When successful dermatologist Serge acquires a two-hundred-thousand-franc painting by the slightly obscure artist Antrios, his life is thrown into turmoil as his best friend, the pretentious aesthete Marc, becomes “disturbed” by Serge’s extravagant purchase, which he believes Serge has made in order to assert his own status as a deep appreciator of fine art. To make things worse, the painting—a five-foot by four-foot piece—is almost completely white, with only a few off-white diagonal lines running across it. Marc finds the painting so ridiculous that he recruits their friend Yvan to go to Serge’s on his own and have a laugh at it, but Yvan finds himself surprisingly touched by the strange work. As Marc struggles to understand how his two best friends can possibly believe such a ridiculous painting is beautiful, valuable, or worth its exorbitant price, the three friends find themselves embroiled in a long, drawn-out fight at Serge’s apartment during which they air their many grievances with one another, their insecurities about themselves, and their complicated ideas about the nature of art, intellect, and commerce.
The painting, then—a literal blank slate on which the men can project their issues and egos—is a catalyst for an unveiling of all the strife and ill-will between the friends, and a symbol of the emptiness that has rotted its way through their fifteen-year friendship. The painting, like the men’s relationship, is both full and empty, ridiculous and wonderful, valuable and invaluable, meaningless and deep. What’s the point in staying friends, Yvan points out, when everyone hates each other so much? Friendship, like art, is only as good as its materials. If there is no love, no respect, no independence, and no empathy, friendship becomes something empty and inscrutable. The “blank” Antrios appears, at first, as an empty canvas, and reflects the sorry state of affairs in the men’s friendship. By the end of the play, after the trio have hashed out their beef with one another over the course of one hellish evening, the once-skeptical Marc is at last able to describe what the painting contains: he sees within it a skier, skiing down a white mountain through a white haze of show, until he “moves across [the] space and disappears.” As Marc realizes that, in spite of his fear of connecting with the painting, he has been able to intuit its meaning all along, he also comes to understand that he himself is the disappearing man, who has lost himself in his pretentions over the years and allowed his friendships and his values to atrophy until they have gone past the point—possibly—of no return.
The Antrios Painting Quotes in Art
MARC: It’s a complete mystery to me, Serge buying this painting. It’s unsettled me, it’s filled me with some indefinable unease. When I left his place, I had to take three capsules of Gelsemium 9X which Paula recommended because I couldn’t begin to understand how Serge, my friend, could have bought that picture. Two hundred thousand francs! He’s comfortably off, but he’s hardly rolling in money. Comfortable, no more, just comfortable. And he spends two hundred grand on a white painting. I must go and see Yvan, he’s a friend of ours, I have to discuss this with Yvan. Mind you, Yvan’s a very tolerant bloke, which of course, when it comes to relationships, is the worst thing you can be. Yvan’s very tolerant because he couldn’t care less. If Yvan tolerates the fact that Serge has spent two hundred grand on some piece of white shit, it’s because he couldn’t care less about Serge. Obviously.
YVAN: As long as it’s not doing any harm to anyone else…
MARC: But it is. It’s doing harm to me! I’m disturbed, I’m disturbed, more than that, I’m hurt, yes, I am, I’m fond of Serge, and to see him let himself be ripped off and lose every ounce of discernment through sheer snobbery.
SERGE: You know Marc’s seen this painting.
SERGE: He told me it was shit. A completely inappropriate description.
SERGE: You can’t call this shit.
SERGE: You can say, I don’t get it, I can’t grasp it, you can’t say “it’s shit.”
YVAN: You’ve seen his place.
SERGE: Nothing to see. It’s like yours, it’s… what I mean is, you couldn’t care less.
SERGE: I don't blame him for not responding to this painting, he hasn't the training, there's a whole apprenticeship you have to go through, which he hasn't, either because he's never wanted to or because he has no particular instinct for it, none of that matters, no, what I blame him for is his tone of voice, his complacency, his tactlessness. I blame him for his insensitivity. I don't blame him for not being interested in modern Art, I couldn’t give a toss about that, I like him for other reasons . . .
YVAN: And he likes you!
SERGE: No, no, no, no, I felt it the other day, a kind of . . . a kind of condescension . . . contempt with a really bitter edge...
YVAN: No, surely not!
SERGE: Oh, yes! Don’t keep trying to smooth things over. Where d'you get this urge to be the great reconciler of the human race?! Why don't you admit that Marc is atrophying? If he hasn't already atrophied.
MARC: He wasn't laughing because his painting is ridiculous, you and he weren't laughing for the same reasons, you were laughing at the painting and he was laughing to ingratiate himself, to put himself on your wavelength, to show you that on top of being an aesthete who can spend more on a painting than you earn in a year, he's still your same old subversive mate who likes a good laugh.
YVAN: Mm hm… You know. . .
YVAN: This is going to amaze you…
MARC: Go on. . .
YVAN: I didn't like the painting . . . but I didn't actually hate it.
MARC: Well, of course. You can’t hate what's invisible, you can't hate nothing.
YVAN: No, no, it has something . . .
MARC: What do you mean?
YVAN: It has something. It's not nothing.
MARC: Why do I have to be so categorical? What possible difference can it make to me, if Serge lets himself be taken in by modern Art? I mean, it is a serious matter. But I could have found some other way to put it to him. I could have taken a less aggressive tone. Even if it makes me physically ill that my best friend has bought a white painting, all the same I ought to avoid attacking him about it. I ought to be nice to him. From now on, I’m on my best behavior.
SERGE: He is getting on my nerves. It's true. He's getting on my nerves. It's this ingratiating tone of voice. A little smile behind every word. It's as if he's forcing himself to be pleasant. Don't be pleasant, whatever you do, don't be pleasant! Could it be buying the Antrios? . . . Could buying the Antrios have triggered off this feeling of constraint between us? Buying something. . . without his backing? . . . Well, bugger his backing! Bugger your backing, Marc!
MARC: Could it be the Antrios, buying the Antrios? No—It started some time ago… To be precise, it started on the day we were discussing some work of art and you uttered, quite seriously, the word deconstruction. It wasn’t so much the word deconstruction which upset me, it was the air of solemnity you imbued it with. You said, humorlessly, unapologetically, without a trace of irony, the word deconstruction, you, my friend. I wasn’t sure how best to deal with the situation, so I made this throwaway remark, and I said I think I must be getting intolerant, and you answered, who do you think you are?
What gives you the right to set yourself apart, Serge answered in the bloodiest possible way. And quite unexpectedly. You’re just Marc, what makes you think you’re so special? That day, I should have punched him in the mouth. And when he was lying there on the ground, half-dead, I should have said to him, what sort of friend are you, Serge, if you don’t think your friends are special?
SERGE: There’s no problem, except for you, because you take pride in your desire to shut yourself off from humanity. And you’ll never manage it. It’s like you’re in quicksand, the more you struggle to get out of it, the deeper you sink.
MARC: It’s true I can’t imagine you genuinely loving that painting.
YVAN: But why?
MARC: Because I love Serge and I can’t love the Serge who’s capable of buying that painting.
SERGE: Why do you say buying, why don’t you say loving?
MARC: Because I can’t say loving, I can’t believe loving.
SERGE: So why would I buy it, if I didn’t love it?
MARC: That’s the nub of the question.
SERGE: (to YVAN) See how smug he is! All I’m doing is teasing him, and his answer is this serenely pompous heavy hint! And it never crossed your mind, [Marc,] for a second, however improbably it might seem, that I might really love it and that your vicious, inflexible opinions and your disgusting assumption[s] might be hurtful to me?
MARC: Do you think what you just said about Paula?
SERGE: Worse, actually.
MARC: Worse, Serge? Worse than repellent?
SERGE: Aha! When it’s something that concerns you personally, I see words can bite a little deeper!
MARC: Serge, will you explain how someone can be worse than repellent…
SERGE: No need to take that frosty tone. Perhaps it’s—let me try and answer you—perhaps it’s the way she waves away cigarette smoke. What appears to you a gesture of no significance, what you think of as a harmless gesture is in fact the opposite, and the way she waves away cigarette smoke sits right at the heart of her repellentness.
MARC: There was a time you were proud to be my friend… You congratulated yourself on my peculiarity, on my taste for standing apart. You enjoyed exhibiting me untamed to your circle, you, whose life was so normal. I was your alibi. But…eventually, I supposed, that sort of affection dries up… Belatedly, you claim your independence. But I detest your independence. Its violence. You’ve abandoned me. I’ve been betrayed. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a traitor.
SERGE (to YVAN): If I understand correctly, he was my mentor! And if I loved you as my mentor…what was the nature of your feelings?
MARC: I enjoyed your admiration. I was flattered. I was always grateful to you for thinking of me as a man apart. I even thought being a man apart was a somehow superior condition, until one day you pointed out to me that it wasn’t.
SERGE: This is very alarming.
MARC: It’s the truth.
SERGE: Why can’t you learn to love people for themselves, Marc?
MARC: What does that mean, for themselves?
SERGE: For what they are.
MARC: But what are they?! What are they?! Apart from my faith in them I’m desperate to find a friend who has some kind of prior existence. So far, I’ve had no luck. I’ve had to mold you… But you see, it never works. There comes a day when your creature goes off and buys a white painting.
YVAN: The day after the wedding, at the Montparnasse cemetery Catherine put a bouquet and a bag of sugared almonds on her mother’s grave. In the evening, thinking about this tribute, I started sobbing in my bed. I absolutely must speak to Finkelzohn about my tendency to cry, I cry all the time, it’s not normal for someone my age. It started, or at least revealed itself at Serge’s, the evening of the white painting. After Serge, in an act of pure madness, had demonstrated to Marc that he cared more about him than he did about his painting, we went and had dinner. Over dinner, Serge and Marc took the decision to try to rebuild a relationship destroyed by word and deed. One of them used to expression “trial period” and I burst into tears. I can no longer bear any kind of rational argument, nothing formative in the world, nothing great or beautiful in the world has ever been born of rational argument.
SERGE: When Marc and I succeeded in obliterating the skier, with the aid of Swiss soap with added ox gall, recommended by Paula, I looked at the Antrios and turned to Marc:
“Did you know ink from felt-tips was washable?”
“No,” Marc said… “No, did you?”
“No,” I said, very fast, lying. I came within an inch of saying yes, I did know. But how could I have launched our trial period with such a disappointing admission? On the other hand, was it right to start with a lie? A lie! Let’s be reasonable. Why am I so absurdly virtuous? Why does my relationship with Marc have to be so complicated?
MARC: Under the white clouds, the snow is falling. You can’t see the white clouds, or the snow. Or the cold, or the white glow of the earth. A solitary man glides downhill on his skis. The snow is falling. It falls until the man disappears back into the landscape.
My friend Serge, who’s one of my oldest friends, has bought a painting. It’s a canvas about five foot by four. It represents a man who moves across a space and disappears.