The Way We Lied

Caroline watched the distant entrance, wondering how long she would be waiting alone. She rarely visited art galleries and she had certainly never been to one famous for its exhibitions of controversial artists before. The National Gallery and the Tate Britain, with their block-buster shows of the Old Masters and Impressionists, were understandable. After all, everyone loves a Renoir or a Rembrandt, don’t they?
She glanced around at the groups of laughing teenagers holding sketch books and clip boards, their coloured hair and earrings at odds with their still conventional, though crumpled, school uniforms. Cliques of Japanese students drifted by, gossiping animatedly, looking like escapees from cartoon strips. There was no one else like her in this echoing space; no one else was dressed in a tailored suit, clicking backwards and forwards on dainty heels and clutching a shiny handbag. A woman with cropped silver hair walked past; she was dressed completely in loose, enveloping black and her thick crepe soles were silent on the flagged floor.
Caroline felt so out of place. She was wrong and this was wrong. And then she saw her. That dark haired, lithe figure, sauntering down the slope towards her. Mary looked right. She looked at home in her jeans and boots. This was where she belonged. She greeted Caroline with a quizzical smile. “Sure you’re ready for this?”
They moved to the upper floors of the vast industrial building and at first Caroline was absorbed by the expertise of the huge paintings and the sheer volume of output in the Tate Modern’s first retrospective show for Frederick Lloyd. Years of intense work by the artist spoke to her of dedication and introspection, yet also organisation. But halfway through, as the work began to focus more and more on the world in which he lived, a world so alien to hers, with huge depictions of male and female genitals, coupling and exposing, Caroline turned away and whispered, “It’s too much. I can’t look at any more.”
So Mary took her arm and they walked back the way they had come. “Let’s stop for a while then. We can come back later.”
They made their way to the ground floor restaurant and when they were seated Caroline put her head in her hands. “I’m so sorry. You must think I’m being absolutely pathetic.” She reached into her smart patent handbag for a tissue and wiped her eyes, then blew her nose delicately. “It was all so crude, so ugly.”
Mary just looked at her calmly. “So? Life can be crude and ugly. It’s like that for many people. It’s a reflection of what he saw and knew.”
Caroline shook her head. “I can understand that. But I feel really uncomfortable looking at those images. I don’t know why. I mean, it’s not as if I don’t know what the naked human body looks like. But I keep feeling these are like obscene grafitti on the walls of public toilets, deliberately trying to make me feel disgusted. I don’t think I can bear to look at these gross, horrid things any more.”
Mary considered Caroline’s troubled face, then said, “I don’t think it’s the images that really disturb you. I think it’s because you are conscious of the act of looking, knowing that you can be seen by other visitors to the exhibition to be viewing something you have always been told is shocking and disgusting. I think it’s because you are afraid of appearing to accept and approve of that which you have always been told is totally out of bounds.”


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