Page-turner about a Painter: “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter” by César Aira

New Directions, publisher


I woke up to a thunderstorm at 5:00 this morning, I’m speaking literally, and started composing this introduction in my head. So apt, because in this partly true, partly fictional (but which parts exactly?) “life” of Johann Moritz Rugendas, he is struck by lightning, at which point an informative slow-paced story of a landscape painter sketching the geography, flora and fauna of Argentina according to Humboldtian principles becomes a crazy rushing quest to depict raging battle scenes between the “white men” and the “Indians”. I think Airas must have started with the paintings, and in describing them, invented a wild story to describe how they were made and it somehow rings true to the inner life of a painter—“tormented, [on] drugs and [prey to] hallucinations”.

Not only could I not “put it down” (that trite expression), I read it faster and faster and then, suddenly, it ended. Then I had to read it again.

Below are two excerpts printed courtesy of New Directions. The illustrations in the text are not from the book—they are the real work of Johann Moritz Rugendas culled from you know where.

Also, note the party metaphor used to describe a battle scene in the second section.               –CNQ




“Rugendas was a genre painter. His genre was the physiognomy of nature, based on a procedure invented by Humboldt. The great naturalist was the father of a discipline that virtually died with him: Erdtheorie or La Physique du monde, a kind of artistic geography, an aesthetic understanding of the world, a science of landscape. Alexander von Humboldt (1709—1859) was an all-embracing scholar, perhaps the last of his kind: his aim was to apprehend the world in its totality; and the way to do this, he believed, in conformity with a long tradition, was through vision. Yet his approach was new in that, rather than isolating images and treating them as “emblems” of knowledge, his aim was to accumulate and coordinate them within a broad framework, for which landscape provided the model. The artistic geographer had to capture the “physiognomy” of the landscape (Humboldt had borrowed this concept from Lavater) by picking out its “physiognomic” traits, which his scholarly studies of the natural world would enable him to recognize. The precise arrangement of physiognomic elements in the picture would speak volumes to the observer’s sensibility, conveying information not in the forms of isolated features but features systematically interrelated so as to be intuitively grasped: climate, history, customs, economy, race, fauna, flora, rainfall, prevailing winds…The key to it all was “natural growth” which is why the vegetable element occupied the foreground, and why, in search of physiognomic landscapes, Humboldt went to the tropics, which were incomparably superior to Europe in terms of plant variety and rates of growth. He lived for many years in tropical regions of Asia and America, and encouraged the artists who had adopted his approach to do likewise. Thus he established a circuit, stimulating curiosity in Europe about regions that were little known and creating a market for the works of the traveling painters.” Pp.5-6



“But halfway there they had to stop again, for the fourth time, to sketch a scrap at a stream crossing. They were starting to feel that there were Indians everywhere. As is often the case with collectors, the problem was not a lack, but an excess of specimens. The devils were obviously using dispersion as an added weapon.

It was like wandering from room to room at a party, from the living room to the dining room, from the bedroom to the library, from the laundry to the balcony, all full of noisy, happy, more or less drunk guests, looking for a place to cuddle or trying to find the host to ask him for more beer. Except that it was a house without doors or windows or walls, made of air and distance and echoes, of colors and landforms.

This stream could have been the bathroom. The Indians wanted to charge but they were retreating; the white men wanted to retreat, but in order to do so they had to charge (in order to scare the enemy more effectively with their bangs). This ambivalence was driving the horses crazy; they plunged into the water, splashed about, or simply stopped to drink, very calmly while their riders yelled themselves hoarse in simultaneous flight and pursuit. The skirmish had an infinite (or at least algebraic) plasticity, and since Rugendas was observing it at a closer range this time, his flying pencil traced details of tense and lax muscles, wet hair clinging to supremely expressive shoulders… Everything sketched in this explosive present was material for future compositions, but although it was all provisional, a constraint came into play. It was as if each volume captured in two dimensions on the paper would have to be joined up with the others, in the calm of the studio, edge to edge, like a puzzle, without leaving any gaps. And that was indeed how it would be, for the magic of drawing turns everything into a volume, even air. Except for Rugendas the “calm of the studio” was a thing of the past; now there was only torment, drugs and hallucinations.”  Pp. 65—67.

By César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews, from AN EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF A LANDSCAPE PAINTER, copyright © 2000 by César Aira. Translation copyright © 2006 by Chris Andrews. Use by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.