Review: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter [2000/06] ★★★★

A curious novella which is part travelogue, part biography, part historical fiction, part meditation on art, and part tribute to the beauty of Argentinian landscape.

What a landscape artist would be capable of doing for the love of art? Can they be capable of risking their life? What is human life in comparison to the eternity which is art?, they may ask. In today’s world of extravagant selfies, some taken in exotic locations and maybe even under relatively dangerous conditions, this short novella by Argentinian fiction writer César Aira may even feel ironically relevant again. Aira takes the real story of German landscape artist Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802 – 1858) and re-imagines one of the episodes from his life when Rugendas travelled as a documentary painter across tropical jungles and mountainous scenery of South America. César Aira’s 90 page-book surprises with its simplicity, humour and insights into the craft of an artist.

The foreword to this novella is by no other than Chilean literary master Roberto Bolaño (Amulet), and César Aira tells us that Johann Rugendas was a talented genre painter and a follower of eminent polymath Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859). Relying on the latter’s ideas regarding botany and perspective, Rugendas aimed to capture the “physiognomy of nature” in his paintings, distilling “the science of landscape”. He was taught that the landscape artist should be “sensitive to the processes of growth operative in all forms of life” [Aira/Andrews, New Directions, 2006: 8], and was a natural with a brush: “Everything in his pictures was bathed in simplicity, which gave them a pearly sheen filled with the light of a spring day” [Aira/Andrews, New Directions, 2006: 11]. And, he could not have chosen a more worthy of his attention subject – the beauty, people and customs of Latin America.

View of the Valley of Mexico with Volcanoes and the Texcoco Lake by Johann Moritz Rugendas

Aira’s trademark economy of style is evident in his novella, which can be characterised by simplicity and clarity, instilling a sense of exploratory adventure and wonder, if nothing else – the wonder for one exotic, far-away place and the mysteries of art-making. Together with his friend and fellow artist Robert Krause, Rugendas traversed the continent, sketching and painting along the way, and the focus of our episode is Argentina. There, as Aira tells us, our heroes faced particular challenges, including the strangeness of the new climate, the unpredictable behaviour of its fauna (an unexpected attack of locusts), and the disastrous consequences of a riding accident. Our protagonists do not want it to be known to everyone, but they are secretly hoping for some calamity to befall their hosts in one place in rural Argentina, and that is so that they would be able to picture it in their artworks. That calamity they long for is either an earthquake or an Indian raid. One should be careful what one wishes for…

🌴 Like in a beautiful sketch, Aira renders his novella in elegant brushstrokes, maintaining interest and providing insight into the mind of its eccentric protagonist. Perhaps similar to a preliminary draft of a painting, the book sometimes feels incomplete and haphazard, like a fragment of a bigger work, but, nonetheless, it is still an evocative depiction of reality duly recorded and creatively interpreted.


9 thoughts on “Review: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira

  1. Oh this sounds completely fascinating. And Aira is a novelist who has only recently come onto my radar and everything I’ve read about his work sounds absolutely fascinating. Lovely review.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like an intriguing and thought-provoking read, and I appreciate your detailed analysis of the themes and writing style. I’m always on the lookout for new books to add to my reading list, so I’ll definitely consider this one based on your recommendation. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

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