At opening time, the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum was not yet thronged with visitors. Even in the heart of Paris, the building seems to slip discreetly under the surrounding vegetation only to reappear in places like a playful child. I lingered a few minutes in the aisles of the Matahoata exhibition before walking up to Paul Gauguin’s painting And the Gold of Their Bodies. For a few seconds, I remained spellbound in front of it, overwhelmed by that surprise you feel when meeting an old friend once again after a long time.
Because, for me, this work is much more than just a famous painting; it’s a constant feature of my childhood memories.
My father was fascinated by Gauguin in general and by this work in particular. “It’s overflowing with fragrances; it contains a thousand perfumes,” he would say as he gazed at it. He owned several reproductions of it in books, on postcards and posters in all the rooms of our flat. When I was a little girl, I spent countless hours trying to draw the silhouettes of the two women. Yesterday, when I read its name on the newspaper, the happy memory of those childhood afternoons became tangled up with the feeling of surprise. How did this Langley fellow know about my father’s love for this painting? Why didn’t he show himself? What was he trying to achieve with this paper chase?
It was moving to discover once again the painting’s contrasting colors, its shades of orange and gold, the serene yet questioning expression on the women’s faces.
But, quickly, I moved my gaze away from the canvas to observe the people in the room. It was reasonable to assume that Langley would be among them. In the absence of any clues, my only option was to scrutinize faces at random, to look for a man who seemed to be waiting for someone. Fifteen minutes went past, and then thirty. I stayed in the room. I took a moment to check my e-mail, my Tweets, and my account balance on my smartphone because I was expecting a wire transfer… before watching people’s faces once again, increasingly convinced of the hopelessness of the situation. Forty minutes… Visitors, mainly foreign tourists, walked past in slow motion but none of them spoke to me.
A short distance away, a brown-haired man in a slightly ruffled suit kept walking out of the room and coming back in shortly after without ever really stopping in front of the painting. As he ran his fingers through his hair, I glimpsed the flash of something orange, as if a drop of paint had leapt off the Gauguin canvas: a ring, the same one I had seen yesterday in the café! Langley! It’s him! I pushed my way past several people before he could disappear again.
— Are you Charles Langley?
My voice, a little too loud for the muted atmosphere in the museum, surprised him. He looked slightly startled and said suspiciously:
— And who are you, young lady?
— You were in the café yesterday, I saw you. Are you Langley?
— No, he said sharply after a moment’s hesitation. I’m waiting for him.
He then handed me a newspaper with a message written under the headline: “Quai Branly Museum. And the Gold of Their Bodies.” The same violet ink.
— And are you going to tell me who you are? Do you know Langley?
He spoke more sharply, with annoyance.
— No, I’ve never met him. My name is Eva Brunold.
The man’s expression froze; he seemed suddenly to be drained of all his confidence. He looked at me in astonishment as if he had heard the name of a ghost. We left the museum together, without exchanging another word.
Illustrations: Karolis Strautniekas/Agent 002; Yann Le Bec/Illustrissimo
Photos: Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac ©Luc Boegly, Yvan Zedda/BPCE, Banque Populaire, Stéphane de Bourgies, CASDEN Banque Populaire, Caisse d’Epargne, Julien Crosnier/KMSP/DPPI, BPCE, DPPI/BPCE, Le Pot Commun, Neustockimages, Fidor Bank.
Getty Images: Btrenkel, picturegarden, Inimma-IS, Koraysa, Moodboard, Rachel Dewis, Peter Carlsson, Clu, Twohumans, Donal Husni-EyeEm, Nikada, egafoldo, Oscar Wong, Alija Izetbegovic, Uschools, Westend61, Bloom, milazvereva.
Shutterstock: Jacob Lund, EQRoy, Prostock, Diego Cervo, GaudiLab, Monkey Business Images, Travel Stock, Zhu Difeng.
Design and production: Havas Paris
Groupe BPCE, Corporate Communications Department.
Author of the short story: Jean-Pierre Montal.
Editorial consultants and drafting of the “Clues” pages: Information & Conseil.