Authors: Pedro Mairal
The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra
By Pedro Mairal
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor
THE MISSING YEAR OF JUAN SALVATIERRA
First published in Spanish in 2008 as
Copyright © 2008 Pedro Mairal
Translation Copyright © 2013 Nicholas Caistor
All rights reserved. Except for brief passages quoted in a newspaper, magazine, radio, television, or website review, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Publisher.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data (print)
The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra / Pedro Mairal; translation by Nick Caistor.
p. cm. –
Library of Congress Control Number 2013938558
I. Argentina —Fiction.
The painting (the reproduction of the painting) is in the Röell Museum. It stretches around a curved underground corridor that links the old building with the new wing. When you descend the stairs it’s as if you’re in an aquarium. The painting flows along thirty meters of the inside wall like a river. There’s a bench on the opposite wall where people can sit and watch the canvas go slowly past. It takes a whole day for it to complete its cycle. More than four kilometers of images gradually unfolding from right to left.
If I say it took my father sixty years to paint it, that makes it sound as though he set himself the task of completing some vast work. It would be more exact to say that he painted it over a period of sixty years.
The myth now starting to grow up around the figure of Salvatierra is based on his silence. In other words, on his inability to speak, his anonymous life, on his work’s lengthy secret existence, and its almost complete disappearance. The fact that only one canvas has survived means that this unique piece is worth a great deal more. He never gave interviews, left no notes about his work, played no part in our cultural life and never had an exhibition. As a consequence, curators and critics can fill that silence with a vast array of opinions and theories.
I read that one critic described his work as “art brut,” an art made in a completely naive and self-taught way, with no artistic pretensions. Another critic spoke of the obvious influence of the Mallorcan Luminist painters on Salvatierra’s work. If that’s so, the distance that influence had to travel is a long one, but not impossible: from those Spanish Luminists to Bernaldo de Quirós; from Quirós to his friend and pupil Herbert Holt; and from Holt to Salvatierra. Another critic mentioned similarities with emakimono, those long painted scrolls you find in Chinese or Japanese art. It’s true that Salvatierra had seen one of those scrolls, but it’s also true that he had already developed his technique of continuity in painting long before that.
But these hypotheses are unimportant. If I started trying to correct all the misapprehensions in what is being said about my father, I’d have no time to do anything else. I have to get used to the idea that Salvatierra’s work is no longer ours (by that I mean our family’s) and that now other people see it, look at it, interpret and misinterpret it, make critical assessments of it, in some way appropriate it. That’s how it should be.
I can also understand that the absence of the artist improves the work. Not only because he is dead, but because of the silence I mentioned earlier. The fact that the artist isn’t present, getting in the way between spectator and work, means that people are freer to appreciate it. In this sense, Salvatierra is a particularly extreme case. For example, there’s not a single self-portrait in the entire work; he does not appear in his own painting. In what is essentially a personal diary in images he himself does not figure. It’s like writing an autobiography in which you don’t even figure. And another curious point: the work isn’t signed. Although perhaps that’s not so strange. After all, where could he have signed a painting that size?
Of all the distortions that have grown up around my father’s posthumous popularity, what I find hardest to take is the sudden appearance of his supposed friends and acquaintances. Especially bearing in mind the fact that hardly anyone in Barrancales knew that Salvatierra painted, and that the few who did were not interested. A couple of weeks ago I saw a documentary where several unknown Barrancales luminaries were talking on camera (with French subtitles), recounting anecdotes about him, his character, his way of working. My aunts also appeared, even though they looked down on him, together with a provincial cultural secretary who rejected the work for years, and even Doctor Dávila’s widow, who wouldn’t open the door for me when I went to visit her. All of them spruced up, decent-looking, recounting their false or true stories about my father. They should at least have interviewed Jordán or Aldo. That would have been more honest.
When he was nine, Salvatierra had an accident while he was out horse-riding with his cousins through the palm grove down by the river. Salvatierra was riding a dapple-gray with a bristling coat. That’s how he always painted it: like a threat that reappears every so often throughout the work, a horse whose coat mingles with a leaden sky. His mount took fright in mid-gallop; Salvatierra fell off when it bucked, but his foot was caught in the stirrup, and he was left dangling between the horse’s legs as it made off through the trees. He was trampled on so badly that he had a fractured skull, a broken jaw, and a dislocated hip.
His cousins found him half an hour later in the woods, still dangling from the horse, which was quietly grazing behind a thorn bush. My uncle always used to say that they brought him back slowly, in tears, believing he was dead.
His life was saved by an old, one-eyed cook. She took him in, washed his wounds with some kind of herbal potion, wrapped him in clean clothes and put him to bed, whispering in his ear. When my grandparents returned from the village and saw how he looked, my grandmother fainted.
It wasn’t until the next day that a drunken doctor drove up in his surrey. Fortunately, he didn’t even touch Salvatierra, but simply said: “There’s nothing to do but wait,” and appeared again every three days, more to sample the lunch-time wine than to examine his patient. I’ve never been able to discover the name of that doctor, but he did something fundamental in my father’s life. Not only did he allow him to recover without submitting him to the bloodletting and ice-cold baths recommended in those days, but when he saw he was getting better, he gave him some English watercolors that were brought down the river from Paraguay.
Following that accident, Salvatierra never spoke again. He could hear, but not speak. We never knew whether his muteness had a physical or psychological cause, or was a combination of the two. Any attempts to cure him were homespun: for example, a glass of water was left somewhere where he could see but not reach it, and he was told he could not have it until he said the word “water.” This proved useless: even though he might be dying of thirst, Salvatierra never uttered a single word.
What they did achieve was to get him to draw whatever it was he wanted. Then, after he had seen the watercolors, he began to paint. The drawings from those years have not survived (in fact, when he began his great work at the age of twenty, he himself burned all his previous efforts). According to what I’ve been told, while he was recovering from the accident his bed would be moved out under the arbor and he would draw birds, dogs, and insects, or sketch furtive portraits of his adolescent girl cousins and his aunts, while they drank fresh lemonade in the early evening shade.
His long convalescence and his muteness spared him from the role established for the robust, healthy males of the family, and freed him from his Spanish father’s great expectations. My grandfather, Rafael Salvatierra, had come to Argentina in his early twenties with his brother Pablo. They had worked on small farms in Concepción del Uruguay, then as farm managers in Colón until in their forties they had been able to buy some sandy land nobody else wanted in the Barrancales area. Over dinner, my grandfather would spread his arms wide in a gesture that was meant to include not only the big dining room but also the acres of land all around them, and he would say to his sons: I started out from complete poverty and have reached this far; this is where you start from, let’s see how far you get. The dapple-gray’s kicks spared my father this challenging destiny.
So he became the little dumb kid, the idiot of the family. They let him play with the women, and did not demand from him the proofs of virility the other males in the family were called upon to demonstrate: firing a shotgun, lassoing or riding steers. He spent his time with his cousins, who fetched and carried him, treated him like a doll, played at being schoolmarms with him, and taught him everything they knew. They forced him to write so that he wouldn’t forget the alphabet, made him communicate with them by writing letters on a slate, and bathed in the river with him. My aunt Dolores used to tell me that when the girls were getting changed to go for a swim down among the willows, they would make him turn his back to them. He would clap his hands once (his way of asking if he could look yet) and they would say no. After a while he would clap again, and they would say no a second time, that on no account was he to look around, and then he would hear them laughing and turn to find that his cousins were already in the water.
Their little joke must have tormented Salvatierra, because in his work you can often see adolescent girls getting changed in the green light beneath the riverside willows, sun-tanned girls in a hurry because they are ashamed of their nudity. He must have painted them because he needed to see at long last those scenes that had taken place behind his back but which he had been unable to witness, their luminous intensity that was so close and yet forbidden to him.
If Salvatierra had asked my brother Luis and me to take care of his work after his death, we would probably not have done so, or if we had, much less willingly. As it was, the day before he died in Barrancales hospital, when Luis asked him: “Papa, what should we do with the canvas?” he smiled, and bent his elbow upwards with the careless gesture of tossing something behind him, towards the past, as if to say: “It doesn’t matter, I’ve enjoyed it.” Then he put his index finger under one eye and lifted his chin towards mother, who was opening the curtains with her back to us. I understood his gesture to mean: “Keep an eye on her,” or something of the sort. We didn’t get the chance to ask him again about the painting. It seemed as though what was important to him was having painted it, nothing more. Whatever we decided to do was fine by him. My father died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of the next morning.
Some time later, when Luis and I decided to do something about the painting, the first move we made was to go and talk to his old friend Doctor Dávila. He’d been our doctor as children, and despite his age, he still had some contacts in the provincial government. He suggested we ask for a grant to help build a small museum. He wrote several letters to the authorities stressing the quality and importance of the work, and its value as a document showing the customs and people of a specific time and region. This succeeded in having the work declared “part of the provincial cultural heritage,” but the funds needed to set up the foundation were never forthcoming. Nor did anyone from the Town Hall ever come to see what my father’s work was like. All we got was the certificate: a stack of sheets of paper with official headings and stamps, signed with great flourishes. Instead of helping us, these turned out to create a bureaucratic nightmare.