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Back when I was being taught Spanish in high school, I remember that one of the major topics in our curriculum was a discussion of famous master painters from Spain. My teachers steeped me in the works of El Greco, Velázquez, Goya, Picasso, and others. And while I loved seeing all those beautiful, intricate canvases, at the time I was puzzled as to why I had to learn about them. Wasn’t I studying Spanish in order to speak the language? How could looking at pictures possibly advance that, since they never had any words in them?
What I didn’t realize back then was that my teachers were working to make me fluent in Spanish culture, as well as the Spanish language. To learn Spanish was not merely to memorize a bunch of vocabulary and grammar. It was also to understand why the language came to be what it was, to give me the wherewithal to grasp the cultural undercurrents of the prose and poetry I would be reading. No language occurs in a vacuum, after all, so there is much to be gained from studying the cultural touchstones that surround any given language.
I bring up this anecdote as a way to begin thinking about another aspect of Esperanto that has baffled me lately. Is there such a thing as Esperanto visual culture? To put it differently, is there an aesthetic tradition within Esperanto that is not literary? I honestly can’t think of any famous Esperanto pentraĵoj [paintings], but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
The closest thing to an example I can come up with is the Today series by the Japanese expatriate artist On Kawara. The Today paintings were a long succession of single canvases that were painted in a single color, with the date of its creation then painted over it with near-mechanical precision. Kawara never used stencils, which makes the otherwise plain text pretty darn impressive! Kawara would write out the date of each painting in the language of the country where he composed it, but in the event that the country did not use a Latin character set, Kawara would default to writing the date in Esperanto instead.
(Note: Kawara’s Today series is not in the public domain, so I can’t post any images of it here. I can, however, link you to some! Take a look at what the Dia Art Foundation and the Walker Art Gallery have on display.)
Now, I only tentatively say these qualify as “Esperanto paintings,” because I’m not quite sure whether Kawara’s paintings constitute an “Esperanto” way of viewing things. They feature Esperanto text, but does that make the painting any different from a work of Esperanto literary art? What might an Esperanto painting look like, anyway?