Maria Gainza: Optic Nerve


‘When you stand before it, art disappears and something else rushes in: life, in all its tempestuousness.’  86

The pictures Maria Gainza stands in front of come down from the walls of the gallery into our lives, as do their painters and the people in her own life that the paintings bring to mind. Her formal knowledge sits very lightly on her; like the best art critics she infects you with her own love of the painting. She lets the picture come to her, and she goes where it takes her.  Optic Nerve is pleasurable in so many ways: for the art commentary alone, for the stories of her aristocratic family now fallen into ruin, stuck in the ‘neurotic torpor’ of its own history, which is also the history of Argentina, for her reflections on the life and death of friends and relations, for her insight into the lives of painters and how they come to be who they are on the canvas.

‘Nothing in Victorica is straightforward: scenes oddly framed, with inexplicable cut-off points; the heavy-handed application of the oils; the crusted impasto; the sheer amount of information crammed into the limited space of a canvas; and the way he somehow succeeds in plunging us straight in the significance of the scene in question. None of this has anything to do with his historical moment or, for that matter, his style; it is simply that the painter has found a way to express what it is like to be him.’  174

Her half-brother is wrong when he says:

‘Stick to your paintings, Sis; when it comes to people, you don’t have a fucking clue.’ 198 She has a lot of clues, and unlike most of us she’s found a way to connect them.  It’s a truly elegant and beautiful work that will sink quietly into your memory and stay there.


Tr from Spanish by Thomas Bunstead

5 thoughts on “Maria Gainza: Optic Nerve

    1. This is her first “novel” though she’s well-known as an art critic. She has a second called La Luz Negra, not yet translated into English, about art forgery, which I’ll be very keen to read when I can.

  1. I very much enjoyed this review of a book that I absolutely adored. It had been on my radar since a Guardian review some time ago; afraid I never got around to reviewing it on my blog. As you say, the art commentary alone makes it memorable (looking up the unfamiliar artists was a fun & gave the book an almost interactive aspect) but there’s so, so much more. Like you, I’ll be very eager to read Gainza’s La Luz Negra when it finally makes it into an English translation.

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