cover image An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

Cesar Aira. New Directions Publishing Corporation, $12.95 (87pp) ISBN 978-0-8112-1630-2

Part travelogue, part meditation on art, this brief, increasingly riveting fictionalized history by Argentinean author Aira (How I Became a Nun) reinvents German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas's ill-fated 1837 South American journey. Rugendas, a genre painter influenced by naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, first recorded the ""exotic"" landscape of the New World in the early 1820s and had early success with the illustrated Picturesque Voyage Through Brazil (1827). Aira dwells on Rugendas's disastrous second journey to South America, when the artist had hoped to penetrate the immense plains of Argentina. Accompanied by younger German painter Robert Krause, Rugenda traveled through the Chilean Cordillera, over the Andes and to the border town of Mendoza, before heading east across the Argentinean pampas towards Buenos Aires. But they encounter a vast stretch of the plains devastated by locusts, and with their horses starving, Rugendas heads out by himself in search of verdant land. He is twice hit by lightning, then dragged by his terrified horse. Disfigured and dependent on morphine thereafter to quell paralyzing nervous seizures, Rugendas redoubles his dedication to his art. Aira's documentary achieves a skillful synthesis of fact and imagination.