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César Aira: Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero (An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter)

This is another fairly short and strange story from Aira. The painter in question is Johann Moritz Rugendas. He was descended from a family of painters, of Catalan origin, who had emigrated to Germany. His great-grandfather was a famous painter of battles. While Johann might have followed in his great-grandfather’s footsteps, the fall of Napoleon meant that there was less demand for such paintings and and he became a nature painter. Aira claims that he was one of the finest documentary painters. He is known for his two journeys to Latin America, where he travelled all over the continent to paint. Aira states that he was very much inspired by Alexander Humboldt and, following Humboldt’s suggestion, he became a painter of the physiognomy of nature, i.e. painting the characteristic physiognomic traits of a landscape. As Aira is, of course, Argentinian, the episode mentioned in the title and used in is book is the period when Rugendas, together with the German painter, Robert Krause, travels from Chile to Argentina.

They painted throughout their journey, using their knowledge of science to enhance their paintings. Rugendas does not consider Krause to be a good painter but Krause very much admires Rugendas, particularly for his simplicity. They got on very well together, both in regards to what they should paint as well as their scientific bent. Aira goes into some detail on their physiognomic approach, describing their knowledge of science, including biology and geology, and how they applied this to their painting. However, much of what happens occurs around the Argentinian town of Mendoza. Rugendas learns from his host about Indian raids and it is Rugendas’ desire to witness one and paint it. However, they set off for Buenos Aires before seeing one. A terrible storm breaks but, instead of sheltering, Rugendas rides into it. He is struck by lightning but the light and the noise of the thunder causes his horse to bolt. Meanwhile rider and horse are again struck by lightning and the horse runs away, pulling Rugendas, whose foot is caught in the stirrup, behind him. When Rugendas is found, he is badly injured and has to be taken to hospital. Though he more or less physically recovers, he has a terrible scar on his face and gets constant, blinding migraines, somewhat relieved by morphine. However, the morphine brings him an insight into his art, namely that art is based on repetition, with minute fragments being reproduced identically.

Krause and Rugendas return to Mendoza and Rugendas writes letters to various correspondents, including his sister Luise, but also carries on painting the landscape near to Mendoza. He also gets his much desired Indian raid and how he paints it, including even entering the Indians’ camp, is one of the highlights of the story as well as its conclusion. This is a strange book, even by Aira’s standards but, as always, a fascinating one, as he plays with theories of art and how Rugendas’ art, knowledge of science and then his behaviour, altered as result of his injuries and the morphine, all come together to create his marvellous paintings. Indeed, Aira suggests that some of his paintings of the Indians have a strangeness that approaches what we now called surrealism, a hundred years before the concept was known. He also mentions that Rugendas’ painting was such that whatever he saw had an inherent being, perhaps, though Aira does not make the comparison, like Van Gogh’s vision of painting. Aira continues to amaze us with his originality and this story is a true original.

Publishing history

First published by Editorial de Belgrano in 2000
First published in English by New Directions in 2006