|Two Riders Resting, by Johann Moritz Rugendas|
German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas travelled South America to paint. While crossing Chile and Argentina, he suffers injuries during a storm on horseback which render him grotesque. Once recovered, he continues to sketch and record the landscape.
Soon, one of this two wishes (to experience an earthquake or an indian attack) appears. Hundreds of indians raid a settlement used to these attacks.
Rugendas, suffering debilitating migraines from his injuries, records the raid from a distance with charcoal and red pencil. The story ends long after evening has fallen with the artist entering the indian camp, sitting with his sketch pad, a drawing each of them up close.
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, by Cesar Aira is a work of fiction which brings a portion of nineteenth century Chile and Argentina to life. The book, patient and deep, establishes just enough of a background to understand who the artist is and why and where he is traveling.
What interests me is the artistic journey of a landscape painter towards wanting to sketch and paint the fearsome indians up close. Landscape, by its nature, is the wide angle shot...distance...as if the viewer is sitting in a dark theater--we are at an arm's length from the subject matter.
The closer an artist represents his subject the more potential for the psychological. The closer we are allowed to approach as a viewer or reader, the more likely we slip into the clothes of the actors onstage...and share the experience.
As the story evolves, Aria thrusts Rugendas as deep inside nature--beautiful and fearsome--as one could be. He writes Rugendas into the middle of a lightning storm. On horseback, alone in the middle of the night, rider and horse are by lightning:
The charge was flowing out of the animal too, igniting a kind of phosphorescent golden tray all around it, with undulating edges. As soon as the discharge was compete, in a matter of seconds, the horse got to its feet and tried to walk. The full battery of thunder explodes overhead. In a midnight darkness, broad and fine blazes interlocked. Balls of white fire the size of rooms rolled down the hillsides, the lightning bolts serving as cues in a game of meteoric billiards. The horse was turning. Completely numb, Rugendas tugged at the reigns haphazardly, until they slipped from his hands.
Maybe I am completely wrong with what I take away from this book. The interplay of landscape and close-up, artist/writer and viewer/reader strikes me as a central theme--and strikes me as something I'm dying to talk about.
I really enjoyed this story--the writing was a pleasure and the episode was detailed enough so that I not only gathered what happened but also why it mattered--I was allowed to share in the experience. This is a story about being an artist as much as it is about any viewing any one artist from a distance.