The Man Reading About Munkácsy
by Theodora Goss
There is a man reading about Mihály Munkácsy,
the nineteenth-century Hungarian painter, sitting across from me
on the bus — the man, I mean, not Munkácsy, who died
in 1900. He is reading what looks like a biography
with illustrations called Munkácsy: Life and Works.
I think he must have dropped it in a puddle
because the front cover has that characteristic ripple
of paper that has been in contact with water.
Still, on it you can see
Munkácsy’s self-portrait, bearded, with a wild halo of hair
and resolute eyes, radiating disapproval.
If you know anything about Munkácsy, and why should you,
in this world that has so little use for artists,
you will know that he is famous primarily for his genre paintings,
like a picture of a condemned man sitting in a prison cell
having eaten his last supper, waiting only for death.
He and the candles on the table will soon be snuffed out.
Or a picture of a woman churning butter,
although he also painted society ladies
sitting in their conservatories — who doesn’t?
We should not condemn artists for such frivolity. Everyone,
except maybe art critics and philosophy professors,
likes a pretty picture of flowers.
His most famous painting is a triptych of Christ
presented to Pilate, then condemned to death by the crowd,
and finally crucified in magnificent chiaroscuro.
Toward the end of his life, with his mind destroyed by syphilis,
he painted a picture called The Victim of Flowers,
in which a woman reclining against a cushion,
one breast bare, the other half-covered by her evening gown,
is menaced by blossoms: poppies, rudbeckias, freesias.
They hover over her, the poppies’ pink mouths gaping,
the rudbeckias’ black eyes glaring, like a floral nightmare.
Some are climbing up from her groin to her torso.
And she, lying on the brown pelt of her hair,
wrapped only in luminous skin and a wisp of fabric,
is lost in ecstatic, languorous contemplation
of something outside the canvas — perhaps the artist.
At the end of his life, Munkácsy was confined
to a mental hospital near Bonn, where he finally collapsed
and died. He is buried near Budapest.
The man, who has a patch on one knee of his trousers
and frayed cuffs on his checked wool jacket, has almost finished
his book, judging from the number of pages turned,
so he must be reading about the end of Munkácsy’s life.
Slowly, under his spectacles, a tear rolls down.
Meanwhile, that fierce wild face is staring at me
from the cover with such concentration
that I feel the straps of my sundress slip from my shoulders,
baring too much flesh for public transportation.
Poppies and rudbeckias are growing from the seat around me
until they come up to my breasts. I am bathed in their perfume,
and the freesias like red trumpets are making a sound
not unlike a bus horn, but melodious.
I am blushing and furious at art and all damn artists.
Honestly if I could, I would rip that book
from the man’s gnarled hands, and slap Munkácsy’s face
good and hard — if it weren’t impolite, and also
if the scent of the poppies weren’t quite so overpowering.
(The image is The Victim of Flowers by Mihály Munkácsy.)