[ Introduction ]                
In the late 1920s, a group of young artists in Havana began to paint using non-traditional styles appropriated from European Modern Art. They were reacting against the various forms of naturalism promoted by Cuba’s art academy, San Alejandro, and in the process renovated Cuban art. The new direction(s) in art were then called by different names: arte nuevo, vanguardia, and moderno. Today, it is mostly known as modern.

Cuban art is often discussed in terms of generations, rather than movements, and the generations coincide with decades. Among the best-known artists of the 1930s, also known as the Vanguardia generation, are Eduardo Abela, Víctor Manuel García, Amelia Peláez, Antonio Gattorno, Fidelio Ponce de León, Arístides Fernández, Carlos Enríquez and Wifredo Lam. They tended to simplify forms and painted in more saturated colors than had been used in traditional Cuban art. These artists also reinvigorated certain “Cuban” themes, like the island’s landscape, peasants and their traditions, and AfroCuban culture, with sympathy for the working poor and the marginalized.  For the first time in Cuban art, some of the artists of this generation painted images of social criticism.

The 1940s generation introduced bright coloration and elaborate forms, often labeled as neo-baroque. This approach to form, thought at the time to have a certain Cuban quality (compared to then Mexican or North American art), was used to represent everyday life with emphasis on the city of Havana.  The outstanding artists of that generation are Mario Carreño, René Portocarrero, Mariano Rodríguez, Cundo Bermúdez, Roberto Diago, Mirta Cerra, and Luis Martínez Pedro. To be sure, the art of Peláez and Lam reached their full force in the 1940s, after developing strong personal styles already in the 1930s.

A new generation of artists emerged in the 1950s, some continued to work with figuration and the most avant-garde turned to abstraction, influenced by such a tendency in global Modern Art at mid-century.  Among the better-known artists of the third-generation modernists are Agustín Cárdenas, Guido Llinás, Hugo Consuegra, Raúl Martínez, Tomás Oliva, Raúl Milián, Rafael Soriano, José María Mijares, Agustín Fernández, Loló Soldevilla, and Sandú Darie.  

In the 1960s, painting was challenged by film, photography, and posters, art forms with potential to reach the masses as desired by the revolutionary government. Three major painters emerged during that decade, Antonia Eiriz, Angel Acosta León and Servando Cabrera Moreno, while Martinez transformed his style from abstract expressionism to an adaptation of Pop Art.

The selection of essays in this website were written over a period of thirty years and represent part of my writings on Cuban Modern Art. I wrote them while working as a professor of art history at Florida International University. I thank the Department of Art and Art History and The Cuban Research Institute at FIU for their support with my research. The essays include  single chapters from two of my books, one on the first generation of Cuban modern artists and the other a monograph on Carlos Enríquez; book chapters from two publications of collected essays, one dedicated to social art and the other to Cuban culture; and various essays written for exhibition catalogues. I also included a recent testimonial on the practice of collecting Cuban Modern Art in Miami. It analyses the major role that Miami has played in the distribution, collection and preservation of Cuban Modern Art since the 1980s.


Cuban Art and National Identity

University Press of Florida

Chapter 3

The Vanguardia Generation and the Re-creation of a National Identity

As in the rest of Latin America, the Cuban vanguardia generation was more effective in carrying out its modernist and nationalist ideological program in the cultural-artistic arena than in the arena of politics. As cultural critic Nestor Garcia Canclini has explained, "We [in Latin America] have had an exuberant modernism and a deficient modernization."1 While artistic vanguards proliferated throughout Latin America in the 1920s and 1930s, literacy, democracy, and industry grew ever so slowly.

Beginning in the 1920s Cuban artists of all disciplines immersed themselves in the drive to re-create a cultural ethos out of diverse elements that included national-popular themes and imported modern forms and ideas. Writers, musicians, and painters were highly successful in creating works that reflected the traditions of the Cuban experience while also renewing them. They inherited and then reinvented a repertoire of Cuban images, narratives, and sounds to express a multifaceted, collective self-identity.

The quest to express cubanidad in the visual arts was concerned mostly with the thematic and the iconic. As critic Guy Perez Cisneros has recognized in his brief but perceptive discourse on the issue of nationalism in art: "We possess a vigorous art, truly Cuban because of its themes."2 The most prevalent of the themes borrowed by the vanguardia painters from popular culture, history and tradition, and the natural environment were the representation of the peasant, or guajiro, the countryside, and the Afrocuban tradition. The vanguardia artists' concentration on these themes provides the major point of contact between the ideology of the sociopolitical vanguard and its artistic expression.

The vanguardia painters' representation of a national identity also received a significant boost from contacts with modern European and, to a lesser extent, Mexican art. In postimpressionism, fauvism, expressionism, cubism, surrealism, and Mexican mural painting the vanguardia found the inspiration and the means to reinterpret Cuban reality. The mixture of native and imported elements in their art enabled the vanguardia artists to express a Cuban ethos without forsaking their claim to be part of the modern world.

Representation of the Cuban Peasant and the Countryside 

Cuban literature and art had been concerned with the interrelated subjects of the Cuban guajiro and the Cuban countryside since the mid-nineteenth century. This was due in part to the fact that Cuba was an underdeveloped country with a large rural population. But there were other reasons why the guajiro and the countryside became prominent symbols of the new cubanidad of the 1920s and 1930s. Both the sociopolitical and artistic vanguards associated peasants with exploitation, struggle, and survival. Peasants suffered more than any other group from the social injustice that the 1923-34 reform movement set out to rectify. As one of the clauses of the Grupo Minorista's 1927 declaration stated, its members were working for "the betterment of the Cuban farmer and worker."

The countryside was the source of much of traditional Cuban culture the legends, music, and cuisine that helped create a sense of national ethos. Moreover, Cuba's Wars of Independence were fought primarily in the countryside, and many peasants joined the ranks of the mambises, or independence fighters. More than any other sector of society, the peasants experienced the destruction of the war and its disappointing aftermath.

The guajiros lived in rural towns, on farms, and deep in the countryside and in the mountains. They were the descendants of Spanish settlers and African slaves. Their traditional dwelling was the bohio, a thatchedroof hut, and their traditional occupations were cultivating and harvesting sugarcane and tobacco and manufacturing sugar. They also planted vegetables and raised animals for consumption. Sombreros protected them from the tropical sun, machetes served as tools and weapons, and the most prosperous owned horses that functioned as beasts of burden and as the primary means of transportation other than walking. In the 1920s and 1930s the majority of guajiros were poor or even destitute.

Nineteenth-century lithographs of European traveler-reporter artists were the first depictions of the Cuban guajiro and the countryside. The rapid growth of the tobacco industry and international advertising of tobacco led in the 1840s to the growth of lithographic workshops that attracted many such artists and in general stimulated the development of graphic art in Cuba. In work done for the tobacco industry, mostly anonymous artists illustrated the bands, or marquillas, that were placed on Cuban cigar and cigarette packages to advertise their contents.3 Among the wide array of subjects depicted in the marquillas were the guajiros and the countryside (fig. 4).

The most vivid representations of the Cuban peasant and landscape in the marquillas were often produced by renowned traveler-reporter artists, who also made larger and finer prints for Europeans who were curious about the Americas. These lithographs provide the first visual documentations of daily life in Cuba, if often from a picturesque or exotic point of view. Among those who dealt with the countryside, the Spaniard Leonardo Baraiiano, about whom little is known, depicted minute, perfected, panoramic views of the Cuban landscape. The French painter and lithographer Eduard Laplante (1818-?) used a similar combination of realism and idealism to portray twenty-eight of Cuba's largest sugar mills in his series Los ingenios ( 1857).4 Laplante's finely crafted lithographs offer a selective vision that includes a recognizable view of each mill and keen depictions of the surrounding countryside but does not give a hint of the slave work that took place in and around the ingenios.

Another French painter and lithographer, Fredreric Miahle (1810-81), gave the most complete account of Cuban colonial life in two lithograph series entitled Isla de Cuba pintoresca (The Picturesque Island of Cuba, 1839-42) and Viaje pintoresco alrededor de la isla de Cuba (Picturesque Journey around the Island of Cuba, 1848).5 Miahle was among the first artists to construct a picturesque image of the guajiro, in his lithograph Zapateado (Tap-Dance, 1848, fig. 5 ). He not only portrayed the typical appearance of the male Cuban peasant with his sombrero, machete, scarf, and white shirt but also expressed his legendary inclination to music, dancing, courtship, and smoking cigars, or puros. His representation of the guajira on the other hand seems to have been mostly inspired by European Romantic sources. A similar encyclopedic, picturesque, and vigorous description of the guajiros and the countryside is seen in the prints and paintings of the Spaniard Victor Patricio Landaluze (1828-89).6

The traveler-reporter artists' pleasant visions of the Cuban peasant and landscape (whether picturesque or exotic) were the predecessors to the representations of the Cuban countryside by the vanguardia painters Victor Manuel, Eduardo Abela, Lorenzo Romero Arciaga, Antonio Gattorno (in some cases), and Amelia Pelaez (in a few instances). These artists portrayed rural folk as calm and simple people who led a dose-to-nature existence in an ahistorical environment. They ignored the privation of life in the countryside in favor of a transcendental view of the land and its people.

These idealized representations of the guajiro and the countryside were directly influenced by the trend in modern art known as primitivism. As defined by the cultural critic James Clifford, modernist primitivism is a problematic concept rooted in a period of European colonialism and consisting of a core of Western assumptions and myths about non-Western people and cultures in general.7 Among the major assumptions and myths about non-Western people are their closeness to nature, timeless and natural way of life, physical vitalism, and inclination toward magic and ritualism. Although painters such as Victor Manuel, Gattorno, and Abela had a more intimate relationship with their sources than Europeans, their interpretation of the guajiro, his environment, and his way of life as calm, sensual, natural, and timeless follows a strain of modernist primitivism particularly associated with the paintings of Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse.

The vanguardia painter who most consistently re-created a gentle and peaceful view of the Cuban countryside and it people wa Victor Manuel. In paintings such as Paisaje con figuras (Landscape with Figures, n.d., fig. 6) he sketched a few rural folks of Spanish and African descent leisurely passing time in a tranquil and colorful landscape of bohios, palm trees, royal poincianas, and a placid river. ln a style adapted from postimpressionist sources, particularly the modernist primitivism of Gauguin, he simplified the appearance of the Cuban rural environment to evoke stability and timelessness. Likewise he stylized his figures to typify an ideal of simplicity, passivity, and sensuality. Although Victor Manuel's landscapes offer a degree of naturalism, they primarily evoke a mythic and nostalgic vision of Cuba as a serene and uncomplicated tropical land of relaxed and sensuous people.

A similar vision is found in the paintings of Domingo Ravenet and Lorenzo Romero Arciaga. These artists, who were also involved in teaching and organizing art projects and exhibitions, depicted the Cuban peasant and the countryside in a primitivist vein. ln El jaguey (The Jagiiey Tree, 1938, fig. 7), Ravenet paid homage to this gigantic Cuban tree by showing it crowning the figure of a guajira carrying her child in front of a sturdy bohio. Like in the case of Victor Manuel, Ravenet used a highly simplified naturalism adapted from postimpressionist sources to express the "essence" of the Cuban countryside-a luscious vegetation and a rustic existence. Another relatively late but fine example of the primitivist approach to the representation of the Cuban peasant is Romero Arciaga's Taza de cafe (Cup of Coffee, ca. 1940, fig. 8), which depicts a model guajiro family in a scenic bohio. The figure of the music-playing husband is surrounded by objects and characters suggesting protection, love, beauty, and obligation: a print of Cuba's patron saint, caressing children, a still life of flowers, and the wife bringing coffee. The life of the Cuban peasant's family is presented as patriarchal, joyful, affectionate, and spiritual.

A more abstract and symbolic but equally arcadian representation of the peasant and the land is seen in the mid-1930 drawings of Amelia Pelaez.

At a time when she was dedicating most of her artistic efforts to creating figurative drawings in pencil, Pelaez took on the subject of the guajiro at rest and play. In La siesta (r936, fig. 9), she used characteristically firm and fluid lines and her understanding of cubism to evoke the figure of a guajira leisurely taking a siesta under a Cuban ceiba tree. This drawing not only depicts an event in the daily life of a Cuban peasant but also connotes relaxation, sensuality, and timelessness.

Pelaez's better-known still-life paintings of fruits and flowers offer a unique variation on the nation-as-the-guajiro-and-land theme. In works such as Naturaleza muerta en rojo (Still Life in Red, 1938, fig. 10), she used radiant colors and cubist abstraction to suggest a centered vase with fruits surrounded by elements of Cuban architectural decoration. The use of tropical fruits to symbolize Cuba as a land of abundance and sensual beauty is a restatement in painting of a nineteenth-century Cuban poetry conceit. Like the verses of Jose Fornaris, Francisco Pobeda, or El Cucalambe, Pelaez's still lifes allude to the land, if not to the guajiro, in their exaltation of its generous yield.

One of the most often-reproduced images of the Cuban peasant is Abela's Guajiros (1938, fig. n). In this painting Abela adapted the simplified realism of Diego Rivera's mature work to depict a group of peasants in their Sunday attire enjoying a sunny and leisurely day. Something of the male guajiro's way of life and character is implied in the details. The roosters in the painting allude to one of the guajiro 'main pastimes-cockfighting, while the peasant with a flower looking at the only female in the group suggests the legendary attraction of the guajiro to the opposite sex. Abela often painted the guajira as an unattainable object of male desire. In this and other Abela paintings the guajira is painted in the company of her male counterpart(s) but still somehow remains apart. ln this case her prominent Indian features suggest an often forgotten aspect of cubanidad-the PreColumbian heritage. Overall, the figures' monumental bodies, static poses, and serious facial expressions give them an air of dignity that had previously been reserved for religious figures and portraits of the upper class.

Contrasting with the above artworks, the literature and paintings of other members of the vanguardia projected a critical view of life in the countryside. Within the artistic production of the vanguard generation, prose led the way in the socially conscious exploration of the guajiro and the land theme. In his novels La conjura de la cienega (The Conspiracy of the Swamp, 1924), La pascua de la tierra (Earth's Christmas, 1928), and Marcos Antilla (1932), Luis Felipe Rodriguez pioneered a realistic description of the guajiros, analyzing their character and history and thei desperate economic and social situation.

In the first novel Rodriguez compared Cuban rural life, dominated by the all-mighty sugar industry, to a cienega, or swamp. In the introduction to the novel he offered the following definition of the novel's metaphoric title: "Swamp, puddle of mud and stagnant water that, like a sore in the native's body, has hatched an unfortunate conspiracy of evils unleashed in the Cuban sugar cane field."8

To Rodriguez the cienega symbolized the unstable and corrupt social, political, and economic situation of Cuba during the first twenty years of independence. Instability and corruption were most evident in the countryside, particularly around the mostly foreign-owned sugar mills. "The sugar mills reduced the land given to bananas, yuca, and sweet potatoes, and almost devoured the soil on which coffee and tobacco are planted .... Sugar cane became a lance that penetrated deep into the entrails of our island, to give us life and death. Now it is also hurting like a bloody thorn in the bosom of urban greed."9 Rodriguez's description of life in the countryside and his mention of urban Cuba offer a condemning view of Cuban politics, U.S influence in the country, and even creole psychology. One of the guajiro characters in the novel, Liborio Bartolo Morejon, is described as

the living symbol of the Cuban people ... mischievous, indifferent, skeptical, but at the same time naive and faithful, because for the sake of believing he has believed in the three J uanes [popular religious characters], in that the North Americans were going to protect him gratuitously, and in the miracles of that good Virgin, patroness of Hispano-America, that is named Creole Politics.10

To Rodriguez Liborio represents a psychological model not only of the Cuban peasant but of Cubans in general. Rodriguez's critical exploration of the guajiro and the dire social conditions in the countryside opened the way for Dora Alonso, Carlos Fernandez Cabrera, Raul Gonzalez de Cascorro, and Carlos Enriquez to develop this tendency in Cuban literature.

Vanguardia painter also projected a critical view of life in the countryside. Aristides Fernandez, Carlos Enriquez, Gattorno (to some extent), and Marcelo Pogolotti (when he touched on the subject) painted socially conscious rural scenes of the family, of work, and of national heroes.

Several peasant family portraits best exemplify the vanguardia generation's socially conscious view of life in the countryside. They are Fernandez's La familia se retrata (Family Portrait, ca. 1933), Gattorno's Quieres mas cafe, Don Nicolas? (Do You Want More Coffee, Don Nicolas? 1936), and Enriquez's Campesinos felices (Happy Peasants, 1938). These paintings follow the tradition of presenting the family as a metaphor for the nation. In contrast to the aristocratic or bourgeois families painted by academic artists, the paintings portray anonymous, ordinary, and in some cases poor people. They are also evidence of the democratization of the group portrait that occurred after the invention of photography. In fact, the families in these paintings seem to be posing for the camera.

The artists, however, did not interpret their subjects in a detached and detailed manner. In La familia se retrata (fig. 12), Fernandez used an actual family photo as the source for his expressionistic image of an all-female peasant family. The painting explores issues of gender, psychology, level of cultural attainment, and social status. The guajiras' blurred faces and stiff bodies and the bleak landscape surrounding them suggest crudeness and isolation. The painting departs from traditional group portraits by stressing the figures' lack of sophistication and their impoverished environment. In a keen analysis of this work sociologist Jorge Ibarra has concluded, "The final impression given by the painting is of the invalidity and inferiority of peasant women in relation to middle-class urban women. Pity, desolation, sadness, and helplessness are the emotional notes which this exceptional work by Aristides Fernandez strikes."12

In the 1930s Gattorno concentrated on the representation of the rural poor, but his view was kinder than that of Fernandez, fluctuating between subtle criticism of the peasants' social condition and homage toward their "natural" way of life. When he took the latter approach he was patterning himself after the tradition of modernist primitivism initiated by Gauguin in his South Pacific work.

In ¿Quieres mas cafe, Don Nicolas? (plate 5), Gattorno portrayed a Cuban peasant family in which the male members are shown as emaciated and dejected. In the words of the American novelist John Dos Passos, Gattorno's guajiros had "the look of poverty ... sadness, and isolation of a transplanted race."13 Yet the guajiros in this painting are presented enjoying a moment of leisure. They are shown in their bohio, which, although relatively bare, has a pleasant quality to it. The female figure who accompanies them stands out due to her enigmatic expression, her relatively fancy clothing, and the fact that she is shown smoking. Quieres mas cafe is one of the most progressive, if mythical, representations of a Cuban peasant woman dating from this period. The marked contrast between the thin, melancholic peasant male figures and their radiant environment and relaxed way of life suggests that guajiros are born into a bountiful land but that the social system alienates and impoverishes them.

The most critical image of the rural poor from this period is Enriquez's ironically titled Campesinos felices (fig. 13 ). In an expressionistic style reminiscent of that of George Grosz, Enrf quez portrayed a skeletal mother and her children, her emaciated husband, and their dilapidated bohio showing rather graphically the misery that afflicted the Cuban countryside during the depression of the 1930s. This pathetic image is an indictment on the time of the year between sugar harvests, known as the tiempo muerto, when many peasants were unemployed. The campaign poster on one of the posts includes the image of a fat pig in formal wear and the word vote. This detail comments bitterly on the corrupt state of creole politics in Cuba.

Collectively these prominent paintings of the 1930s present a bleak picture of the peasant family and by extension the Cuban nation. While women are given prominent roles in the family-nation, men are either absent, weak, or detached. Most troubling is the portrayal of children, representatives of the future. Fernandez's family is childless, Enriquez's children are undernourished and on the verge of death, and Gattorno's adolescent young man seems depressed.

This critical view of life in the countryside also produced strong images on the subject of work. Two outstanding examples are Fernandez’s Lavanderas (Washerwomen, 1933, plate 3), and Enriquez's Horno de carbon (Coal Oven, 1937, fig. 14). Fernandez's painting presents a group of laundresses framed by vegetation and dominated by the central figure of a strong, dark-skinned woman carrying a load of clothing. Through his handling of the figures' poses and gestures, the painter interprets this laborious task as a timeless and collective female ritual. One of the outstanding characteristics of Fernandez's paintings and drawings is the prominent and constructive role played by Cuban women as self-sustaining mothers and workers.

Enriquez's Horno de carbon, on the other hand, offers a hard, condemning look at one of the most difficult and hazardous types of rural employment. He visualized the hellish job of making coal from burned wood through a close-up representation of two malnourished peasants working in a desolated, smoldering landscape. With its large coal mound, total lack of vegetation, smoke rising from the ground, and narrow canal, the landscape is one of the most horrendous views ever painted of Cuba. It is the sole counterpart to the plethora of paradisiacal representations of nature found in Cuban poetry and painting since the nineteenth century. Enriquez's strong expressionistic interpretation of the harsh side of life in the countryside is unique in Cuban painting.

In representing the working class, the socially oriented tendency within the Cuban artistic vanguard at times connected the fate of the rural and the urban worker, as in Pogolotti's Paisaje cubano (Cuban Landscape, 1933, fig. 15). In a style adapted from the machine aesthetics of Fernand Leger, Pogolotti presents a concise visual narrative of the sugar industry, depicted in the context of Machado's repressive labor practices, unemployment, urban greed, and foreign domination. It is one of the few paintings of its time to deal directly with the issue of Cuba's colonial status vis-a-vis the United States. The social criticism it expresses echoes the declarations and manifestos of the various groups within the reform movement and complements the critique found in some Cuban literature.

Another vanguardia painter, Jorge Arche, dealt with the subject of the industrial worker in Trabajadores (Workers, 1936, fig. 16). This study for a large painting that was never finished depicts two downcast blue-collar workers carrying an injured colleague in front of a factory complex. Given the fact that many of the vanguardia painters sympathized with the political left and that there was major labor unrest in Cuba in the 1930s, it is surprising that the urban workers' plight did not receive widespread attention in vanguardia paintings.

The depiction of national heroes in the context of the countryside is an offshoot of the nation-as-the-guajiro-and-land theme. Two memorable examples are Arche's Jose Marti (1943, fig. 17) and Enriquez's Dos rios (Two Rivers, 1939). Arche was primarily a portrait painter who used a streamlined and precise representational style adapted from early Renaissance painting. With careful observation and refined idealism he depicted Marti half-length, upright, and immaculate, with one hand on his chest as if pledging his services to the motherland, which is represented in the background landscape. The iconlike quality of this painting has contributed to its popularity. Enriquez, on the other hand, created one of the most dramatic pictorial versions of Marti's death in Dos rios. The poet-soldier is shown on his horse, pistol still in hand, a moment after being struck by Spanish bullets. Mortally wounded, Marti is about to leave this world in the hands of two ghostly female presences. The artist's romanticized vision of death as two beautiful women is one that befits the author of the Versos sencillos. Enrfquez's style of transparent color forms and his imaginative composition did not aim for the usual journalistic depictions of one of the most tragic events in Cuban history; instead, he opted for mythologizing it. These and other representations of Marti by the vanguardia artists complemented the rediscovery of Marti by Maiiach and Marinello and helped canonize him as the apostle of Cuban independence.

The vanguardia generation's fascination with the heroic times of the Wars of Independence is well manifested not only in Enriquez's recurrent representations of Marti but also in his many paintings of mambises and bandits in action. One outstanding example is Rey de Los campos de Cuba (King of the Cuban Fields, 1935, fig. 18), which depicts a popular and legendary bandit named Manuel Garcia. The King of the Cuban Fields, as he was commonly known, roamed the Cuban countryside at the turn of the century stealing from the wealthy, confronting the Spanish rural guard (as he is about to do in this painting), and offering material help to the needy and to the revolutionary cause. Enriquez's painting (as well as his novel Tilin Garcia, 1939) reinforces the popular legend that presented Manuel Garcia as a criollo hero-a nationalist, a just man, and a fearless fighter for himself and for the guajiro underdog. The artist does not illustrate the subject as much as he personifies and comments on the legend. Enriquez identified with Manuel Garcia to the extent that he endowed him in the painting with his own facial features and restless personality, the latter suggested by the nervous outlines and overlapping of forms in the work. Enriquez chose to represent this unconventional hero as a memory or dream, indicated by the ghostlike appearance of the figure and particularly the horse. He fully evoked the mythic dimension that Manuel Garcfa had acquired in the national popular consciousness of the 1920s and 1930s.

Enrîquez liked to set his romancero guajiro, or "creole ballads," as he called his paintings of this time, in the Cuban countryside. His typical versions of the countryside (more typical than in Horno de carbon) consist of distant, green, rolling hills, windswept royal palm trees, and bright sunlight. Although emblematic in nature, Enriquez's landscapes are some of the first in Cuban painting to evoke the island's intense heat, humidity, and strong air currents.

In representing the guajiro and the countryside as symbols of the nation, the vanguardia painters created a synthetic vision of Cuba rooted in a mixture of native, traditional subject matter and adaptations of imported points of view. Focusing on the life and character of the peasant and the land, they developed two contrasting views of Cuba, one that was critical of the social order and another that idealizeed the people, their culture, and the natural environment. The idyllic vision of the guajiro and the land had a native forerunner in the lithographs of the European traveler-reporter artists and to a lesser extent in nineteenth-century Cuban academic landscape painting such as that of Esteban Chartrand and Valentin Sanz Carta. The critical vision, on the other hand, was relatively new. With the exception of the sharp but anti-Cuban rhetoric of Landaluze's political caricature, an art of social consciousness and criticism entered Cuban culture only upon the arrival of the vanguardia generation-with Blanco in the graphic arts and Fernandez and Enriquez in painting. The difference between the idyllic and the critical visions of Cuba denotes a gap between the high nationalistic ideals and expectations of the revolutionary movement of 1923-34 and the harsh political and economic realities of the time.

Representation of Afrocubans and Their Traditions 

The search for significant artistic themes and symbols to express a sense of national identity led writers and artists to explore another major ingredient of the Cuban ajiaco-Afrocubans and their traditions. The writers' and artists' choice of the Afrocuban as a Cuban symbol, like the peasant, was influenced by the vanguardia's increased identification of nationhood with the most humble and exploited sectors of society. In the 1920s and 1930s, as pointed out by Hugh Thomas in his well-documented history, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, there was an "increasing identification of the nation of Cuba ... with the people, the workers, the millworkers, the Negroes, Los humildes."14

In the eighteenth century the Spanish greatly expanded the sugar industry in Cuba and imported hundreds of thousands of African slaves to support it. Africans and their descendants made up the major part of the immense working force that enabled Cuba to become the world's largest sugar exporting country for much of the nineteenth century. Afrocubans played an important role as well in Cuba's drive for independence from Spain, as large numbers of them joined the liberation army. Just as important was the African influence in cultural matters. The slaves who came to Cuba from many parts of Africa contributed their religion, music, dance, language, and cuisine to the ajiaco of Cuban culture.15

African laves and their descendants in Cuba were able to maintain many of their traditions due to their organization into societies known as cabildos.16 In the eighteenth century the Spanish encouraged slaves of the same ethnic or geographical region of Africa to form such cabildos as a way of encouraging social stability. The cabildos gave slaves the opportunity to let off steam through ritual religious celebrations, mutual personal assistance, and community and racial cooperation. But the cabildos were also part of a divide-and-conquer strategy that the Spaniards and creoles used to control the large slave population. Still, the regular gatherings held at the cabildos made possible the perpetuation of African religions, music, dances, and languages in the new setting of Cuba.

Notwithstanding the strong African contribution to the Cuban economy and culture and to the independence movement, the socioeconomic situation of most Afrocubans in the 1920s and 1930s was dismal. The racial solidarity that Marti envisioned for the new republic was still only an ideal kept alive by the sociopolitical vanguard. On the cultural front, however, the integration of the Spanish and African worlds was beginning to coalesce. Many of the vanguard writers, musicians, and artists of the 1920s and 1930s focused their attention on the African heritage of Cuba. They introduced a nexus of Afrocuban themes into music, literature, and art, developing the style or point of view known as afrocubanismo.

Like in the case of the representations of the guajiro and the countryside, the vanguardia painters, and for that matter the writers and musicians of the same generation, were influenced by the concept of modernist primitivism. In the early twentieth century European artists and anthropologists took the lead in the exploration of African culture, encouraged by Europe's extensive colonization of Africa and the Parisian avant-garde taste for things African. Two important pioneers in this trend were Pablo Picasso and Leo Frobenius. Picasso's introduction of the abstractions of African masks in seminal paintings such as Women of Avignon (1907) shattered the traditional Western concept of beauty embodied in previous generations' idealized representations of the white female nude and initiated a period of negrophilie in Europe.17 Frobeniu 's pioneer anthropological work Black Decameron (19ro) also exalted African cultures in contrast to European civilization. "In the remotest corner of Africa," wrote Frobenius, "one might find men and women of lofty views, deep religion and an exalted poetic sense, whereas Europe with all of its achievements is not free from pettiness, envy and all the vices and distemper in Pandora's box."18 Modernist primitivism provided the Cuban vanguardia with the inspiration and the tools to interpret their own African roots. The Cuban vanguardia's representations of Afrocubans were particularly influenced by the tendency in modernist primitivism to view Africans as physically vigorous and inclined toward magic and ritual.

Although afrocubanismo received an important stimulus from modernist primitivism, it also had significant Cuban precursors. In the words of the poet Ramon Guirao, "The Negro fashion was not born in Cuba, as in Europe, without a tradition and removed from the human document."19 One of the earliest and most important mediators between the black and white worlds in Cuba was Ortiz. His pioneer works, discussed earlier, examined the Afrocubans' frequently repressed contributions to Cuban society through a study of their customs, religious practices, and language. His examination and revelation of the African component in Cuban culture encouraged the work of folklorist Lydia Cabrera and played an important role in the development of afrocubanismo in the 1920s and 1930s. Amadeo Roldan, a member of the Grupo Minorista, was the first music composer to incorporate elements of popular Afrocuban music into his work. One of Roldan's best-known compositions, La Rebambaramba (1928), is a ballet in two parts based on the street festivities held in nineteenth-century Havana to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem. The second part of the ballet concentrates on the Afrocubans' celebration of that Christian holiday in the Plaza de San Francisco, where the cabildos were allowed to parade dressed in their own costumes and dancing to drums.20 The ballet's music "gradually becomes more African," explains Alejo Carpentier in his book La musica en Cuba, "leading to the black world of the Epiphany street festivity."21 Another Cuban composer, Alejandro Garcia Caturla, incorporated Afro- cuban rhythms and instruments into orchestral music such as Bembe ( 1929) and La rumba (1933). Bembe was inspired by Afrocuban religious dances, and La rumba by "the spirit of the rumba, all of the rumbas ever heard in Cuba since the arrival of the first Blacks." 22

By the end of the 1920s a strong literary movement based on Afrocuban themes emerged in Havana in the poetry of Jose Z. Tallet, Ramon Guirao, Nicolas Guillen, Emilio Ballagas, Regino Pedroso, and Carpentier. Using a variety of sources, including Garda Lorca's poetry, Afrocuban music and language, and vernacular characters and scenes, these poets developed different expressions of afrocubanismo ranging from the depiction of blacks and mulattoes as musical, sensual, and spiritual people to cries of protest about their social condition.23 All set out to recognze the African element in cubanidad. As described by George R. Coulthard in Race and Color in Caribbean Literature, much of the early writing of these poets is characterized by "dynamic sensuality, a realistic carnality, and a purely rhythmical use of language" while it focuses on music, dance, ritual possession, and violent crimes.24 Action is often reduced to an instinctive animal level, and settings are of poverty. The following passage from Tallet's La rumba (1928), is typical of this direction in early Afrocuban poetry:

And the child Tomasa writhes
and there is a smell of jungle
and there is a smell of Negro sweat
and there is a smell of males
and there is a smell of females
and there is a smell of city tenements
and there is a smell of country barracks
and the two heads are two dry coconuts
on which somebody has written with lime
above, a diaeresis, below a dash
And the two bodies of the two Negroes
are two mirrors of sweat.25

These "primitive" Afrocuban writers were counterbalanced by writers that condemned the social and economic degredation of blacks and mulattoes in Cuban society. The most notable was Nicolas Guillen, whose three books Motivos de/ son (1930), Sangoro Consongo (1931), and West Indies, Ltd. (1934) present poems that integrate Afrocuban rhythms, Yoruba words, popular humor, and sociopolitical protest. In West Indies, Ltd., the critical voice predominates in poems such as "Sabas," which reads in part: "Take your bread, do not beg for it; I take your light, take your definite hope/ like a horse by the bridle."26 This critical voice is also found in the book's title poem: "West Indies! Coconut nuts, tobacco, and rum ... / This is a dark and smiling town, I conservative and liberal,/ of cattle and sugar,/ where at times lots of money flows, I but where living is always worst."27

One of the most important figures in the development of afrocubanismo was Carpentier, who explored Afrocuban themes in poems and in his early novel Ecue-Yamba-O (1933), in which he narrates the life of a "typical" Afrocuban named Menegildo, who tries to survive in a world pervaded with supernatural spirits, misery, and violence.28 The narrative focuses on Afrocuban religious practices, documenting in some detail the mythology, language, rituals, and music involved. The novel reflects Carpentier's serious interest and pioneer research into the subject of Afrocuban culture, which he promoted among his musician and artist friends, particularly the composers Roldan and Cartula and the painter Abela. He collaborated with Roldan on La rebambaramba, a ballet inspired by their visit to an Afrocuban religious ceremony in the town of Regla, across the harbor from Havana.29 He also wrote librettos on Afrocuban themes set to music by Cartula, and he was the catalyst for Abela's pioneer series of drawings and paintings on Afrocuban subjects dating from 1928-29.30

Although the term afrocubanismo is primarily associated with music and literature, a sizable body of paintings and drawings by the vanguardia artists explored the African element in Cuban culture. The painters' representations of Afrocubans and their traditions borrowed ideas and forms from European modern art (Picasso's primitivism for example), contemporary Cuban literature and music, and colonial Cuban art.

Afrocubans were first depicted in the visual arts in Cuba in the late eighteenth century. Figures of blacks drawn from life make early appearances in Elias Durnford's collection of prints, Six Views of the City, Harbour and Country of Havana ( 1765 ), and in Nicolas de la Escalera's painting, Familia de Casa Bayona (Family of Casa Bayona, 1760s), on the walls of the church of Santa Maria del Rosario. As summarized by de Juan in a pioneer study on the portrayal of blacks and mulattoes in colonial Cuban art, "In one case [ the former], he is a secondary character, one more fact in the picturesque vision sought out by the foreign graphic artist in Havana's Old Plaza; in the other, he is a slave, through whom the count of Casa Bayona claims his social high-ranking."31 These two views of Afrocubans, as curiosity and slave, set the tone for their portrayal in nineteenth-century art.

Miahle's prints of Afrocubans, like his prints on the guajiro theme, were a high point in nineteenth-century Cuban art. In both Isla de Cuba pintoresca and Viaje pintoresco alrededor de la isla de Cuba he recorded the presence and activities of blacks in Havana and in the island's interior. Still, he often used the figure of the Afrocuban to add a picturesque or exotic "Cuban" touch to a scene.

In the graphic art of colonial Cuba the most extensive representation of Afrocubans is found in the lithographic marquillas advertising Cuban cigars and cigarettes. In lively genre scenes, blacks and mulattoes were depicted in a derogatory and at times grotesque manner that reflected the dim and fearful view of Afrocubans held by most of the dominant white society (which in 1886 became one of the last in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery).32 Nevertheless, stereotypes about Afrocubans pioneered in the marquillas persisted in Cuban popular art well into the twentieth century. The vanguardia artists reconstructed some of the Afrocuban themes found in the marquillas-scenes of dance, music, and ritual (fig. 19) and the figure of the sensual mulatto woman (fig. 20)-to affirm the African contribution to Cuban culture.

In nineteenth-century Cuban painting the portrayal of a dignified black in Escalera's Familia de Casa Bayona turned out to be an isolated instance. Afrocubans do not appear consistently in Cuban painting until the end of the nineteenth century, with the work of another mulatto, the young woman Juana Borrero (1877-1896), and that of the Spaniard Landaluze. The former, who died prematurely, painted at least two intimate portraits of black and mulatto children, while the latter drew and painted the most complete representation of Afrocubans and their way of life in colonial Cuba.33 Landaluze's long stay on the island, from about 1850 to his death in 1889, and his keen sense of observation give his images of Afrocubans an authentic presence. On the other hand, his impassioned opposition to Cuban independence contributes to their ironic, critical (of Cubans) edge. In exquisitely executed oil paintings Landaluze recorded and often satirized Afrocubans of every shade and occupation, from slaves working in the sugarcane fields to flirtatious mulatto women in the streets of Havana. His depictions of Afrocuban religious ceremonies, such as his magnificent version of the Afrocuban celebration of the Epiphany in Havana, Dia de Los Reyes en La Habana (n.d., fig. 21), are valued, among other things, for their faithful recording of ceremonial dresses, musical instruments, and related paraphernalia. Landaluze's depiction of the peculiar Afrocuban celebration of the Epiphany, while a derivative of Miahle's, demonstrates a new integration of African and European elements as seen in the costumes and accessories of the participants as well as in the greater interaction between them and the white onlookers. In general, the portrayal of Afrocubans in nineteenth-century Cuban prints and paintings offers valuable documentation on the subject while expressing a scenic, extraneous, or disparaging view of blacks and mulattoes.

The vanguardia artists initiated a renewed interest in the representation of Afrocubans in Cuban art, adapting concepts and forms from modernist primitivism and themes from Cuban sources. They brought to the subject a new and positive view of Afrocubans and of their previously ignored contributions to Cuban culture. These painters moved beyond the merely topical, expanded the nucleus of Afrocuban themes, and, in some instances, introduced a critical view of their historical and social condition.

The vanguardia artists' treatment of the subject is first seen in the illustrations of Revista de Avance. Abela, Arciaga, Enriquez, Gattorno, and Jaime Valls portrayed Afrocubans as "noble savages" who lived close to nature, as musicians and dancers seemingly possessed, as menial workers scraping out a living, and as strong mothers caring for their children. In styles ranging from art deco (Gattorno and Valls) to expressionism (Abela and Enriquez), they re-created old picturesque or exotic forms, introduced new, yet often related primitive styles, and germinated socially conscious images of Afrocubans.

Two vanguardia artists who often criticized the depressed economic condition of Afrocubans in their work were Rafael Blanco and Alberto Pefia. In the drawing El cesto de papeles (Waste Paper Basket, n.d., fig. 22), Blanco, a painter and political cartoonist, used a realist-expressionist style to satirize the electoral process, emphasizing a large figure of a black janitor to signify the low status most Afrocubans could aspire to in the new republic. The economic plight of Afrocubans was also taken up by the black painter Pena, better known as Pefiita. In Sin trabajo (Unemployed, 1937, fig. 23 ), he lamented the unemployment most Afrocubans suffered in the depression era through the image of its hardest hit victim-a black woman set in front of a landscape of factories. In contrast to the depressed, passive stance of the black worker shown in Sin trabajo, other paintings by Pefiita, such as La llamada del ideal (The Calling of the Ideal, 1936), express an active appeal to workers, black and white, to carry on the revolution begun by Marti.

For the most part, however, the vanguardia artists concentrated on expressing the immense African musical and religious contributions to cubanidad. One of the first to deal with these subjects was Abela. During his Parisian stay he produced a series of expressive and nostalgic paintings on the subject of Afrocuban music, ceremonies, and legendary characters. One of the most renowned, El triunfo de la rumba (The Triumph of the Rumba, 1928, plate 1), suggests a carnival scene expressed through a mermaid costumed female dancer and musicians playing hand drums, or tumbadoras, on what seems to be a parade float. The work's brilliant colors, its motif of palm and banana leaves, and its view of the ocean places the action in Cuba or the Caribbean. To the extent that modern Cuban carnivals are the descendant of Afrocuban celebrations of Catholic religious feasts, such as in the case of the Epiphany, Abela's painting is the modern successor to Miahle's and Landaluze's Dia de las Reyes. More specifically, this painting is about the then-growing national and international popularity of the Cuban rumba, set in the popular context of the carnival. Abela evokes the music, its characteristic emphatic rhythm, through the figures' contorted poses. The strong emphasis on the formal element of rhythm to express one of the perceived essences of Afrocubans is something that Abela shared with contemporary Cuban poets and musicians such as Tallet and Roldan.

In a related painting from his Parisian period, El gallo mistico (The Mystic Rooster, ca. 1928, fig. 24), Abela represented a less diluted aspect of the African heritage-Afrocuban religious ceremonies. There are Cuban forerunners for his subject matter; Abela's contribution was recasting a traditional theme in an expressionistic rather than a realist style. He strongly visualizes a night ritual of energetic dance and sacrifice but without going into any kind of detail. His modernist style aimed to express the emotion or mood more than any particular event. This approach assumed an affirmative look at Afrocuban culture but one that did not abandon the element of exoticism.

The fact that these two paintings were made in Paris at the height of the "negro fashion" in that city accounts in part for the Afrocuban subject matter. Abela's view of Afrocubans as energetic and rhythmic and of Cuba as an exotic land given to wild festivities and rituals was influenced by long-standing French views about the Caribbean. This vision also has close affinities with modernist primitivism's representation of the African Other as vital and ritualistic. Abela's contact with the art of Jules Pascin and Marc Chagall also helped him to develop the formal and conceptual means for the interpretation of his native land. The former's watercolor impressions of Cuba, produced while traveling in the Caribbean in the 1910s, and the latter's nostalgic memories of his native Russia provided Abela with modern stylistic and iconographic models to adapt to his own needs.

Enrîquez's Tocadores (Music Players, 1935, fig. 25) shares with Abela's El triunfo de la rumba an emphasis on animated rhythm and dance to express one of the main African contributions to Cuban culture and people: "innate" musicality. Enriquez, however, went further than Abela in suggesting the swift movement of Afrocuban music and dance by using bold curves, thrusting diagonals, some distortion of forms, and selective blurring of outlines. Moreover, Enriquez's perceptive visual description of the musicians' ethnicity, and their characteristically Caribbean combination of musical instruments (voice, Spanish guitar, and bongo drums) place the work in a historical and geographical context. Inspired in Afrocuban musical combos of that time, such as that of Maria Teresa Vera and Isaac Oviedo and His Family, the painting celebrates Cuban popular music and gives it a new visual dimension. The hooded figure in the background alludes to the religious roots of much Afrocuban music.

Enriquez also took an early interest in the representation of Afrocuban religion and myth, as is demonstrated in his expressionistic and surreal Virgen del Cobre (Our Lady of El Cobre, ca. 1933, fig. 26). The general composition and subject matter of this painting are loosely based on a popular national legend about the early-seventeenth-century discovery by three fishermen of a wooden statue of Our Lady of Charity in the Bay of Nipe (Santiago de Cuba) during or after a storm. Because people believed that the statue had miraculous powers, a sanctuary was built for it in the nearby mining town of El Cobre, which in the following centuries became a major place of pilgrimage for Cubans. On September 8, 1936, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre officially became Cuba's patron saint. Straying from the traditional Catholic view, Enriquez represented her as the Yoruba deity Ochun, with whom Our Lady of El Cobre is syncretized in Santeria.34 This Afrocuban religion links Yoruban deities, known as orishas, to Catholic saints and powers. 35 Originally this syncretism allowed its Yoruban-Cuban practitioners outwardly to abide by the religious proprieties of the Catholics who surrounded them while covertly practicing a creative reorganization of their own traditional religion. Ochun is the goddess of rivers and beauty, a voluptuous and sensual woman who enjoys partying and dancing. Enrfquez emphasized the Ochun manifestation of Cuba's patron saint by referring to the deity in a shortened version of her Catholic name, painting her with strong negroid features, showing two Afrocuban devotees vigorously dancing in her honor, and including in the boat a large and mysterious African mask (or head). Furthermore, the painting's dramatic lightning sky may be an allusion to the Yoruba (Santeria) god Chango, the unpredictable orisha of thunder and lightning and the husband of Ochun. In all Enriquez's Virgen de/ Cobre offers a personal and striking visual interpretation of the finding of Cuba's patron saint (its cult statue), with emphasis on the Afrocuban contribution to this national figure and myth.

The expression of afrocubanismo seen in Enrfquez's paintings of the 1930s has a similar context to that of Abela. Its subject matter is influenced by Cuban traditional and contemporary sources from colonial prints to avant-garde poetry and popular music and folklore. On the other hand, Enriquez's contact with Spanish and French modern art and literature also encouraged him to look at Cuba's African heritage. His personal version of modernist primitivism was originally adapted from various sources, with surrealism at the top. Most important, the four paintings by Abela and Enriquez discussed above are the modern precursors of a long line of twentieth-century Cuban art inspired by Afrocuban dance, music, and religion.

In the 1940s, when afrocubanismo in literature and classical music was in decline and could no longer be considered a movement, modern Cuban painters continued their interest in expressing the African presence in Cuban life. Of the vanguardia painters, Enrfquez renewed his exploration of the subject and Wifredo Lam made his notable contribution to it. Enriquez's visit to Haiti in 1945 reactivated his interest in the Caribbean's African heritage and particularly its religious legacy. There he made numerous ink and watercolor representations of voodoo deities and religious objects. He also depicted secular scenes of the people and the countryside. The motif of Haitian-African ritual masks found it way into his paintings and the costumes he designed for the 1947 ballet Antes del Alba (Before Sunrise) by Alberto Alonso.

On returning to Cuba in 1941 after a twenty-year absence, Lam was struck by the luxurious landscape of the island and the persistence of his ancestors' African myths and religious practices.36 He immediately began to explore these aspects of Cuba's natural and cultural environment, producing in the next few years some of his most renowned paintings, such as La silla (The Chair, 1943, plate 8). In a new, personal style with a strong cubist influence he depicted a vase with foliage, on a chair placed outdoors in front of a dense landscape of sugarcane and leaves resembling tobacco. This large still life/landscape is painted in various greens and yellows, with a few red accents. Unusually for Lam, the pigment is applied in thick layers. The choice of color and texture adds to the sense of a rich, tropical environment. However, the image suggests more than just a "primitive" celebration of Cuba's "sensual" nature.

The vase with leaves placed on a chair and located in a thicket evokes an offering to a deity or nature spirit. In Afrocuban religion, orishas are closely associated with nature, where they live and reign over certain plants, minerals, areas, or phenomena. Cabrera, who was a friend of Lam at that time, explained in her seminal work El monte that, to Afrocubans, mantes or maniguas, thickets, like the jungles of Africa, were home to ancestral divinities and powerful spirits and therefore places of prayers and offerings.37 The chair motif is also significant in that Yorubas refer to altars as seats of the gods.38 In all the image of La silla strongly suggests an improvised altar with an offering to an orisha. However, its reference to Afrocuban culture is symbolic, in contrast to the mostly narrative approach of the rest of the vanguardia painters.

Lam's landscape backgrounds of this period, such as the one of La silla, also evoke economic-historical connotations in the insistent representation of sugarcane and tobacco leaves. More than any other factors, these crops have shaped Cuba's politics, economy, and culture. "Tobacco and sugar are the most important characters in the history of Cuba," wrote Ortiz in his most popular book, Contrapunteo cubano de/ tabaco y el azucar (1940).39 He went on to explain that from Cuba's "ethnic formation to its social makeup, its political vicissitudes, and international relations," all are intimately related to the different agricultural and industrial requirements for the production of sugar and tobacco.40 Sugar in particular played a preeminent role in the importation of large numbers of African slaves to produce it, and consequently it was also responsible for the tremendous effect blacks have had on Cuba's "ethnic formation to its social make-up." Ortiz's book may have opened Lam's eyes to the close historical relationship that existed between sugar, tobacco, and Afrocubans. In this context Lam's choice of these plants for his background landscapes of the early 194os not only refers to Cuba's vegetation par excellent, but also evokes in the case of sugar: the slave trade, hard work, unsteady employment due to its seasonal production, and a roller coaster economy based on fluctuating world markets. This interpretation does not exclude the earlier one that his landscapes of the early 1940s represented the sacred abode of the orishas. To African slaves and to many of their descendants in the Caribbean, the land they came to inhabit represented both labor camp and holy ground.

From the point of view of the vanguardia generation, La silla is a late manifestation of their interest in the artistic expression of the neglected African presence in the island. Its affinities, however, are with the work of Cabrera and Guillen rather than the more stereotypical treatment of Afrocubans still found in vanguardia painting. This may be explained by the fact Lam was an Afrocuban himself, being the offspring of a partly Congolese mother and a Chinese father. He knew the Afrocuban world, at least during his childhood, from within. Lam's more universal vision of Afrocubans is also explained by his direct contact with the expansive "modernist primitivism" of Picasso and Andre Breton, and by his encounter with the Negritude philosophy of the poet Aime Cesaire, whom he met in Martinique in 1941.

Toward a Multifaceted Cultural Identity

Taken in their totality, the works of art examined above indicate that the vanguardia's artistic and cultural expression of national identity was not monolithic or parochial. It included European, African, traditional, modern, native, and imported elements coexisting in different degrees of fusion and tension. The two most recurrent symbols of cubanidad seen in the art of this generation-the mostly "white" peasant and the Afrocuban-point to the primarily bipolar nature of Cuban society. Due to the lateness of independence, massive migrations from Spain in the early twentieth century, and the late entry of large numbers of slaves from Africa, Cuba was the most Spanish and at the same time the most African of Spain's former colonies. This paradox informs Cuban vanguard art. Some of it expresses the Spanish legacy, other the African ancestry, and a few examples the mixture of the two. In this light, the iconography of the paintings studied above suggests that the Cuban ajiaco was only beginning to simmer and the dominant Spanish and African ingredients were yet to blend.

Another major duality present in the vanguardia's artistic expression of national ethos is the quest for a synthesis of tradition and modernism, the native and the imported. In Cuban culture, the indigenous or Pre-Columbian element was very weak due to the early annihilation of the Indian population. That which could be considered native was a creole culture that began to take shape only in the nineteenth century. Thus Cuban traditions were young and still forming. On the other hand, Cuba's geography and history encouraged the importation of everything. Cuba's position at the center of one of the most frequented maritime routes in the Americas opened it to a constant flow of news, ideas, inventions, and products of all kinds. This openness to the outside world was further stimulated by extensive travel abroad. The Cuban vanguard, while strong backers of national sovereignty and the affirmation of native culture and traditions, embraced "the introduction and popularization in Cuba of the latest artistic and scientific doctrines, theories, and practices," as stated in the Grupo Minorista's 1927 Declaration. The nationalist and modernist projects were inseparable. In art this meant the importation and adaptation of European and Mexican modern art to eradicate the worn-out artistic practices as represented by the San Alejandro Academy of Art. It also implied a universalizing approach to Cuban themes and symbols, whereby, as stated by Marinello, artists learned to view the indigenous with the eyes of foreigners and to see the foreign with Cuban eyes.

The strong contribution of the vanguardia painters to the ongoing building of a Cuban national identity was to give concrete visual expression or symbolic form to their generation's concept of the nation-as-the-landpeople-and-culture. This contribution, however, is not a thing of the past. Today the paintings of the vanguardia are considered national icons and many of the ones discussed above are prominently displayed at the Museo Nacional in Havana. In part, the reason for their lasting relevance lies in the fact that their multifaceted vision of Cuba as semi-Spanish-Africantraditional-and-modern is still valid and part of the national debate on what constitutes a Cuban identity.

Chapter 3: The Vanguardia Generation and the Re-creation of a National Identity

1. Nestor Garcia Caclini, "La modernidad despues de la postmodernidad," in Moraes Belluzo, ed:, Modernidade, 206.

2. Perez Cisneros, "Pintura y escultura en 1943," 93.
3. For a critical study and excellent reproductions of a wide selection of marquillas, see Nunez Jimenez, Cuba en las marquilllas cigarreras del siglo XIX.
4. For basic biographical information on Laplante and examples of his litho­graphs on the Cuban sugar mills, see Pintura espaiiola y cubana y litografias y grabados cubanos del siglo XIX (exhibition catalogue).
5.  Ibid.
6.  Ibid.
7.  Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, chapter 9.
8.  Luis Felipe Rodriguez, Cienega (Havana: Editorial Arte y Literatura, 1975 ), 35.
9. Ibid., 36.
10.  Ibid., 58. The three "Juanes" is a generic reference to the three fishermen who, according to popular legend, found the cult image of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity, at sea. 
11. See Bueno, Medio siglo de literatura cubana and Lazo, Historia de la litera-tura cubana for informative analysis of these writers and their literature.
12.  Ibarra, Un analisis psicosocial del cubano: 1898-192.5, 189.
13.  Dos Passos, "The Poor Whites of Cuba," Esquire (May 1936).
14.  Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, 601.
15.  For information on African ethnic groups in Cuba, see Rafael L. Lopez Valdes, Componentes africanos en los etnos cubanos (Havana, 1985).


The Social and the Real

The Pennsylvania State University Press
Edited by 
Alejandro Anreus, Diana L. Linden,
and Jonathan Weinberg

Social and Political Commentary in Cuban Modernist Painting of the 1930s

In Havana, on 7 May 1927, Cuban art and progressive politics first joined forces, opening the way for a decade of close collaboration between art­ists and left-wing intellectuals. On that evening, the Primera Exposici6n de Arte Nuevo (First Exhibition of New Art), organized by the cultural magazine Revista de Avance, opened at the Association of Painters and Sculptors' salon, launching the modernist movement in Cuban art. Ear­lier that day, the members of the Grupo Minorista (Minority Group), then Cuba's intellectual vanguard, wrote and signed a political and cultural manifesto known as the Declaration of the Minority Group, made public in the exhibition.1 The advanced social program envisioned in the decla­ration and the painting in the exhibition of Arte Nuevo were supposed to complement each other as the conceptual and symbolic guideposts to both a better Cuban republic and a more autonomous Cuban art.

Another event on that fateful day in Havana signaled the challenge for Cuban progressive politics and art in the coming years. The headline news that morning announced the return of President Gerardo Machado from a "victorious"visit to the United States, during which he received the continued blessing of North American business and the State Depart­ment and millions of dollars in loans to prop up the Cuban economy. Emboldened by these and other developments, Machado suspended upcoming elections in 1928 and appointed himself president for a new six-year term. Together these events set the stage for a decade of political violence and social upheaval, strengthening the alliance of many mod­ernist artists with left-wing intellectuals and activists.

This essay aims to expand the discourse on a significant but little studied aspect of Cuban modernist art-the relationships between modernist painting, left-wing ideology, and Cuban politics in the 1930s. I am particularly interested in revisiting a significant selection of for­gotten murals and somewhat heller known easel paintings by Carlos Enriquez, Arîstides Fernandez, Antonio Gattorno, Alberto Peña (known as Peñita), and Marcelo Pogolotti, in exploring their original context and ideology, as well as their contribution to the intense cultural, social, and political debates in 1930s Cuba.2 These debates centered on issues of Cuban independence vis-a-vis the United States, solidarity with Latin America, social justice and equality, education for all, and renewed efforts to define a Cuban cultural identity.

Cuban Modernist Art and Leftist Ideologies  

The period from 1928 to 1940, from The second and self-appointed term of Machado to the inauguration of the second constitution, was a tumultuou decade in Cuban history. Near civil war, revolution, and nationalism marked the decade, including its cultural productions. The Cuban economy, closely tied to that of the United States, also underwent a depression beginning in 1929. The price of Cuba's two main crops-­sugar and tobacco-upon which the entire economy depended, suffered a sharp drop due to the worldwide depression and the United States'
(Cuba's dominant trading partner) legislation to protect its own markets. Unemployment soared and poverty was rampant, especially in the coun­tryside. The political situation, affected by the economic depression, was just as harsh. The 1930s began with Machado's dictatorship (1928-33) and violent opposition to it from left and right, followed by a brief revo­lutionary government, the result of an unlikely coalition of a mutinous army and radical university students (September 1933-January 1934), and ended with another dictatorship, that of General Fulgencio Batista (1934-39), who ruled behind puppet presidents for the rest of that decade.

During the 1930s Cuban artists were divided into two main groups: academicians and modernists. This essay is concerned with the mod­ernists, whose political views varied widely but tended toward the left. Modernism in Cuban art emerged in the late 1920s, the 1927 Primera Exposici6n de Arte Nuevo representing an important point of departure, and reached its first mature stage during the 1930s. This seminal mod­ernist movement in Cuban art, today generally known as la vanguardia (the vanguard), or Grupo Moderno (Modern Group) was made up of a loose group of artists born at the turn of the century, about the time Cuba became a republic (1902). Most of them studied at Cuba's official art school, known as the Academy of San Alejandro (founded in 1818), and the majority finished their artistic education in Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The artists I am concerned with in this group were sympathetic to left-wing ideologies and produced in different degrees a social and politically oriented art.

By those on "the left" I mean members of leftist organizations, from the radical Left Wing Student Organization to the more conservative Cuban Communist Party, as well as those, the majority of the artists, who had socialist or anarchist leanings but were not affiliated with any political party. As varied as the vanguardia painters were in social class, political views, and artistic affinities, a fairly cohesive "generational" social and political ideology took shape in the 1930s. This ideology can be roughly defined by collective statements that political activists wrote but that the artists also signed. In a few instances we also have the statements of individual artists. Of the collective statements, the most important are the 1927 Declaracion del Grupo Minorista and the 1935 manifesto of the Union de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios de Cuba (Union of Revolutionary Writers and Artists of Cuba, or UEARc).

For the revision of false and tired values
For vernacular art and, in general, for new art in its diverse manifestations
For the introduction and popularization in Cuba of the latest artistic and scientific doctrines, theories, and practices
For reform in the public education system ... and autonomy for universities
For the economic independence of Cuba and against Yankee imperialism
Against political dictatorship in the world, America, and Cuba

Against the excesses of [Cuba's] pseudodemocracy, the falsity of
[Cuba's] suffrage, and for the effective participation of the people in government
For the betterment of the Cuban farmer and worker
for Latin America cordiality and union.'

Although only two of the vanguardia painters, Eduardo Abela and Anto­nio Gattorno, signed the declaration, much of the politically oriented Cuban art of the following year -from illustrations in Revista de Avance to easel and mural paintings-was motivated by the issues proclaimed in the manifesto. The Cuban modernist painters were in favor of "the latest artistic ... doctrines, theories, and practices" and "vernacular art." The former meant nonacademic and nonnaturalistic art, from Post-Impressionism to Surrealism. The latter was evident in the self-conscious nationalism of their subject matter. And these artists were also against "Yankee imperialism" and "political dictatorship," and for the better- ment of Cuban farmers and workers. Cuban social and political art of the 1930s addressed diverse issues that often blurred the lines between the cultural and the political.

The UEARC was a short-lived organization of writers and artists that published its own manifesto in the newspaper La Palabra on 3 Febru­ary 1935. This newspaper and its editor, Juan Marinello, were associated with the Cuban Communist Party and the manifesto was published a few months before the major labor strike of May 1935, which signaled the end of the most revolutionary tendencies within the reform move­ment that had begun in 1923. If the Declaraci6n de! Grupo Minorista announced the revolutionary tendencies within vanguardismo, the UEARC manifesto was its last hurrah. A more populist and radical document than the minorista declaration, it was dedicated to Ruben Martinez Vil­lena, the recently deceased founder of the Grupo Minorista, who led the Communist Party at the time of his death. This manifesto read in part:

1. [We will] work to create a national art in its tone and accent, yet also universal and human, in tune with current cultural developments.
2.  An art of these characteristics must forcefully unite with the aspirations of our popular masses, eternal repositories of nalional and human values.
3.  [Create] a true, large-scale, and revolutionary art.
4. All work that expresses "that which is Cuban" has to carry the anguish throbbing in our people for a better world.
5. For Afro-Cuban art to have significance in Cuba it must rest on the social equality and dignity of the man of color and the end of his unjust oppression. 5

In strong language, in which the imperative "must" dominates, the UEARC document called for an art of strong social content and context, privileging the popular voice and the underdog in the symbolization of the nation. In contrast with the 1927 de laration, there was no emphasis on "the new" or "the latest" per se, yet the commitment to "current cultural developments" was clear. The reference to a "vernacular art" in the earlier document was supplemented in the 1935 manifesto by a more pecific and radical call for an art based on the aspirations of the popular masse . Surprisingly, the reference to "Yankee imperialism" in the 1927 document is conspicuously absent in the 1935, maybe because the hated interventionist Platt Amendment had been abrogated the year before.1' The emphasis on Afro Cubans rather than the generic peasant and worker may be a measure of the growing cultural and social space blacks were opening for themselves in Cuba. Finally, the call for a "true, large cale, and revolutionary art" probably referred to the example of Mexican muralism. The manifesto was signed by a relatively large group of vanguardia painter : Jorge Arche, Enriquez, Gatlorno, Amelia Pelaez, Penita, Domingo Ravenet, and Lorenzo Romero Arciaga. But not all of the signatories social activities and art supported the platform of the manifesto. Pelaez did not produce art of social commentary, much less political protest. Arche, Gattorno, Ravenel, and Romero-Arciaga ventured only lightly into social commentary in their art. Only Peñita and some of the work of Enriquez parallel the tone of the UEARC manifesto.

Toward a Public Art

The most public, socially oriented, and revolutionary art of Cuba in the 1930s took the form of murals, some of which never got past the concep tual stage, while others were later destroyed." From 1928 to 1937 group of modernist artists approached public institutions and state and munici­pal organization in Havana with plan for mural projects, most of which were ignored or abandoned.

The Mexican mural movement inspired Cuban muralism in the 1930s. Indeed, Cuba's strong cultural connections with Mexico go back to the Spanish Conquest. Spain's first three colonizing expeditions to Mexico ( 1517, 1518, and 1519) were launched from Cuba, and through­out the colonial period Havana was the port of call for all Spanish hips returning from Mexico. After Mexico declared its independence from Spain, many Cubans involved in their own liberation effort took tem­porary refuge in Mexico. By the early twentieth century, travel, trade, and cultural contact between Mexico City and Havana were extensive. In the realm of the visual arts, the Mexican muralist movement was well known and respected among arlisb and intellectuals. Two of the magazines associated with the Cuban vanguardia, Social and Revista de Avance, regularly published articles on contemporary Mexican art and cultures. These magazines helped to introduce the main figures of the mural isl movement, principally Diego Rivera, to Cuban audiences. Mexican publications such as El Machete, the official newspaper of Mexico's Artists' Union and, after 1924, of the Mexican Communist Party, also reached I Iavana. In addition, Cuban and Mexican artists traveled back and forth between the two countries. Emilio Amero and Carlos Merida, then a ·sislants of Rivera, visited Havana, where they exhibited their work, in the 1920s. In the following decade, such Cuban artists as Peiiita, Mariano Rodriguez, Cundo Bermudez, and Mario Carreno visited Mexico for the expres purpose of establishing direct contact with the Mexican muralists.

At its most concrete, the contact between the Cuban and the Mexican avant gardes in the 1920s and 1930s led many Cuban artists to advocate a socially oriented public art, preferably in fre co. In their repeated allempts to learn the fresco technique and to paint murals in public buildings, they were indebted to the Mexican example. To the extent that mural ism is an unhappy chapter of the story of Cuban art of the 1930s, however, the Mexican innuence remained, contrary lo expectations, limited in scope; for even vanguardia painters commit­ted to making social and political art were highly sensitive to their own national, historical, and ociopolitical circumstances, which were quite different from those of Mexico.

As one of the first modernist mural painters, Antonio Galtorno is a good case study for both the accomplishments and the limitation of muralism in Havana of the late 1920s and early 1930s. A 1921 gradu-ate of the San Alejandro Academy, Gattorno spent the next several years studying painting in Italy and France. Nol a follower of the latest trends, he gravitated in Italy lo the art of the Quattrocento and in Paris to that of Paul Gauguin. From these model he developed his own primitivist vision of rural Cuba. Upon his return to Havana in 1927 he became active in such leftist groups as the Grupo Minorista, the UEARC, and the avant garde publication Revisla de Avance ( 1927-30). Galtorno's admira lion for fifteenth-century Italian art and contemporary Mexican mural painting made him favor muralism al that moment in his career. "Painting," he wrote, "was born to decorate the most important spaces of a building, not lo fill the corners of a room." 10

Antonio Gattorno, “Decorative Panel” for the Pedagogical
School of the University of Havana, c 1929 (media dimensions,
and whereabouts unknown)

The University of Havana awarded one of the few public mural com­missions of the 1920s to Gattorno, for a "decorative panel" to be placed in its Pedagogical School. The painting represented a mother/teacher figure crowned by a laurel of banana tree leaves, reading informally to her students/children, as a farmer-father figure rides slowly by, all in the midst of a friendly and intimate landscape. Beneath the painting is written in bold letters Jose Marti's oft-quoted line on the value of educa­tion: "Trenches of ideas are worth more than trenches of stones," a fitting caption to Gattomo's idealized image of rural literacy (fig. 1 ). From the point of view of critical social commentary, Gattorno's mural is problem­atic in that it masks the fact of widespread rural illiteracy aJ that time. Rather than express the need for the "betterment of the Cuban farmer and worker" stated in the minoristas' declaration of the same year, which Gattorno signed, his painting suggests that all is well in the Cuban coun­tryside. Gattorno's socialist views and his primitivist style were clearly at odds. He sympathized with the plight of the guajiro, or peasant, but rep­resented him as living an Arcadian existence.

Gatlorno was a muralist in the sense of the scale, placement, and function of paintings such as the one discussed above, but his style remained an extension of his easel paintings, and in fact all of his recorded murals are oil on canvas. Thus far, there is no indication that he ever painted a fresco. The fact is that Cuba's official art school, San Ale­jandro, did not teach fresco painting, and there was no tradition in Cuba of the use of such a technique. Cuban mural paintings, from Nicolas de la Escalera in the eighteenth century to Armando Menocal in the 1920s, were all done on canvas and hung on walls or ceilings.

Some modernist artists sought again to initiate mural projects for public buildings in the immediate aftermath of Machado's over­ throw in August 1933. A group of eight artists and one cultural activist approached the government of Grau-Guiteras and proposed to "to paint the walls of public buildings with the atrocities of the Machado regime and the heroism of our people, the students, and other revolutionary sectors," an honor for which they would not "charge one cent."11 The sig­natories to this request were Eduardo Abela, Jose Manuel Acosta, Jorge Arche, Romero Arciaga, Gabriel Castano, Aristides Fernandez, Jorge Fernandez de Castro, Antonio Gattomo, and Jorge Hernandez Cardenas. 12 Officials never responded to the petition, probably because the Grau-Gui­teras coalition had their hands full with revolutionizing Cuban politics and the economy in their brief hundred days in office. Nevertheless, one mural project and one mural dating to that propitious time are worth studying for the light they shed on Cuban muralism of the 1930s.

Gattorno and Castano collaborated with the Cuban Communist Party to paint a mural for Julio Antonio Mella's funeral, a politically charged event that took place in Havana on 28 September 1933, at the headquarters of the Anti-Imperialist League. 13 Mella was one of the most radical figures of the Cuban vanguardia generation, a leader of the university reform movement and one of the founders of the Cuban Com­munist Party. Imprisoned and then deported by Machado in 1926, Mella took refuge in Mexico, where he kept active as a writer and communist organizer until his assassination on 10 January 1929. 14 Soon after Mach­ado's downfall, Mella's ashes were returned to Cuba for proper burial. A somewhat faded photo, the only record of the event and of Gattorno and Castano's lost mural, shows an urn flanked by an honor guard and behind it a high wall covered by a large painting (fig. 2). The mural fea­tures a large portrait of Mella's head in the center, flanked by students on one side and workers on the other, both shown with raised arms and closed fists. On stylistic grounds we may conclude that Gattorno painted the Mella portrait and Castano the lateral scenes. The artist based Mella's portrait on the mural on Tina Modotti's much-reproduced 1928 photo­graph of him. 15 Modotti, Mella's lover and companion at the time of his assassination, portrayed him as handsome, athletic, and intense. Her photograph shows an alert Mella, head in sharp profile, a solid neck, and a broad upper torso clothed in a worker's shirt. Gattorno amplified and simplified the image, turning it into a bold representation of a visionary leader. Most probably the context of the project and its patrons contrib­uted to its unique qualities: the collaboration of two artists in the same painting, its specific communist subject, and its graphic visual language.

Antonio Gattorno and Gabriel Castaño mural for Julio Antonio Mella (1933)
(media and dimensions unknown; destroyed)

Like the revolution that inspired them, never realized, the mural projects of Aristides Fernandez, known only through preparatory sketches, are worth examining as an indication of the Cuban vanguar­dia's frustrations and muralism's potential in the early 1930s. Fernandez was a self-taught painter and writer of short stories who died at age thirty-four. He wrote most of his short stories between 1930 and 1933, and his artistic production dates to the last year of his iife. He spent part of that time trying in vain to learn the fresco technique and making bold sketches for planned murals. He seems to have been deeply moved by the revolution of 1933-34 and, with the help of the Mexican mural movement, tried to give artistic expres ion to that significant event. His friend and promoter, the poet and novelist rose Lezama Lima, wrote of Fernandez at this moment in his life: "[He] scratched the walls ... looking for the possibilities of our muralism, as the masses were jumping around the city. When the romantic struggle against the tyrant ended in August 1933, Aristides Fernandez believed that this political rift should have propelled its artistic parallel."16

Aristides Fernandez, Manifestac1on con abanderado (Demonstrat,ons) (1933). ink and watercolor on paper, 472 x 366 mm. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana Cuba.

A major stumbling block for those who wanted to follow the Mexi­can fresco model was the technique itself, which was difficult to learn. We have a poignant record of this difficulty in a letter from Fernandez to Diego Rivera, which reads in part, "I have attempted several times to make fresco painting and I have failed miserably; the technical part has detained me." After describing everal failed attempt to master the method, he wrote, "I went lo bookstore and libraries searching for a manual that would clear my doubt and found none. In all of Havana there is not a booklet on mural [fresco] painting!"17 Although Fernandez never learned how to paint frescos and his mural projects remained at the conceptual stage, his mural ketche are worth examining for their sense of monumental form (to the extent thal this can be judged from a sketch), and strong sociopolitical content. ln the summer and fall of 1933 he developed the theme of the massive demonstrations against Machado, in which he had participated and for which he did ketches in pencil and crayola entitled Manifestaciones (Demon trations) (fig. 3). Although no more than a few quare inches, the images project a sense of monumentality contrary Lo their actual size. Fernandez's implifica­tion of form, creation of a strong sense of depth, and concentration on a few motifs are ideal pictorial qualities for large-scale painting with a social message.

As one of the few artists of his generation who did not travel abroad, Fernandez made the most of his second-hand (photographic) knowl­edge of the paintings of Gauguin, Cezanne, Rivera, and (perhaps) Giotto. He shared with these arti ts an altraclion to pared-down form, strong, solid colors, and highly structured compositions. In regard lo con lent, the Manifestaciones sketches are about documenting and expressing the "heroism of our people" as they took Lo the streets in massive demon­strations against the Machado regime. In a more universal sense, they are about the modern phenomenon of marginalized mas es in an urban setting. As Enrique Carreno put it in his study of Fernandez's writing , "the author presents man as the masses, victim of social marginaliza­tion."18 Fernandez manifests this sense of the urban masses through the representation of anonymous figures and their decisive, desperate, and collective action.

After repeated attempts, beginning in 1928, a group of the van­guardia painters were finally given the opportunity to paint a series of murals in a public building in 1937. "On the initiative of Jose Luciano Franco and with the support of the mayor of Havana," read a note in the magazine Selecta, "a group of Cuban artists, members of the Society of Modern Artists, has filled with mural paintings the classrooms, dormito­ries, and salons of the secondary school Jose Miguel G6mez."19 This time the roster of artists included the most important names of the Cuban vanguardia: Carlos Enrfquez, Victor Manuel, Amelia Pelaez, and Fidelio Ponce. Absent were Aristides Fernandez, who had died in 1934, Anto­nio Gattorno, who left for New York around 19361 and Marcelo Pogolotti, who did not return from Paris until 1939.

By 1937 the modern isl movement had gained momentum in Havana, supported by a middle clas profe ional elite and by the Di rec ci6n de Cultura (Directory of Culture), a low budget agency of the Ministry of Education, recently created lo promote the arts. The edu cated elite-lawyers, doctors, architects, journalists, literary writers and poets provided venues for exhibition (such as the nonprofit women's organization, Lyceum), wrote for newspapers and magazines champion ing the modernist movement, and acquired artwork. al moderate price . The state, during the brief tenure of President Grau San Martin (Sep tember 1933-January 1934) and his revolutionary administration, began responding to long-standing demands by artists of all di ciplines who wanted o[ficial attention to and funding of the arts as part ol nation building. This renewed efforl oullasled the hundred day revolutionary government and led to the creation of the Direcci6n de Cultura a year later, and lo its sponsorship of the National Exhibitions of Painting and Sculpture. The modernist artists mentioned above figured prominently in the firsl and second of these exhibitions, held in 1935 and 1938. The modernist movement was also the subject of a major exhibition, with an ambitious catalog, organized by the office of the mayor of I lavana in 1937 and entitled the First Exhibition of Modern Art. That year leading modernist artists organized, after many failed attempts, a free art studio. During ils brief existence, the Studio Libre represented the first alter native to the monopoly of the Academy of San Alejandro in mallers of art education. With minimal state, municipal, and private support, the modernist movement in art had arrived in llavana's high culture by the micl-193os.

It is in this context that a group of modernist artists was commi sioned by the office of the mayor to do a mural project in a grand new public chool named for a veteran of the War of Independence and later president of Cuba, General Jose Miguel Gomez. The project had no over­arching concept or theme, each artist selecting his or her own subject matter, technique, and dimensions. In personal styles that in theme and size were lose to their easel paintings, these artists dealt with various subjects-school, work, recreation, and history.20 Pei'iita's and Enrfquez's murals offered the strongest social commentary. Peiiila, an Afro Cuban from a working-class family, studied design at the School of Arts and Tracie in Havana and worked as a graphic design r for the municipal government. llis paintings represent lhe arti tic vanguardia al its closest to realism. Peiiita's arlislic production, limited in part because he died al age thirty-eight, included protest paint­ings aboul class, racial struggle, and the plight of the worker. Inspired by Mexican models, he developed a simplified naturalism to represent and agitate on behalf of rural and urban workers in Cuba. For his fresco at the Jose Miguel Gomez School, entitled La llamacla def ideal (The call of the ideal, 1937), he used a dry fresco technique with a synthetic resin base recommended by David Alfaro Siqueiros.11 The image (for the easel version, see fig. 4) center on a representation of Marti's head, providing the ideological framework for the struggling figures represented in the foreground. The poet, prolific journalist, and prime ideologist of the War of Independence of 1895 98 i shown a a collective and inspiring vision to Cuban workers men and women, black and white, urbanites and peasant -urging them to fight for their rights. The concept· of Cuban sovereignty and social justice for all, two major themes of Marti's political thought, were at the forefront of the vanguardia's political agenda, giving a nationalist slant to its leftist ideology. Like Gattorno and Castaño's Mella mural, Penita' composition is centered on a large, rhetorical, and inspiring portrait of a nationalist leader.

In contrasting to Penita's social realist approach, Carlos Enriquez's mural offers a complex visual language and subtle, if defiant, sosial con­tent. Well born bohemian, painter, and writer, Enriquez is one of the most original pioneers of Cuban modernism. His foray into socially criti­cal art began in the late 1920s with biting illustrations for Revista de Avance,22 followed in the mid-to-late 1930s by a few easel paintings of dramatic expresionism. The bulk of hi painting production from 1935 to 1940 con isted of a highly personal adaptation of modern European schools of art, from Expressionism to Cubism, and concept uch a prim itivism, which he used to depict the Cuban countryside. He called these productions, which included a strong dose of social criticism, romancero guajiro, or pea ant ballads. Enriquez's political ideology is complex, a combination of bohemian anarchism and independent left-wing views.

The bohemian side of his politics was defined by the artist himself in a 1936 article he wrote for the new paper El Pais, entitled "El arte puro como propaganda ha fracasado plenamente" (Art as pure propaganda has redundantly failed).21 "It is difficult to adju t art to a political mold," he wrote, "stereotyping a melodramatic theme until it become a poster, nullifying in this way art's creative purity and con tructive anarchism, the essence of all artistic work."14 Enriquez considered the emphais on illustrative content detrimental to art and, by implication, to whatever restricted artistic freedom, which he conflated with anarchism. For him it was the artist' life and attitude that held the potential for the creation of revolutionary art: "The artist must go through life perver e, destruc­tor and creator at the same time, as a harmful entity, without du tic or obligations, without tradition and prejudice (as far as art i concerned), and thus produce true revolutionary work."25 Po tu ring aside, Enriquez associated with the Cuban left throughout his adult life and was close to Pogolotti, Martinez Villena, Marinello, Nicolas Guillen, and Agustin Guerra, among others. He also executed a number of paintings in the 1930s with strong social and political content. Enriquez combined a bohemian attitude toward Iife and art with leftist political views, a com­bination for which there is ample precedent in the history of modern art.

Alberto Peria El Llamado de/ Ideal (The Call of the Ideal) (1936), oil on canvas, 95 x 82 5 cm. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, Cuba.

Carlos Enriquez La Invasion (The Invasion) (1937)
(fresco dimensions unknown; destroyed)

Enriquez, like Gattorno and Fernandez, had a strong interest in mural painting. Unlike them, he did learn the technique of fresco and used it in a number of mural paintings he did in Havana from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. His most ambitious was the fresco for the Jose Miguel Gomez School, entitled La Invasion (1937), which, accord­ing to a surviving photograph (fig. 5), measured forty feet and covered the long side of a rectangular dormitory.26 The destroyed fresco showed Enrfquez's mature expressionistic language of dynamic, exaggerated, and transparent representational forms, used to imagine and memorize a scene from the most significant campaign of the 1895-98 War of Inde­pendence. In a sweeping movement from left to right, the mambises, or independence fighters, are represented on horseback, machetes in hand, combating the Spanish forces, which are shown for the most part as entrenched riflemen at the bottom right of the painting. The crowded composition, with its forceful curving and diagonal lines, strongly expresses the subject of battle.

Although Enrfquez hardly dealt with historical subjects, he did a few very subjective paintings of figures and events from Cuba's Warof Independence, the most significant of which are El Rey de Los Cam­pos de Cuba (The king of the Cuban fields, 1934), Dos Rios (Two rivers, 1939), and the mural in question. In the two easel paintings Enriquez concentrated on well-known, if very different, heroes of that war-Man­uel Garcia and Jose Martf-with emphasis on the romantic notion of individual courage and action in the context of nationalism. La Invasion differs in that the nationalist cult of the hero is given a more collective slant. Its composition does not exalt the figure of a known leader but represents a group of evenly spaced anonymous fighters. On the social and political level, the significance of the painting's content is related
to Enriquez's, and his generation's, view of the War of [ndependence as a defining moment in Cuban history-and also as an incomplete proj­ect, given Cuba's neocolonial relationship with the United States after independence from Spain. In the context of Cuban history and the art­ist's leftist ideology, La Invasion can be read as an inspirational painting aimed at keeping the flame of Cuban sovereignty alive, after the debacle of the revolution of 1933 and the island's deepening economic and politi­cal dependence on the United States. All of the murals at the Jose Miguel Gomez School were later painted over because school officials consid­ered their artistic form and social message subversive. More recently, all of these paintings, but Enr{quez's, have been restored.27

Among the vanguardia movement's contribution to Cuban art in the 1930s was its push for socially conscious public art, which was more or less achieved through murals. Vanguardia painters added the technique of fresco to the limited repertoire of painting techniques then practiced in Cuba and made a significant contribution to the development of pub­licly oriented art on a large scale. Owing to the lack of a strong muralist tradition in Cuba and to the absence of state support, mural painting in the 1930s was caught between promise and reality. Its production, the­matic diversity, and social projection were limited but seminal.

Easel Painting, Social Commentary, and Protest

What the Cuban vanguardia could not fully accomplish in the field of mural painting it achieved in the more affordable medium of easel painting. Oriented more to elite consumption and with a long bour­geois history, easel painting is not the ideal medium for the creation of an" authentic, large-scale, and revolutionary art," as the UEARC manifesto put it, yet it served the Cuban vanguardia as the main vehicle for an art of social commentary and, at times, political protest. These easel paintings offer a more revealing sample of the vanguardia painters' range of artistic languages and socially oriented subject matter, as well as of their "true" audience-an elite within the Cuban middle class who befriended the artists, bought modestly from them, and organized exhibitions of their work with the help of the Lyceum (founded in 1929) and the Direc­cion de Cultura.

To the extent that those exhibitions can be reconstructed from cata­logs and extant paintings in private and public collections, we know that there were a variety of artistic languages, more or less "revolutionary" in the context of Cuban art, and confluences in terms of subject matter. The same holds true for the more specifically socially oriented art within Cuban modernism. There are great distances between the gentle primitivism of Gattorno, the more crude primitivism of Fernandez, the social realism of Pefiita, the expressionism of Enriquez's paintings, and the purism of Marcelo Pogolotti, yet there are close affinities in their sociopolitical discourse. Certain popular and historical figures became dominant themes in imagining the nation at its most "authentic." The leading popular figures represented in modernist painting were the peasant, the Afro-Cuban, and the industrial worker, and the most often rendered historical character was Martî. The equation of the oppressed with the nation was one part of the leftist ideology of the 1930s in which these artists shared fully.28 Such a view of the nation was appropriated locally from Martî and internationally from European socialism and communism.

The plight of the peasant was a major theme in socially oriented Cuban art of the 1930s in that peasants made up the more numerous and exploited sector of the working class and at the same time symbolized the "authentically" Cuban because of their closeness to the land. Some of the most significant social paintings of the decade-in which women and the family are well represented-address this theme: Fernandez's Lafamilia se retrata (Family portrait, c. 1933), Pogolotti's Obreros y campesinos (Workers and peasants, c. 1933), and Enrîquez's Campesinos Jelices (Happy peasants, 1938) (fig. 6). These paintings are the first, in a tradition of representing the Cuban countryside that goes back to the nineteenth century, to present a problematic view of the life of peasants. The traditional picturesque view of the Cuban countryside is replaced in these paintings by images of poverty and work, presented by Enriquez as dire and harsh. They are pioneer images aimed at sensitizing Havana's white middle class to the conditions of the other Cuba-the island's interior.

The Cuban artist who most consistently dealt with the issue of class struggle, both urban and rural, from a Marxist point of view was Mar­celo Pogolotti. A pioneer of the Cuban vanguardia in Havana in the late 1920s, he spent his brief mature phase, from 1930 to 1938, in Europe. His career cut short by blindne s, he returned to Havana in 1939 and became a successful writer. In Europe Pogolotti joined the Futurist move­ment while living in Turin, and after moving to Paris in 1934 he became a member of the Association des Escrivain et Artistes Revolutionnaires (Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists).l9

By the mid-1930 Pogolotti had developed his own semi-abstract but figurative visual language of precise geometric forms and finished surfaces. His style, in contrast to that of his Cuban contemporaries, imparted a certain intellectual slant lo his protest paintings. Rather than invite sympathy for workers, it argues their case through the use of generic and hard-edged forms, and emphasizes the oppressive nature of industrial capitalism a a whole. Likewi e, in an essay entitled "De lo Social en el Arte" (About the social element in art), Pogolotli argued the case for socially oriented art: "No, social painting is not a futile dream. But to realize it, it is necessary to bring down all limitations and restrictions, doing away with prejudice against anecdote, symbolism, figuration, and literature and using the magnificent resources offered by modern painting."30 In his social paintings Pogololli achieved a synthesis of modernist artistic language, traditional literary subject, and Marxist ideology.

Although living in Europe, he kept in close contact with events in Cuba, and in 1933, al the height of the revolutionary surge, he painted one of the most direct and critical references to the Cuban situation of the era in Paisaje cubano (Cuban land cape, 1933) (fig. 7). This paint­ing represents the main players in the Cuban sugar industry-greedy foreign businessmen in dark suits, the U.S. Navy's big guns, an omni­present national army, and able productive workers (agrarian and industrial, black and white)-which he rendered in precise figurative forms arranged in a collage-like space. The image offers a cool but blunt condemnation of the exploitation of the sugar industry by foreign capi­tal, U.S. gunboat diplomacy toward Cuba, and the plight of the rural and urban workers (represented by the ugarcane cutter and stevedore, respectively).

Another recurrent figure in Cuban social painting of the 1930s is the Afro-Cuban, which made only occasional appearances in the "peas­ant" and "worker" paintings. Although they had had a strong presence in Cuba since the early nineteenth century, when brought as slaves from West Africa to expand the sugar industry, and later played a prominent role in the Wars of Independence, Afro-Cubans as a group were the least able to enjoy the economic and political benefits of republican life. Black and mulatto Cubans remained among the poorest and least represented sectors of society well into the republican era. On the cultural front, while hegemony and prejudice prevented their heritage from entering high Cuban culture until the late 1920s. At that time the literary, musical, and artistic vanguard began to make Afro-Cuban popular culture vis- ible and audible to a white elite within the ruling class. Borrowing from popular culture, the Cuban modernist painters most often represented Afro-Cubans in the context of music, dance, and ritual, as seen in Edu­ardo Abela's El triunfo de la rumba (The triumph of the rumba, 1928) and Enriquez's Tocadores (Musicians, 1934). Although they presented a stereotypical view of Afro-Cubans, such images signaled the begin­ning of acceptance of African heritage as a bona fide and integral part of Cuban high culture. The mostly white middle-class vanguardia genera­tion was the first to acknowledge and welcome the African contribution to Cuban life.

Carlos Enriquez, Campesinos Felices (Happy Peasants) (1938), oil on canvas,
122 x 89 cm. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, Cuba
Marcelo Pogolotti, Paisa1e Cubano (Cuban Landscape) (1933), oil on canvas 73 x 92.5 cm. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, Cuba

Finally, of all the leaders of the Wars of Independence fought by Cuba against Spain from 1868 to 1898, Marti slowly emerged as the fore­most apologist for and symbol of that epic effort. The vanguardia writers in particular-Marinello and Jorge Mafiach, among others-researched and published significant texts on Martf beginning in the late 1920s. In the visual arts Martf was usually represented as an icon, as for instance in Peñita's aforementioned Llamada al ideal (c. 1937) and Jose Arche's Jose Marti ( 1943). In general there was a tendency to immortalize him as a man of thought rather than action, whose guiding ideas on Cuban nation building survived him. A significant exception is Enriquez's Dos Rios, which represents Marti's death on the battlefield and can be seen as a metaphor for the fate of the revolutionary movement by the late 1930s. Cuban modernist art of the 1930s, in tune with international develop­ments in modernism, openly addressed social and political issues from a leftist point of view. In most cases, Cuban ocial and political art of the decade did not serve a direct propagandistic purpose on behalf of a spe­cific political party but aimed to call attention to social issues of the day. For the most part the Cuban vanguardia painters went for oblique politi­cal commentary rather than outright declarations. At its most effective, Cuban social and political art of the 1930s represented workers and peas­ants, popular culture, and leftist politics that had been excluded from symbolic representation in Cuba. At its least effective, modernist politi­cal art in Cuba failed to claim permanent public space, an arena in which the Mexican mural movement had succeeded, and reached only a small segment of the population, in contrast to the Cuban poster movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.


Cuba the Elusive Nation

Interpretations of National Identity
University Press of Florida
Edited by Damian J. Fernandez
and Madeline Camara Betancourt

Lo Blanco-Criollo as lo Cubano:  The Symbolization of a Cuban National Identity in Modernist Painting of the 1940s

The self-conscious effort on the part of the Cuban educated class to define and symbolize a national cultural identity (or identities) began in earnest in the 1920s and reached a high point in the 1940s. (I use both singular and plural to note the tension between the aim for a unified national culture and the resistance of its shards to coalesce.) The interest of a middle-class elite from Havana in developing certain concepts and images to signify a national culture, supposedly for all of Cuban society, was strongly motivated by the fact that Cuba was a young republic (1902), which since its inception was often embroiled in political and economic crises. Young republics and times of political crises-not to mention the combination of both-have usually led intellectuals and artists to ask questions and find answers regarding what constitutes nationhood and cultural identity. In this more or less successful project of constructing a national cultural identity, the visual arts, especially painti!}g, played a significant role. Cuban modernist painters kept a close relationship with poets, novelists, and journalists, collaborating with the two foremost liter­ary publications of their day. The so-called 1927 generation worked closely with Revista de Avance (1927-30), and the "1938 generation" cooperated with Origenes (1944-56). These two groups of artists and writers, given their different historical contexts, privileged different con­cepts and images of lo cubano. The former favored a popular and leftist­oriented art of social commentary with emphasis on the most exploited sectors of Cuban society-the peasant and the Afro-Cuban; the latter aimed for an elitist and transcendental art with emphasis on Ibero-Cuban, or blanco-criollo, tradition. The different locations of lo cubano (the coun­tryside versus the capital, the African versus the Spanish heritage, popular versus elitist) and their shifting importance over time (the countryside and Afro-Cuban themes dominated the 1930s, the city of Havana and white Creole themes prevailed in the 1940s) suggest that Cuban modernist painters' and writers' symbolization of national cultural identity(ies), as in the case of other nations, was a subjective and selective process of con­struction and reconstruction.

Based on this premise, my essay explores the artistic symbolization of a shard of the Cuban cultural identity-the blanco-criollo ethos-as seen in 1940s modernist painting. My aim is to understand and to articulate bet­ter the complex, historically bound, and self-conscious nature of concep­tualizing and symbolizing a national cultural identity in Cuban art at a particular historical moment. The symbolization of a blanco-criollo iden­tity by the 1940s generation of artists is seen not only in their choice of subjects, but in their treatment of form. This is the first group of artists to locate lo cubano in the form, not just in the content, of their paintings. Beginning with Amelia Pelaez, some of the leading modernist painters of the 1940s-Rene Portocarrero, Mariano Rodriguez, Mario Carreno, and Cundo Bermudez-saw in colonial architectural ornamentation a seminal Cuban stylistic language, to be recuperated and transformed into per­sonal, modernist, "Cuban" styles. It was in the same architecture that these artists found the quintessential blanco-criollo theme-the colonial interior. Thus, a number of the leading modernists painters of the 1940s made the colonial homestead of the upper "criollo" families a favorite symbol in form and content of lo cubano.

Amelia Peláez
Interior with columns,1951
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Cuba

The Blanco-Criollo Identity and Tradition

"The core meaning of any individual or group identity, namely a sense of sameness over time and space, is sustained by remembering; and what is remembered is defined by the assumed identity," states the historian John R. Gillis in Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity. 1 National identities are inextricably connected to highly selective group memories, turned into traditions. The foundation stone in the conceptual and artistic construction of a blanco-criollo identity in the 1940s was remembering a particular tradition within lo cubano (that is, nineteenth-century upper­class, white, Catholic, urban, Creole culture). The physical remnants of that originating culture consisted in the 1940s of a limited body of literature, paintings, prints, architecture, and a waning way of life. At its most concrete, the recuperation of said cultural tradition took the form of ar­chitectural restoration of colonial buildings, the organization of the first major exhibition of colonial art, and studies of nineteenth-century litera­ture. In 1935, parts of the two most important plazas of Old Havana­Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza de Armas-were restored. At about the same time, studies began to appear on Cuba's colonial architecture, such asJoaqufn Weiss's classic text Arquitectura cubana colonial (1936), Martha de Castro's Contribuci6n al estudio de la arquitectura cubana (1940), and various articles by Jose Marf Bens Arrarte in Revista Arquitectura of the School of Architecture of the University of Havana. All of these publica­tions served to publicize Cuba's colonial architecture as part of the na­tional patrimony which needed to be saved and commemorated.

Rene Portocarrero
Cerro interior, 1943
Mr. and Mrs. Cernuda Collection, Miami

Whereas the colonial architecture of Havana, restored or in disrepair, represented a visible and accessible symbol of the cultural tradition in question, this was far from the case in literature, music, and the visual arts. Thus the exhibition 300 anos de arte en Cuba (Three hundred years of art in Cuba), organized by the National Institute of Fine Arts and held at the University of Havana in 1940, was a major event in the recovery of an artistic past. Cttrated primarily by the art historian Guy Perez Cisneros (who went on to write an early study of colonial painting Caracteristicas de la evoluci6n de la pintura en Cuba, finished as a dissertation in 1946 and published in 1959), the exhibition was described by the poet, essayist, and leader of the Origenes group magazine, Jose Lezama Lima, as "the first retrospective exhibition of painting ever done in our country." Then referring to a follow-up exhibition of modernist Cuban art, El arte en Cuba (Art in Cuba) held in the same locale, Lezama continued: "it reaf­firmed the permanence of the great tradition."2 By the "great tradition" Lezama meant the blanco-criollo culture of the late eighteenth and nine­teenth century. Lezama himself contributed to the rediscovery of the tradi­tion of colonial painting in his essays "Escobar y Collazo" and "La pintura y la poesia en Cuba (en los siglos XVII y XIX). "3 To Lezama and Perez Cisneros, "Cuban" painting began with Vicente Escobar (1762-1834) and reached a high point with the paintings of Guillermo Collazo (1850- 96). At the very least, the exhibition 300 aiios de arte en Cuba and its accompanying catalog provided modernist Cuban artists with the evi­dence of a practically unknown artistic tradition and the confidence that comes with such a knowledge. The symbolization of the blanco-criollo identity depended in great measure on the search for its own origins and in the recovery of a forgotten or neglected past. To this recuperation project, the poets and the artists associated with the group magazine Origenes made a major contribution. They reconstructed such a tradition from its remnants in the architecture of Old Havana and the El Cerro neighborhood; the teachings of Felix Varela and Jose Luz y Caballero; the poetry of Jose Marfa Heredia and Julian del Casal; the paintings of Escobar, Collazo, and Juana Borerro; the intellectual gatherings of Domingo del Monte; and the complete works of Jose Marti.

The importance and, to some extent, the impossibility of their recu­peration project were well expressed by Lezama when he lamented: "We have lost almost everything: the carved crucifix and the painting of the Trinity by Manuel de! Socorro Rodrfguez, the medical recipes of Surf writ­ten in verse, the fruits painted by Rubalcava, the jewels of Zequeira, all the more lamentable a loss since they never existed, the sabbatical conversa­tions of Luz Caballero, the ashes of Heredia, the gallery of portraits of the Spanish governors of Cuba by Escobar .... We have lost everything, we do not know what is essentially Cuban."4 There was enough left, however, for Lezama and the "origenistas" to formulate an influential (and to their way of thinking "essential ") tradition of lo cubano, in which fact, imagi­nation, and selective remembering played major roles. The architecture, literature, and art mentioned above represent the facts; the emphasis on certain figures and the absence of others suggest the selective character of the recuperation project in question; and exaggerations and inventions (the reference to the speculative jewels of Zequeira, for instance) attest to its imaginative dimension.

Actually, the entire modernist project of conceptualizing and symboliz­ing the nation-state has a strong imaginative element. Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities convincingly argues that nations are imagined political communities "because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. "5 This imagining of an image of communion is central to the understanding of the symbolization of national cultural identity(ies) in the modern art of Cuba, and for that matter, in the rest of the Americas.

Mario Carreño
Interior, 1943
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Cuba 

The Blanco-Criollo Identity Expressed as Form 

The 1940s generation of artists and writers, particularly those interested in the symbolization of a blanco-criollo identity, found inspiration in certain colonial artistic expressions, principally in architectural ornamenta­tion. Cuban colonial architecture developed a rich decorative scheme seen in the use of the classical orders in porticos, iron grilles with a wide variety of design for windows and balconies, stained-glass windows and interior dividers or "mamparas" with geometric and floral designs, and an abun­dance of furniture. This architecture and its ornamentation, which repre­sent an eclectic mixture of styles, is most often referred to by the problem­atic term " baroque." The term is problematic because the colonial buildings of Havana, with few exceptions, do not follow any of the European ver­sions of baroque style architecture.6

Their baroque quality, according to the novelist and cultural critic Alejo Carpentier, lies elsewhere: "The superposition of styles, the innova­tion of styles, good and bad, more bad ones than good ones, created in Havana that style without style which in the long run, through a process of symbiosis, of amalgam, erects itself into a peculiar 'barroquismo' that acts as a style, inscribing itself into the history of urban development. "7 Carpentier offers a new definition of the baroque for Cuba and the Ameri­cas: Its essence lies not in a mimicry of one or another European seven­teenth century styles, known collectively as "baroque," but in an excep­tional Latin American tendency toward mixing and superimposing styles. This particular Latin American aesthetics (neither mimetic nor original) is also characterized, according to Carpentier, by an inclination, seen in Havana's colonial architecture and the city's architectural profile "to ac­cumulate, to collect, and to multiply" styles.8 The artistic tendency for superposition and plenty found in Havana's architectural cityscape, which Carpentier has referred to as "baroque," was a major inspiration to mod­ernist painters in the 1940s.

In Cuba the major exponent in literature and theory of a Cuban and Latin American baroque, or barroquismo, was Lezama, whose essay "La curiosidad barroca" ("La expresi6n arnericana," 1957), is a dassic on the subject. In that text, he laid out one of his most complete definitions of the baroque in the Americas:

Our assessment of the baroque in the Americas is destined to state with precision: First, there is a tension in the baroque; secondly, a plutonism, an originating fire that breaks and unifies the fragments; third, it is not a degenerating style, but plenary, which in Spain and Hispanic America represents language acquisitions, perhaps unique in the world, furniture for the home, ways of life and inquiry, mysticism that adjusts to new modes of prayer, ways of savoring and processing exquisite food, that exhale a complete, refined, mysterious, theocratic, and introspective living, wanderer in form and rooted in its essences.9

Cundo Bermudez
Barber Shop,1942
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Lezama views the baroque as a generating, rather than a degenerate style, and defines its form and concept for Spain and Latin America. His views on the formal characteristics of the baroque-tension, energy (heat/ passion), and forged unity-are relatively standard; it is his description of its practices and attitudes that are specifically relevant to Cuban and Larin American barroquismo. He distinguishes it as a term for more than just the classification of a European historical period or aesthetics; it amounts in Latin America to no less than a complex "way of life and inquiry," which expresses itself in activities as diverse as the decoration of the home, modes of praying, and the manner of savoring a dish. And it is also about (white Creole) tradition-"rooted in its essences."

The interest of modernist Cuban writers and artists of the 1940s in defining a blanco-criollo identity through an Americanized barroquismo was part of a larger Latin American cultural phenomenon. In their the­matic study of contemporary art from Latin America, Drawing the Line, Oriana Baddeley and Valerie Fraser put it this way: "Latin Americans are often very ready, even if with self-conscious irony, to accept the term ba­roque as descriptive in some ways of themselves and their culture as a whole; it suggests a style, an idea, a way of life that is rich and strange, riddled with impossible paradox and incredible realities, grand, flamboy­ant and macabre." 10 In the second quarter of the century, many Latin American artists and writers found in the colonial baroque of their respec­tive countries a formal language and a cultural content, which they rein­terpreted as part of a modern project to symbolize their national cultural identities. Cuba, with little to no colonial baroque art of its own that could remotely compare with that of Mexico or Peru, was at the forefront of the reinterpretation of the baroque, or barroquismo, in the modern literature and art of Latin America. What at first appears to be a paradox, actually affirms the strong role played by the imagination in the conceptualization of barroquismo and, by extension, in the construction of collective identi­ties based on that concept.

In Cuban barroquismo, the image actually came before the theoretical word, and that image was created by Amelia Pelaez. 11 She was the first to develop a visual language and a content that can be classified as Cuban barroquismo, opening a new venue for the signification of lo cubano in painting and other cultural expressions. In her early 1940s paintings, Pelaez developed a highly personal style, inspired in form by Cuban colo­nial architectural ornamentation. In her own words: "After casting aside typical [Cuban] themes I had only one way to proceed, that of still life. I have no doubt that Braque, Picasso, and Matisse had a lot to do with my choice and approach, but the reason I paint my still lives based on fruits and architectural elements is because it has been evident for some time that our colonial architecture developed some of its own motifs, or better, its own manner of employing certain motifs that are found in the architec­ture of other countries."12 In consciously adapting the language of Cuban colonial ornamentation, Pelaez rehabilitated a more or less forgotten vi­sual language and privileged it as the first concrete expression of a Cuban style. 13

She saw this Cuban style or manner not only in the designs of the iron grilles, stained-glass windows, dividers or mamparas, and the furniture of colonial architecture, but in the cumulative effect of all these elements. Pelaez's still-life compositions of fruits, flowers, and fish in colonial-styled interiors, such as Marpacifico (1943) and Frutero (1947), translate into painting not only the salient features of Cuban colonial domestic architec­ture, but that architecture's "baroque" tendency to accumulate, to collect, and to multiply. Actually, Pelaez's barroquismo far surpasses its model in complexity of form and color, as seen in the arabesque of black lines and the luminous rainbow palette of her paintings.

In her 1940s paintings, Pelaez proposed a new way to manifest lo cubano, as form and language. Pelaez's aesthetics of profuse ornamenta­tion and brilliant colors, her barroquismo, manifests, besides a highly personal signature style, a Cuban visual language or "own manner" by association with its sources. By conferring upon colonial architectural ornamentation the status of a seminal Cuban style and then translating its formal vocabulary into painting, she presented certain forms and colors and a certain visual language as essentially Cuban. Pelaez's reclamation of the past was a complex project that, as noted by the curator and Pelaez's specialist Ramon Vazquez, was not ''archeological" or "picturesque": "She takes the vestiges of the past and brings them, giving them a new meaning, to modernity. "14 Pelaez's appropriation of the artistic language of Cuban colonial architecture to symbolize a national cultural identity suggests a modernist approach in which the past is used to imagine and visualize the nation.

Portocarrero, an insider of the Origenes group magazine, was the fore­most exponent of Cuban barroquismo and the blanco-criollo identity. Unlike Pelaez, his inspiration was only partially drawn from colonial ar­chitectural ornamentation. Beginning in 1943, he developed a complex barroquismo in form and iconography, working in series such as lnter­iores de[ Cerro (1943), Festin (1943), Figuras para una mitologia imagin­aria (1943), Brujos (1945), and Naturaleza Muerta (1945). Formally, his paintings partake of the baroque elements described by Lezama Lima as tension, energy, and unity of fragments, and they also relate to Carpen­tier's definition of the baroque will to accumulate, collect, and multiply. More specifically, he appropriated the language of modern European ex­pressionism (from van Gogh to Matisse), mixing it with his own and his culture's taste for abundant ornamentation that takes over as composi­tion. (The European roots of Cuban modernism are as evident as those of colonial architecture, the national character in the case of both residing in the creolization process of translating and mixing it with other traditions.) Portocarrero's taste for profuse ornamentation, as in the case of Pelaez, is an essential aspect of his barroquismo. He actually went further than she did, in that the ornamentation takes over the figures, objects, and space (or lack of it), thickening into an impenetrable surface. This impenetrabil­ity can be seen as a metaphor for the way barroquismo leaves no room for other shards of the Cuban identity(ies) to mix or to be.

To the 1940s generation and the origenistas in particular, lo cubano, for the first time in Cuban art, was suggested to reside in form, not just in content. One of the best definitions of such form, and by extension of barroquismo in Cuban modernist painting, was offered by Perez Cisneros as early as 1943, when he described the taste of the painters of his genera­tion for "[s]incere thematic happiness, delight in color, and a twisted and baroque struggle with form." 15 In agreement with Lezama, Perez Cisneros believed that modernist Cuban painting of the 1940s had certain qualities that gave it its own identity, such as the strong attention paid to light/color, a taste for contorted form or ornament, and a predilection for a joyful view of things. These qualities, which suggest an optimistic representation of the nation in early 1940s modernist painting, are the building blocks of Cuban barroquismo.

The Blanco-Criollo Identity Expressed as Content

The symbolization of a blanco-criollo identity in modernist Cuban art of the 1940s is also evident in the subject matter or content of the paintings. The premier theme of that identity were representations of the nineteenth­century upper-class home interior-a subject that was actually introduced in Cuban painting in the late nineteenth century by artists such as Collazo in his memorable La Siesta (1886). Not only did the colonial interior theme in 1940s Cuban painting claim a solid economic, cultural, and fa­milial foundation for the blanco-criollo identity, but its emphasis on inte­riority and nostalgia also presented a conservative strategy for keeping such an identity alive.

Once again, the paintings of Pelaez and Portocarrero stand out as case studies in the reclamation and personal reinterpretation of the colonial past as content. Pelaez was the pioneer in the development of a thematic expression of the white Creole identity. Already in the mid-1930s, she began to paint a series of Natura Leza Muerta(s) with tropical fruits in the center, "medio-punto" stained-glass windows above, iron window grilles or another colonial architectural element on the side, and a embroidered (table) runner and/or table below. With these images she introduced the subject of the colonial interior as a Cuban theme. She was the first of the modernist artists to see lo cubano somewhere other than in the landscape, the peasant, and the Afro-Cuban. She constructed it from elements of her domestic environment and family life-that is from her home in the old Vibora suburb of Havana and from a family (Pelaez and del Casal) with deep roots in the Creole culture of the colonial past. As accurately ob­served by Vazquez: "The world of her paintings contains the poetic trans­position of a refined domestic compass-sediment that is also culture­belonging to a social sector with rooted Creole traditions." 16 Pelaez's implied position that the domestic and the familial are the cultural is very much in line with current feminist thought and practice.

The other artist of the 1940s generation who made the most of the colonial interior theme was Portocarrero in his renowned Interiores de/ Cerro series. In these interior scenes, which usually represent a partial view of a living room with furniture, vases with flowers, and often the presence of a single female figure, he paid homage to the vestiges of the colonial architecture of his birthplace (the nineteenth-century Cerro dis­trict of Havana) and to the way of life it once housed. Interiores de/ Cerro represents a recuperation of the past: memories of home and of an old Cuban way of life that rapidly was fading, if not altogether gone, by the early 1940s. Departing from the curvilinear designs of the colonial tile floors and those of the cenefas (painted decoration on lower part of wall), as well as the baroque design of the furniture and its often cluttered ar­rangement, Portocarrero developed a profusely ornamental expression­ism going far beyond its model in exuberance. His leap from the model gives his representation of the colonial interior a strong sense of an imagined, rather than an actual, place. In this respect, his Interiores de! Cerro offers powerful metaphors for the role of the imagination in the represen­tation of a national cultural identity.

Portocarrero's and Pelaez's reclamation of the baroque past, although related, is different. At age four, Portocarrero left his birthplace, the neigh­borhood of El Cerro; when he returned to it in his paintings of the early 1940s, its colonial architecture was deteriorating, and the upper-class Creole families who built the homes, as well as their way of life, belonged mostly to the past. As noted by Vazquez: "Soon he is uprooted from his childhood compass and when he reconstructs it with longing in his paint­ings, it is by that time a crumbling world. Portocarrero starts from a con­tradiction that nourishes a good part of his work, what he called 'a conflict between memory and creation'." Pelaez on the other hand: "does it with­out dramatics because she was not divested of the world of her infancy and adolescence. House and painting formed part of the same will not to re­nounce to a settled way of life that has become culture." 17 For Porto­carrero, the blanco-criollo tradition was something to be recovered from memory and imagination, whereas for Pelaez, the past flowed into the present, it was alive. This is not to suggest that Pelaez's symbolization of the blanco-criollo identity is any less imagined than Portocarrero's.

Other outstanding representations of the colonial interior theme in modernist painting of the 1940s are Mariano Rodrfguez's Retrato de Libi con sombrilla (1941), Cundo Bermudez's El balc6n (1941) and Mario Carreno 's Patio colonial cubano ( 194 3). In general, these artists used the theme of the colonial interior to locate their figures and their action, or lack of it, in a specific Cuban (city of Havana) context. They explored the baroque ornamentation of that architecture, as a compositional principle or signature style, to a lesser extent than did Pelaez and Portocarrero. Mariano (his artistic name), an insider of the Origenes group magazine, developed his own barroquismo in the 1940s. In Retrato de Libi con som­brilla, the "colonial style" of the architectural interior is barely suggested in the tile floor and the window iron grille motif. His barroquismo lies not so much in the appropriation of colonial architectural ornamentation as it does in the treatment of the female figure: monumental and energetic. Mariano's 1940s' representation of the female figure, white middle- and upper-class Cuban women, is different from that of his contemporaries and predecessors in that he endows them with a physical strength typically reserved for the representation of the male persona. The combination of large figures in strenuous and whimsical poses suggests those qualities Lezama used to describe the baroque: tension, plutonic energy, and reso­lution of fragments. In other respects-such as representing the female figure within the confines of home, or making her the centerpiece of the colonial interior (the keeper of tradition or decorative femininity?)­Mariano followed the traditional representation of Cuban women going back to colonial art.

Within the category of the colonial interior theme, Carreiio's and Ber­mudez's paintings of the early 1940s offer the most fanciful representation of the blanco-criollo identity and of its baroque past. In Patio colonial cubano, Carreno painted the alluring interior patio or atrium of Cuba's colonial architecture as the setting for a contemporary scene and figures. The gigantic planter, opulent staircase balcony, and the multicolor fan window define the patio not only as a domestic, private realm, but as a blanco-criollo cultural space, completed by the traditional presence of the female figure(s). In this painting, Carreno actually combined two themes of Cuban barroquismo: the colonial interior and tropical vegetation-the latter signifying, according to the critic Jose Gomez Sicre, "the seductive and capricious nature of the tropics. " 18 His adaptation of renaissance and baroque forms as well as rococo and impressionist color presents a highly idealized and unproblematic vision of the blanco-criollo identity in Cuban modernist painting of the 1940s.

Bermudez, who moved in the same circle as Carreno in Havana, also painted fanciful representations of the colonial interior theme. In El balc6n-one of his early and often reproduced versions of the theme­he renders, in a primitivist visual language, the most typical features of Cuba's colonial architecture. He freely manipulated these elements to cre­ate a scenic version of a colonial interior, serving as backdrop to a play about the sensual and laid-back way of life in the tropics. Bermudez's barroquismo consists in his references to colonial architecture, signifying a measure of Creole civilization connected to Spain, and in his depiction of human figures expressing certain Cuban "ways of life and curiosity." In Bermudez's representation of the blanco-criollo identity (as in the case of Carreno), the imagined nature of representing the nation is very pro­nounced.

Cuban modernist painting in the 1940s played a significant role in the conceptualization and symbolization of national cultural identity(ies) and a seminal one in regard to the expression of the blanco-criollo shard of that identity. The artists discussed above, each in her or his own way, visualized in the form and content of their paintings an originating Creole culture of Spanish descent belonging to the dominant Cuban white upper class. The symbolization of that identity as a formal language and iconog­raphy, inspired in colonial architecture, reached a peak in the 1940s; but as suggested earlier, its theorization under the "baroque" rubric by Lezama and Carpentier actually took place in the 1950s. By then, however, there was a backlash to barroquismo in the visual arts and literature as a new generation of Cuban artists and writers "went back to simplicity, to the trickle of Franciscan waters." 19

The Blanco-Criollo Identity as Exclusive

The symbolization of a national identity is not only a subjective and selec­tive construction; it is a competitive proce s for recognition and status among signs and representations that originate in different sectors of soci­ety and regions of a country in the name of national cohesion. In discuss­ing the exclusive nature of ideological representations or signs, the art historian Timothy J. Clark provides a model for framing the issue at hand: "[T]he sign of an ideology is a kind of inertness in discourse: a fixed pat­tern of imagery and belief, ... a set of permitted modes of seeing and saying, ... a way of providing certain perceptions and rendering others unthinkable, aberrant, or extreme.20 This phenomenon of excluding rep­resentations or signs of ideologies (in our case, related to identity) is aggra­vated in countries, which like those of the Caribbean, have a mixed ethnic population and a history of colonialism. In such societies, the symboliza­tion of identity is a battlefield of representations, with the descendants of Europeans claiming for themselves not only the preeminence of their rep­resentations of identity but the whole realm of high culture. Even within the rather homogeneous group involved in high-cultural production in Havana of the 1940s, the symbolization of lo cubano contained a strong element of tension as different representations of it competed for predomi­nance.

The origenistas and other modernists writers and artists discussed above privileged the blanco-criollo ethos and by extension the Spanish­European side of the Cuban identity(ies). The predominance of the blanco­criollo identity shard, Lezama argued, had to do with its potential for resilience and unification: "If we feared the national components that which is art when it originates in a search for the nation, which will defini­tively lead us to the Hispanic, we determined that only the resilient His­panic ethics could achieve unity .... We knew that the Hispanic could not be the norm for accomplishing the universality of our artistic expression, but if this could be achieved, the Hispanic ethics would reach its full­ness. "21 The asserting claim for the primacy of the Hispanic in Cuba's cultural identity, made by Lezama and the artists discussed above, aimed to replace the emphasis given to the African heritage in Cuban culture of the previous decade and to resist the encroaching of North American popular culture in the 1940s.

In the late 1920s when Cuban writers, music composers, and artists began to construct cultural expressions of lo cubano, through a synthesis of national content and French modernist forms and concepts, the ne­glected African element in Cuban culture was foregrounded. A movement known as "Afro-Cubanismo" swept Cuban literature, music, and art of the late 1920s and 1930s. The origenistas' turn to the blanco-criollo side of the Cuban identity suggests a conscious move away from the African and toward the Spanish component of the national cultural identity(ies). Nevertheless, the symbolization of the African shard of the Cuban identity continued strongly into the 1940s and reached a new height with the work of Wifredo Lam. His painting The Jungle (1943) alone, given its interna­tional recognition as one of the most important twentieth-century artistic expressions of Afro-Cuban/Caribbean culture, offers a strong argument for a necessary African presence in any viable symbolization of lo cubano. Lam's paintings of the 1940s also offer strong evidence of the African element's potential for resilience and cohesion.

The blanco-criollo expression also served to counter North American cultural hegemony by asserting Cuba's Spanish Catholic heritage. Through various means-which ranged from the politics of the Good Neighbor Policy, to Hollywood movies, and to the advertisement and consun1ption of North American products-the United States' influence on Cuban af­fairs, by the 1940s, reached beyond economics and politics into the world of culture. "In the revaluation of Cuban and Spanish baroque by Lezama and the Origenes group," states Leonel Capote, "was a latent act of sov­ereignty in reaction to North American penetration, accentuated after the failed Revolution of 1933. "22 From the "Protesta de los Trece" in 1923 to the failed revolutionary government of Grau San Martfn in 1933, the Cuban intelligentsia fought North American political and economic inter­vention in Cuba, helping to defeat the Platt Amendment to the Cuban constitution of 1902. The generation that followed, and particularly the origenistas, seemed to have been more concerned with North American cultural penetration and used barroquismo as a means of resistance.

Concluding Remarks

The symbolization of lo cubano in Cuban modernist painting suggests a mixed culture with diverse and competing focal points: the city of Ha­vana, the countryside, Spain/Europe, Africa, North America, the affluent, and the poor. These places, traditions, and economic conditions/relations often are presented in dialectical opposition to one another through the absence of the other. For instance, Carlos Enrfquez's symbolization of "lo cubano-as-the-countryside" left out the city of Havana, Pelaez's dismissed both the countryside and the African heritage, and Lam barely acknowl­edged the blanco-criollo tradition. The conceptualization and visualiza­tion of any one of the shards that makes up lo cubano were in 1940s painting (as in 1940s Cuban life) yet to be synthesized with the other fragments into a whole: Plutonism was actually lacking. Even in cases like Portocarrero and Carreno, who in their prolific production represented the city of Havana and the Cuban countryside, Ibero-Cuban and Afro­Cuban themes, these focal points of identity are expressed in differentiated series; furthermore, their symbolization of the African element is very su­perficial. The construction of the blanco-criollo identity and its expression through barroquismo offers a revealing case study of the process of in­heriting, imagining, and affirming a particular representation of identity within the multitude of changing opinions and influences that make up modern national cultures.


Cuban Art and Identity

Ironside Press
General Editor: Lucinda H. Gedeon, Ph.D.

Representing Lo Cubano:
Cuban Painting 1900-1950

Cuban art in the first fifty years of the Republic ( 1902-1952) came of age and caught up to the achievements realized in the fields of literature and music. Modern and traditionalist artists from multiple generations produced a remarkable body of work with emphasis on the expression of Cuban themes. The interest in exploring and visualizing themes of collective identity is intricately connected to the rise of a new republic trying to define itself. As is often the case, an intellectual elite took on the task of imagining the nation for all citizens. In the case of Cuba, this process interacted with the clash of Spanish and African traditions, a strong North American presence, volatile governments, and the ups and downs of a monoculture economy based on sugar. Looking to the countryside and the city of Havana, navigating the Spanish and African heritages, sensing the political and social environment, artists created a wealth of narratives and symbols of lo cubano, or that which is Cuban.

The aim of this exhibition is to examine Cuban painting of the first fifty years of the Republic with an emphasis on subject matter rather than style. It will explore four major themes found in traditionalist and modern painting: the Cuban countryside, Havana interiors, religious traditions, and music.

Traditionalist and Modern Painting

The term academic painting has been generally used to indicate certain Cuban art and artists of the Republican period. The term has been applied to those artists who studied and later taught at Havana's Fine Arts Academy, known as San Alejandro (founded in 1818), and who practiced styles that ranged from Romanticism and Realism to a mild form of Impressionism. In this essay I will use the term traditionalist rather than academic, which is a more descriptive and neutral term to classify their styles and narrative approach.1 The term modern is usually applied to artists who studied at, and then broke with, San Alejandro and adapted versions of Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism. The term modem is also problematic for its implications go beyond stylistic preferences, suggesting a much larger socio-historical context. Herein the term modem specifically refers to a global modernist movement in the arts, in which Cuba participated, characterized by a self-conscious break with traditional art styles.2 Cuban modernist and traditionalist artists actually had a similar education to the extent that they studied at San Alejandro and then travelled to Europe to further their cultural and artistic experience. The more traditional ones continued their education in the Academia San Fernando in Madrid or the Scuola de Bellas Artes in Rome or Florence; those interested in modern art went to Paris.

Once back in Havana, Cuban artists exhibited in a slowly growing number of private and public venues throughout the city. The traditionalists gravitated towards Cfrculo de Bellas Artes (founded in 1916), the modem ones to the Lyceum (founded in 1929) and Galena del Prado ( 1942-43). Both groups participated in major state sponsored exhibitions, such as the National Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture held in 1935, 1938, and 1944, and in 300 Hundred Year.s- of Art in Cuba, in 1940. Some of these venues were exclusively open to modem artists: Exhibition of New Art in 1927 and the First Exhibition of Modern Art in 1937. A few artists, such as Ramon Loy, moved in both camps. In the 1920s and 1930s, newspapers and magazines began to publish articles on art written by journalists and literary writers. By the next decade art critics and historians, such as Luis de Soto y Sagarra, Guy Perez Cisneros and Jose Gomez Sicre, brought a more rigorous approach to writing about Cuban art. The modernists had close relationships with two progressive cultural magazines: Revista de Avance (1927-30), and Origenes (1944-1956). Exhibitions at Cfrculo de Bellas Artes, the bastion of traditionalist art, were announced and reviewed m magazines such as Bohemia and newspapers like El Diario de la Marina. 3

Actually, the boundaries between these more or less defined and antagonistic groups fade when looking at their paintings' subject matter. They both favored representing the Cuban countryside, the street life and interiors of Havana, Afro Cuban and Catholic religious traditions, and music. They do differ in their approach. Traditionalist artists focused on naturalism and narrative in their paintings. The modernist painters opted for expressionism or abstraction and a symbolic approach to the subject. Some in the modernist movement also introduced an art of social criticism, absent in traditionalist painting. On the other hand, traditionalist painters took on Cuban historical themes, not a favored subject of the modernist painters. One reason is that government commissions for public buildings calling for historical subjects, as in the case of the old Presidential Palace in Havana, went to traditionalist painters.

Leading Cuban Themes

In representing the Cuban countryside, traditionalist and modernist painters generally concentrated on the landscape and on the life of the peasant or guajiro(a). For the most part, the peasant and country life was romanticized as pastoral. The land itself, its flora, and rural traditions were seen as a major source of national ethos by both camps.

Contrasting with the images of Cuba showing the countryside as the repository of that which is authentically Cuban are those that represent the city of Havana as the epicenter of Cuban culture. Modernist and traditionalist artists painted the streets, architecture, and interiors of the capital. The carnival, processions, street vendors, views of narrow and populated streets in Old Havana, the city's "baroque" architecture, and still life of typical flora and fauna also became symbols not only of Havana, but of Cuba itself.

The Spanish conquistadores annihilated the indigenous Tainos and their culture, including their religious practices. They were not as successful with the Africans they later brought as slaves. Since at least the nineteenth century, syncretic religions of African and European beliefs developed in the island. European/Spanish, Yoruba, Congo, and Calabari religious traditions collided and blended in Cuba giving way to new religions such as Santerfa, Palo Monte and Abahwi. During colonial times there was a production of Catholic religious paintings for churches and wealthy patrons, but it never developed into a strong school or gave Cuba outstanding painters in that genre. In the Republican period there were a few painters, modernist and traditionalist, who represented religious images based on Catholicism. More painted poetic versions of Afro-Cuban religious figures and practices beginning in the late 1920s.

Given the prominent role of music in Cuban culture it is not surprising that it is a recurrent theme in painting of the early twentieth century. Cuban music, like most of the island's culture, began to develop in the 19th century while still under Spanish rule. By the 1920s there was a variety of popular music on the scene: Danzon, Son, and Rumba, among others. These musical forms combined European and African instruments and musical elements to create Cuban music. Music and dance were also major ingredients of Afro-Cuban religious practices. At times, the line between the visual representation of popular and religious music/dance is blurred.

The Cuban Countryside

Around the middle of the 19th century visiting artists, such as Frederic Miahle and Henry Cleenewerck, and a little later native ones, like the Chartrand brothers, began to represent the landscape of the island. Their placid landscapes took notice of certain emblematic trees, Royal Palms and Ceibas in particular, the verdant vegetation, and sunny days. The traditionalist painters of the twentieth century mostly followed in their footsteps.

Of the many traditionalist artists who emerged in the early 20th century, only two have received wide recognition: Leopoldo Romanach ( 1862-1951) and Armando Menocal (1863-1942). Romai'iach studied painting in Havana and then in Spain, Italy and France. Upon his return, he taught color theory at San Alejandro and developed a reputation as a charismatic and tolerant professor. Beginning in the 1920s Romai'iach painted a series of seascapes of the shorelines of Cuba's northern coast that are among his best works. These paintings and studies stand out for their loose execution, luminous colors, and freshness. An excellent example is Seascape, ca. 1930, included in this exhibition (Fig. 4). In this painting the tactile treatment of the sand and thick scrubs contrast with the windy clouded sky. Delicate and swift brush strokes animate the entire surface. Surprisingly few Cuban painters until recently acknowledged the sea. Menocal studied painting in Havana and Madrid and was an ardent admirer of Velazquez' optical realism. He executed historical scenes, particularly related to Cuba's War of Independence, in which he participated, and also portraits and landscapes. He was a professor of landscape painting at San Alejandro and, like Romanach, served as director of the school for a number of years. He brought to landscape painting a keen observation of Cuba's flora and light. His painting, Bridge of the Palm Train, Cristal River, ca. 1930 shows a tight naturalism with a modern view of the changing landscape of the island (Plate 30). In this sober look at the Cuban landscape, the salient feature is not the palm trees, or the quiet river, but a red, metal bridge. Interestingly, this traditionalist artist acknowledged the intrusion of modernity into the Cuban landscape, which paradoxically modernist painters mostly ignored.

Antonio Rodrfguez Morey ( 1874-1967) is an underrated landscape painter, who studied in Florence and Rome, taught at San Alejandro, and in 1918 became the Director of Cuba's National Museum of Fine Arts, with which he maintained a long, productive relationship. Unlike his professor at San Alejandro, the landscape painter Valentfn Sanz Carta, who was a naturalist, Rodrfguez Morey was a complete romantic. Included in this exhibition is a fine example of his misty-eyed landscapes, Cuban Landscape, 1913 (Plate 35), and a unique piece, Symphony in Green (fig. 5) The latter's bird's eye view of a creek, lack of a horizon line, infinite shades of green, and musical title was innovative for its time.

One of the outstanding Cuban landscape painters is Domingo Ramos ( 1894- 1956). He studied in San Alejandro, and in the 1910s at San Fernando in Madrid. Upon returning to Cuba in the 1920s he became a professor at his alma mater. Ramos introduced Poinciana trees, with their fiery red-orange flowers, into the representation of the Cuban landscape, where green and violet had dominated. He is best known for his numerous representations of the Vinales valley in western Cuba, one of the most spectacular natural environments in the island. His style fluctuated from naturalism to a highly personal version of impressionism as seen in his luminous Landscape with Royal Poinciana, 1930, and Landscape with Highlands, 1925, a view of the Vinales valley (Plates 53 and 52)

Many of the modernist artists also painted landscapes with an eye for lo cubano. Vfctor Manuel Carda ( 1897-1969) is a pioneer of Cuban modern art who studied with Romanach at San Alejandro and found his mature, formal language in Paris under the influence of Cezanne and Gauguin. He is known for images of melancholic, mixed-race women and landscapes. Like Ramos, Vfctor Manuel enjoyed painting Poinciana trees for the vibrant, reddish-orange color of the flowers. His landscapes usually include a river, Royal Palms and/or Poinciana trees, people at leisure, and their ancestral homes known as bohios. They offer a serene, sensual, and intimate view of the Cuban countryside as seen in Landscape with River, ca. 1940s (Plate 21).

On the other end of the spectrum from the peaceful landscapes of Vfctor Manuel are Carlos Enriquez' windswept views of the Cuban countryside. Enrfquez ( 1900- 1957) studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art for one semester in 1925, lived in New York from 1927 to 1930 with his wife Alice Neel, and developed the basis of his mature style while living in Paris and Madrid from 1930 to 1934. Using a unique style of transparent color forms, he painted equestrian bandit/heroes, the poorest of the guajiros, horses, nude women, portraits, and landscapes. As suggested, his landscapes evoke the strong winds of a subtropical island, ignored by most Cuban landscape painters, and on the more imaginative side, he eroticized the land, as seen in the representation of the hills in Landscape with Wild Horses, 1941 and the Breasts of Madruga, 1943 (Plates 17 and 19).

The Cuban landscape also served as backdrop and context for representations of the guajiro(a). A number of artists in the turbulent 1930s took a critical view of the miserable economic conditions of those who worked the land. This is particularly evident in paintings by Carlos Enrfquez, Alberto Pena, and Antonio Gattomo. Enrfquez' s Coal Oven of 193 7 is an outstanding example of social criticism pointing to hard labor among the neediest peasants (Fig.6). In this exhibition Enrfquez's Coal Oven offers a major contrast with the romanticized view of the guajiro seen in Menocal's Peasant Child, 1930s (Plate 29). In the latter the child figure stands tall, good looking, and although at work, has a dreamy expression. Enriquez not only represented the toughest views of poverty in the Cuban countryside, he also transformed rural histories and legends into powerful visual mythologies such as Creole Bandit, 1943 (Plate 18). ln this painting the theme of abduction and flight is given a mythological dimension by the fusion of the outlaw, the abducted female nude, and the horse into a hybrid mythical being. Pena, better known as Penita ( 1897-1938), studied in the School of Arts and Trade in Havana and did not travel abroad. He developed a personal style of simplified forms and dramatic gestures to criticize the dismal working conditions of the working poor. Penita often represented the worker in the act of rebelling, as seen in his large painting Cuba on the March, 193 6 (Plate 41). Antonio Gattorno (1904-1980) studied in San Alejandro and spent most of the 1920s in Italy and Paris, where he gravitated towards 15th century Renaissance painting and the style of Gauguin. In the 1930s he concentrated in the representation of guajiros, usually couples or a family, seen as poor, but dignified. Peasant with Plantains of 192 7 is an early and accomplished example of his exploration of the guajiro theme (Plate 24).

Of the second-generation modernist painters, Mariano Rodrfguez ( I 912-1990) and Mario Carreno ( 1913-1999) stand out for their interest in the representation of the Cuban countryside. One of the leading figures of the 1940s generation, Mariano (as he is known) studied painting in Mexico with Manuel Rodrfguez Lozano and upon his return to Havana in the late 1930s painted the guajiro with a critical view. One of his outstanding paintings of that period is The Thread, 1939, showing a monumental female figure sewing in a spare room with a view of the countryside seen through an open door (Plate 55). In the 1940s, he abandoned the ochre tonalities and social criticism for a rainbow of colors and jubilant expression of the countryside, as seen in two major paintings of that decade: The Rooster, 1941 and Woman with Rooster, 1943 (Plates 56 and 57).  
Many of the Cuban themes derived from life in the countryside originated in the nineteenth century, such as the figure of the guajiro and his customs, one of which is a passion for roosters and cockfighting. Modernist and traditionalist painters did variations on the theme. Two outstanding and contrasting examples included in this exhibition are Jose A Bencomo Mena's (1890-1962) Keeper of the Roosters, 1934 (Fig. 7) and Mariano's Woman with Rooster. Bencomo Mena followed the usual educational experiences of Cuban painters. He studied drawing and painting in San Alejandro and then furthered his artistic growth in Europe. He spent eight years in Florence and when he returned to Havana in 1927 joined the faculty of San Alejandro. In the 1930s he developed a personal style, which combined elements of early Italian Renaissance painting and Spanish Realism. His interpretation of the guajiro and his rooster culture is at once traditional and uniquely sober and exalted. Mariano on the other hand broke with tradition in his Woman with Rooster by changing the gender of the protagonist and sensualizing the relationship to the rooster. Inspired perhaps by the myth of Leda and the Swan, he shows a female figure embracing and pecking a rooster. The rich palette and brilliant colors exude sensuality. Similarly, Mariano's Rooster is a happy expression of Cuban light, color, and in this case masculinity.

Carreno, another leading figure of the second­generation modernists, painted some of the most ambitious representations of the guajiro in three large and colorful Duco paintings of 1943. Carreno studied painting in Havana, Mexico, and Paris and with consummate ease burned through various formal languages in his long artistic career. In 1943, under the influence of David Alfaro Siqueiros and with memories of his previous neo-classical phase, he painted Fire in the Outbuildings (Plate 11 ), Sugar Cane Cutters, and The Afro-Cuban Dance (Fig.8). Using bold colors and dynamic compositions, the guajiro is represented respectively as family oriented, hard working, and sensually spiritual. This exhibition brings together for the first time since 1943 two of these paintings, Fire in the Outbuildings, and The Afro-Cuban Dance. In the former Carreno presents a heroic view of the Cuban peasant as seen in the robust figures of the father and mother saving their child from a fire. Two years earlier Carreno took on the representation of a greater destructive natural force, hurricanes, in a smaller, but striking painting entitled Tornado (Plate 12). Painted in an expressionistic child like manner, it is one of very few paintings on a major and frequent phenomenon in Cuba. The strongly traditional view of the Cuban countryside as passive and idyllic seems to have discouraged the acknowledgement of such a natural disturbing force.

Landscape and the figure of the guajiro(a) embody a major recurring theme in Cuban culture and the visual arts. The countryside, its typography, its people and their traditions have been primary signs of lo cubano since the mid-nineteenth century. Closeness to the soil, "ser de la tierra," was a major leitmotif of the criollismo movement of the 1920s and 1930s, with its emphasis on rural life as the authentic Cuba.

Havana Interiors

Still life has not been one of the painting genres most favored by Cuban artists. Yet in the early twentieth century, there were two painters who are best known for their still lifes: Juan Gil Carcfa (1876- 1932) and Amelia Pelaez ( 1896- I 968). Gil Garcfa was a Spaniard active in Cuba from the 1910s through his death. He painted mainly landscapes and still lifes of fruits or flowers in a traditionalist naturalistic style. His still life production is large and had tremendous commercial success in the 1920s and 1930s. Still Life with Fruit, 1932 is a prime example of his work in this genre with its abundance of ripe, fleshly fruits described in a crisp realistic style (Plate 20). Cuba is represented as a tropical cornucopia. Usually, as in this painting, Gil Carcfa placed the fruits on the ground, connecting them directly to the Cuban soil. In this respect, they can be studied more in the context of landscape painting than the more typical association of still life with home interiors and culture, which is the case with Amelia Pelaez.

One of the pioneers of Cuban modernism in the 193 Os, Pelaez studied at San Alejandro with Romanach and later at Fernand Leger's Academie Contemporaine with the Russian avant-garde artist Alexandra Exter. She spent seven productive years in Paris, ending with an exhibition at the Zak Callery in 1933. Pelaez synthesized elements from the art of Matisse and cubism with native motifs derived from colonial architectural ornamentation to develop a highly personal style. An important aspect of her flowers and fish still life is their presentation (vases and tablecloth) and their setting (Neo-colonial interiors), both of which refer to the traditional Ibero-Cuban homestead of an affluent and educated elite, to which she belonged. Included in this exhibition are three major still lifes by Pelaez: Fishes, 1943; Fruit Dish, 1947; and Still Life, 1949 (Plate 39, Fig.9, Plate 40). In these paintings, Pelaez's bold arabesque of black lines, stained-glass-like colors, and dynamic semi-abstract compositions represent her modern neo-baroque style at its best. Their content is also significant. The fish is one of her favorite motifs, partly signifying the abundance of Cuba's surrounding sea. It should also be noted that the fish has a long history in Europe as a sign of Christ and Christianity in general. Pelaez and her circle were Catholics and sensitive to that tradition. Fruits are also a recurrent motif in her still lifes, in which not unlike the work of Gil Carda, they signify a sense of place and natural plenty.

Pelaez' barroquismo, in its form and content, made an impact on the second­generation modernist painters like Cundo Bermudez (1914-2008). His Still Life with Fish, 1948 is an outstanding example of his "naive," fairly ornamental, and color saturated barroquismo of the 1940s (Plate 8). Also included in this exhibition is one of Bermudez's masterpieces, Barber Shop, 1942, where his neo-baroque visual language transforms an ordinary genre scene into a fanciful and hefty subject matter (Plate 5).

One important exception to the joyful colors and native oriented content of modern and traditionalist Cuban painting, especially in the 1940s, is the work of Fidelio Ponce de Leon (1896-1949). The ghostly image of Vase with Flowers, 1935, whispers rather than shouts (Plate 43). Its Franciscan simplicity of form and intense light, suggested by the extensive use of white paint, gives the image a mystical ascetic quality, far removed from his colleagues' more tangible and elated visions.

The most imaginative and recognized expression of the Interior theme in Cuban painting during this period is Rene Portocarrero's series of paintings entitled Interiores del Cerro, inspired by interiors from the Cerro neighborhood in Havana, where the artist grew up. Portocarrero ( 1912-1985), a mostly self taught artist and one of the leading figures of the second generation modernists, liked to work in series, explored a wide range of media and subject matter, and was a master colorist. His Interior de/ Cerro included in the exhibition is a prime example of barroquismo in Cuban painting of the 1940s, offering a profusion of fragmented and varied colored forms supported by a dense linear arabesque (Fig. 10) As in the case of Pelaez and Bermudez, Portocarrero's barroquismo makes reference to the Spanish heritage in Cuban culture through allusion to its colonial and neo­colonial architecture and furnishings.

The Interior theme often included a female presence. The association of women with home life has a long history in Western art and is a major theme in Cuban art of the early twentieth century. A number of outstanding paintings in this exhibition fall into that theme: Leopoldo Romaiiach's ( 1862- 1951) Lady with Flowers, ca. 1915 (fig. 11), Pelaez's Woman, 1941-44, Mario Carreiio's Seamstress, 1943, Bermudez's Girl in Pink, 1943 and Wifredo Lam's (1902-1982) Seated Woman, 1955 (Plates 37, 10, 6, 28). Romanach's painting shows a distinguished lady, relaxed and pensive, in a sparse and dark interior. She tenderly holds a flower, which seems to have sparked her daydreaming. Lam, who in the early 1920s studied in San Alejandro under Romanach, painted an equally impressive female figure seated in a dark interior, but there the similarities end. Informed by Cubism and Surrealism, with which he came into contact in Paris of the late 1930s, Lam drew more than painted an alert and tense female presence, depicted in confident and graceful lines, contrasting long sweeping contours with delicate decorative passages. The other three paintings mentioned above have in common the I 940s appetite for color and ornament. Carreno' s colorful and inventive architectural props transform a seamstress' usually drab environment into a world of wonder and gives her humble work a degree of glamour. Pelaez melds her monumental figure with the background interior space. The lower arabesque, which includes her favorite fish motif, suggests an elegant article of clothing, whereas the top ceiling decoration acts as a kind of halo. The neo-baroque style and large scale format, like in the case of Carreno's Seamstress and Bermudez's Barber Shop, transforms an ordinary task, in this case supposedly preparing fish for a meal, into a remarkable event carried out by a majestic figure in a grand setting.

The paintings of interiors with still life and/or female figures in Cuban painting of the Republican period represent for the most part an urban cultural space of plentitude, sophistication, and contentment. In the case of those with female figures, the interior theme also suggests the confinement of women to domestic roles and home life as was generally the case in the early Republic.

Religious Traditions

Traditionalist and modernist artists painted personal interpretations of Catholic and Afro-Cuban religious figures and rituals. The rising interest in Afro-Cuban culture in the 1930s as seen in the Afrocubanismo movement in literature, music, and art resulted in more attention paid to Afro-Cuban religious themes than Catholic ones. Traditionalist artists such as Manuel Vega Lopez (1892-1954), Oscar Carda Rivera ( 1914-1971) and Manuel Mesa Hermida ( 1895-197 1) painted Catholic and/or Afro-Cuban religious subjects. Of the modernist artists, Antonio Gattorno, Aristides Fernandez, Mariano Rodrfguez, and especially Fidelio Ponce de Leon painted highly personal interpretations of Catholic iconography. Carlos Enrfquez, Roberto Diago, Mario Carreno and especially Wifredo Lam imagined an Afro-Cuban religious iconography. Rene Portocarrero drew from both traditions.

In this exhibition the presence of the Catholic tradition in early twentieth-century art begins with Jorge Arche's ( 1905-1956) Portrait of Mongsenior Angel Caztelu, 1937 (Plate 3). Caztelu was at the time a young priest, poet, and supporter of Cuban modern art. Gaztelu' s friendship with a number of artists led in one way or another to the creation of important, if few, Catholic themed paintings in Cuban modern art: Arfstides Fernandez's The Burial of Chnst, ca. 1933, Mariano Rodriguez's The Cruxifiction and The Resurrection, 1944, and Fidelio Ponce's St. Ignatius of Loyola, late 1930s (Plate 46). In his portraits, Arche used a clean, linear style adapted from 15th century Italian Renaissance painting, which in this case gives the figure of the Monsignor a sober religious aura. Contrasting with the calm regal figure of Caztelu is Bermudez's humble Red Monk, 1948 (Plate 7). In a restrained but vigorous expressionist style, he represented a well-built monk standing against an ambiguous painterly background. The allusion to Catholicism is merely in the title.

If nothing else, the paintings of Ponce and Lam are enough to make the poetic representation of religious subject matter an important theme in Cuban modern art. Ponce, who studied for two years at San Alejandro and never traveled abroad, painted a sizable and powerful body of medium sized oils based on Catholic themes: Christ, nuns, initiates and at least one saint. He bathed his subject in an intense light suggesting a mystical vision. This exhibition features Novice, 193 8 and Saint Ignatius of Loyola (fig.12, Plate 46). Novice is a daring study in white suggesting an ethereal spiritual being. It is one of Ponce's most radical paintings in its extensive and refined used of white. Saint Ignatius offers one of the most unique and imaginative interpretations of the founder of the Jesuit Order. The strong contrast of black and white, the slanting figure of the saint, and the surprising still life next to him makes this painting dramatic and unsettling.

Lam, Cuba's best-known artist, studied at San Alejandro and at Madrid's San Fernando academy of art. He lived in Spain for an extended period of time and in Paris for two intensive years between 1938 and 1940. There he befriended Picasso, Matisse, and Breton among other leading figures of European modern art. On his return to Cuba in 1941, he took on the subject of Afro-Cuban religious traditions from a poetic and symbolic point of view. Using the tools of cubism and surrealism, he represented the persistence of African beliefs in Cuba. Included in this exhibition are two major paintings, which represent two stages of his development during his most valued decade. Malembo, Cod of the Crossroads, 1943, shows an early stage of his interest in Afro-Cuban sacred figures and rituals, when he set deities and their action in an exuberant, sun bathed, tropical background (Plate 27). Later in the decade, he did a series of elegant black and white paintings, such as For Want of Day, 1945 in which the Afro-Cuban subject takes on a more mystical quality. Lam's epic canvases and forceful style gave his representation of Afro-Cuban religion and culture a new gravitas with an edge (Fig.6). One other important painting with an Afro­Cuban religious theme in this exhibition is Portocarrero's Sorcerer, 1945. In his signature neo­baroque style the artist totally integrates dynamic figures with a dense plant background suggesting the metamorphosis of man and nature (Plate 51).

The representation of religious themes in early twentieth-century Cuban painting is relatively small, but significant. In the 1930s and 1940s Afro-Cuban religions and their expression in popular culture entered Cuban high art and reached an early peak in the work of Wifredo Lam. Paintings and sculpture inspired by Catholic religious figures and events had their day in the 1940s emanating from artists associated with the Origenes group. A decade earlier, however, Fidelio Ponce had already painted the most imaginative and moving interpretations of Catholic figures.


Since the early twentieth-century popular music has been one of Cuba's major cultural exports and known far better than its literature and visual arts. The musical forms known as Rumba and Son were particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s and inspired a number of painters. Among the modernist painters, Abela was one of the first to represent scenes of musicians and dancers performing popular music, such as Party in the Outbuildings, 1927 (Fig.14). In this early modernist painting, Abela was particularly effective in giving the sense of animated dance movements and music through the handling of color and lines. Vfctor Manuel painted a few but ambitious carnival scenes in the l 940s. The one in this exhibition, Carnival, shows a group of revelers, some couples, engaged in vigorous street dancing (Plate 23). Among the traditionalists, Oscar Carcfa Rivera was also attracted to carnival scenes, as seen in his large Carnival Street Dance, ca. 1940 (Plate 54). Using a representational approach, Carda Rivera concentrates on illustrating a custom rather expressing, as in the case of Vfctor Manuel, the rhythm and sensuality of Afro-Cuban popular music.

Carlos Enriquez's The Musicians, 1935 is an outstanding representation of a Son musical group of the 1930s, when this type of music was at its high point (Plate 15). He paints a group of Afro-Cubans playing bongos and guitar and singing and dancing. The expressionistic approach and the dynamic representation of the dancing figure suggest the music itself. Sanchez Araujo's ( 1887-1946) Black Musician (Plate 3) is a study for a section of a large painting entitled La Rumba of 1937. In a realistic style that contrasts with Enriquez, he also represented a convincing scene of a musician in action and the suggestion of drumming sounds.

One of the most impressive representations of the musical theme in Cuban modem painting is Carreno's The Afro-Cuban Dance, 1943 (Plate 9). This large painting offers a monumental expression of sacred Afro-Cuban dance and by extension, music. A costumed male is shown dancing with a semi-nude female in the countryside at night. The massive but dynamic figures, painted with bright colors, bold curves, and collage elements, create a strong sense of movement. The mood of the painting is earthy and mysterious at the same time.

In two important and contrasting paintings in this exhibition the piano takes center stage. This instrument was introduced to Cuba in the 1830s and its practice soon spread due to the formation of numerous music schools during the same decade. By the early twentieth century piano lessons were part of the education of middle and upper class Cuban women. Pelaez's Women Playing Piano, 1940s represents that tradition (Plate 36). In her various versions of the subject, sometimes showing a duo playing the instrument as in this case, the performance or lesson is an intimate and domestic affair, suggested by the closeness of the figure(s) to the picture plane and by the shallow home interior. On the other side of the spectrum, the piano is part of a popular music scene in Roberto Diago's (1920-1955) Woman at Piano, 1940s (Plate 14). He represents a nude Afro-Cuban woman wearing large earrings and playing the instrument in a pitch-black space. The extensive use of black in the background gives the painting an air of mystery, accentuated by the ambiguity of the scene itself. Is this a nightclub act? Black musicians working directly or indirectly for the tourist industry prevailed in Havana then as now.

Painters in the early Republican period introduced Afro-Cuban popular music into high art as an expression of lo cubano. They paid tribute to Cuba's most widely recognized artistic form, the traditionalists mostly concerned with representing the musicians, instruments and dancers, and the modernists with the expression of the music's insistent rhythm.

The general preoccupation seen in the art of the Americas between the World Wars with national ethos is mirrored in Cuban painting. Being a new Republic, the symbolization of a national cultural identity carried some urgency and intensity. As usual with nationalism, there is not one stable vision of the nation, but different competing views depending on class, race, gender, dominant region, and moment in time. In the process of imagining the nation, some saw Cuba's cultural essence in the Spanish heritage, others in Afro-Cuban popular culture, still others in the blend of the two. Likewise, some perceived the countryside as the face and repository of authentic Cuban culture, while others found it in the eclectic urbanism of Havana. In all, Cuban painting in the first fifty years of the Republic offers a fundamental and dynamic discourse on Cuban cultural identity(ies) in the making.