Commentary on Pupo
Pupo (Navel) is a work that provides an excellent approach to some of the issues that Xul Solar chose to explore during his European period of production (1912-1924), especially because it provides a glimpse of different lines of interest the artist manifested during those years. However, it also presents a problem with respect to its date, given that the date attributed to it—1918—contradicts some of its formal aspects and the signature, a large “X” painted in the lower left corner. Firstly, this is because the works that he signed during that period—Worshipped Face, The Wounded Sun and Angels—were all signed “Schul Solar” (1). Secondly, this is because the first time that he was referred to in public using the name “Xul” was in the 1920 exhibition catalog in Milan.We know that the majority of his paintings from the European period were post-dated, in some cases by the artist himself and in others, posthumously by his wife Micaela Cadenas. This produces a difficulty in light of the fact that works with similar characteristics and formal proximity often bear widely differing dates. This is precisely the case with the three aforementioned works; the first two are dated in 1918 and the third is dated in 1920. In addition, the fact that they were titled in English suggests that they were produced during his stay in London from November, 1919 to May, 1920. Why is it so important to establish the date when Pupo was executed? Because the work itself, with a clear citation of African art, obliges its restitution in both time and space. In this sense, it is problematic to consider it within the context of the artist’s production in Italy during 1918—architectural projects, tapestries and “décoras”—although there are pieces within this group, like Frascos (Jars) and Flechazo (Arrow Shot), that seem to allude to the African “world”. On the contrary, situating it as having been made during or immediately following the time he spent in London would allow the incorporation of another dimension of analysis. It was precisely in April of 1920 that an exhibition of African art was held in London: almost 30 pieces that led to one of the period’s key texts, written by Roger Fry, art critic and leader of the Bloomsbury Group, “Negro Sculpture at the Chelsea Book Club” (2). Both the text and the exhibition generated profound repercussions in figures such as Virginia Woolf and Henry Moore, and Xul was undoubtedly not an exception. However, the most important thing to point out here is that Pupo can be read as a translation into plastic terms of some of Fry’s statements, who referred to sculpture in declaring: “The head is thought of as a pear-shaped mass. It is conceived of as a unique whole which cannot be reached by way of the mask as in almost all European primitive art. The mask itself is understood as a concave plane separate from what would otherwise be a perfectly unified mass” (3). Though difficult to prove, Pupo might be thought of as a pictorial re-elaboration of the piece from Paul Guillame’s collection that was reproduced in Vision and Design with the epigraph “Negro Sculpture”. In this sense, his contact with several people with ties to the Bloomsbury Group is a fact to bear in mind. Xul was a friend of Gabrielle Söene—a Belgian artist who had been invited to participate in the group as a designer in 1918, the author of two abstract watercolors in his keeping, one of which was dedicated “À mon frère Schul”—and of Nina Hamnett, another young woman associated with the London group. Nevertheless, it would seem that these reflections should take a different turn. In the first place, his interest in African art—above and beyond his early approach to the members of Der Blaue Reiter group, his visits to the Musée du Trocadéro or the British Museum’s collection—continued during the years that followed immediately afterward. His library contained various books referring to Africa in one way or another. These included Negerplastik (1915) and Afrikanische Plastik (1921) by Carl Einstein, acquired during his stay in Germany (1921-1923). While Negerplastik had the privilege of being the first book dedicated to African art understood as art, others referred to the way of life, customs and literature of different peoples from different regions. Some—such as Emil Zimmermann’s Was ist uns Zentralafrika: wirtschafts-und verkehrspolitische Untersuchungen [What is Central Africa to Us? Investigations on Transport Policies and Economics] (1914)– even clearly demonstrated their ambition to achieve a more integrated vision of what was called “Africa” and to more thoroughly comprehend the place it occupied in world-wide politics and economics. All this was taking place immediately after the War. It is also true that Xul’s attraction to Africa coincided, on the one hand, with the boom that was known in Paris at the time as “the black crisis”. On the other hand, this concern should be considered in a broader context that included other non-Western cultures such as those pertaining to India, China, Malaysia, the Caucuses, Egypt, the Muslim world and pre-Columbine era. This interest led him to acquire books on travel, art and architecture, religion, philosophy, culture and popular literature.His interest in the non-Western world is a well-known fact, but what has not been pointed out is that for someone who traveled out of his own country only once in his entire lifetime, the approximation he had was mediated by a Western, specifically European, vision of things. It was from Europe, and Germany in particular, that he delved into these other cultures, not with the notion that they were “exotic”, but rather that they were sources of new knowledge, on a much greater scale.
by Patricia M. Artundo
1— The use of “Schul” is implied in the initial phonetic, oral process that would lead to “Xul”. Regarding this process, cf. Jorge Schwartz, “Sílabas las estrellas compongan: Xul y el neocriollo” in: Xul Solar: visiones y revelaciones, exhib. cat. Buenos Aires, Malba-Fundación Costantini/Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, 2005, p. 36.
2— Roger Fry, “Negro Sculpture at the Chelsea Book Club”, Athenaeum, London, nº 94, April 16, 1920, p. 516, compiled in: Vision and Design. London, Chatto & Windus, 1920, p. 65-68.
3— Ibid, p. 66. Editor’s translation.
1988. GRADOWCZYK, Mario et al., Alejandro Xul Solar: 1887-1963. Buenos Aires, Galería Kramer/Anzilotti, reprod. color p. 23.