Friday, April 17, 2009

A Single Shoot

            Manet painted one small asparagus stem on a miniature canvas and sent it to a collector who had paid two hundred francs more than the painter had asked for his picture of a bunch of the stems. 

If you look closely, this one shoot, pale, plump, lying across the canvas like a nude, holds every color of the rainbow: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and rose.  All his life Manet wanted to be accepted and couldn’t understand why such an apparently simple aim proved beyond his grasp.  But this tentative stem that appears after the first spring rains, stretches, a frail rainbow of hope over the edge of a marble (cutting?) slab, reaches out to us like the innocent, hopeful finger of Michelangelo’s Adam.

Manet's Painting of the Folies Bergeres

Manet at the Folies-Bergère

You realize as you look at the serving girl’s face that you have just asked for something she doesn’t sell—at least to you—though it is on display.  Intoxication.  Everything glitters as if glazed: the fruits, the liquor, her eyes.  That marble slab that looks like the lid of a sarcophagus—is she holding it up or down?  It seems that she is pressing down with all the weariness she can muster.  Nevertheless you will never get over it.  Beyond her you see the ugly face of a man in need and realized with a shock it’s your own reflection.  Under his lips are two blood-red spots; his raised fist grips a dark stick.  Now you understand the expression on her face.  And that all these people must also see it.  This is a theater, and through some terrible mix-up, one of those extravagant rearrangements the dream director is never too tired to manage, the theater has been completely rearranged so you are at the center.  The acrobat’s death-defying feats in the far left corner are a lame attempt to distract the audience from its own self-denying death.