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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Xul Solar

Vuel Villa, 1936, Xul Solar
Xul Solar, Self-Portrait, 1920
It's something of a temptation in choosing artists to write about that I choose only those whose work I like. In so doing, I'm often tempted to dismiss important artists from various parts of the globe whose work I either don't understand, or find repulsive, or which seems inconsequential. That is very much the case with the Argentine painter, Xul Solar. No, that's not his birth name. He was born Oscar Agustín Alejandro Schulz Solari in 1887 near Buenos Aires, a little town called San Fernando (now a suburb of the city). His father was of Baltic German origin, born in the Latvian city of Riga, at that time part of Imperial Russia. Alejandro was educated in Buenos Aires, first as a musician, later studying architecture, although he never completed his studies in either field. After working as a schoolteacher and a number of minor jobs in the municipal bureaucracy, the young man set sail in 1912, on a ship bound for Hong Kong, supposedly to work in paying for his passage. However he jumped ship in London then made his way to Turin, Italy. He returned to London to meet up with his mother and aunt, with whom he traveled to Paris, Turin (again), Genoa, and his mother's native Zoagli. Over the following few years, despite the onset of World War I, he would move among these cities, as well as Tours, Marseille, and Florence. Towards the end of the war he served at the Argentine consulate in Milan.

Paisaje con Monumento, 1914, Xul Solar, one of his earliest works.
(Not one of my favorites.)
During the years of the WW I, Solari developed a lifelong friendship with the Argentine artist, Emilio Pettoruti, living in Italy at the time and associated with Futurism and who became his only major influence. It was about this time, Solari began to paint, first with watercolor, then gradually he began working in tempera and occasionally oils. It was also at this time that the young artist adopted the pen-name of Xul Solar. His Paisaje con Monumento (above), from 1914, was likely one of the paintings displayed in Solar's first major exhibition in 1920 in Milan, together with sculptor Arturo Martini. It was in 1916, that Solari first signed his work "Xul Solar,” ostensibly for the purposes to simplify the phonetics of his name, but an examination of the adopted name reveals that the first name is the reverse of "lux,” which means "light" in Latin. Combined with "solar", the name reads as "the light of the sun," demonstrating the artist's affinity for the universal source of light and energy. His father's name Schulz is pronounced Xul in Spanish.

Entierro (Burial), 1914, Xul Solar
After briefly experimenting with oils, Xul chose the watercolors and tempera as his preferred media. And rather than large-scale canvases he painted on small sheets of paper, usually mounting his finished works on sheets of cardboard. One of his early works in what would become his signature format, Entierro (above) also dating from 1914, demonstrates the confluence of Xul's internal thoughts and external influences, the very definition of Expressionism. The painting depicts a funeral procession of celestial beings, led by an angel-figure floating above the ground. The profiles of the figures suggest pre-Columbian art. The angel-figure as well as the mourners have luminous peaks above their heads much like halos. The shapes of the peaks are repeated by tongues of fire that point up from the bottom edge of the painting. The image strongly suggests an afterworld, but it is not clear whether the environment correlates to tradition Christian understandings of heaven or hell. In effect, Xul Solar provides his viewer with a new image of an after life.

Ciudá lagui, 1939, Xul Solar
Solar's work from the 1930s indicates a veering away from Expressionism toward the popularity of Surrealism as seen in his whimsical Vuel Villa (top) from 1936, and his childlike Ciudá Lagui (above), from 1939, in which his fondness for the sun and his past studies of architecture play an important role. During the 1940s, as seen in Solar's Fiordo (below) from 1943, the artist explored oriental landscapes. His bleak, landscape suggests ancient Chinese and Japanese prints. Narrow mountains with undulating edges soar up from placid water. Here, Xul displays his affinity with Asian forms and ideas. The ladders that crisscross the mountains symbolize spirituality, both of the ascendant nature as well as descendant. The single figure in the bottom-left corner suggests a hermitlike existence, along a difficult spiritual path that is mirrored in the steep staircases. The figure holds a book in one hand and a lantern in the other, representing study and guidance. Xul tells his viewer that while spiritual pursuits can be arduous, others have established a path to point the way. A tiny structure appears atop one mountain suggesting a temple. The path twists and turns, and the doors cut into the mountainsides represent the stages, and possible moments of dalliance, as one rises spiritually.

Fiordo, 1943,  Xul Solar
During the Second World War years, Xul’s painting was influenced by his thoughts as to the devastating destruction he witnessed and imagined. The sudden, powerful emergence of inhumanity and the potential effects on the world at large wore very heavy on the artist. Xul likely reached his highest point of artistic expression in these ascetic paintings such as Rua Ruini (below), from 1949, whose theme corresponded to the anguished reality of world combat.

Rua Ruini, 1949, Xul Solar. Notice the various symbols carved on the walls.
After the war, during the 1950 until his death in 1963, Solar turned his talents toward a kind of distinctive surreal, symbolic portraiture as seen in his Grafía (below, right) and his Saint Ignatius (below, left), both from 1961. To my way of thinking these are Solar's most fascinating works, though I'm also impressed with his Project Façade Delta #1 and #2 (bottom) from 1954, which once more finds the artist returning to his architectonic roots.

Grafía, 1961, Xul Solar
Saint Ignatius, 1961, Xul Solar
Whimsical, surreal architecture suggesting a child's storybook illustration.


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