Antonia Eiriz:

Tribute to a Legend

Museum of Art, Ft. Lauderdale

Antonia Eiriz ( 1929-1995) was one of the leading artists of the I 960s generation in Cuba, an outstanding art instructor; and a myth in her own time.1 She graduated in 1958 from Havana's San Alejandro Academy of Art, yet her artistic education came mostly from her close contact with the abstract expressionist artists of the group known as Los Once ( 1953-55). Although she went her own figurative way, Eiriz was friends with the artists of this group and considered one of its founders, Guido Llinas, her maestro.2 She shared with the artists of this group an interest in creating an art that was intuitive, existential, and formally conscious.
D Eiriz had her first one-person show in 1964, by which time she had developed a highly personal style and iconography, as seen in paintings like Mis companeras (My Comrades) 1962-63, Cristo saliendo de Juanelo (Christ Leaving Juanelo) c. 1963-64, Ni muertos (Not Even Dead) n/d, and El dueno de las caba/litos (The Owner of the Merry-Go-Round) 1964. In their ambitious scale, scarred surfaces, contorted figures, and raw emotionalism these paintings surpassed all forms of expressionism ever practiced in Cuba. Her best known work, La anunciaci6n (The Annunciation) ca. 1963-64 is one of the most unique modern versions of this recurring subject in Western art She represented the divine messenger as an aggressive and skeletal fallen angel, the Virgin Mary as a frightened, ordinary seamstress (who resembles the artist's mother; then recently deceased), and inverted the message to one of fear and death. She brought this traditional subject up-to-date, making it more relevant to our distressful times. In general, her I 960s images are outbursts of rage at the human condition in the best modern tradition of Francisco Goya, James Ensor; Kathe Kollwitz, Jean Dubuffet, Clemente Orozco, and Francis Bacon. In Cuba, Eiriz's works of biting political criticism have their predecessor in the drawings of Rafael Blanco ( 1885-1955), whereas her more personal somber works have their forerunner in some of the paintings of Fidelio Ponce ( 1895-1949) and Raul Mil(an ( 1908-1984). Her immediate artistic family also includes the literature of Virgilio Pinera ( 1912-1979) in its mordant black humor.

The violence and drama of her I 960s works signify not only a generalized tragic view of humanity, they symbolize the uncertain time and place in which Eiriz lived. The turbulent I 960s were especially intense in Cuba. There the decade arrived exactly a year ahead of schedule with the triumph of a full-scale revolution, and reached an early peak with Cuba's protagonist role in the near Armageddon known as the October Missile Crisis of 1962. For the most part, however; Cuban artists of the I 960s represented the positive and heroic aspects of the new revolution. On this issue, the artist and critic Antonio Eligio (Tonel) has keenly observed: "Other painters [than Eiriz ], immersed in the same reality, captured its external aspects, a documentation as it were from the outside in ... Some, without noticing perhaps, softened in extreme the image of that reality: they saw only doves where there were also vultures, hawks and owls: they put in the foreground, as the norm, love and forgot the hatred which had daily expressions, and which took its toll in blood and life, needs and mutilations."3 Antonia Eiriz and her colleague Angel Acosta Leon ( 1930-1964) were the exception to their generation's idealization of revolutionary Cuba, instead they explored (each in his/her own unique way) the darker side of theirs and Cuban life in the 1960s.

Some of Eiriz's paintings, particularly those representing tribunes such as El Vasa de Agua (The Glass of Water) 1962, Los de Arriba y las de Abaja (Those Above and Those Below) 1963, and Naturaleza Muerta (Still-Life) 1967, crossed the line into the realm of political criticism. They exposed Cuban and Latin American revolutionary tendency of the I 960s for grand dais, growing demagoguery, and frenzied crowds. Paradoxically, some of her most effective tribune images do not show the orator and yet evoke an overwhelming sense of presence. The negative official reaction to her tribune paintings, compounded by daily struggles of a more personal nature, led her to quit making art in 1969. Amazingly, in less than a decade of sustained artistic practice, which included painting, drawing, printmaking and assemblages, Eiriz made an indelible mark in Cuban art.

Eiriz was not only a first rate artist, but an excellent teacher as well. This activity represents the other side of her legacy to contemporary Cuban art By all accounts she was a dedicated teacher of "fine arts" and "crafts", which she taught to very different student bodies. From 1965 to 1969 she was an art professor at Cubanacan National School of Art, where her warm yet rigorous instruction won the admiration of an entire generation of young artists. Tomas Sanchez, a former student and highly successful painter, paid her the highest tribute when he said: "She taught me how to see, [ whereas other] art professors taught technique, formula, and theory."4 During the 1970s Eiriz retreated to Juanelo and began a workshop of papier mache. For this project she recruited most of her working class neighbors. In this role she consciously realized what is perhaps the most revolutionary kind of art activity-reaching the impoverished, opening their eyes and mind to their own creativity, and teaching them a liberating way of making a living. This project culminated in 1979 with a major exhibition of her students' work at the former house of the countess of Revillacamargo in the Vedado district of Havana.5 More importantly, many of the people she taught at the Juanelo papier mache workshop became full-time artisans. Eiriz's teaching legacy is substantial and, as her artistic contribution, is only beginning to be recognized in its full measure.

Antonia Eiriz's artistic and teaching talent, combined with her early retirement from art making, and her partial seclusion in Juanelo, made her by the 1980s a mythic figure in Cuban culture. During this decade she received a number of awards by the Ministry of Culture, yet the most rewarding tribute came from Silvia Margarita del Valle, Nelson Villalobos, and other art students who convinced her to be a part of a thesis project, which included a one-person show. The exhibition, entitled Reencuentro and held at Galerfa de Galiano in 1991, was very well attended and represented the rediscovery of Eiriz by a new generation of artists, who themselves were taking a more independent and critical stance vis-a-vis their social environment. From the Reencuentro exhibition on, the last years of her life were quite eventful. Among other things, she moved to Miami in 1993 and returned with energy to art making and exhibiting.

The 1990s drawings and paintings represent a continuation of her I 960s work in style and content, yet there are significant differences related to the fact that they are twenty-five years apart The distorted human figure, sometimes reduced to a skull, the ambiguous and constrained spaces, the dark tonalities, the suggestive and ironic titles, and the biting socio-political and humanistic message are all still there in paintings like Crucifixion, Paisaje interior (Interior Passage), Entre lineas (Between the Lines), and Bonsai, all from 1993. She resumed with full confidence her tragic vision of human cruelty, anguish, and pain; however, the general mood of her expressionistic images shifted from anger and outrage to a resigned pessimism about the human (and the Cuban) condition. The smaller format canvases, painterly surfaces, jewel-like colors, and more abstract figuration offer a sad meditation, rather than an indictment on humanity at large and her own people in particular. This is also true of her more dramatic 1994 series of black and white paintings, which includes the unsettling Matemidad (Maternity) and the haunting No somos uno (We Are Not One). In many of the recent paintings the figures are shown mutilated to signify society's stifiing of the individual in order to restrain his/her behavior. Eiriz likened this process to that of the bonsai method of pruning and controlling plants. Personally, Eiriz identified with this theme due to her descending from a traditional Spanish family, which curtailed most women's ambitions beyond home life, and her coming from a country with a government intent on controlling every citizen's move. In any case, the conceit of human bonsai is a major theme of the late work.

At the end she was working on a group of paintings for this exhibition, of which Vereda tropical (Tropical Path) 1995 is vintage Eiriz. The title, ironically appropriated from a sugary popular song, clashes with the painted image of a bleak path, next to a wall of human heads, leading to a vanishing sunset. At its most universal, this desolate landscape negates the traditional idealization of sunny, care-free life in the tropics.A more historical specific reading suggest the end of an era and its terrible human toll. On a personal level, the image foretold the winding-up of the artist's own life journey To the extent that that journey crossed into the arena of contemporary Cuban art and culture, Eiriz the artist­teacher-myth contributed a different, compassionate, and tragic voice of considerable impact. When properly recognized in and outside of Cuba, she will take her rightful position as one of the most moving expressionist artists of late modernism.