Author(s): Maria Gainza; Thomas Bunstead (Translator)
'Whenever I'm in survival mode I find myself magnetised by museums and galleries, like people running for air raid shelters in wartime . . .'
The narrator of Optic Nerve is an Argentinian woman whose obsession is art. The story of her life is the story of the paintings, and painters, who matter to her. Her intimate, digressive voice guides us through a gallery of moments that have touched her.
In these pages, El Greco visits the Sistine Chapel and is appalled by Michelangelo's bodies. The mystery of Rothko's refusal to finish murals for the Seagram Building in New York is blended with the story of a hospital in which a prostitute walks the halls while the narrator's husband receives chemotherapy. Alfred de Dreux visits Géricault's workshop; Gustave Courbet's devilish seascapes incite viewers "to have sex, or to eat an apple"; Rousseau organizes a cruel banquet in Picasso's honor. . . . All of these fascinating episodes in art history interact with the narrator's life in Buenos Aires--her family and work; her loves and losses; her infatuations and disappointments. The effect is of a character refracted by environment, composed by the canvases she studies.
Seductive and capricious, Optic Nerve is a book that captures, like no other, the mysterious connections between a work of art and the person who perceives it.
'A dazzling combination of memoirs, fiction and art book...like nothing you've ever read before' Elle
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When Maria Gainza was a child, she suffered from diplopia, or double vision, and, to correct this, used an optical apparatus which required her to concentrate on the images and “use [her] eye muscles to bring them together, pulling them both into the middle so that one lay on top of the other.” Each chapter in Gainza’s book Optic Nerve operates similarly: a thematic strand from her own life, generally an aspect of it that troubles her, is presented in parallel with an account of aspects of the life of a painter, the two strands brought into alignment through Gainza’s viewing of a work of art which acts as an apparatus that enables her to achieve an emotional depth of field that had hitherto eluded her. The lives of the writer and the artists whose works she considers are ordinary lives, but this art-viewing, so to call it, correlates experience and enables something that could be called meaning. Effective art “reformulates the question what is it about? to what am I about?” Looking at something is always more about the looking than the thing, is always more about the relation between the viewer and the thing than about the thing, the object whose passivity acts as a mirror for the active (or, ideally, activated) viewer. Gainza says, of viewing Courbet’s ‘Stormy Sea’, “When you stand before it, art disappears and something else rushes in: life, in all its tempestuousness,” the life of the viewer herself. Each chapter deals with an unsettled aspect of Gainza’s (or “Gainza”’s) life: her relationships with her parents, her brother, her daughter, her friends and not-so-friends, her health, her husband’s health. In two chapters she addresses herself in the second person, in the chapter about her fraught relationship with her mother and in the chapter in which she describes the occasion on which her anxiety about flying reached the point at which she was no longer able to fly, instances in which a first person narration would still be too uncomfortable for her. Finding herself limited to viewing art that can be found in Buenos Aires, where she lives, she realises that she is not in any case addicted to art-sensation. But “maybe,” she tells herself, “you’ve just convinced yourself, in line with your progressive and alarming tendency to limit your own means, that big planes and great art are unnecessary.” Change and understanding can only be achieved by indirect means, insight can only be gained by an indirect gaze, a gaze directed in Gainza’s case at a work of art. On viewing a work by Toulouse-Lautrec, she says, “There were horses in it. Even now, that is what strikes me first, and the first thing that drops away,” and it is perhaps this dropping away of sensation that allows connections to be made across elements between which sensation was a barrier as much as a means of access. Looking at a reproduction of a work by Rothko in her doctor’s waiting room, once the sensation drops away she finds the work “gives me a feeling of my singularity: a clear sense of the brutal solitude of this slab of sweating flesh that is me.” The final chapter reveals the anxiety that underlies and gives impetus to the whole project of Optic Nerve, the crisis prefigured by concerns and details in earlier sections, or at least resonating with these concerns and details, the crisis for which Gainza’s correlation of her own life with those of others through viewing art somehow provides her with the capacity to face and accept. “I suppose it’s probably always the way,” she writes. “You write one thing in order to talk about something else.”