Painter of Cuban Ballads
University Press of Florida
Defining an Artistic Credo
In 1934 Carlos Enriquez named his artistic production romancero guajiro or "Cuban Peasant Ballads." The label loosely covers a body of paintings, miscellaneous writings and one novel that altogether represents one of the finest achievements of modernism in Latin America. Following the modernist tradition of writing manifestos to inform, convince, and influence people, he wrote two explanatory pieces that are actually closer in spirit to the contemporary practice known as "artist statement," because of their informality and poetic slant. Acquaintance with those artist's statements, Criollismo and its Visual Interpretation of 1935 and another one, Untitled of 1936, is essential for an understanding of Enriquez's artistic credo. In essence his artistic aim was to synthesize modernism and criollismo; more specifically he appropriated certain aspects of European Modern Art, Expressionism and Surrealism in particular, to visualize Cuban rural and vernacular Not long after returning to Cuba, immersed in European art and ideas, Enriquez rediscovered the Cuban countryside by taking care of family business in the island's interior. 110 These two unrelated and somewhat accidental experiences, his European visit and trips to the Cuban countryside, turned out to be the inspiration for and the soul of his art.
"Trabajo actualmente en lo que podria llamarse el romancero guajiro, es decir, la pintura del guajiro en su paisaje, rodeado de ese algo misterioso y fantåstico que puebla su soledad con curiosas leyendas que surgen de su contacto directo con la tierra que, como los muertos, prouce fosforescencia." ("I am presently working in what could be called Cuban peasant ballads, that is to say, paintings of the peasant in his landscape, surrounded by that mysterious and fantastic something which populates his loneliness with peculiar legends that spring from his direct contact with the earth which, like the dead, produces a phosphorescence.") In this most relevant section of a statement for a 1936 exhibition catalogue (please see Addendum C for the entire text), Carlos Enriquez first gave a name to his artistic credo: romancero guajiro.
Carlos Enriquez's concept and name for his artistic production is an American adaptation of a European model, in this case, a visual Cuban version of Federico Garcia Lorca's poetry collection, Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads). To the extent that titles suggest intentions and strategies, romancero guajiro, the name of a traditional and popular Spanish verse form with an indigenous word guajiro (specifically pertaining to the Cuban peasant) suggests a strong relation between lo cubano (that which is Cuban) and lo español (that which is Spanish). To make lo cubano visible and understandable on an international plane, he framed it in Spanish and European terms.
In the text, Carlos Enriquez offers a succinct explanation of Enriquez privileged the human figure in all his work - paintings and writings - and yet in the romancero guajiro, he emphasized the connection, not necessarily harmonious, between the guajiro and "his" landscape, between man and nature. In this respect, Enriquez aligned himself with mainstream criollismo, in which direct contact with the earth is a primary sign of authenticity and identity. Where Enriquez's statement follows a more independent path within criollismo, is in its sub-theme, the painting of the peasant and his landscape "surrounded by that mysterious and fantastic something. " Of the many aspects of rural life observed by Enriquez as a child in the town of Zulueta, Las Villas, and as an adult in visits to the island's interior, it was its mythical dimension that most interested him. He was not only attracted to Cuban rural myths and those of other countries, but thought of the artist, in Surrealist fashion, as a mythmaker. Besides a personal tendency to mythologize experience and history, Enriquez's mythologizing can be seen as a strategy to make his rural images more accessible to a Havana middle-class audience and, beyond that, to an international market.
A more complete picture of Carlos Enriquez's romancero guajiro emerges from a longer, more thoughtful text that he wrote a year earlier. In it, he discussed the main issues of his romancero guajiro: the subjective and mythical in art, the tension between the rural and the urban, and the rescue of a heroic past. "La interpretación del asunto cubano, como valor plástico, ha de ser, necesariamente, ohjetivo o subjetivo. " ("The interpretation of the Cuban subject matter, regarding its artistic value, has to be, necessarily, objective or subjective. He begins by establishing a difference between two main artistic approaches prevalent in Cuban art of his day, an "objective" or naturalistic approach, which in painting represented his nemesis - academic art - and his own and that of the grupo moderno (modern group), a "subjective" or expressionistic approach. Enriquez explains the subjective process, which he believed to be superior, as that in which the artist "ha sentido la emociön del medio, o bien, ha sido sensible al sentido esotérico delpaisaje, no como realidad, antes bien, como alimento espiritual que ha jugado un importante papel en el desarrollo de su propia Vida" ( "has felt the emotion of his surroundings, or has been sensible to the esoteric quality of the landscape, not as a reality, but instead, as spiritual nutriment that has played an important role in the development of his own life"). Enriquez viewed the Cuban landscape less as a concrete reality to represent, than as a "spiritual nutriment" for his own human and artistic development.
The second and most extensive issue Carlos Enriquez deals with in his "Criollismo and Its Visual Interpretation " statement is the widespread view in his day that the rural is the true repository of vernacular and therefore of authentic Cuban culture. "El asunto plåstico cubano puede enfocarse de dos maneras; la que yo llano "habanera', y la del resto de la isla... La 'habanera' encierra una mezcla cosmopolitana folklörica, hibrida, desvinculada, sin responsabilidad nacional" ("The subject matter of Cuban plastic arts can be approached in two ways; the one I refer to as 'that of Havana', and that of the rest Of the island... 'That of Havana' embodies a cosmopolitan and folkloric mix, hybrid, alienated, without national responsibility"). According to Enriquez and others of his generation, Havana represented an unauthentic culture, separate from the realities of the rest of the island, and therefore lacking "national responsibility." As examples, he cites that in Havana "los sextetos de son interpretan tangos, las maracas, el guiro y el bongó se sustituyen por instrumentos propios del fox-trot, los cuadros de los profesores de San Alejandro son reminiscencias de las academias de otros paises, y el sombrero fresco y amplio, de guano, se sustituye por fieltros italianos" ("the son musical sextets interpret tangos, the maracas, the guiro and bongo drums are substituted for instruments typical of the fox-trot; the paintings of the professors of San Alejandro are reminiscent of the academies of another country.. ., and the fresh and wide Cuban straw hat is substituted for Italian felts"). By contrast, in the countryside, there was the possibility of capturing, through intuition, more than sight, "Todo 1o que permanece puro, protegido por un saludable y beatifico aislamiento" (" All that remains pure, protected by a healthy and beatific isolation"). Accordingly, the countryside remained the repository of an authentic and seminal Cuban culture, protected by its separateness.
The dismissal of urban popular and high culture, that of Havana in particular, as a "hybrid" and the privileging of the rural as "pure" and thus authentic, manifests Enriquez's problematic relationship with the modernist internationalist project and its notions of universality. In the realm of real politics and economics, Enriquez's criticism of Havana conveniently left out the fact that the city of Havana was the principal site for the debate of the concept of a national cultural and political identity, and that his art was primarily aimed at a Havana audience.
A third significant issue addressed by Carlos Enriquez in his "Criollismo..." statement is that of rescuing from oblivion a seminal cultural past. "En mis viajes por el interior de la isla, he tropezado con eslabones perdidos de expresiön plåstica cabana, olvidados ya, que se remontan a los tiempos heroicos de Manuel Garcia y del Cucalamhé " ("In my trips to the interior of the island, I have stumbled upon missing links in the artistic expression of Cuba, already forgotten, which go back to the heroic times of Manuel Garcia [legendary bandit/freedom fighter] and El Cucalambé [popular 19th century Cuban poet]"). Enriquez's romancero guajiro is also a rescue project, of "heroic times" on its way to extinction from the national imaginary. For Enriquez and his generation, the "heroic times" were roughly established during Cuba's Wars of Independence from Spain, between 1868 and 1898. Basically, Enriquez's heroic dimension was symbolized by two groups of individuals who crossed paths and identities: legendary bandits and mambises (independence fighters). Enriquez represented in his works these often-allied-rebellious forces by portraying the best-known leaders of these camps: Manuel Garcia and José Marti, the subject of two of the most acclaimed paintings of his romancero guajiro.
The two artist's statements examined above offer the best insight to Enriquez's artistic intentions. They not only provide an overview of his artistic interests and aims, but also a point of reference to identify the iconography of his paintings and to dig into their possible meanings.
ADDENDUM - B
El Criollismo y su interpretación plástica, por Carlos Enríquez
Grafos 3 (Havana, Dec. Ills. *
La interpretación del asunto cubano, como valor plástico, ha de ser, necesariamente, objetivo o subjetivo. Dentro de esta última modalidad - las estilizaciones, estilos, y escuelas no llevan en sí la esencia de las cosas, sino la técnica aprendida cabe toda la expresión del artista que ha sentido la emoción del medio, o bien ha sido sensible al sentido esotérico del paisaje, no como realidad, antes bien como alimento espiritual que ha jugado un importante papel en el desarrollo de su propia vida.
Digamos, pues, que la interpretación objetiva carece, en este caso, de valor interpretativo. Cualquier inteleâualoide burocratizado, hábil lector de relojes de gas, puede improvisarse pintor y adquirir, ¿por qué no? , cierto lenguaje plástico, pero nunca, afirmamos, captará el espíritu, esa fuerza maravillosa que se escapa a un espectador poco avisado y sentimos íntimamente, porque forma ya parte de nuestro bagaje emocional.
Cierto que un artista extranjero puede pintar asuntos cubanos, un turista cree que basta disparar el muelle del diafragma de su cámara fotográfica para asombrar a sus conterráneos y un pintor de los nuestros de esos becados vitalicios que alimenta el Estado - a su regreso de una prolongada estancia en el extranjero, piensa que su paleta es capaz de enfrentarse felizmente con Io indígena. Se verá, al fin, que su posición es falsa, esto es, que carece del órgano de captación necesario para realizar la empresa. En este caso el pintor logrará una representación gráfica, mecánica de las cosas, lo exterior, lo objetivo. Para nosotros, en cambio, Io esencial es sentir el ambiente, saturarse del medio y expresar después de manera elocuente y sincera, esas interioridades que vienen a la mente como los guajiros endomingados al pueblo.
Es natural que el poder creativo y la imaginación sean una cualidad del artista, puesto que es inútil suplirlos con pura técnica. La técnica es secundaria en el proceso de creación artística: medio único para llegar a un fin: pero nunca punto simultáneo de llegada y partida. Podemos asegurar que si un pintor se coloca ante una tela, movido únicamente de preocupaciones técnicas, hará todo, menos una obra seria de arte. El pintor debe ser algo más que una foca mansa o un caballo adiestrado, que asombran por sus habilidades a los espectadores embaucados de un circo provinciano.
El asunto plástico cubano puede enfocarse de dos maneras: las que yo llamo "habanera' , y las del resto de la isla, que incluye la vida pueblerina, campesina, montuna, saturada de mitos y leyendas fantásticas, de espíritus aparecidos, jigües, lloronas, "vudismo". En cambio la "habanera" encierra una mezcla cosmopolita y folc16rica, hibrida, desvinculada, sin responsabilidad nacional.
La esencia artistica de las cosas se encuentra, casi siempre, en 10 que tienen de primitivas. En mis viaies por el interior de la isla he tropezado, materialmente, con curiosos eslabones perdidos de expresiön plåstica cubana, olvidados ya, que se remontan a los tiempos heroicos de Manuel Garcia y del Cucalambé. Bien dicen los simples guaiiros que "desde la Guerra Chiquita hasta el Ciclön Grande, aqui no se ha sembrao yuca". Es necesario buscar 10 vernacular en los campos de Cuba. Büsqueda dificultosa, si recordamos que los cahaverales han aprendido inglés y saben repetir, de memoria, lecciones de geografia. Confieso mi atracciön por la Vida montuna. De niho - creo que en mi se cumple el ciclo de subconsciencia de que nos habla Jung - me eran familiares Guaracabuya, Pirindingo, Mayajigua y Casimbas.
El desprecio por 10 vernacular se registra en La Habana, si observamos que los sextetos de son interpretan tangos sentimentales, arrabaleros, y las maracas, el güiro y el bong6 se sustituyen por instrumentos propios del fox trot. Los cuadros de los profesores de San Alejandro son reminiscencias de las academias de otros paises; la literatura nacional hace galeras, el sombrero fresco y amplio de guano se sustituye por fieltros italianos. No quiere esto decir que La Habana carezca de motivos plåsticos interesantes. A nuestro entender los tiene en demasia, hay que seleccionarlos y despojarlos de todo 1o ficticio y falso de que se han barnizado para encontrarlos. Idéntica labor tenemos que realizar en el campo, donde debemos intuir mås que ver, todo 10 que permanece puro, protegido por un saludable y beatifico aislamiento, de toda influencia cosmopolita.
Las ilustraciones publicadas con este articulo fueron: Mujer en el platanal, Entierro de la guajira, y una fotografia del artista.
Criollismo and its Visual Interpretation, by Carlos Enriquez, 1935
Grafos 3 (Havana, Dec. Ills.*
The pictorial interpretation of Cuban motifs has to be, necessarily, objective or subjective. Within this latest fashion, stylizations, styles and schools do not harbor the essence of things. but rather, the technique learned encompasses all of the expression of the artist who has felt the emotion of his surroundings or has been sensitive to the esoteric sense of the landscape, not as reality, but more readily as spiritual nourishment that has played an important role in the development of his own life.
Let us say then, that objective interpretation lacks, in this case, interpretative value. Any bureaucratized pseudo-intellectual, a skillful reader of gas clocks, can improvise himself as a painter and acquire, (why not?), a certain visual language. Yet never, we affirm, could he grasp the spirit, that marvelous force that escapes the casual viewer, and that we feel intimately, because it has become part of our emotional cultural wealth.
It is true that a foreign artist can paint Cuban motifs; a tourist thinks that it is enough to push the button of his camera's diaphragm to astonish his fellow citizens and a painter of ours - one of those perpetual recipients of scholarships from the state - on his return from an extended stay abroad, thinks that his palette is capable of facing anything native with glee. In the end, it will be clear that his position is false, thus meaning, that it lacks the grasping organ necessary to effectuate the undertaking. In this case, the painter will obtain a graphic, mechanical representation of things, of the outside, the objective. For us, however, what is essential is to feel the ambiance, to saturate ourselves in it, and then, in an eloquent and sincere manner, to express those internal feelings that come to our minds like guajiros in Sunday dress, going in to town.
It is natural that the power of creativity and imagination are qualities of the artist, since technique alone is insufficient. Technique is secondary in the process of artistic creation: it is a means to an end, never a simultaneous point of departure and arrival. We can be assured that if a painter before a canvas is moved only by technical concerns, he would do everything but produce a serious work of art. The painter has to be something more than a tame seal or trained horse that astonishes deceived viewers at a provincial circus.
The issue of Cuban painting can be focused in two ways: one that I call habanera (of Havana), and the other which pertains to the rest of the island, including the life of rural towns, the countryside, the interior, saturated with myths and fantastic legends, of spirit apparitions, Iloronas (women weepers) and "Voodoo". On the other hand, the habanera [life] is a mixture of cosmopolitan and folkloric ways, hybrid, uprooted, lacking national responsibilities.
The artistic essence of things can be found, almost always, in their primitiveness. In my trips through the interior of the island I have come across, physically, curious missing links of Cuban pictorial expression going back to the heroic times of Manuel Garcia and the C,ucalawhé, now forgotten. Rightly, the simple guajiros say: "From 'The Little War' to 'The Great Storm', yucca hasn't been cultivated here." It is necessary to look for the vernacular in the Cuban countryside. A difficult search if we remember that the sugar cane fields have learned English and recite geography lessons by heart. I confess my attraction for rural life. As a child - I think the cycle of the subconscious that Jung mentions is fulfilled in me these [rural places] were familiar to me: Guaracabuya, Pirindingo, Mayajigua and Casimbas.
The scorn for the vernacular is registered in Havana, where one can observe that the son (a popular genre of Cuban music) sextets interpret sentimental tangos, and the maracas, the giiiro, and the bongo drum are substituted by instruments of the fox trot. The paintings of the professors of the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts bring to mind the art academies of other countries; the national literature makes galleys; the wide and airy straw sombrero is being substituted by Italian felt hats. This doesn't mean that Havana lacks interesting pictorial motifs. To our understanding, the city has them in excess,
they just have to be selected and removed from everything fictitious and false with which they have been varnished. A similar task has to be undertaken in the countryside, where we have to use intuition more than sight to perceive all that remains pure, protected by a healthy and beatific isolation from all cosmopolitan influence.