'Optic Nerve', an art novel by Argentine writer Maria Gainza

Gainza fills novel with real life stories of many artists and their adventures


Argentine writer Maria Gainza in her novel “Optic Nerve” offers a kind of art lesson and appreciation for the readers. The protagonist is an art connoisseur, critic and guide. She frequents the art galleries and shares her feelings from seeing the paintings and art works of Argentine, European, Japanese and American artists. She weaves narratives connecting the beauty of the art with its power over emotions.

Gainza has filled the novel with real life stories of many artists and their adventures and eccentricities. She narrates the story of Argentine artist Candido Lopez who paints bloody scenes of the Triple Alliance War (Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay against Paraguay in the 1860s resulting in the killing of two thirds of the Paraguayan males) after he loses his right hand while fighting in the war himself.

According to Gainza, “all of art rests in the gap between that which is aesthetically pleasing and that which truly captivates you”. Besides the artistic protagonist, Gainzo has created some fascinating characters who are colourful, funny and intriguing.

Gainza explores the impact of art on life through her own experience and the way it is felt by other characters in the novel. Here are a few examples of the emotions evoked by some paintings:

How does it feel seeing a painting of Courbet? One is being gripped by the urge to go running off down the streets, to incite the people, to have sex, or to eat an apple. The viewer is sent into a pictorial fever. Pictures which saturate the senses. When you stand before his painting “The Stormy Sea”, art disappears and something else rushes in: life, in all its tempestuousness.

Alfred Dreux’s works pulses with atavistic symbolism: the struggle between good and evil, light and dark.

The works of Hubert Robert are like a premonition: a painter seeing what’s on the horizon and transferring it to the canvas in loose, open-ended brushstrokes.

Rothko’s works give “a sense of work that seeps into you bodily, not so much through your eyes as like a fire at stomach level. At points it even seems to me that Rothko creates not so much works of art as smouldering, endless blocks of fire; akin to the burning bush from Exodus. Something inexhaustible”. Gainza goes on to say, “often the most powerful aspect of any work of art is its silence, and that – as they say – style is a medium in itself, its own means of emphasis. Perhaps there is something spiritual in the experience of looking at a Rothko, but it’s the kind of spiritual that resists description: like seeing a glacier, or crossing a desert. Rarely do the inadequacies of language become so patently obvious. you might reach for something meaningful to say, only to end up talking nonsense. Standing before a Rothko, All you really want to say is ‘fuck me’.

Forget about standing before The Dream, one of Rousseau’s great works in MoMA which is capable of making the earth move.

Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto in Monterchi, Italy would apparently cause a German governess to emote.

El Greco creates a struggle with oneself. As teenagers, we fall for him. As we become more informed and cynical, El Greco's unwavering dogmatism and his sensuality exasperates us. We have difficulty accepting their coexistence in a single image; the mutual exclusivity of flesh and spirit has been drummed into us by now.

Gainza has enriched the novel with interesting quotes of a number of writers, poets and artists. She quotes T.S. Elliot, " The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind that creates"

It is interesting to know that the translation of this novel from Spanish to English (by Thomas Bunstead) has been done with the support of the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Gainza, like most Argentine novelists, goes deep in analysing the psychology of human beings intricately and intellectually. It is a typical characteristic of Argentine writers as well as the Argentine public in general. Every Argentine is a psychiatrist by nature and economist because of the periodic cycle of economic crisis. Argentines are the most well-read in Latin America. After reading, they sit in cafes for hours reflecting over what they have read and debating fiercely and loudly with others. Argentines have solutions to all the problems of the world, except to their own dear Argentina.

When the protagonist sees painting of a girl who looks like herself, she feels like throwing her arms around the picture. She then asks herself, " Isn't all artwork a mirror? Might a great painting not even reformulate the question 'what is it about to what I am about'? Isn't theory also in some sense always autobiography?

The heroine in the book goes to teach Spanish to a Japanese woman living in the twentieth floor of a building overlooking the Hippodrome (race course) in Avenida del Libertador in Palermo area of Buenos Aires city.. Hmm.. I stayed in the 40th floor of the same building for four years and watched races through the front windows and polo matches from the windows on the right side. The wandering of the protagonist in the elegant parks and avenues of the city and her frequenting of the famous bars, cafes and restaurants made me feel nostalgic for Buenos Aires, the best city in Latin America.

The author is an expert in Latin American affairs

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