Saturday, April 27, 2013

Borges and Xul Solar

Americas Society in Manhattan is currently hosting an exhibition devoted to the friendship between Jorge Luis Borges and his older compatriot, the painter, astrologer, and mystical philosopher Alejandro Xul Solar.

Like Borges, Xul Solar (born Oscar Agustín Alejandro Schulz Solari) spent much of the second decade of the 20th century in Europe absorbing the latest currents in avant-garde literature, painting, and philosophy. They didn't cross paths during those years but they did meet in the 1920s, when both were playing a role in the shaping of Argentine modernism. During the Perón era their friendship seems to have cooled somewhat (Borges was a firm anti-Peronist), but some mutual loyalty remained, and Borges often spoke warmly about Xul Solar after the latter's death in 1963.

They were somewhat of an odd couple, Borges philosophically inquisitive but ultimately skeptical, Xul Solar an avid devotee of everything from astrology and Tarot to the I Ching. When the occult metaphysical systems the painter encountered weren't outlandish enough, he simply elaborated new ones, just as he concocted new languages called "Neocriollo" and "Panlengua." He invented a kind of intricate modified chess game based on his mystical principles (the set is displayed in the exhibit), though he seems to have been the only one who understood how to play it.

Xul Solar is mentioned by name in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," where he may also have been the model for the figure of Herbert Ashe, who, like Xul Solar, dabbled in the possibilities of duodecimal number systems. Eccentric as the painter was, it seems fairly certain that several of Borges's best stories would not have been written without his influence.

Some of Xul Solar's paintings, at the weakest, can seem a bit crudely executed, but at their best (and he seems to have been quite prolific) they display a knack for working together disparate elements of color, form, and symbolism into a visually satisfying whole that nevertheless invites closer inspection.

In addition to Xul Solar's paintings (and a rather nice gouache and pencil map by Norah Borges, the writer's sister), the exhibition features rare issues of some of the seminal literary magazines of the era, including Martín Fierro, Azul, Proa, and Revista de América. Another highlight is the manuscript of Borges's famous story "La lotería en Babilonia" ("The Lottery in Babylon"). Written in a tiny but easily legible hand and placed next to the printed version, it lets one see how Borges tinkered with the final wording as he revised the text for publication.

If you visit, ask to purchase the nicely illustrated but reasonably priced hardcover catalog. (It seems difficult to locate online, but the ISBN is 1-879128-82-9 if you want to try.) The show will be moving on to the Phoenix Art Museum in September 2013.

1 comment:

Nancy Scott Hanway said...

This is such a wonderful summary of their relationship--fantastic! I love your blog!