The Surrealist Lett

“Palacios en Bria”

I owe my acquaintance with the work of Oscar Agustin Alejandro Schulz Solari (better known as Xul Solar) to Jorge Luis Borges. Now why would I accept the artistic judgment of a blind man? Fortunately, Xul Solar’s association with Borges goes back to the early 20th century, when the writer still had his sight. In fact, the painter is referenced by name in one of his greatest stories—“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” On page 23 of the Grove Press edition, we find:

The moon rose over the sea would be written hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, or, to put it in order: upward beyond the constant flow there was moondling. (Xul Solar translates it succinctly: upward, beyond the onstreaming it mooned.)

Also, Xul Solar illustrated three of Borges’s earlier works: El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926), El idioma de los argentinos (1928), and Un modelo para la muerte (1946). The latter was co-authored by another mutual friend, Adolfo Bioy-Casares.

In Buenos Aires, on Laprida, there is a museum dedicated to Xul Solar, situated in his former home. On my last trip to Argentina, I had the good fortune to visit it. When next I go to Argentina—and I dearly hope I can—I intend to visit it again.


What I like most about Xul Solar’s work is its depiction of strangely beautiful and bizarre places. I do not recall many (if any) portraits, but I do remember his many landscapes and cityscapes.

Xul Solar is not widely known outside of Argentina, though I think he is one of the world’s greatest surrealist painters. The painter was born in Latvia in 1887 and died in 1963, just as his friend Jorge’s vision went into an irreparable decline.

Discovering the Long Scroll

Excerpt from the Long Scroll of Sesshū Tōyō

For the first time in my life, I away away from home, alone. I was seventeen years old when I found myself at Dartmouth College. The only person I knew from before was Frank Opaskar, with whom I had gone to Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio. But I quickly found myself becoming estranged from Frank because of his anxiety about his complexion. I had the top bunk in our dorm room, and Frank insisted in smearing himself with Noxzema. Every night, I was wafted into sleep by the medicated stench of his facial preparation.

Naturally, I was desperate to lift my mind from the humdrum life of study and Noxzema. Fortunately, I found several ways of escape. One of them was art….

In my first year at Dartmouth, the Hopkins Center for the Arts opened. One of the first shows in the art gallery was of the Long Landscape Scroll by Sesshū Tōyō (1420-1506), a Zen Buddhist master whose art work made me feel at home. I don’t know why: I had had no previous exposure in my Catholic education to Zen ink and wash paintings of the Muromachi school.

But what I saw was magical. It was a landscape of mists and rocks and water in which pilgrims were trekking from one place to another. I loved it at once. Did I see a sudden paradigm of my own life, wrenched from a close Hungarian family into the wide world? I followed the scroll from left to right—not just once, but many times in numerous visits while the exhibit lasted.

If you want to see what I saw, you can see an image by clicking here. Scroll about a third of the way down and scroll slowly to the right. The image doesn’t allow you to get close, but you get the general idea. I bought a copy of the scroll from Tuttle, the Japanese-American publishing house then located in nearby Rutland, Vermont.

You can say it was Sesshū Tōyō  who introduced me to Zen Buddhism. It was a splendid introduction.

Madame Vleughels

Edmé Bouchardon’s Bust of Madame Vleughels

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has been putting on an exhibit entitled Bouchardon: Royal Artist of the Enlightenment, which ends in a few days. I was enthralled by both his drawings and his sculptures, of which the above bust of Mme Vleughels is one of my favorites. Edmé Bouchardon (1698-1762) is not well known to most people, but thanks to the Getty, I have made another discovery.

His work that shows the same technical virtuosity of some of the great rococo painters, as in the ornately draped blouse worn by the young woman, yet retains an austere classicism in her facial features and shoulders. Below is one of his drawings:

Head of a Woman Wearing a Scarf

Here again we have a combination of simplicity and technical virtuosity, which seems to be a hallmark of Bouchardon’s style.

Visiting an art museum can be a thrilling experience. But you have to open your eyes and be willing to make comparisons.

The Ruins of Pompeii

“The Forum, Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the Distance” (1841)

Last Sunday, I saw this Danish painting at the Getty Center and dreamed of visiting Pompeii. The artist of Christian Schjellerup Købke (1810-1848), who, like many 18th and 19th century artists did the Grand Tour. He returned to Denmark after a year or two of travel in sunnier climes—and promptly died at the age of 37 of pneumonia. I loved Købke’s painting, though I am saddened that he was cut off in his prime.

In earlier centuries, people were much more matter-of-fact about the suddenness of death—at any age. Although I would love to have seen Pompeii as Købke did, I am saddened that he did not have a longer career. Below is an earlier of his delicate landscapes:

“View of a Street in Østerbro Outside Copenhagen – Morning Light” (1836)

It’s not easy to paint a great landscape. Some painters had the knack, such as Theodore Rousseau, Jacob van Ruisdael, Claude Lorraine, Nicolas Poussin, and J.M.W. Turner. To that list, I would add Christen Købke.

Butter Bread

“A Woman Preparing Bread and Butter for a Boy” by Pieter de Hooch (early 1660s)

“A Woman Preparing Bread and Butter for a Boy” by Pieter de Hooch (early 1660s)

Tomorrow I begin working full time once again during a particularly stressful tax season. Yesterday, I prepared by going to see the flowers at Descanso Gardens. Today, on the other hand, I went with Martine to the Getty Center, a museum I could see from the front door of my apartment. Nothing could be more peaceful than this painting by Pieter de Hooch entitled “A Woman Preparing Bread and Butter for a Boy.” The view through the open Dutch doors is of a placid yard. What I get from this painting is a feeling of love and peacefulness. De Hooch finds much to say in a small compass, a talent that is central to the great Dutch painters of the Seventeenth Century.

It is very likely that I will be working on Saturdays beginning next week and Sundays as well beginning the week after. Natural beauty, great art and literature—all these will help see me through the next six weeks, and going forward thereafter.

According to Henry David Thoreau, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Going to a museum and looking long at paintings and sculptures helps one understand life better. Understanding helps one to survive tough times. The mobs of young fools with their smart phones and selfie sticks are not likely to understand anything. They were looking but not seeing.

What I saw at the Getty today will result in several more postings in the weeks to come. Every time I go to a great museum, I leave energized and eager to communicate what I have learned.

The Embarkation for Cythera

Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera”

Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera”

It is a strange view of love, almost theatrical, as young, beautiful, and well-dressed men and women prepare to leave by boat for Cythera. Better known as Kythira, an island off the southeastern tip of the Peloponnesus, Cythera is reputed to be the birthplace of Venus. As usual, the painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau, has not seen fit to provide an explanation. Will the young couples come together and dedicate themselves to the enduring flame of love eternal? That would seem to be indicated by the little putti flying in the air at the left of the painting.

Alas, Watteau makes no promises. I have always thought of him as one of the greatest of painters—certainly the greatest painter of his glitzy century—and also as a poser of questions rather than a supplier of answers.

Painting of Commedia dell’Arte Figures by Watteau

Painting of Commedia dell’Arte Figures by Watteau

What about that Pierrot in the above illustration? He is being introduced as if on the stage, while various other figures, ranging from lusty young men and women with babies to the elderly couple at the right of the frame. As the central figure, Pierrot is the image of innocence. It is almost as if the painter is giving us the full spectrum of love and life without indicating any clear preference of his own. Again, we are left with a question.

Finally, here are three studies for a black boy that are totally realistic:

Three Studies of a Young Black Man

Three Studies of a Young Black Man

There you have it: An incredible beauty wedded to strangeness, by a painter who is not well known in this country, but who always has made we wonder.


Two Long-Stemmed English Roses

Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier, by Thomas Gainsborough

Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier, by Thomas Gainsborough

Since Valentine’s Day is coming, I thought I would honor the lovely British ladies commemorated in the galleries of San Marino’s Huntington Museum. By and large, they are tall, have velvety pale skin, and look formidable. The first is Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 portrait of Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier. The Viscountess had a scandalous life, according to the Huntington Museum:

While serving as envoy-extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Turin (1761-68), George Pitt enrolled Penelope and her sister in a convent in Lyons, France, to be educated. While there she became acquainted with Edward Ligonier, lieutenant colonel in the British army. On December 16, 1766 they were married in the chapel of the British Embassy in Paris. They returned to England, where, in April 1770, her husband became Viscount Ligonier on the death of his uncle, the great military war hero, John Ligonier. In November of that year, Lady Ligonier renewed a prior acquaintance with Vittorio Amadeo, Count Alfieri (1749-1803), a young Italian ensign who later gained fame as a tragic poet celebrating the overthrow of tyranny by champions of liberty. Lady Ligonier was a woman “who delighted only in extremes,” according to Alfieri, and their flirtation soon escalated into a passionate “frenzy,” until their “mutual imprudence attracted the attention of her husband.” After confessing to Lord Ligonier as well as Alfieri (who rescinded his offer of marriage on learning of her previous affair with her husband’s groom, John Harding), Lady Ligonier fled to Calais, France, with her sister-in-law, Frances (Ligonier) Balfour (1742-1813), who had abetted the affair. Her husband sued for divorce and the marriage was dissolved. Lady Ligonier afterwards spent much of her time in France, but occasionally returned to England. At Northampton on May 4, 1784 she married Private Smith, a trooper in the Royal Horse Guard Blues.

Lady Frances Courtenay, Painted by Thomas Hudson

Lady Frances Courtenay, Painted by Thomas Hudson

Unlike Lady Ligonier, Lady Frances Courtenay led a much more conventional life. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 40. If she had hung around for another year or two, she, too, would have been a viscountess. The above portrait was painted in 1746.

The Huntingon is full of portraits of stunning English women, usually of the nobility. These two particularly struck my eye and, uh, my own personal appetite.