ReadySteadyBlog

Again, a book referred to (here on RSB), but not (as yet) written about. Back on the week commencing Monday 17th July, César Aira's "short, powerful portrait" An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter was my Book of the Week. The landscape painter of the title is Johan Moritz Rugendas (as the complete-review reminds us, "Rugendas is an historic figure, a well-known 19th century painter (he lived 1802-1858), born in Germany but best known for his South and Latin American paintings.") The novel concerns itself with a set of expeditions, beginning in 1837, with another German painter, Robert Krause.


Again, a short novel, in danger of being thought of as slight, but in fact a subtle, compelling piece: riveting, unnerving and odd. The physical journey being, as we'd expect, secondary to the spiritual quest it facilitates. Whilst Rugendas is the star pupil of the "physiognomic" painter Alexander von Humboldt, his painting interests draw him away from his master and into Argentina's wild, expansive heartland. Rugendas is not content merely to paint (and certainly not to paint by way of Humbolt's (pseudo-)scientific code). Rugendas wants, via his painting, to explore "the other side of his art". He wants his art to be the site of his exploration, to be the exploration itself; but he needs the emptiness of Argentina's massive skies and endless plains to work with and against. Implicitly then, the mind/body split is questioned. Rugendas, moving from the crass materialism of Humboldt's physiognomic painting, still actually needs the physical challenge of his adventuring and the physical sublimity of the countryside to find, and ground, his true art. And -- final triumph of the Real! -- he needs to understand his art with reference to (his) death. (Blanchot wrote in The Work of Fire: "Without death everything would sink into absurdity and nothingness.") Rugendas, in fact, nearly does die. And comes to know the cataclysm of his accident as the central moment in his life and the moment from which he could understand what he was reaching towards in his art. And Aira brings some of Rugendas's (self-)understanding back to bear on his art, in this novel: the event of Rugendas's accident being, of course, the central moment in his excellent book.

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