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CHAPTER XIV LITERATURE AND ART
As in most young countries, the Muses have in Argentina and Uruguay had to be content chiefly with the imported offerings of foreign writers, artists and composers; while native science has principally been confined to medicine and surgery and various branches of rural productiveness. Still the River Plate Territories have always had their historians and poets, and recent generations have produced some painters, sculptors and composers.

The Histories of Mitre and Araújo are admirable literary monuments to the glory of the River Plate Territories and the memory of their authors. The poetry of the lately deceased Guido y Spano and of the still living Zorrilla de San Martin occupies a deservedly high place in modern literature; while the names of Juan Cruz Varela, José Mármol and José Hernandez (the author of the Lyrics of Gaucho life published under the title of “Martin Fierro”) will ever remain household words on the River Plate.

Godofredo Daireaux and Leopoldo Lugones are typical and delightful writers whose sketches are faithful vignettes of the manners and customs, landscapes and sentiment of a century and half a century ago, of times of heroic battles and early peaceful progress. For the rest, one must, with the Muses, wait with such patience as one may for the appearance of National types of literature and art; types probably only to be formed when the National types of men and women have reached their fully distinct development out of existing cosmopolitan chaos.[300] At present Argentine and Uruguayan Art and Literature[47] are chiefly imitative; music, painting and novels being mostly exaggerations of, often not the best, ephemeral European taste and fashions, while architecture usually alternates fidelity to stucco with trivially fantastic French “Villa” and “Chateau” styles.

Novelists seek to make one’s flesh creep; Painters to outvie either incomprehensibility or banality; Architects achieve futility and Musicians are reminiscent of everything except the sad charm of melody which is their natural inheritance, through the Payadores, from Moorish Spain. The old intervals and harmonies are carefully eschewed in favour of anything, no matter what, which may seem to have a piquant flavour of “art nouveau.”

Nevertheless, nature sometimes will out and the old-time moods now and again penetrate the covering of pseudo-Viennese melody and modern Italian harmonies under which the composer has sought to hide his natural gifts and atavistic inspiration.

It is only in the theatre that the true native genius is allowed full play. Some of the real Argentine dramas and comedies are refreshingly delightful in their truth of characterization, sentiment and humour. All is of the soil, true to type and racy. But such things are only played at minor houses and in rural districts. Fashion knows them not, nor desires to know them, while Italian and French operatic and dramatic companies hold the boards of the leading theatres at prices which make it quite obligatory for all the best people to be seen frequently in their boxes or stalls. Still the minor theatre is the casket of the one true jewel in Argentine Art which shines with its inherent native brilliance.

Unless, perhaps, florid oratory may be termed an Art. If so, it is one which has a wide vogue throughout South America. Few events are there allowed to pass without[301] lengthy and vigorous “Discursos”; the real or simulated passion of which rings strangely false in Anglo-Saxon ears. Much virtue, however, lies in accepted convention, and the South American sees nothing comic or discordant in a frock-coated orator doing his best to turn over a sheaf of manuscript with one hand whilst he indulges in what to us is painfully exaggerated gesticulation with the rest of his body. On the contrary, the bravas of the audience which punctuate the barn-storming enunciation of the most high-flown sentiments are evidently and whole-heartedly sincere expressions of admiration for, at least, the speaker’s mastery of the declamatory art. Discursos are, in South America, the inevitable accompaniment of every event of any mark, from a funeral to the announcement of a dividend.

It is part of the Hero Worship which has so large a place in the Latin nature. A worship none the less fervent because the enjoyment of it by its living object is frequently as brief as it must be sweet. Once dead, of course, a hero is one for ever if he have attained his niche at some prominent period of his country’s history. Great Presidents live perennially in the knowledge of every school child, and one bad one is still honoured by reference to his name and attributes in the comic journals whenever an unflattering comparison to a living politician is sought. Rozas and Artígas have their true meed of mingled praise and blame.

But all this digresses from the heading of this chapter; through, perhaps, an unconscious effort on the author’s part to eke out an as yet somewhat barren subject.

The truth is that no country nor individual has ever produced much art of any account during its or his infancy. And Argentina and Uruguay are still in the barely adolescent stage of their economic and political development. The many sympathetic, though often contrasted, characteristics of the true Argentine and Uruguayan hold out, however, good hope for artistic achievement in the future. The facts that Argentina has already one truly native sculptress of[302] more than mediocre talent in Lola Mora, and one master of the art of word-painting in illustration of the old-world charm of some of the people and scenery of various distant parts of the Republic in Leopoldo Lugunes must not be lost sight of. Nor must the further one that the poetic spirit of the past which still broods over the wide Pampa has been caught and crystallized by Godofredo Daireaux in his Tipos y Paisages Argentinos and other delicate allegories and sketches. The River Plate awaits a native W. C. Cable to write a rosary of tales of the Old Colonial Days of the Puerto de Santa Maria de los Buenos Aires, of Vice-Regal balls, of high-combed, mantilla-coifed and beflounced belles in seringa and orange blossom scented gardens; of sighs and vows breathed between window bars; of times the politely veneered roughness of which has been softened for us by the haze of remoteness; a haze which soon will have produced complete obliteration if some living, understanding brain does not quickly record their outlines and fill these in with appropriate tints.

Someone will, must, do this. But no stranger. Only a native genius, daintily contemplative, can, as a labour of love, bring back to life the dolce far niente days of South America before its Colonists awakened to the shrill call of Liberty and Independence.

The End



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