Woman in Kimono
Except for unearthing the memory, nothing about the story they heard at dinner resembled De Kooning’s Excavation. After dessert, Louise, whose densely subterranean brushwork of figures and faces could be seen in a piece she called White Lies and which was hanging on loan in Eve and Benny B.’s apartment, turned to Eve and said: “you must see this painting at the Art Institute.” Since she could not be trusted with them, Eve told Benny B. to remember the painter and the painting. Two weeks later, walking through the Modern American Art Room in Chicago, she turned to Benny B. and asked: “what was the name of that painter and his painting?” Benny B. forgot but had a big thought instead, which he articulated like this to the security guard: “Excuse me, we were told there’s a painting here we must remember to see — can you help us?”
Toshiro had come from Japan to study portrait painting in Paris in 1971, when Eve met him through her friend Eiko — at least this is how everyone at dinner heard Eve tell it. At the same time, Benny B. learned later, Willem De Kooning had returned from Japan under the influence of Sumi brush painting and calligraphy — which surfaced in his inks on stone and in a sequence of lithographs the genesis of which took place in Hollander’s Workshops in New York: washed ink prints named Love to Wakako and Japanese Village. This was, Benny B. thought, no coincidence, more like frames from parallel film strips unrolling backwards through time, momentarily frozen in order to have the chance of meeting.
The way Eve told it, she was only twenty when he had come up to her at the entrance to the Hotel Henri IV and politely asked to paint her in a kimono. She nodded, both of them trying to not look shy and helpless sans the other’s language. Months later, after the painting was finished and she left Paris to return to New York, Eve started receiving what she thought were love letters from him, which she imagined, so she remembered, in a childlike miniature calligraphic French. She never answered them, though the thought occurred to her more than once over the years, and now at dinner she articulated it: “I’ve always wondered if I could be hanging in some museum in Paris?”
As they walked outside, Benny B. turned to his friend, Nick, a photographer and film editor: “Listen, Eve’s 60th is in a month and I’m stumped on what to get her.”
“Easy,” Nick said in a moment of inspiration, “give her the picture.”
“A wild gesture,” Benny B. thought on the ride home with Nick, but which painting: the one he did not know the name of or the picture in her memory which had been lingering there somewhere over time? They seemed almost the same, with Time the subject of both. Two lost works — fallen into a universal Art wormhole. If the second one, then how to find it, how to realize the gesture, how to uncover a 40 year old painting that could be hanging anywhere from an hotel lobby on the Place Dauphine to a show of Contemporary Japanese artists in Paris, at least this is how Eve felt it could be, when she remembered it.
If only she had been Japanese, Benny B. thought years later, he could have easily imagined finding her image under the name, Love to Wakako, which was, as both paintings were, invisible to him.
Benny B.’s first thought was: how could the French make this easy for him? He wondered: if it was possible over 40 years for the enlightened among them to undress “the stranger” among them by making it a crime to wear the Islamic veil in public, as they had done not so ironically during the so-called Arab Spring, why couldn’t they take a moment in the next month for the government to prohibit the public exhibition of white women in kimonos only to more clearly reveal their unwanted presence milling around in the spaces of the Liberal State?
No such luck. So Benny B. went online, the de rigueur of the day, July, 2011, a month from her birthday, and started sleuthing.
On the virtual highway, people, unlike objects in the rear view mirror, seem closer than they are. This is what Benny B. had no clue of when he immediately found Toshiro online, just as he had anticipated. Of course, he had to read the small print in his bio to see how far he had come from the young man he had heard of at dinner. His career, it turned out, had a taken a graceful yet forceful turn. He had made a name for himself as a dan in the Aikido racket: a foreign art student transformed into a Master Aikido instructor who once took on a cameo in James Bond’s Moonraker before going on to train a random host of Canadian militias in hand to hand combat. Instead of unveiling a romantic saga of auctioned canvasses and signature brushes from a suicided Japanese Bohemian in Paris who had fallen on a ceremonial sword and then lingered for 24 hours, Benny B. had to settle for you-tube videos in which the man he was looking for was flipping people half his age with sticks.
Benny B. latched onto the first email address he could find online, an Aikido club in France:
To Whom It May Concern,
I hope you understand a bit of English. I am trying to contact a man you would know of as Toshiro. I am the husband of an American woman, Eve, whom he knew many years ago in France, where he was an art student. In 1971, he painted a picture of her. I was wondering where the painting is located today, since I would like to surprise her for her 60th birthday with, if not the canvas itself, then at least a photograph or slide of the painting. I can’t describe it in detail, since I’ve never seen it, but he could have named it, “Caucasian Woman in Kimono.” There can’t be too many of them around.
That evening, he sent the email. The next morning it bounced back.
He thought of writing another, more local and forceful:
To Whom it Must Concern,
I imagine you understand more than a bit of English. I am trying to contact a man you know as Toshiro. I am the husband of a young American woman whom he knew in Paris and drew in a kimono when he was a student studying portrait painting before he became a Master Aikido instructor and appeared in James Bond’s Moonraker. People like this just don’t disappear. If it were me, I would have called the painting, Love to Wakako.
It bounced back again.
When he was about to surrender, Benny B. enlisted the Sisters of Eve in his search.
“Artists like this don’t discard their paintings,” the Sisters wrote Benny B. “We found a club in France whose President is Mr. Tong. Write Mr Tong.”
He did —
At the same moment, Benny B.’s brother Solo wrote: “Little American brother, if you could read a bit of French, it would help,” as he attached an image of Toshiro and some information in the other language he had found online. “If this is your guy, he’s in Quebec, in a studio. Try their email and phone number.”
He did —
The woman who answered was bilingual. So Benny B. thought, “I’ll try English.”
“Hi, do you receive the studio emails for Master Toshiro?” Benny B. asked. “I’ve sent him several.”
“No, that would be Nicholas, his assistant, but he’s not in.”
“Is there a way I can reach Nicholas?”
“Yes,” she said with a trace of a French accent, “I give you his number.”
In the meantime, Benny B. covered his bases, imagined what could happen, and wrote the Sisters again. They started worrying about him, since they couldn’t tell if his email typos and omissions and repetitions were appearing naturally out of his birthday gift obsession or if he was letting the occasional alien tone of the people he was dealing with get inside of his voice:
I may need some help tracking down Japanese guy. I give you his name and you can find him on the internet. His name: Toshiro. You can find him on the internet. What I know is he’s Master Aikido instructor who was in a james bond film and studied art in paris in 1971, when Eve was there. (I have his last name, but I don’t know how much of this I should keep in confidence, and whether — should I be scared for my life. Should I not be confident? As I remember it now, I am married to Eve and she never answered his love letters, so what if he gets curious and asks for our address when I ask for the painting and he says, “yes, I will send it, but where do you want me to send it?” Am I getting ahead of myself?)
Warnings appeared like pop-ups in his head, as he wrote the Sisters:
The man has trained Canadian militias.
The man has worn an iron mask while thrusting at James Bond with otherworldly cries.
The man’s panting black shepherds have chased beautiful women in transparent pink dresses through the Amazon rain forest. The killing always occurs off-screen.
His love letters unrequited, the man has every reason for revenge.
The man has an assistant.
The man flips people with sticks for a living.
After hearing Nicholas’ phone go unanswered, but before writing him, Benny B. imagined he could be more forceful, maybe about the nature of art itself, to make the point about the importance of recovering this painting as a gift, like a memory print. “De Kooning once said,” Benny B. was prepared to drop the quote, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.” Or, to press De Kooning’s point even more forcefully for this Québécois, “its raison d’être.”
I’m after the Japanese Aikido Moonraker guy in Paris who got my wife into a kimono in order to paint her, so he said. I have no French, as she had no Japanese, as he had no English at the time he wrote her love letters she never answered, it was 1971, so I am wondering if you have a bit English and if you have it can you make a French translation for Toshiro do me justice for this birthday gift for her. Do you believe in justice? Do you believe in making justice visible? Do you know that Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented?
He trashed it before it had a chance to bounce back.
He tried again the next morning:
I was told you could get in touch with Toshiro, who was an Art Student in 1971 in Paris and who painted a picture of a young American woman, Eve, who is now my wife. I have been trying for weeks to contact Toshiro to see if he still has the painting, because I would like to give it or a semblance of it to her for a 60th birthday present. Can you help make it visible?
The reply was instant:
I can help you. You can reach him at this email_______. If this does not work, I can reach him by other means.
It was one of the emails which had bounced back weeks ago, so Benny asked for other means, and surprisingly, this Man from Quebec came through in the American way, what Benny B. had always been perplexed by and called out as “American exclamatory friendly,” evident when grownups like their teenage children could not help but see this that or the other as “sooo cute” or “soooo amazing,” or when a young woman dropped a cell phone right underneath her seat on the train and a bystander picked it up and the woman, not missing a beat, said: “Thank you sooo much,” or when a waitress who in any other country would just be doing her job brought a diner a napkin and heard in return “Thank you sooooo much!” and so Nicholas began:
Hi there again!
How are you? I am good!
Toshiro is out for now, but he will be back next Monday. I will talk to him then. This is a very nice story. I hope he still has a painting!
The Sisters could not resist:
“Oh, we’re loving Nicholas. Toshiro must still have the painting — artists do not discard their paintings — they put them in storage. It must be around somewhere.”
And so everyone waited. Weeks passed — Toshiro was still out of town. Benny B. sent reminders. Nicholas wrote back: “I spoke to Toshiro’s wife, who said he is still out of town, but she will tell him what you are looking for. Yes, this is a very nice story.” And Benny B. wondered: why does his wife have to find out? The warnings in his head re-appeared. He waited.
To remind him of what was at stake, one day, back at the Art Institute in Chicago, he overheard Eve and her friend Sasha, who had roomed with her in the Hotel Henri IV in 1971, talking in one of the museum rooms about the past: “Do you remember,” Eve said, as they approached a De Kooning, “Eiko’s friend Toshiro and that painting he drew of me in a kimono? I wonder whatever happened to it.”
Sasha, who Benny B. had earlier clued in on the birthday search, looked back at him with a quizzical smile, not knowing how to answer Eve as they approached the painting. “Is this it?”
“Is Toshiro back yet?” Benny B. asked Nicholas towards the end of their correspondence.
“I believe he is. I will speak to him tomorrow, and I hope for a good outcome!”
The news was not “a good outcome.”
“Unfortunately,” Nicholas wrote, “Toshiro does not have the painting anymore. He remembers it quite well and sends his regard to Eve. I am really sorry of this outcome. I would have like to be part in this really good birthday present!”
Benny B. did not want to let go of this really good birthday present, but the guy did not have the painting — he tossed it, he burned it, he sold it, it didn’t matter. Pressing the point by repeating things he knew he had mentioned in prior emails, but hoping for a different outcome, he wrote back, sounding like a child trying out magical thinking:
This is too bad. I was wondering: did he ever take a photograph or slide of the painting? Perhaps he still has a photograph or slide of the painting? Or does he know what happened to the painting? If he lost it, or does not know where it is, then let me know, please.
Benny B. wanted to be sure his questions were covering all bases, and that the possibility of a birthday painting could be found out of an answer to one of them. He got his wish:
I also asked him if he has any photos and he does not have one. He did take note of the request and should the painting come up he will let me know and I will send you the information via email.
Benny B. latched onto the discrepancy between the two emails. How could a painting which at first “he did not have” suddenly “come up” in the future? And the fact that “he did take note of the request,” meant that the request could be met, otherwise why take note. For sure, all this meant was that the painting had not been burned. Or it could still be buried in storage. Or it could have been sold for gold to some enemy combatant of Toshiro who had discovered it and promised for the right price not to tell Toshiro’s wife, which would have been a moot point at this moment, at least since Nicholas had told her, which meant it could be returned without risk, at some point if, that is, if it was not hanging somewhere, just like Eve had imagined when she remembered the story.
Benny B. was depressed by the veiled possibilities. A month’s search, he thought, and he was back to where he started, or rather, to where Eve started, with the difference that now everyone knew the search had gone nowhere in public — the unrealized present of a painting which was only, in the end, a wild gesture. He called his friend, Billy, a poet, and told him the story:
“I’ll tell you,” Billy said, “that’s inspiring to hear.”
“No way,” Benny B. exclaimed.
“Think of it,” Billy reflected, “Nicholas never ruled out the possibility that the painting could still be hanging somewhere.”
“Well,” Benny B. replied without confidence, “that was only after my persistence put him in an untenable position. I have no idea if what Nicholas said is what Toshiro actually meant, or if Toshiro blew him off sensing a stalker in the Americas, or if it was a bad translation, or if it was just Nicholas sensing my desperation, wanting to be friendly and accommodating, and adding on whatever hope he thought I could latch onto. After all, he wanted to be a part of this birthday present from the start, right, so maybe It’s his way of wishing it still may arrive. Anyway — it doesn’t matter — I’m coming to her 60th empty handed. I’m stumped. What do I give her now?”
“Give her the story,” Billy said, “tell her what happened. Write it down. She’d love to hear it.”
“You must be joking,” Benny B. blurted. “Not only is there is no point in that, but there’s no justice in it, since half the story is speculation, invisible, maybe even untrue. I’ve got nothing to give her, just a month’s worth of detective work to surprise her with, innocent enough, to be sure, the way some lies can be, but no gift of a painting to show for it.”
“A Surprise of White Lies…”
“Don’t worry, she’ll never see through them,” Billy spoke with confidence, “and she’d love to hear what happened.”
“Yeah, I think,” he insisted. “This is the reason storytelling was invented.”
Benjamin Hollander (1952-2016) was born in Haifa, Israel and as a boy immigrated to New York City. He taught English, writing, and critical thinking in the San Francisco Bay Area. His books include: In the House Un-American (Clockroot Books/Interlink Publishing, 2013); Memoir American (Punctum Books, 2013); Vigilance (Beyond Baroque Books, 2005); Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli (Parrhesia Press, 2004); The Book Of Who Are Was (Sun & Moon Press, 1997); How to Read, too (Leech Books, 1992); and, as editor, Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France (ACTS, 1988). With David Levi Strauss, he co-edited the last several issues of Acts (including A Book of Correspondences for Jack Spicer), the literary magazine associated with New College of California and its Poetics Program of the 1980s. A tribute to his life and work by Joshua Schuster and Steve Dickison can be found in Jacket 2. An excerpt from In The House Un-American can be found in The Brooklyn Rail.