Faces from Ancient Rome

Bust of a Byzantine Emperor

I am still thinking of my visit to the Getty Villa yesterday. One thing the ancient Romans knew how to do was sculpt faces. In sculpture, in the images on coins, the goal was to create a recognizable image, even if it was uncomplimentary. And some of the later Roman emperors were nothing to look at. In a previous post, I showed the museum’s statue of Caligula, with his inverted triangle of a face radiating pure evil. I can’t imagine our current emperor—I mean president—accepting such uncomplimentary honesty.

Unidentified Poet or Philosopher

Take a look at this face. The original is unidentified, but the museum thinks he must be a poet or philosopher. In any case, he is old and he has the facial expression of a man who is constitutionally set in his ways. The lines on his face, the slight lopsidedness of his features, the sneer on his lips—this is a man beholden to nobody.

The Slave Boy Martial—Deceased

Finally there is a bust of the slave boy Martial, dead before his third birthday sometime in the second or third century AD. The boy must have been cherished by his owner, because he or she went to the trouble of commissioning this bust for a funerary monument.

Three faces—all very different—all very alive. Walking through the rooms of the Getty Villa, I was acutely conscious that these three individuals were real people. No attempt was made to idealize them. Some two thousand years ago, more or less, they walked the earth looking very much like the busts that commemorated them.


Everyday Realism

César Aira, Argentinian Writer Par Excellence

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Put on your tuxedo and cummerbund? Sit in bed lolling over a tray of sumptuous breakfast delicacies? Write the Great American Novel? No, no, no. What you do is stagger to the bathroom and empty your bladder. That before anything else—unless you want an untoward accident to put a damper on your day. I realize it would be boring to show these simple rituals in a movie, in which every minute costs a small fortune. But even in fiction, where words are cheap, there is no acknowledgment of a simple biological need.

None to speak of, anyway, until I saw the following line in César Aira’s Ema the Captive:

A sleepy soldier had come out onto the veranda of his house and stopped there, right on the edge, to pee, swaying dangerously.

Hallelujah! This line was in all probability written by a human, and not an android.

Another example of a simple reality not observed, especially in films, is that the hero always finds a parking place directly in front of his destination. In The Big Sleep, Bogart always finds the ideal parking space without even trying. I guess there weren’t that many people around in the 1940s.

Finally, with some rare exceptions, guns almost never misfire. If you look at Wikipedia’s entry on Firearm Malfunction, you will find twelve things that can happen to prevent your gun from shooting. In the real world, not everyone that has firearms is careful with them, or does everything needed to guarantee 100% functionality. Yet one rarely sees a misfire of any sort.

I guess most movies are fantasies, as our parents told us.


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.


The New Realism

Carmen Miranda

Carmen Miranda

This is a continuation of my occasional series on Argentinian painters. Today, I am presenting three paintings by Delesio Antonio Berni (1905-1981), who is known for his Nuevo Realismo, or new realism. This is usually taken to mean a Latin American form of social realism.

Below are two paintings dealing with poverty and the effects of industrialization in Argentina. Juan Perón came into power in the 1940s largely because of his appeal to workers. He was greatly aided in this by his then wife Evita Perón.

Public Demonstration

Manifestacion (Public Demonstration) (1934)

Note the sign at the upper right of this haunting image that reads “Pan y Trabajo,” which translates as “Bread and Work.” The faces in the foreground are particularly interesting.

There was a time when Argentina and Uruguay were two of the richest countries in the world. Much of this had to do with the invention of canned meat, followed soon after by the First World War, when there was a huge demand for meat to provision the troops of both sides. Sadly, boom times do not always last.


Desocupados (The Unemployed) (1934)

The above painting shows unemployed workers either asleep or staring into the middle distance.

When I go to Buenos Aires next month, I hope to find some of his original paintings, perhaps at MALBA (Museo d’Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires).