Were the consequences not so tragic, [Bolivian President Hilarion] Daza’s trek through Tarapacá’s hinterland might provoke coarse laughter. From the onset of his campaign, the general demonstrated an almost monumental incompetence: he refused to hire guides to lead his forces through the unforgiving and unknown wasteland. Rather than travel at night, and thus spare his men from the searing desert sun, Daza instead advanced during the day. (Apparently he feared, with good reason, that his troops might desert under the cover of darkness.) The Bolivian general rejected a Peruvian offer of ambulances, and he ordered his artillery to remain in Arica [to the rear]. Perhaps one of Daza’s most criminally negligent acts was that [of] his refusal to bring sufficient water with him. Worse, he permitted his men to fill their canteens with wine or raw spirits, a disastrous mistake given the fact that the nearest supply of water was a substantial distance away from Arica. Col. Narciso Tablares, alerted by a commissary official that Daza’s expedition would carry only eleven water skins, warned the general that his men might run out of water. When Daza haughtily dismissed these fears with the words “You do what you are told,” Tablares had little choice but to obey.—William F. Sater, Andean Tragedy: Fighting the War of the Pacific, 1879-1884
His real name was Oscar Agustín Alejandro Schulz Solari, but he was better known under the name Xul Solar. Born in Buenos Aires of a Latvian father, he spent his whole life in Argentina. When I was in Buenos Aires in 2006 and 2011, I desperately wanted to visit his museum; but I just wasn’t able to do so. Before he went completely blind in the 1950s, Jorge Luis Borges—whom you may know as one of my favorite writers—befriended him and wrote about his paintings. I have always been intrigued by what I have seen of his work.
If you are interested in seeing some of his work from the 1920s through the 1960s, take a look at the website of the Museo Xul Solar, which is in Spanish but easy to navigate.
In 1949, Borges made one of his cryptic pronouncements about the work of his friend:
Versed in all disciplines, curious of all mysteries, the father of writings, of languages, of mythologies, guest of hells and heavens, “panchess-player,” author and astrologer, perfect in indulgent irony and in the generous friendship, Xul Solar is one of the most important events of our age. There are minds who profess probity, others, discriminate abundance; Xul Solar’s plentiful invention does not exclude honest rigor. His paintings are documents of the unearthly world, of the metaphysical world in which the gods take the forms of imagination, dreams. Passionate architecture, happy colors, many circumstantial details, labyrinths, homunculi and angels unforgettably define this delicate and monumental art.
The taste of our time vacillates between mere linear pleasure, emotional transcription and realism painted by a dauber’s brush. Xul Solar renews, in his ambitious but modest way, the same painting of those who do not see with their physical eyes in the sacred field of Blake, of Swedenborg, of the yogis and of bards.