The following excerpt from Paul Auster's 'Moon Palace' describes Marco's impressions of a painting by the American painter Ralph Blakelock. Marco has been suggested to look at the painting, the name of which is Moonlight, by his employer Effing. He seems to be puzzled at first, but then makes sense of the painting.
(Marco = first person narrator)
At the end of the page you will see the painting. Before reading the excerpt, you might try to interpret it first.

It was a weekday morning in winter, and the museum was nearly deserted. After paying my admission at the front desk, I held out five fingers to the elevator man and rode upstairs in silence. The American paintings were on the fifth floor, and except for a drowsing guard in the first room, I was the only person in the entire wing. This fact pleased me, as though it somehow enhanced the solemnity of the occasion. I walked through several empty rooms before I found the Blakelock, doing my best to follow Effing's instructions and ignore the other pictures on the walls. I saw a few flashes of color, registered a few names - Church, Bierstadt, Ryder - but fought against the temptation to have a real look. Then I came to Moonlight, the oblect of my strange and elaborate journey, and in that first, sudden moment, I could not help feeling disappointed. I don't know what I had been expecting - something grandiose, perhaps, some loud and garish display of superficial brilliance - but certainly not the somber little picture I found before me. It measured only twenty- seven by thirty-two inches, and at first glance it seemed almost devoid of color: dark brown, dark green, the smallest touch of red in one corner. There was no question that it was well executed, but it contained none of the overt drama that I had imagined Effing would be drawn to. Perhaps I was not disappointed in the painting so much as I was disappointed in myself for having misread Effing. This was a deeply contemplative work, a landscape of inwardness and calm, and it confused me to think that it could have said anything to my mad employer.

I tried to put Effing out of my mind, then stepped back a foot or two and began to look at the painting for myself. A perfectly round full moon sat in the middle of the canvas - the precise mathematical center, it seemed to me - and this pale white disc illuminated everything above it and below it: the sky, a lake, a large tree with spidery branches, and the low mountains on the horizon. In the foreground, there were two small areas of land, divided by a brook that flowed between them. On the left bank, there was an Indian teepee and a campfire; a number of figures seemed to be sitting around the fire, but it was hard to make them out, they were only minimal suggestions of human shapes, perhaps five or six of them, glowing red from the embers of the fire; to the right of the large tree, separated from the others, there was a solitary figure on horseback, gazing out over the water - utterly still, as though lost in meditation. The tree behind him was fifteen or twenty times taller than he was, and the contrast made him seem puny, insignificant. He and his horse were no more than silhouettes, black outlines without depth or individual character. On the other bank, things were even murkier, almost entirely drowned in shadow. There were a few small trees with the sarrie spidery branches as the large one, and then, toward the bottom, the tiniest hint of brightness, which looked to me as though it might have been another figure (lying on bis back - possibly asleep, possibly dead, possibly staring up into the night) or else the remnant of another fire - I couldn't tell which. I got so involved in studying these obscure details in the lower part of the picture that when I finally looked up to study the sky again, I was shocked to see how bright everything was in the upper part. Even taking the full moon into consideration, the sky seemed too visible. The paint beneath the cracked glazes that covered the surface shone through with an unnatural intensity, and the farther back I went toward the horizon, the brighter that glow became - as if it were daylight back there, and the mountains were illuminated by the sun. Once I finally noticed this, I began to see other odd things in the painting as well. The sky, for example, had a largely greenish cast. Tinged with the yellow borders of clouds, it swirled around the side of the large tree in a thickening flurry of brushstrokes, taking on a spiralling aspect, a vortex of celestial matter in deep space. How could the sky be green? I asked myself. It was the same color as the lake below it, and that was not possible. Except in the blackness of the blackest night, the sky and the earth are always different. Blakelock was clearly too deft a painter not to have known that. But if he hadn't been trying to represent an actual landscape, what had he been up to? I did my best to imagine it, but the greenness of the sky kept stopping me. A sky the same color as the earth, a night that looks like day, and all human forms dwarfed by the bigness of the scene - illegible shadows, the merest ideograms of life. I did not want to make any wild, symbolic judgments, but based on the evidence of the painting, there seemed to be no other choice. In spite of their smallness in relation to the setting, the Indians betrayed no fears or anxieties. They sat comfortably in their surroundings, at peace with themselves and the world, and the more I thought about it, the more this serenity seemed to dominate the picture. I wondered if Blakelock hadn't painted his sky green in order to emphasize this harmony, to make a point of showing the connection between heaven and earth. If men can live comfortably in their surroundings, he seemed to be saying, if they can learn to feel themselves a part of the things around them, then perhaps life on earth becomes imbued with a feeling of holiness. I was only guessing of course, but it struck me that Blakelock was painting an American idyll, the world the Indians had inhabited before the white men came to destroy it. The plaque on the wall noted that the picture had been painted in 1885. If I remembered correctly, that was almost precisely in the middle of the period between Custer's Last Stand and the massacre at Wounded Knee - in other words, at the very end, when it was too late to hope that any of these things could survive. Perhaps, I thought to myself, this picture was meant to stand for everything we had lost. lt was not a landscape, it was a memorial, a death song for a vanished world.
1200 words

Source: Moon Palace by Paul Auster, Diesterweg Verlag 2001, pp. 162-165

drowsing - being almost asleep
to enhance - to increase
devoid of - completely lacking in
ember - piece of wood or coal that is not burning, but still hot
puny - small, weak
remnant - small part that remains left
cast - trace
brushstroke - single movement of a brsuh
illegible - not easy to see
the merest - just, nothing more than
ideogram - sign, symbol
to imbue - to fill

1. Why was Marco disappointed at the painting at first?
2. What is it that finally makes Marco notice things in the painting in more detail?
3. What conclusion does Marco draw from the fact that the sky is painted green?
4. What relationship does Marco see between the Indians and their surroundings?
5. What, according to Marco, does the painter criticize through his painting?
6. A painting is a piece of art that lives from figures of speech such as similes, metaphors or symbols. Pick two or three and explain their functions.

Ralph Blakelock's 'Moonlight' (1885)

amazon.de Moon Palace
Paul Auster

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