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.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


From the shore all that can be seen in the darkness is the flicker of lanterns on the long, low boat. The river's waters are moon-warm, but things unseen move in the murk, rippling the surface and bumping against the ankles of waders. We retreat to the safety of land.

No one here knows how to swim. If a fisherman falls into the water away from the shore and can't be pulled out by his friends, he will drown. They fish anyway because it's far better to drown than it is to starve, but the river remains alien to them. They pole from bank to bank gingerly, afraid of disturbing what may lie in the depths, and will cut their nets loose, no matter how great the sacrifice, if they sense something weighing them down that they can't explain. In some years, after the floods have receded, carcasses are found in the low-lying fields, unrecognizable, neither man nor fish nor anything else that could be given a name. We leave the bodies to be picked by birds and steer our ploughs around the remains; small trees may rise over the bones but if so no one, not even children, will take advantage of the shade.

The boat pierces the water in silence. The boatman lifts his pole and the slender bow glides to rest on the sand.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

H. N. Werkman

Alston W. Purvis's volume in Yale's Monographics series brought this interesting Dutch printmaker to my attention. Hendrik Werkman was born in Leens in the Netherlands in 1882 and lived most of his life in the city of Groningen. A professional printer, he apparently didn't have much of a head for business, but he did have a rich talent for design and typographical experimentation. Though he became associated with a Dutch art circle called De Ploeg (The Plough), he retained a prickly independence, and his work was not widely distributed or recognized during his lifetime. One of his best-known projects was a kind of chapbook periodical entitled The Next Call, much of which (there were nine installments, some printed on a single folded sheet) is reproduced in Purvis's book. He was particularly adept at using found materials and printing furniture as elements in his work; in the image immediatly below, for example, the black element was printed using the key plate from a door.

Prolific and resourceful even in the face of difficult circumstances, he created a series of some 600 monoprints that he called "druksels," a name derived from the Dutch drukken (to print), for calendars, bookplates, and other ephemera, and for a suite of prints illustrating stories from Martin Buber's Chassidische legenden (published as Tales of the Hasidim in English). Though Werkman was not Jewish, these last, published under German occupation in 1942, may have contributed to his arrest and execution in March 1945, just days before the Allied liberation of Grondingen. A substantial portion of his work, which had been seized by the Nazis at the time of his arrest, was destroyed during the fighting for the city. Fortunately, much of it remains.

Purvis's H. N. Werkman seems to be the best current source on the artist's life and work. There is a substantial online collection at the Groningen Museum and a nice selection at

The Child Ghosts of Prague

Above is one of a series of brief animated shorts entitled Legendy Staré Prahy. This one is called "O neviňátkách z židovského hřbitova"; I don't speak Czech, but the story can be identified with a miracle-working tale associated with the Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a renowned 16th-century rabbi whose name came to be linked, long after his death, with the legend of the Golem.

In the original tale, the Jewish population of Prague has been visited with a terrible plague, leading to the deaths of many of its children. Convinced that this affliction must be a divine punishment of some sort, Rabbi Loew dispatches a young pupil to the Jewish Cemetery to steal a shroud from one of the young ghosts who emerge at midnight to play among the headstones. When the ghost comes to the synagogue to retrieve the shroud, Rabbi Loew demands that the child first reveal what has brought God's wrath upon the community. The child identifies two adulterous couples whose sins have been concealed from view, and once they are confronted and punished the curse is broken. (The film version seems to single out one woman, but perhaps the narration makes this clearer.)

A version of the above legend can be found in The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: A Historical Reader, edited by Wilma Iggers; a very similar one is included in V. V. Tomek's Jewish Stories of Prague. More shorts in the series can be found at the Legendy Staré Prahy website; there is also a companion English-language page with one of the shorts in translation.

Update: There is now an English-language version of the above video.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Thank a musician week

Update (2021): Many of the links below are now broken.

There's a lot of hand-wringing these days about how the old model of compensating musicians is breaking down under the pressure of file sharing, piracy, and 99-cent downloads, and about how nobody has figured out yet just what new model might arise to replace it. As interesting and important as all that is, it's worth remembering that there are plenty of talented working musicians out there right now trying to make a living, driving themselves from gig to gig and hoping that their next royalty check — assuming there still is one — will help cover their medical bills. If those of us who make up their audience — because we get some kind of joy or consolation or amusement out of what they do — want them to continue doing it, we're going to have to keep supporting them, and that means, one way or another, supporting them financially.

Fortunately, there's still a way of doing that that benefits everybody. You purchase a CD (or a download, if you're so inclined), maybe go to a gig if you have the opportunity, the artist gets some cash and a reason to keep going, and you get some music and the feeling of having done your part.

One thing the musicians in the list that follows have in common (other than demonstrating my shameless musical prejudices) is that most are now either producing and marketing their own music or recording for small boutique labels, which means that if you buy music direct from them there's a chance that a fair portion of your dollar might actually go into their pockets. And although I derive no financial benefit from promoting them, I can't say that I do so entirely for selfless reasons; I promote them because I enjoy what they do and want to make sure that they're able to keep on doing it.

— Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ashes and Roses, available from Bandgarden.
— Lowry Hamner, American Dreaming, available from CD Baby.

— Robyn Hitchcock, Spooked, available from Yep Roc Records.
— Andy Irvine, Abocurragh, available from the artist.

— Leo Johnson, It's About Time, available from CD Baby.
— Freedy Johnston, Rain on the City, available from the artist.

— Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust, available from the artists.
— Kelly Joe Phelps, Brother Sinner and the Whale, available from Black Hen Records.

— Amy Rigby & Wreckless Eric, A Working Museum, available from Amy Rigby.
— Zachary Richard, Le fou, available from the artist.

— Chris Smither, Hundred Dollar Valentine, available from the artist.
— Syd Straw, Pink Velour, available from CD Baby.

— Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest, available from Acony Records.
— Scott Wendholt, Beyond Thursday, available from Double Time Records.

Finally, here are two excellent music documentaries by independent filmmakers:

— Tom Weber, Troubadour Blues, available from Tom Weber.
— Fred Uhter, Wide Awake, available from New Filmmakers Online.