The Architectural Muse

Visitor at a Homage to Roberto Aizenberg’s Paintings

He started out as a student of architecture and ended up being a surrealist painter whose work has an architectural quality. Roberto Aizenberg (1928-1996) is the subject of this post, part of a desultory series on Argentinian painters. In general, I dislike abstract expressionists and love realists and surrealists. A student of Antonio Berni, about whom I have written before, Aizenberg’s work is reminiscent of Xul Solar, another surrealist from the Rio de la Plata.

“Biography of the Author” by Aizenberg

The above painting ties the artist’s love of architecture to the soil of Argentina, with the buildings appearing to be a range of buttes and mesas built atop red earth riddles with caves. This one particularly reminds me of Xul Solar’s surrealist humor.

“Harlequin” by Aizenberg

Harlequins typically wear costumes broken into a design of alternating black and white diamonds. Here, Aizenberg suggests the costume and brackets it with architectural elements. Instead of a human figure, the painter’s harlequin is topped with a doughnut-shaped ring and supported by three spheres of descending size—almost as if it were a decorative finial for a staff or scepter of sorts.

I have not seen many original canvasses by Argentinian painters, with the exception of Xul Solar, whose dedicated museum I have visited in Buenos Aires. The next time I go to South America—and I hope there is a next time—I will have to visit MALBA, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires.

 

Turks & Armenians

Poster for Armenian Protest Against the Genocide of 1915

I decided to go today to the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax to read a book of Umberto Eco essays and have a nice lunch. Although I finally made it, a number of obstacles arose. Today was the March for Justice to commemorate the 103rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide by the Turks. As there are a whole lot of Armenians in Los Angeles, there were numerous street closures and bus re-routings, including the MTA #217 that turned on Beverly Blvd rather than continuing south on Fairfax to 3rd Street, where the market is.

The walk didn’t discombobulate me much, as I merely had to walk a half mile. But to most of the bus patrons, it was confusing borderlining on tragic. (The area is full of Russian immigrants who didn’t understand the bus driver’s announcement of the detour.)

Armenian Marchers and LAPD

In general, I find myself very pro-Armenian. Partly it is because Martine truly loves the way that Armenians prepare chicken. I am also pro-Turkish. I am against the genocide, but the guilty parties to that event are long gone. The Young Turk government of Enver Pasha was guilty of the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians. If you are interested in the subject, see Elia Kazan’s film America America (1963). So I am very anti Young Turk, but that’s ancient history, so it doesn’t much matter any more. What confuses me is that the current leader of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, refuses to own up to his country’s past infamies, of which there are many. Why? His government was not to blame for them.

Southern California is full of ethnic minorities of all kinds, including a few racial ones as well. It makes living here interesting. And it makes for some fascinating cuisines.

 

The Turtle Brings Rain

Glimpse of a Turtle at Descanso Garden’s Mulberry Pond

To the American Indian, the turtle was a means by which rain can come in a dry season. Although Southern California had some rain this year, it wasn’t much; and it looks like it’s over until much later this year or early the next. Fortunately, the mountains to the north, from which we get most of our drinking water, had a fairly wet rainy season.

Here is one such ceremony for rainmaking using the image of a turtle that was documented by a surveyor who swears by it:

A Rain Turtle is a combined piece of American History from Indians & the Old West.

This is what I have been taught about them.

When I was a young man, & was taking an apprenticship in surveying, one of my teachers was a thin, OLD man that had been surveying since he was able to hold both ends of the rod off the ground. The old gent ALWAYS wore a white shirt, tie, kahaki pants, packer boots, and Fedora hat. He was in his 80’s when I met him….

He taught me that when the surveyors would survey boundaries & railroads across the old West, they often stayed with Indians, or had Indians accompany them on their long traverses across the American West.

The story goes on to say that when an area needed rain, the Indians would make the outline of a turtle in the sand, generally facing West, as that is the direction the Rain God came from…. Once the Turtle was drawn, the Indian would drive a stake of wood through the center of the Turtle. Often times, it rained instantly. The Indians took it for granted that the process worked & wondered why the “Dumb Ol’ White Eyes” would not use it when they needed the Rain God to appear!

Word of this phenominan [sic] quickly spread throughout the tight knit group of surveyors in the Old West. They quickly picked up on the trick & became apt at performing the simple cerimony [sic].

As they traveled through the West, they came across towns that severely needed rain for their crops & livestock. The surveyors were readily there to make a rain turtle & bring relief to the community…..

The communities, grateful to get the rainfall often offered to pay the surveyors for their precious gift….(which was promptly refused by the surveyors)

When the Survey Party proceeded to move on from the town, often, there had been a collection of baked goods, some money, chickens, things brought to the wagons the surveyors used, by the townspeople in appreciation for the rain.

Today, most surveyors know of the Rain Turtle…. Most of them use it to get a well deserved break in work, caused by the rain…

In my crowded little apartment, I have numerous turtles, most of which were fashioned by Indians. In the weeks to come, I will photograph them and present them in these pages. It will be my own ceremony for rain-making. Maybe it’ll work; maybe it won’t. Doesn’t matter.

 

A Gathering of Readers

Looking Out from the South Entrance to the Festival of Books

For the first time since the event moved from UCLA to the University of Southern California campus, I attended both days of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It was exhilarating to see so many people in one place who were united by the simple fact that they liked to read. Also, many of the attendees brought their children along because they wanted them to read as well.

Based on what was on offer, many of the books were not to my taste. I did buy titles by Jeddu Krishnamurti, Gabriel García Marquez, Magda Szabo (a fellow Magyar), Gwen Katz, and Dorothy B. Hughes; and I will probably read all five within the next couple of months.

On Saturday, I attended two panels by Times reporters, one on world travel and one on homelessness. Because the seat next to me was vacant at both panels (was it my deodorant?), I found myself answering the inevitable question as to whether I was saving the empty seat with something obscene in Hungarian.

Times Panel on Editorial Policy

Most of the time, I was in remarkably good temper. I didn’t like buying my lunch from food trucks, as there is a certain mediocrity built into the delivery medium. Three of the best remaining bookstores in L.A. were represented with interesting selections: Vroman’s Bookstore from Pasadena, Book Soup from the Sunset Strip, and Kinokuniya from Little Tokyo.

There were a lot of booths manned by authors who were using the Festival to push their books. I felt a little sorry for them, but I can understand how they felt, dishing out so much cash for so little return. (I make one exception: Gwen Katz, who was recommended along with her book by my friend Bill Korn).

It’s great that the MetroRail Expo Line is now fully operational, as I would much rather pay $1.20 for public transportation than $12.00 for parking in a distant structure. I am already looking forward to next year’s Festival.

 

The Danger of Denying the Existence of Dragons

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

Here is the complete quote: “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.”

Ursula K. Le Guin died in January of this year, leaving me bereft of her elfin wisdom. Not entirely, because there are all those books and stories of hers, which I am still plodding my way through. Today, I finished A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994), which contained three short stories that are to my mind the best stories ever written about space travel. They include “The Shobies’ Story,” “Dancing to Ganam,” and “Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea.”

That middle initial in her name, the “K,” comes from her father, Anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber. What elevates Ursula from the technoid school of science fiction is her interest in exotic, invented cultures. These are best seen in her Hainish stories, which are my favorites among her works.  There is no end to the writing of fantasy stories, but somehow Ursula’s were special. They might be set in the distant future and on distant planets, but they involve real feelings among real beings. As she once said ,“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel … is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”  Well, she wrote those kind of books. In spades.

The Edition of A Fisherman of the Inland Sea That I Read

In the three stories I have mentioned from A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, there are two methods of space travel:

  • NAFAL, short for Nearly As Fast As Light. To the space travelers, the time expended in travel does not seem so long, but for those who have been left behind, years or even centuries pass.
  • Churten Theory, in which the travel is instantaneous. One could travel to Antares and be back for lunch. Travel via a Churten drive can be highly problematical, however, especially if the people traveling don’t get their stories straight or are incompatible in odd ways. “Wrinkles” in Churten travel can lead to strange results.

I look forward to reading (and maybe re-reading) several more of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work this year.

 

San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro La Laguna on the Shore of Lago de Atitlán

When I visit Lago de Atitlán in Guatemala, I plan to stay at San Pedro La Laguna rather than Santiago Atitlán. There is more to see and do in San Pedro, and I can always take a lancha (covered motorboat) across an inlet of the lake to Santiago Atitlán. It would make a nice day trip from San Pedro. While there, I can visit the Maya god Maximón and make an offering to him for a safe trip, and I could visit the weaving cooperative.

Why San Pedro? It seems there are more places to stay. The town has something of a reputation as a party town for backpackers—and that aspect of the town is one I wish to avoid at all cost. When I travel, I like to sit down and read my Kindle—not listen to an international crowd of juveniles who have had too much aguardiente to drink. In fact, I generally prefer to avoid places where backpackers congregate. I guess this is all part of the “will you rotten kids get off my lawn” aspect of aging.

 

 

The Joys of Pre-Columbian Art

Moche Portrait Vessels at Lima’s Museo Larco

Not everyone is an aficionado of primitive art—particularly the Pre-Columbian art of the Americas. Children are not taught in schools about the early civilizations of the Americas. On the contrary, I suspect most kids think that, since the ancient civilizations fell so quickly to the conquistadores,  they didn’t have anything to offer to us.

Even one of my literary heroes, Aldous Huxley, came a cropper in his 1934 travel classic, Beyond the Mexique Bay: “Frankly, try how I may, I cannot very much like primitive people. They make me feel uncomfortable. ‘La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.’”

I strongly suspect that among Europeans of some eighty years ago, that was a common opinion. After all, the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs, Moche, and Inca do not in any way resemble the ancient Greeks and Romans—except that the Inca, like the Romans, were also great road-builders. They didn’t have much of a literature that has survived the Spanish conquest, except perhaps for the Maya Popol Vuh of the 16th century. As for philosophy, drama, novels, poetry… you can pretty much forget about it.

There was a period of tens of thousands of years during which the peoples of the Americas were isolated from any possible contact with European civilization. In consequence, they developed along different lines. Again and again in his book on Guatemala and Mexico, Huxley shows himself to be unwilling to consider that the Maya are very different. Not inferior, just different.

The Moche figures in the above photograph are all highly individualized. They remind me of the terra-cotta Chinese warriors discovered in Xian: Each of the 8,000 soldiers was different from all the others.

Totonac Figure from Mexico

Take the Totonac figure from the State of Veracruz in Mexico. This is a typical subject for Totonac art. Do we know what it means? The sloping forehead (does it show a deliberately deformed skull such as many Maya subjects?), the humorous expression: It is as if the distant past were laughing at us. And, in a way, it is. Many Pre-Columbian figures of animals from Mexico are downright hilarious. I don’t remember that type of humor from Greece or Rome, and certainly nothing similar from the Christian era.

Look at the Diego Rivera mural below, depicting a scene from El Tajin, the ancient ceremonial center of the Totonacs:

Scene from Diego Rivera Mural of El Tajin, Ancient Totonac Center

Let’s face it. We don’t quite understand what is going on here. We probably never will. I myself have been to El Tajin and saw Totonac youths rotating around elevated poles as voladores. Was there any convincing explanation of what was going on here? No, of course not. What intrigues me about this period is that the subjects are incredibly fascinating, but it is all a great mystery. Like life in general.