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Historian with a brush.

IMAGINE A WAR, over a century ago, that pitted land-locked Paraguay against the combined forces of Argentina and Brazil with Uruguay thrown in for good measure. Imagine again, the swamps and shallows of South America's "Mesopotamia," the Uruguay and Paraguay River basins, exchanges between flat-bottomed gunboats, armies plagued by malaria battling each other as fiercely as the stifling heat, and the combined slaughter of at least 350,000 troops in pursuit of the vaguest of objectives. Imagine, once again, the leaders, Dom Pedro II of Brazil, Bartolome Mitre of Argentina, and Venancio Flores of Uruguay, sometime enemies, always suspicious of one another, thrown together in an unholy "triple alliance" to thwart the dreams of a self-proclaimed New World Napoleon, Paraguay's Marshall-President Francisco Solano Lopez. Imagine, finally, an itinerant painter from Buenos Aires who volunteers to serve Argentina, fights and sketches his way through a half-dozen major battles, loses his working arm to a grenade, trains the other arm, and spends the rest of his days committing to canvas what he had seen. The story might have been written by Gabriel Marquez, the Colombian novelist who insists that Latin American reality is stranger than fiction.

The fifty-two panoramic vistas executed by Lieutenant Candido Lopez of the San Nicolas Battalion proved to be not only fine works of art but also historically accurate in their smallest details. Combining technical excellence with clarity of vision, Lopez left an extraordinary record of his times. His paintings now hang in the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Museo Historico Nacional in Buenos Aires, where they command the attention and respect of thousands of visitors and are a monument to man's perserverance under the worst of conditions.

Lopez was born on 29 August 1840 in Buenos Aires. As a young man, he studied with several local masters (Carlos Descalzo, Baldasarre Verazzi, and Ignacio Manzoni) intent on becoming a photographer as well as a painter of portraits and still lifes. Details of his early career are few and largely dependent upon an account book which documents his movements, finances and some early artistic efforts. His first known painting, accomplished at age eighteen, was entitled Charity and featured a child giving alms to a beggar. In the wake of this early attempt at social realism, he did a religious portrait, that of St. Jerome, but it proved to be a thinly-disguised self-portrait.

From 1859 to 1863, the fledgling artist was based in Mercedes, a town 150 kilometers from Buenos Aires. With his partner, a Frenchman named Juan Soula, he made a living taking daguerrotypes of townspeople within the Province of Buenos Aires. During this period, he painted a rather stiff, stylized likeness of General Mitre, the Argentine President, next to a new constitution. (The painting today resides in the Mitre Museum in Buenos Aires.) Lopez also executed a well-painted self-portrait dating from 1858 when the artist still possessed both his arms.

In 1863, he rejoined his parents, Sebastian Lopez and Josefina Viera, at the family home on what is today Calle Bernardo de Irigoyen in Buenos Aires. He worked closely with Manzoni whom he might have accompanied to Europe had Lopez's excursions to nearby towns in search of portrait commissions not defined a different destiny. It was on just such a foray in April 1868 that he responded impulsively to the patriotic cry of army recruiters raising a battalion of volunteers from the town of San Nicolas de los Arroyos. He signed on with the rank of Second Lieutenant and by early June was aboard a steamship with five hundred other men, bound for the Province of Entre Rios. The so-called War of the Triple Alliance (or Paraguayan War) was already over three years old and Lopez and his comrades were supposed to engage the Paraguayans who had crossed into Argentina on their way to Brazil.

One might be tempted to imagine that Lopez was one of those gentlemen painters who tagged along and worked with his palette and brushes on some bluff far from the fray. In point of fact, he never did any paintings during the war, instead putting his life on the line in the bloody battles of Tuyuti, Yatayti-Cora, Boqueron, and Curupayti. The War of the Triple Alliance was not a continuous war of attrition but rather a series of violent confrontations each just a few days in length. Typically, survivors on opposing sides staggered away from the battles not sure who had won, and then it took weeks and months to recruit, train, and equip every-younger soldiers for the next round. During the lulls, there were long hours in campsites or time-consuming river crossings with cannons ferried on crude rafts, horses swimming, and trouserless soldiers. The youn lieutenant, who had led numerous charges at the head of his company, filled otherwise ideal moments drawing and writing, confident that he would survive.

Lopez was an extremely precise and methodical man, an inveterate note-taker who, in addition to his account books and diaries, peppered the margins of his sketches with reminders like "thin hands, freckles, rosy lips." The line drawings from each campaign of the war filled at least three surviving sketch books. Sometimes the sketches were done on separate sheets of paper, or on tiny cigarette wrappers when nothing else was available. All this raw material was put away with great care for the day when Lopez could convert it into finished paintings.

His experience as a photographer played an important role in the shape the future canvases would take. He always thought in terms of sweeping horizontal panoramas as if taken with a wide-angle lens. Neither posed nor composed, like a snapshot, the paintings froze the action mid-stride and mid-gesture, the generals and colonels often engaged in tactical discussions while the troops worked. There is no evidence that Lopez actually used a camera to collect data but he did have a cameraman's eye for detail, light conditions, color, even species of foliage (samples of which he dried in his notebooks). Clearly, then, he was obsessed with historical accuracy and paid little heed to the aesthetic or stylistic conventions peculiar to "military art." He was very aware of his methods and even apologized late when a given scene seemed too dark, obscured by smoke, or devoid of pleasing color combinations. That was the way the events had unfolded on that particular day and all those men were really there on the battlefield. There was no room for romantic mythmaking.

Lopez diary entry dated September 22, 1866 describes his last encounter at Curupayti: "Upon crossing the trenches, a grenade fragment blew off my (right) arm. I took the saber in my left hand and continued marching at the front of the company, along approximately three-hundred yards of trench when I became greatly weakened due to blood loss." Eventually, he had to retreat through ranks of advancing troops behind him, collapsing at the foot of a tree where he then wrapped the mangled stump with a checkered handkerchief. From there, in great pain, he observed the fighting being directed personally by General Mitre. In time, he was evacuated to Corrientes at age 32, he married Emilia Magallanes, a war widow he had known as a teenager in the town of Carmen de Areco and whom he had met agai while working in a shoe repair shop. She bore him twelve children, including two sons who pursued distinguished military careers in their own right.

There is little specific information regarding the postwar year during which Lopez actually did the paintings. Either he was too busy applying paint to canvas or somehow his diaries for the period have been lost. What is clear is that after some eight years of sustained labor (part of it on a ranch in San Antonio de Areco owned by his wife's family), he had completed twenty-nine paintings of the war. A visitor to the estancia, Dr. Quirno Costa, intent on buying a parcel of land, saw the canvases and suggested that Lopez show them in the capital. Out of this chance encounter grew the artist's professional debut, an exhibit sponsored jointly by the Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima and the Centro Industrial Argentina. The paintings were well-received by critics and war veterans alike. Some of the latter who had fought in the battles portrayed attested to the accuracy of the paintings and even identified specific personalities Lopez had carefully rendered in miniature.

Encouraged by all this, two years later "El Manco de Curupayti" published the twenty-nine works in a catalog with accompanying text carefully describing each encounter. He sent the catalog to both General Mitre and Senator Eugenio Tello and requested that the Argentine government purchase the collection and put it on display in the reception area of the War Ministry. Lopez once again explained that the "pobreza de color" (poverty of color) in some paintings was due to the clouds and the cold or that he had sacrificed "pictorial harmony" in favor of historical accuracy. His concerns fell on deaf ears but not his request for purchase. Again, on September 22, 1887 (the third important event in the artist's life that fell on that date), Article I of Bill 2038 authorized payment of 11,000 pesos for the body of work. These paintings have remained together ever since and now fill two salons of the Museo Historico Nacional on Parque Lezama in the oldest section of Buenos Aires.

The following year, Lopez moved to the capital where he bought a house with some of his government earnings. He established a studio within the barracks at the corner of calles Azcuenaga and Melo and, with some of his old comrades looking on, continued to paint. He produced twenty more scenes of the war, a few of which he exhibited and sold as additions to the War Ministry collection. He died on the last day of 1902, having completed fifty-two of the ninety paintings he had set as his goal.

During the ensuing decades, as local interest in the Paraguayan War subsided, so too did attention toward the work of Lopez. With the exception of a 1940 monograph by J.L. Pagano, little appeared to further document his efforts. In 1963, however, interest in the where a clean amputation at the forearm was done by Dr. Lucilo del Castillo. The very same doctor amputated the arm again fifteen months later, this time above the elbow because gangrene had set in.

Soon after, with admirable determination, the war veteran began his rehabilitation, training the left hand to do what he had done with two. By the end of 1868, he undertook his first full-fledged painting, Rancho en que viva el Dr. Lucilo del Castillo en el campamento de Tuyuti, a gift for the doctor. (Today it hangs in the Museo de Lujan.) On the fouth anniversary of the loss of his arm, "historian with a brush" (a term he applied to himself) revived when two of his sons, Juan Alberto Lopez and Adolfo Candido Lopez, offered to the Museo de Bellas Artes an additional fifteen war paintings, the self-portrait, a still life, and two important sketch books. The museum formally accepted the gift in 1968 and the paintings went on display three years later in an exhibit supported by an excellent catalog. In 1976, one of the co-authors of the catalog, Marta Dujovne, wrote an authoritative and carefully researched account on the life and work of Candido Lopez which was published in Milan by Franco Maria Ricci. The expensive (US$120) book with details and full-color reproductions of all the war paintings came out in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese editions and included a lengthy account of the war by the Paraguayan novelist, Augusto Roa Bastos.

And what of the war without which Lopez might have had to content himself with the relatively drab career of itinerant portrait painter? Well, it came to a prolonged conclusion much as it started. The Argentine and Uruguayan forces, depleted by many thousands of dead and wounded, withdrew from the conflict leaving the Brazilians to battle the Paraguayans alone. Marshall Solano Lopez employed some ingenious tactics and his men fought bravely against enormous odds, but the abundance of manpower and vastly superior naval forces of Brazil made the outcome inevitable. The turning point came in 1868 when the Brazilian flotilla of ironclads and wooden gunboats bombarded Asuncion almost unopposed. Solano Lopez escaped with a force of less than ten-thousand teenage boys, women, and old men. For the next two years he fought a series of rear actions, retrating to the northernmost corner of Paraguay. With less than five-hundred troops, the end came in March 1870 at Cerro Cora in a surprise attack by nearly eight-thousand Brazilian troops. Solano Lopez refused to surrender and with a lance deep in his stomach, he uttered his last words: "Muero con mi Patria."

Against the great sweep of history, this obscure war may seem but a tiny, tragic misadventure that could have been avoided. Still, at least in the paintings of that one-armed war veteran who as Dujovne says "fought his battles twice," both as protagonist and chronicler, there emerges a more universal and transcendental statement on the reality of war. Lopez's vision is less a tribute to the glory and adventure of war and more an insider's commentary on the tedium of military life: troop movements and supply trains, the celebration of mass, setting up tents and cleaning weapons. In the battle scenes, no one emerges victor and the carnage applies to both sides. Beneath the pall of smoke the dead are buried after the guns and uniforms have been removed and put away for the next day's battle. There is very little pomp and rhetoric, just the stuff of life and death, and in that way we are deeply moved.

Caleb Bach teaches art and Spanish at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. He is a freelance writer and researcher.
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Title Annotation:Argentine solider-painter Candido Lopez
Author:Bach, Caleb
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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