, and they are both bound up so tight with fear that it is leaking out through their eyes like telltale trickles of water before a pipe bursts.
The painter begins to create one dark eye and then the other. The nose forms itself from her brush. The mouth, she cannot complete the mouth without hearing every word.
“This place is decrepit,” the mouth remarks, “Beggars, endless tramps in rags. Is this what you think art is?”
The painter does not respond.
“And your subjects, I suppose they’re artists too?”
“No, ma’m,” the artist’s voice croaks, “They are beggars, and now they are dead.”
The lieutenant shifts uncomfortably, avoiding the masked faces in the paintings as if their eyes were boring straight through them.
“What a fitting tribute,” the Commander begins, but her words are interrupted as she catches her breath. The painter’s blood thumps in her veins. The brush clenched tightly between her fingers freezes between her palette and the canvas. A single drop of color falls to the floor.
The roving eyes have fixed on one image, it is of a man with stick legs curls into a ball beneath a streetlamp. His face is upturned but covered by a cloth. The light falls over his bandaged face, and settles gently on his ravaged shoulders.
The leader turns her gaze on the painter. She speaks again, this time a flat note of suspicion creeps around the edges of her words.
“But of course somebody has to keep a record of how things were, otherwise how would we appreciate how much we’ve achieved.”
The painter knows why the beggars are blindfolded but she does not say. She concentrates on the cupids bow and tries not to hear the sounds issuing forth from the hole just beneath it.
The Commander’s voice rumbles on like high pitched thunder. She continues to gaze on every one of the artist’s canvases, deploring the figures depicted there. Here is an addict, there is a face for a thief. Words and words and awful words.
How many of the Painter’s friends had those words left for dead?
The artist bites hard on her lip and lets the colour flow out of her brush. So close. Her heart thuds in her ears. She bends and signs the picture. She stands back for the first time to view it and her heart breaks.
It is perfect. It is her best work. Photographs could not render such a visceral portrait. Her fear sits in each stroke of the brush, it brings the painting to life.
The painter stands back and places her brush gently on the pallet to indicate that her work is done.
The thing does not stop to look at it, she places a fifty pound note on a side table and tells the painter the soldiers will collect it in the morning, once the paint has had time to dry.
The lieutenant risks one more glance at the painter’s eyes, apologies drift through the air. The door closes, and they are gone.
It has been seventeen hours. The painter has not had a moment to rest. She has been standing, she has not eaten or been to the bathroom.
She sits on the floor, places her head in her hands. She breathes out slowly.
One by one, the paintings let their blindfolds fall, and sigh with her.