Learning to See: María Gainza’s “Optic Nerve”

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THE ALTER-EGO NARRATOR of María Gainza’s Optic Nerve describes taking the dog out for a walk as a child — “my way of unspooling the parental fishing line lodged in my twelve-year-old cheek” — and coming upon a museum she had never noticed before. This leads her to reflect that

[t]o my parents the Buenos Aires of my childhood held no artistic interest; they spent their lives paralyzed by a kind of neurotic torpor generated by seeing themselves reflected in the past, in all the city mansions, in every bronze statue and every silver dinner service.


The underlying story line of Optic Nerve — part memoir, part art criticism, part novel — recounts the narrator’s escape from that “neurotic torpor” of the Argentine upper class. One of the primary ways she escapes is by being able to see. The chapters describe her encounters with paintings in local museums — one of which is a converted mansion in which her own family had once lived. The narrator’s response to these artworks is the very opposite of “neurotic torpor”: violent bodily reactions, “beautiful shocks,” epiphanies.

Another person might desert her class by leaving the country, but Gainza’s narrator stays — in part because she loves her neighborhood (despite the fact that, according to her mother, it “borders barbarian lands”) and in part because her terror of flying precludes the possibility of traveling far. As an art critic, she is forced to focus on the material at hand — i.e., the art in local museums — despite the limitation that “Buenos Aires […] only has second-rate work: great artists, yes, but none of their great works.” Yet, were she able to jet around the world from biennial to biennial, this startlingly original book would not exist.

María Gainza is an Argentine writer, journalist, and art critic whose impressionistic and often personal texts, published both locally and internationally, have always diverged from the norm. Originally published in Spanish in 2014 and now out in an English translation by Thomas Bunstead, Optic Nerve is her second book (a selection of articles and essays came out in 2011 and a more recent novel, La Luz Negra, was released last year). The author’s relatively small output — along with her concerted effort, as professed in interviews, to circulate as little as possible in artistic and intellectual circles, so as to preserve the freshness of her work — suggests an almost aristocratic sensibility: she is not, and has never been, part of the fray. Yet her posture may also derive from her affinity with French painter Henri Rousseau, who also didn’t travel, and who, despite being mocked (and secretly imitated) by the ambitious and cosmopolitan Picasso, maintained in Gainza’s words an “indifference to worldly matters [that] made him equally unconcerned about success and failure.”

Optic Nerve favors an intermittent approach to the narrator’s life. Each chapter pairs a personal story with a painting that sparks an excursion into the history of art: her husband’s illness with a Rothko, her mother’s class manias with Hubert Robert’s paintings of ruins, her friend’s slipperiness with the work of chameleonic Japanese painter Fujita, her gay great-uncle’s aesthetic experiments with the mysterious life of legendary muse Misia Godebska Sert. Some of the pairings are so richly surprising that we feel as though we ourselves have received a “beautiful shock,” as in the first chapter where the discovery of a painting by Alfred de Dreux depicting a felled deer surrounded by hungry dogs is paired with the freak shooting of a school friend at a French chateau.

Occasionally, the links take you so far afield that you are reminded of web-surfing down rabbit holes: the place you’ve ended up is so interesting that the nagging feeling of not remembering what you were actually looking for is almost forgotten. A case in point is Gainza’s second chapter, in which the life story of Argentine painter Cándido López, best known for his paintings of Argentina’s war against Paraguay in the mid-19th century, is linked to the youthful Paraguayan adventures of the narrator’s husband, a musician of a very different class background. In the same way that the author recreates moments in the lives of family and friends, she also takes liberties with the lives of artists, imagining fictionalized scenes. The play of themes linking the history of art to the narrator’s life can be so delicate at times that we may not pick up on it consciously, even as we feel unconsciously satiated. With her sometimes abrupt cuts, Gainza may appear to have left dangling threads, only to touch upon them lightly a hundred pages later. Only once — in the final chapter about the death of the narrator’s half-brother — do we feel the mechanism at work, with the line describing “a portentous sky” in an El Greco painting as “the kind beneath which only terrible or solemn events may occur, like a family member leaving home, or the erection of a cross” coming across as uncharacteristically explicit.

Both Gainza’s writing style and her taste in art display a preference for understatement. “I was going around the museum giving the well-known works a wide berth,” she writes, “fed up with all the twentieth-century pieces trying so hard, shouting so loudly about their own messianic significance, when a painting caught my eye.” In her selection of paintings, one senses a certain arbitrariness, a sincerity of taste that brings to mind Borges’s literary enthusiasms. In his essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” Borges suggests that cultures from the periphery, like Argentina, can “take on all the European subjects, take them on without superstition and with irreverence.” In the same way that Borges plucked the authors he liked from the margins and placed them at the center, so Gainza — ignoring the canon — puts ignored or forgotten works, or paintings deemed merely decorative, in the spotlight, offering them her full and rapt attention.

While her family story is braided in throughout, some of the most compelling chapters, such as “The Enchantment of Ruins” and “Beautiful Shocks,” are the ones dedicated specifically to family members. By writing openly about her upper-class Argentine family, Gainza is treading on potentially treacherous ground. The Gainza family owned the most important newspaper in South America, La Prensa, whose headquarters were attacked when the followers of populist leader Juan Domingo Perón stormed the city in 1947. Gainza’s father was the architect in charge of making modifications to the building in order to survive future attacks, including sonic assaults that would disrupt employees’ concentration in the newsroom. In 1951, the paper was expropriated by Perón, in a clear attack on freedom of the press. The liberal, secular, urban, Europeanized upper class, to which both sides of Gainza’s family belonged, was reviled by Perón as corrupt, thieving, drunk, and anti-democratic, preferring books to shoes — a view that persists in many sectors to this day. The mark of oligarchic birth and education became a taboo that upper-class artists and writers had to downplay or denounce with the evangelistic enthusiasm of those who have been born anew.

Gainza, however, neither hides her illustrious family nor condemns them. And while she does label herself a black sheep — “It was as though you constantly expected your real family to step forward” — she never denies her excess of privileges. Instead, in Optic Nerve, she takes her family as one of her objects of study, an operation surely eased by the fact that the relatives she is examining belong, by now, to a family in ruins. The book is filled with images of something once magnificent failing: “the trees were so ancient that metal girders had been brought to prop up the branches”; in a Buenos Aires square, the narrator notes, is “the headless statue of some worthy gentleman (the plaque was stolen a while ago, so everyone’s forgotten who he is).” The only artist whose worth she and her mother could ever agree upon was Hubert Robert, with his “aesthetic of decay.” Gainza’s strategy in confronting the taboo of upper-class birth is to be self-deprecating — she makes fun of herself before you can — yet her gaze on her family is strikingly impersonal, as if she were surveying a curious tribe, or a work of art.

At the close of the first chapter, Gainza suggests, seemingly off-handedly, her basic method: “you write one thing in order to talk about something else,” which could be rephrased as “you discover the beauty of one thing in another.” Gainza has always been a comparativist, and this practice of double vision — placing life story and art story side by side — allows the author to tease out unexpected reverberations, and occasionally a common essence, beyond the contingencies of time and place. By way of the comparison, the narrator’s life story is elevated from the chaotic realm of personal anecdote into an aesthetic object.

Put another way, the girl who escapes the family house (“‘Someone has to take this dog out!’ I’d scream, in one of my perennial furies”) to have an epiphany in front of a painting, returns hours later, her vision no longer clouded by fury. The adventure in the museum allows her to look on her family with a dispassionate gaze, at times aesthetic, at times sociological. By scrutinizing paintings, she has learned to see them.

This rare and exquisite book, the first printing of which the author herself paid for (a common practice at small publishing houses in Argentina), has now been translated into 10 languages. Thomas Bunstead’s English version provides a limpid reflection of Gainza’s virtuosic prose, with the exception of an occasional fancy word — “spate,” “apportioning,” “a foretelling” — that feels out of place. Gainza herself prefers simpler fare. While not such a great concern in the United States, with its insular perspective and breadth of local readership, the urge to get your work beyond national borders is a vital one for Argentine authors, to the point where you can sometimes sense that a text has been written in part with an international audience in mind. Yet there is nothing of the sort here. The book ends with a snowfall, which many foreign readers might consider a banal occasion, not knowing what any Argentine reader knows — that it has only snowed in Buenos Aires once in the past hundred years.

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Maxine Swann is the author of three novels: Serious Girls (2003), Flower Children (2007), and The Foreigners (2011). She lives in Buenos Aires.