Short-a-Day: Steven Millhauser's "Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846)"
Originally published in Little Kingdoms (1993). Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 83.
There's a bit of Pale Fire in this, a story told through the gallery notes for the twenty-six portraits that make up the exhibition (and, consequently, life) of Edmund Moorash. There's also plenty of Millhauser's inventive, genre-creating artistry, given that Moorash was interested in a different type of art, quickly turning from his satirically rendered "realist" paintings (of the Hogarth sort) toward his own perspective-altering designs. As with the four Heretical Histories of his most recent (and excellent) collection, Dangerous Laughter, especially my favorite of the set, "A Precursor of the Cinema." By writing in a professorial voice, Millhauser gets to play with perspective of his own, particularly in the way he presents fictions as facts, blurring the lines so readily that we accept Moorash, and with him, his devoted sister, Elizabeth (whose diary entries provide further details on Edmund), as well as his best friend, William Pinney (who falls for Elizabeth), and William's sister, Sophia (whom he falls for).
The Phantasmacists attempt to capture the macabre, the eerie, the fantastic by the method of scrupulous precision; even their fondness for unusual effects of light (flickering lantern-light, cloudy moonlight, stormy daylight, the flames of hell) is expressed in an almost scientific method of distortion. Their concern for detail, for exact representation, for high finish and smooth facture, connects them with the academic art against which they appear to be rebelling. But Moorash, even in this early painting, has begun to dissolve the outlines of objects, to blur linear identity, to infect all parts of a painting with an energy that appears to erupt from within the canvas.
Millhauser takes his time building up the progression of Edmund's work, detailing the humor of his "Landscape with Fog" (in which the landscape is missing, consumed by the fog) while at the same time posing the artist's serious mission: "The painting makes no attempt to induce in the viewer a state of revery, or to suggest deep religious meanings infused in a natural setting; rather, its effect is to disturb, to confound, to render uncertain." In his "Powers of Art" cycle, the artist works his way toward the philosophy that "a painting strikes a blow," and later still is described as "seeking a way to reveal or release another order of being, a deeper structure than the accidental and physical one that presents itself to the innocent eye." In my mind, the process bits are the most intriguing of the story; the actual facts that come to light, the ones that don't directly inspire his art, are less effective by dint of their blander biographical nature. Life and art imitate one another, there lies the meat:
What is most striking and uncanny about the Totentanz is the way it continually presents itself as different from the way it appeared a moment before--one is continually stepping closer, and farther back, and to the side, simply in an effort to see what is there. The background alone is a masterpiece of murk, a tone poem of dissonant darknesses. Dim forms appear to be visible, only to reveal themselves as the curves of bold brushstrokes, which again seem to tease the eye into evoking shames that may not be there.
We are told, in many senses, that everything is an illusion -- or rather, that life is a "ghost trick," in which our perspective alters our living of it. Consider, for instance, Elizabeth's fragile health in relation to the way in which she is so taken by her brother's artwork: she becomes revitalized by the near-demonic paintings, as if pulling a Dorian Grey. At the same time, when focused on the reality of her situation, it is only then that she begins to ebb and drift away. It is like an object that cannot be seen head-on, but exists only at a slant. And so, by the end, he has turned to painting "inner landscapes" (like his fatal self-portrait): "It is as if only by smashing what he once called the 'mimetic fetters' that Moorash could release into paint the human mystery." As for his interests in Death as subject -- was morality not ever on the minds of the middle-aged romantics? Is it not, in fact, at the heart of every story of life?
I am not particularly altered by the story, nor by its admittedly brusque (or "brushed") ending, but I was immersed in this other world, this other life, and never ran across a moment that seemed implausible or anything less than tragically acceptable. Besides, it would be naive to think that a story about the obliqueness of art could be so easily understood; it is a better lesson to be reminded, instead, of how complicated life is.