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.

 

Five Epiphanies

Ushuaia from the Air

It was James Joyce who, in Stephen Hero and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, coined the term epiphanies to refer to moments of clarity and sudden recognition of another perspective. There were several points in my life in which I had a shock of recognition and that I looked back on as pivotal points in my development as a person. In this post, I recognize five such epiphanies that occurred in my life:

Dartmouth College 1962

It was a bad year. It looked as if my parents were headed for divorce, and rare was the day when there were no mutual recriminations. I was delighted that I was accepted at Dartmouth. When, during the summer, my future roommate’s parents drove me up to the campus, I fell in love with the place, deciding that here was a place I could heal.

Cleveland 1966

I was released from Fairview General Hospital after brain surgery to remove a pituitary tumor. As I was sitting as a passenger in our family automobile, I saw the people in the street almost as angelic beings. It was only after the operation that I was told how serious the operation was; and that my life was despaired of. I thought momentarily of Miranda’s lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!
Uxmal 1975
On my first trip outside the United States, I arranged with Turistica Yucateca to have a driver take me to the Maya ruins at Uxmal in the Puuc Hills. As his car pulled up to the magnificent Templo del Adivino, he made a sign of the cross. I felt that I was on holy ground.
Death Valley 1979
It was my first camping trip and my first real introduction to the desert. We were at Furnace Creek, with desolation all around us. Just after sunrise, birds of every variety flocked to the campground and woke us up.
Ushuaia 2006
It was my first trip to South America. As our plane descended to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, only 600 miles from Antarctica, I felt a shiver of excitement. Never mind that I was to break my shoulder in a blizzard within a few days, Ushuaia has always stood for a kind of subarctic wilderness. I returned in 2011 with Martine and would gladly return again.

 

The Tomb of the Hero

Honor Guard at the Tomb of José de San Martín in Buenos Aires

The liberators of South America from the Spanish are honored throughout South America. One keeps running into the names of Bolivar, San Martin, Sucré, and O’Higgins again and again. The honor guard at the Metropolitan Cathedral on the north side of the Plazo de Mayo in Buenos Aires is dressed in the uniforms of the early 19th century, with swords drawn and standing at rigid attention.

Even Jorge Luis Borges, who never served in any country’s military, bragged of being descended from Colonel Manuel Isidoro Suárez, hero of the Battle of Junín in far-off Peru back in 1824. Many of his poems refer to this ancestral hero. Here is the last stanza of “A Page to Commemorate Manuel Suárez, Victor at Junín”:

His great-grandson is writing these lines
and a silent voice comes to him out of the past,
out of the blood:
“What does my battle at Junín matter if it is only
a glorious memory, or a date learned by rote
for an examination, or a place in the atlas?
The battle is everlasting and can do without
the pomp of actual armies and of trumpets.
Junín is two civilians cursing a tyrant
on a street corner,
or an unknown man somewhere, dying in prison.

I have read biographies of Bolivar and San Martín—as well as Gabriel García Márquez’s excellent The General in His Labyrinth, about the former—only to find that the heroes are more honored today than they were in their lifetimes. San Martín became so disgusted with his fellow Argentines that he moved to France. Only many years later did the Argentines invest him with the sanctity he wears today like an uneasy crown.

 

 

TEGOBA

That’s Short for “The English Group of Buenos Aires”

Each time I have gone to Buenos Aires—that’s now three times in all—I have gone to one of the weekly meetings of TEGOBA, The English Group of Buenos Aires. At leastsince 2006, it has been meeting on Friday nights at a cafeteria in the upscale Belgrano suburb of B.A. called FAME, located on Cabildo across the street from the Congreso de Tucuman SUBTE stop.

The above picture was taken in 2006, when I was quite a few pounds heavier. (I’m the walrus at the far right.) At my left is Marta Viajera, who is the coordinator for the group. The others are a combination of Argentinian professionals and visiting Americans, Brits, and others who want to socialize in English over a nice meal.

A few days after this picture was taken, I broke my right shoulder in a blizzard that struck Tierra del Fuego. I slipped on some ice at the corner of Magallanes and Rivadavia and smashed my shoulder into a high curb. Usually, that would make someone turn sour on a place. Instead, I decided I loved Argentina and its people, and I resolved to return. And I did, twice so far. I hope I have it in me to back back at least one more time.

And, to be sure, i will join the group at Avenida Cabildo 2921 for another meeting of TEGOBA.

The Dreams of Dolphins

Dolphins Near Hawaii

Silvina Ocampo is not only the wife of the great Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, but she is a world class writer and poet herself. The following poem is called, simply:

Dolphins

Dolphins don’t play in the waves
as people think.
Dolphins fall asleep going down to the ocean floor.
What are they looking for? I don’t know.
When they touch the end of the water
abruptly they awake
and rise again because the sea is very deep
and when they rise, what are they looking for?
I don’t know.
And they see the sky and it makes them sleepy again
and they go back down asleep,
and they touch the ocean floor again
and awaken and rise back up.
Our dreams are like that.

 

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.

“Fiordo”

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.

You Can Start Celebrating Now!

Mark April 25 on Your Calendar!

I love penguins. So much so that I traveled over 6,000 miles to see them in Argentina. Oh, not the big Emperor Penguins of Antarctica—though they were only about 600 miles farther south. No, Martine and I visited with the Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) in two places the Isla Martillo in Tierra del Fuego, and Punta Tombo in the State of Chubut.

Why do I like penguins so much? They lead such strange lives. Months at a time in the icy waters of the South Atlantic, then return to the same old rookery to find a mate and try to raise a family of little penguins. As it happens, we were at Punta Tombo in November 2011, right when their eggs were hatching. We saw the penguins look on helplessly while ravenous gulls pushed them aside and devoured their progeny. Their wings were great for swimming, but helpless to defend their eggs against more aggressive shore birds.

Penguins on Isla Martillo in Tierro del Fuego’s Beagle Channel

In the above picture by Berkeley Breathed for World Penguin Day, the middle penguin is my hero, Opus. You can see his adventures by going to Breathed’s Facebook page at Bloom County.

Here are some facts about my friends, the Magellanic Penguins:

  • Magellanic Penguins can reach 24 to 28 inches in height and 9 to 11 pounds of weight.
  • They have black plumage on the back and white plumage with broad, black, horseshoe-like marking on the breast. They have a white band on the head that stretches from the eyes to the throat. Skin around the the eyes and bill become featherless and intensely pink during the breeding season.
  • The diet of Magellanic Penguins concentrates on small fish, crustaceans, and squid.
  • They are excellent swimmers. They can travel 620 miles from shore and dive to a depth of over 150 feet to find food. They usually hunt in groups.
  • Natural enemies of the Magellanic Penguin are sea lions, leopard seals, killer whales, and patagonian foxes.
  • Magellanic Penguins are monogamous birds. The male circles around the female and pats her with his flippers during the courtship. Formed couples last for a lifetime.

If you’re interested and want to read more, click here.