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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Cándido López

Argentine Camp on the Shore, Candido Lopez
Candido Lopez Self-portrait, 1858
If I were teaching an art history class right now, I might start by asking the question, "Hold up your hands, how many of you have ever heard of Candido Lopez?" Candido Lopez was an Argentinian painter born in 1840. He was famous for painting scenes from the Paraguayan War, a nasty little dustup about the same time as the American Civil War. How many can find Paraguay on a map? How about Argentina? Brazil? Hint, they're all in South America. Don't feel too bad, though I've long been able to find Paraguay on a map, I'd never heard of that country's war (1864-70, which it lost abysmally) or Senor Candido. Candido Lopez was on the Argentinian side, born in Buenos Aires; and as Argentinian artist go, he was apparently one of the best, something of a child prodigy and already a successful artist by the age of seventeen. Having said that, if you were to compare his paintings to those of artist in general from other major countries in the world at the time, you would not be impressed. In terms of American artists, his work bears some resemblance to that of Edward Hicks, the painter of umpteen dozen version of his Peaceable Kingdom. (He was a bit more proficient than Hicks but not much.)
General Bartolome Mitre, 1862,
Candido Lopez
Lopez is often categorized as a "naïve" painter in that he had little formal training, picking up instruction here and there from older painters only slightly better than himself. Nowhere is this lack of formal, academic instruction more acutely visible than in his portraits, the self-portrait (above, right) and that of General Bartolome Mitre (left). They are stiff, lifeless, anatomically inept, and paper-doll flat. Consequently, he seldom painted people. He tried his hand at still-lifes a few times with only slightly more success. They're so ordinary I haven't even bother to post one here. Candido Lopez's only saving grace seems to be his battle paintings, though some of his seascapes and sunsets resulting from this endeavor are quite stunning (top). If you were a military tactician studying 19th-century battle plans you'd love his work. Do we have any such history buffs here? Hmm, so much for that train of thought. In looking at Lopez's battle scenes, one might guess he fought the war looking down from some lofty peak or hovering in some manifestation of a 19th-century helicopter. It some cases his battle scenes appear to be little more than maps with all kinds of little-people soldiers crawling all over them. In fact, you'd be wrong in both judgments. Not only did Lopez actually fight the war, he did it from the "trenches" losing his right arm in the process. After the war, he taught himself to paint left handed. And as for painting maps infested with tiny, little war guys, it's here Lopez really shines. His map-like battle paintings are so rife with details, soldiers seen actually fighting and dying, that very often they're presented not as a whole, but seen as details (a trait common to naïve artist, but really quite well done in Lopez's work).
Battle of Curupayti, Argentine troops launching attack on Sept 22, 1866,
Candido Lopez, painted in the 1880s

After the Battle of Curupayti (detail),
Candido Lopez
We see this attention to detail again and again in virtually all of Lopez's battle scenes. Of course, none of his battle scenes were painted on the battlefield or anywhere near them, either in time or place. It was a stupid little war which all but devastated Paraguay's population and solved virtually nothing except for losing that country sizable chunks of real estate. Mercifully, it ended in 1870. Lopez was on the winning side but left the conflict wounded and financially ruined, nearly as bad off as the nation of Paraguay. He did have a few well-placed friends on the winning side who aided him in getting a small government pension, in return for portraits and paintings of the war. Thus, using his hundreds of drawings made on the battlefield (perhaps why he got shot), Lopez was able to pull together a group of history paintings as much historical documents as art, depicting both the larger tactical picture as well as that of the "boots on the ground."

The Squadron in the Channel, April 23, 1866
Candido Lopez, painted some twenty years later.
The Squadron in the Channel (detail, above),
1880s, Candido Lopez
Along with his battle scenes involving the "ground war," Candido Lopez also left behind several paintings of naval vessels, not engaged in battle so much but in supporting roles, moving troops and supplies (above). Here too, Lopez's exquisitely detailed paintings illustrate, not just a thorough knowledge of naval architecture (left), but a learned handling of color acquired during his waning years. Candido Lopez continued to live and paint wartime battle scenes in Buenos Aires until his death in 1902 at the age of sixty-two. Today, his work is little known outside of Argentina, but can be found prominently displayed in the National Fine Arts Museum in Buenos Aires, where it has become a treasured part of his nation's military heritage.

The Battle of Tuyuti (detail), Candido Lopez.


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