From Optic Nerve, a novel that was published last month by Catapult. Gainza has worked as a correspondent for the New York Times in Argentina. Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead.
One day, you develop a fear of flying. Apropos of nothing. It’s your age, must be. Before you turned twenty-five, flying seemed the most natural way to go from one place to another. But now the mere thought sends you into a panic, and it’s beyond you how you’re going to board the plane you’re supposed to be taking to Geneva. An art convention awaits you in the cathedral of money: a foundation has invited the curator of the Venice Biennale, the director of New York’s PS1, a critic from Artforum, along with a few others. Your inclusion in the jury is an error, you’re sure. But when they told you about the honorarium, it didn’t seem very clever to point this out, considering the state of your bank account at the time. (The state of your bank account always.) Plus the job could hardly have been easier: just suggest an artist, someone young and Latin American whose work would benefit from a push. Because you don’t travel, you decided to pick someone from Argentina. You did feel guilty and took a ferry over the border to Montevideo to have a scout around there. Still, no more plain sailing for you now, no getting out of this one: fly to Switzerland, join the rest of the jury, help pick a winner from the nominees. Someone is going to be awarded a grant that will likely change the course of their entire career.
An artistic education? The idea hasn’t even occurred to Henri Rousseau, a young man from the town of Laval in western France. No matter: according to Courbet, painting cannot be taught anyway. Except Henri doesn’t know who Courbet is yet. He doesn’t know much of anything, except for how to hammer sheets of steel until they are as thin as communion wafers. His father is the town tinsmith, and Henri plans to follow in his footsteps. It is a job Henri takes seriously. He has his father’s somber air, if not the same capacity for daydreaming. But his father dies suddenly, before passing on anything but the rudiments of the job. Henri takes work as an errand boy at a local law firm. Some rubber stamps go missing from the office one night, and the new boy is the prime suspect. He decides to enlist as a way of avoiding the repercussions. War has broken out, and the army is recruiting.
Bismarck’s forces lay siege to Paris. Rousseau writes to his mother, who has moved to the capital, but he has no way of getting the letters to her. A fellow soldier tells him that food has become so scarce that they’ve begun raiding the city zoo; one restaurant is said to have been serving elephant soup and antelope terrine. Rumors and hearsay are the extent of the information they receive, because the Germans are intercepting all mail, magazines and newspapers as well as letters and cables. But the sun comes out one afternoon, and a solitary cloud is seen to hang over the Prussian lines. Corporal Rousseau, shielding his eyes, discerns that the cloud is moving faster than seems normal, and its shape isn’t quite right, more like an Easter egg than a cloud. No, now he sees: it’s a hot-air balloon. He’s never seen one before. He looks on in raptures until, minutes later, the trailing guide rope catches on the bell tower of a church, and the balloon collapses like a calf lassoed in a rodeo. As it deflates, he manages to make out the name on the canvas: victor hugo. In the following months more than seventy hot-air balloons are sent over from Montmartre bearing mail and cages; the soldiers send letters back via pigeon post, writing their missives on rolled-up microfilm that is then tied to the birds’ legs. The Prussians bringhawks, and begin trying to intercept the messages that way.
Your husband goes with you to Ezeiza International. In the airport bar, while you fiddle with a paper napkin, he says you need to fight it together. You nod. The relationship has entered a cooler, duller phase. After ten years together, he is still the best person you know, but you are still so immature. If the thrill is gone . . . You think about yourself, in other words, even in matters of the heart. You fold up the napkin, making an origami bird, then notice the words dolce vita, tu vita written in black. Not a good omen, you think. You present him with the bird. He hands back the Klonopin: white, surprisingly small. “Is this really going to do it?” you ask, but he doesn’t reply. You break it in half and swallow it with some water. Ten minutes later, the other half. You have never taken downers, and assumed it would completely capsize you, but an hour passes and you feel nothing—except the downward pressure in your chest, sweat on your palms, and your heart going a million beats a minute. So, exactly how you felt before. Once you’ve made it through customs, you find a pay phone and call your brother. He’s a pilot, and should surely have some reassuring words, but what does he come up with? “If you actually stop to think about the physics of it, flying in an airplane is the most insane thing ever.” You understand why young people find it exciting, but fully grown adults? What happens if you change your mind and want to get off? Sure, right now—that’s Cape Verde down there. What’s going on? Why are they looking at me like that? You guys are the weirdos, choosing between in-flight meals, not even blinking when they bring out those mini wine bottles. Clinking glasses and sharing the moment like you’re in some expensive restaurant. Guys, you are in the sky. In. The. Sky. If we were meant for this, we’d have been made with wings. Wings sprouting out of our shoulder blades, yes? Plenty of space to pin a pair of wings there, see? Oh, plenty of space.
In his early forties, and mired in an unnameable sadness, Rousseau turns to painting. Five of his seven children have died of tuberculosis, and painting becomes his way of regaining the paradise he has lost. At first he is content to be a Sunday painter, but he soon gains permission to work in the Louvre. On either side of him, ranked students from the Académie produce faithful copies of what they see; Rousseau copies too, but never faithfully. During the rest of the week he works as a tax collector in Paris’s toll stations. People begin calling him the Taxman. The images he conjures have the freshness, the verve, of a six-year-old’s imagination. The Sundays come and the Sundays go, and those qualities show no sign of abating. “Wondrous Rousseau,” pronounces Alfred Jarry when he comes to see his work. This is the Rousseau everyone knows, the unadulterated talent, painter of fluorescent jungle scenes, wild beasts, and enigmatic, sphinxlike women. But another Rousseau exists, one more attached to his city and its forms. The man in thrall to flying machines. Many of his smaller works feature not only hot-air balloons, but zeppelins and airplanes too. Only one of these has an aircraft seen not from the ground: Portrait of the Artist’s Father, which is held in Argentina’s National Museum of Fine Arts. The elongated framing, the clouds we find ourselves level with, and the romantic aura that impregnates the scene all combine to suggest an elevated point of view. Not bird’s-eye, but looking out as if from the basket of a hot-air balloon as it rises vertically into the sky.
“The cloud inside a paper bag” was a thing of such beauty that it made people gasp, but it was also entirely useless, the definition of “art for art’s sake,” as Benjamin Constant noted in his diary on February 11, 1804. The hot-air balloon had begun life as a visual poem, though not at the hands of a poet; rather, a rooster, a duck, and a sheep were the first passengers ever to board one, belonging to the Montgolfier brothers. Men came later. Up they went, drunk on adrenaline and champagne, bottles of which were indispensable fuel for every flight as well as the last bits of ballast to be dropped if greater altitude was desired. At the end of the nineteenth century, the aviator was the flaneur of the firmament, and a trip in a hot-air balloon was seen to be just as health-giving as a hotel in the mountains. Well, nearly. You just had to watch out for telegraph wires (decapitation hazards), the manic variability of the wind (that indomitable colt), not going too high (wouldn’t want to run out of oxygen) or coming home too late (one account from the time talks about the claustrophobic sensation of flying at night over fields, which would of course have lain in total darkness, as being “like traversing a slab of black marble”). It was relatively simple to land, although the basket would sometimes bounce a few times, toadlike, before stopping. People often came away with bumps and bruises, but that didn’t stop them from wanting to fly again. There were obvious and significant spiritual benefits of gaining that kind of elevation: seen from above, the earth and all earthly concerns took on their true dimensions.
When you were in the air you forgot your troubles. Rousseau, though, not having the chance to go up himself, had to make do with imagining what that would be like. The French Cloudgazing Society, a clandestine group that met on the terrace of the Paris Physics Institute, and with which Rousseau had some association, contended: “Clouds have been unjustly stigmatized. We are against the praise of blue skies.” Rousseau dreamed of going up, up, up—and then coming face-to-face with his father. Might his children be somewhere up there, too? Would cirrus clouds bring the most apparitions, or cumulonimbus? At times he framed the question more existentially: Could there exist a God lost in time, some entity that might provide the answers he sought?
His indifference to worldly matters made him equally unconcerned about success and failure. Rousseau wasn’t naïve but aloof, and with good reason: he had come to realize that his inner skies were far more refined than the rarefied climes of vanguardist salons. His evasiveness irked some people. At the end of Picasso’s famous dinner in his honor, all the guests stood to applaud the brilliance of the Taxman, and tears were flowing freely as they led him out to his car—only for Picasso, with the cruelty of all true cowards, to confess that the whole thing had been a joke, une blague. This was the same Picasso who would go on to hoard Rousseau’s work like bottles of Coca-Cola in the desert, and who thirty years later, when doing his preparations for Guernica, shut himself in his studio to study War, but never admitted it in public. The avant-garde took more from Rousseau than he ever took from it. You would have expected Rousseau to pick up the occasional tic or tendency from the leading lights of his time, but that was far from the truth.
Rousseau’s jungles appear otherworldly, though only until we see that this far-off planet is also our own. Suddenly magazines in Europe were bringing exotic images into the public consciousness, publications such as Le Magasin pittoresque or Le Journal des voyages presenting images nobody could otherwise have dreamed. The fascination with the exotic, soon to manifest in safaris, in Gauguin’s move to Tahiti, and in the market for tribal masks in Paris, was intrinsic to the spread of empire. Modern art was born at the height of colonialism, and images of Africa titillated the middle classes like little else. At the 1889 Exposition Universelle, a group of Senegalese tribesmen were installed, huts and all, on the Esplanade des Invalides. The visiting crowds truly were flustered. Darwin’s revelations to do with possible shared origins led some young French ladies to report tingling sensations between their legs. It was out of this turmoil that Rousseau’s images arose; the closest he ever came to a jungle was among the palm trees, ficus, and winter ferns in the botanical gardens, and the closest to the sky when he read Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon.
You never got on the plane, never made it to Geneva. Your husband left you at the airport with your head swimming; it was you who asked him to leave, saying it felt like you were being watched. You grabbed your suitcase, went through the pantomime of checking in, took the escalator, conferring smiles on your fellow passengers all the while (as they say in show business, “Careful how you treat people on your way up, you might meet them on your way back down”), but when it came to placing your bag inside the metal detector, it struck you that there was another option. How about not laying your head on the block? You turned and walked back the way you had come, down the escalator, past families saying their goodbyes, smiling at everyone—though this time the smiles were genuine. You went outside and got in a taxi. You were home before your husband.
It was the most wayward thing you’ve done, in a life of following rules: standing up a dozen illustrious curators in Geneva. Them sitting at their mahogany table in an Alpine art institution, you feeling like Sid Vicious singing his version of “My Way.” And best of all, your pick still won. Which only goes to show, when a piece of work is good, it doesn’t need anyone or anything to help sell it.
Not traveling naturally means missing out on certain things. Forget about standing before The Dream, one of Rousseau’s great works, held by MoMA and capable, they say, of making the earth move. Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del parto is housed in Monterchi, Italy, and would apparently cause a German governess to emote. Or Fragonard’s Stolen Kiss, in the St. Petersburg Hermitage: that will have to wait for some future Slavic reincarnation. And, for that matter, it’s also time you gave up on the idea of partaking in Japanese hanami or “flower viewing,” the celebration of the cherry trees coming into blossom in the spring.
You tell yourself that you’ll still have imagination on your side, and you’ve got plenty at hand to keep you entertained. Take a bus, get off the bus, go into the museum, and walk, simply walk, straight to whichever picture is calling you. Easy, and easy on the purse, too. You know some of these works as well as you know the books on your shelves and the plants in your garden. When you step in front of Rousseau’s portrait of his father, you greet him like a close relative: You’re fine, but how is he today? You don’t care what your own family says (though you do listen—to give yourself a stick to beat them with). Buenos Aires, they say, only has second-rate work: great artists, yes, but none of their great works. If you’re serious about art, you have to travel. There’s a Buzz Aldrin line that your mother is forever quoting to you, seemingly as often as she can: “Flying: it’s the only way to see the world.”
If only you could go off in a hot-air balloon! Hot-air balloons are the obverse of modern aeronautical advances, the beautiful black sheep to the success story of the airplane. One promises a romantic voyage, the other a global transfer. But, like the glowworms you used to see in childhood and now not at all, hot-air balloons just don’t seem to be around anymore.
Who knows, though, maybe you’ve just convinced yourself, in line with your progressive and alarming tendency to limit your own means, that big planes and great works are unnecessary. Cézanne said, “The grandiose . . . grows tiresome after a while. There are mountains like that; when you stand before them you shout, ‘Nom de Dieu,’ but for every day a simple little hill does well enough.” The city you live in is flat and gray, but the clouds occasionally part and, out of nowhere, something emerges. Days like today, when the skies are clear—you see it from your window. A low hilltop with thunderclouds brewing beyond it.