A new Ackland bequest inspires fiction by Allan Gurganus | Visual Art | Indy Week
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A new Ackland bequest inspires fiction by Allan Gurganus 

Years ago, an art connoisseur named Charles Millard happened upon a small piece of sculpture that his practiced eye told him was special. He purchased it but made no inquiries about its provenance for many years, content to have it on a coffee table in his home. This was long before Antiques Roadshow encouraged hopes of finding treasure hidden in plain sight, but Millard eventually discovered that his humble acquisition was of sufficient value that he could endow a foundation by selling it. This he did, and the Tyche Foundation was born. Naming his foundation for the Greek goddess of fortune, Millard dedicated it toward the goal of amassing a collection that could be bequeathed to the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, where he was the director from 1986 to 1993.

That day will officially arrive this Sunday, May 23, when the 51 works that make up the Tyche bequest will be unveiled for the public. The collection reflects the eclectic tastes of Millard and his desire to shape his acquisitions to accentuate the Ackland's existing holdings. The diverse offerings include sculptural works from antiquity, rare paintings and calligraphy from Asia, photography from the early decades of the medium and an early etching from one of the 19th century's European superstars, douard Manet.

To fill out the show's accompanying catalogue, Hillsborough novelist Allan Gurganus, a personal friend of Millard's, contributed a series of short fiction sketches for which he took inspiration from nine works in the Tyche collection. Gurganus' contributions, which he says he produced in a single concentrated burst of activity, range from mini-haikus to elliptical verses to short narratives that imagine how the accompanying artwork came into being. The story that follows, written in the style of humorous 19th-century fiction, takes as its inspiration a portrait of a young, married 18th-century woman, painted by a French portraitist named Jean-Louis Le Barbier Le Jeune. —David Fellerath

She wrote one poem. It concerned the seasons, there being four, etc. Her husband, the young bride's senior by forty seasons and more pounds, announced her ditty to be "intriguing," her handwriting "very pretty."

She heard her lord-and-master pronounce her first work, "Excellent. The Winter Section is especially clever, where you compare a frozen pond to some lady's looking glass. Had no earthly idea how inwardly gifted you truly were, my dove. But what book served as your model? Who helped you get even this much down?"

"'Helped!' Moi?" cried his bird, his cherrystone, his late-life masterpiece. Young Madame flew snorting and enraged from his chamber. Young Madame's maid flew snorting and enraged from his chamber. Neither left Madame's boudoir for five long days. Monsieur, unloved, had felt old to start with but now was aging far faster than any bachelor. He trapped his lady's maid downstairs. Plain though she be, she treated him with all his spouse's haughty frost. This servant swore she had watched the words flow from Madame's pen. "Flow, sir!"

At his club, confessing to his friend the Ambassador, Monsieur Villeneuve-Flayosc learned of a local portrait painter. This gent was half-merciful in his fees while proving fully devilishly-clever with his brush. Beautiful women, his speciality. Happily, the artist was also reported to be a man neither handsome, rich, nor young. The spurned husband's one hope: Getting back into his adorable wife's good graces by having her oil-painted as a writer, not a plagiarist.

Her sulking continued, even as Monsieur proposed the scheme via a letter written and delivered within his own home. Why had he not simply praised her? What an idiot! How much would that have cost him? And what a bliss of gratitude could then have awaited Monsieur upstairs! Instead he'd given voice to a moment's logical doubt—the briefest flash of business realism! A treacherous force when loosed in the life of a gent decades older than his bride.

This portrait must be nearly life-sized. The husband's sole direction to the artist, "I desire that my wife be depicted as the great poet she, potentially, is. Her poem about the seasons fills two full pages, both sides. It covers every single time of year and you can all but feel the heat or cold of each. She must be portrayed with all a poet's rights, privileges, and props."

And so began the sittings in the sunniest East Parlor. She herself had window-dressed the desk. A bronze Minerva had been borrowed from her most intellectual sister-in-law. A bird's nest of flowers she centered at the orbic center of her hair in hopes this nosegay's perfume might offset the odious varnish-and-horsehoof stink of an actual inkpot. To her sash, as a hint toward the French Academy some few years hence, a medal was attached. One bought from the glass-fronted case of an old antiquarian.

And, after twenty long posing-sessions, during which the white satin dress and its sable trim remained innocent of even one stray inkblot's punctuation, her indulgent husband insisted on a grand and sociable unveiling. Every one either literary, artistic, or lovely or, in rare cases, all three, appeared. Nothing would do but that our young poetess dress exactly as depicted.

The portrait was adjudged a perfect likeness. Much praised: the way it caught her incipient poetic career, caught the exaltation of 'getting an idea' then contrasting that with the sheer exertion of expression's labor.

And, it was only after the successful vernissage, only once a Morocco-bound limited edition of her poem, "Les Quatres Saisons" was handed to each departing guest—only after she'd swept, not unsatisfied and feeling even more herself, past her painted likeness identically dressed, only then as all the champagne flutes were cleared most musically away—did old Monsieur Villeneuve-Flayosc beg her forgiveness, even offering, as if a far younger man, to go down on one knee (if necessary) and, being, after all, her first and favorite reader, did he at last escort his muse upstairs, did Monsieur get to finally bolt their door and, in a bed worthy of not just any one poet but all poems, he finally regained, as text, Madame Villeneuve-Flayosc!

From Fortune Smiles: The Tyche Foundation Gift, Ackland Art Museum 2010 Taletelling the Tyche Collection 2010 Allan Gurganus, used by permission. The exhibition opens Sunday, May 23, at 1 p.m., and Gurganus and Charles Millard will hold a conversation and reading in Hyde Hall.


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