AFTER HALF A CENTURY OF HISTORY…
An Approach to the Taller Experimental de Gráfica in Havana
Any approach to the history of engraving in Cuba must take into account the creation of the Taller Experimental de Gráfica de La Habana (Graphic Experimental Workshop, TEGH in its acronym in Spanish) in July 1962, which marked a turning point in the development of this expression in the island. An important step had already been given by Carmelo González and a group of artists in the Cuban Engravers Association (1949) when estimating the aesthetic qualities of the genre and endowing it with a value in the national artistic panorama since, as it is well known, from the beginning of engraving in Cuba in the 18th century it was always dealt with prejudices.
With the Revolution of 1959, and all the changes in the cultural field this brought with it, a true take-off of graphic art in the country could be appreciated. The TEGH became the space that made that momentum possible. In it, the best of the former tradition, but endowing engraving with a much more contemporary nature, especially with a trend to experimentation, was defended. Artists like José Contino, Rafael Zarza, José Gómez Fresquet (Frémez), Alfredo Sosabravo and others, began to give new airs of renovation to the art of the press, from technical and conceptual inquiries. Painters and even sculptors became habitués in the Workshop and took on the space as a sort of laboratory allowing them to experiment with new languages and forms of creation.
Also, teaching became a tradition. The environment propitiated teachers to train the younger students, which was accentuated with the progressive insertion of graduates of the San Alejandro Academy and the High Institute of Arts. Another fact that favored the continuity and promotion of the works was the creation of some events which highlighted the role of this expression in the island. They were the “Victor Manuel” First Engraving Triennial in 1979, the First National Engraving Meeting in 1983 and the La Joven Estampa Award, sponsored by Casa de las Américas in 1987; besides, the Havana Biennial also reserved a space for Cuban engravers to dialogue with artists from other latitudes. First and foremost, national events planned theoretical discussions with an extraordinary value for the updating of the genre, through lectures, practical classes and exhibitions.
Not exempt from vicissitudes, the Workshop has known how to maintain itself with the pass of time, negotiating the limitations of an economic nature and trying to renew from the postulates that gave place to its foundation. Its present director, artist Octavio Irving, who assumes the challenge of recovering the vitality that has characterized this institution, projects himself with this perspective after several years of some inertia. The Eighth National Engraving Meeting, held in 2013, six years after its former edition, allowed a reflection on new concept regarding graphic art and the way it is brought up to date with the new times.
In a conversation we held, Octavio Irving highlighted that in theoretical subject matters there is still a debate on the techniques and negation of some given stereotypes in the order of making the engraving. There is always a bet to discuss the value of the work as a result further away from the procedures themselves, that is, their aesthetic and conceptual values over and above the methodology it gave rise to.
Nowadays, visiting the TEGH, retracing the steps between machines and desks, becomes a pleasant experience when discovering a staff of artists from various generations, whose works stand out because of the experimentation with diverse techniques and supports and, above all, by a great creative sense. Although thematic motivations and aesthetic concerns are diverse in each of them, the mastery of the trade and the need to make from engraving an active manifestation which also transforms and adapts to its times joins them together. So besides from impeccable xylographies, lithographies, chalcographies or colographies, we find mixed media works experiencing with several of them, or combining them with photography, digital print, installation or video.
Many of these engravers have been able to conquer a symbolic universe and a way of doing that identifies them and reveals the obsession, whether by technical experimentation in function of the visual effect, by a given idea or discourse, or by both at the same time.1
Orlando Montalván centers on the object as a symbol bearer of multiple meanings in its relationship with men; that is why he resizes them from the increase of their real size, turning them into the main—and at times unique—character of his works. Another younger artist, Jesús Hernández (Güero), combines objects on a large scale with a totally new one resulting from them. Although for both of them the point of departure is generally xylography and chalcography, they turn to new proposals to present the final result whether, respectively, appealing to the use of the matrix or the union with objects.
Not exempt from vicissitudes, the TEGH has known how to maintain itself with the pass of time, negotiating the limitations of an economic nature and trying to renew from the postulates that gave place to its foundation in 1962.
On the other hand, Octavio Irving is particularly obsessed by an individual element: the boat, represented as a landscape. With time, the artist has been cleansing his speech on an idea, on a synthesis stripping this symbol from its traditional associations and allowing it to be appreciated as an entity in itself. At times, the interest in the form has even made him reach abstraction.
The liberation of the stroke, the line extended beyond its limits, stand out, as also happens in those pieces where the animals— another of his topics—take up the center.
In other engravers, the visual impact is achieved by the color effect. The xylographies by Dairán Fernández, who covers entire levels of colors deriving in very personal and expressive compositions, are extraordinarily attractive. At times, his works remind those of Marcelo Pogolotti, a classic in Cuban avant-garde, when representing factories, industries and the smoke of ships and trains crossing the air. Also, the engravings by Alejandro Saínz, with scenes of divers, loaded with irony, call attention and display a great mastery of the trade.2 Rafael Paneca, an engraver with a larger tradition, and Norberto Marrero, also make use of color as an expressive element. In the last one, humor and sarcasm go hand in hand, as in the series Imagínate Durero, made in the technique of illuminated chalcography, for which he takes the Asian culture as a referent.
And what can we say about Julio César Peña's work, in which the format denotes a technical display, demonstrating the mastery of the craft he has acquired even without attending the academy. With a great sense of humor, his leading characters— the skulls—recreate in the most diverse spaces and attitudes; they do not make us remember death, but incorporate into the world of the living. In several occasions the artist makes use of the context, its individuals and situations, to build scenes with a certain air of local customs where characters and environments are recognizable.
Another visuality is contributed by works of Yamilis Brito,
Edgar Echevarría and Ángel Rivero, who work engraving with other techniques and supports. Yamilis Brito makes digital prints and incorporates on them pieces of engravings; Edgar Echevarría transports photos to the lithograph plate and then works on them achieving various visual effects, while Ángel Rivero creates installations as Lito luz II, in which he incorporates light boxes to the pieces.
Undoubtedly, those who are younger do not only guarantee the continuity of the genre, but also contribute to enrich the visual diversity appreciated in contemporary graphic art. Xylographies by Marcel Molina, who was awarded in the Eight National Engraving Meeting for his large format works related to the topic of the sugar mills, thus illustrate it. In this series entitled Raíz que no florece (Root that Does Not Bloom), the handling of the technique is highlighted, together with the perspective from which he presents the issues. In another sense, Desbel Álvarez, who works mixed technique besides colography—he used this last one in the recent series where he builds the destroyed facades in Havana—; and Eduardo Leyva, confronting the practice of engraving from the ideas suggested by the association with graphic processes taking place away from the artistic field as, for example, wood packing used for the transportation of certain products.
In short, and although I have only mentioned some of the most representative exponents of the work in the TEGH, I may say that this space continues to be essential for the acquisition of knowledge, exchange and experimentation.
Lastly, it is worthwhile to point out the link the institution maintains with the teachers and artists of former generations.
When referring to this, Octavio Irving highlights the presence of Pablo Borges, who is considered a master of chalcography and is almost permanently there, as well as Ángel Ramírez, who is still active; also José Omar Torres, Rafael Zarza, Pedro Pablo Oliva, Nelson Domínguez, Zaida del Río, Ernesto García Peña, Choco, among others, who fundamentally visit the TEGH to work on lithographies or chalcographies. Some of these artists, to which others add up, come claiming for illustrations of texts or tributes that the TEGH, from its art codes, gives to certain personalities.
Just to mention some of them, the illustrations in El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, an edition for the fourth centenary of the novel, are of singular beauty, as well as those created to render tribute to Lorenzo Homar, illustrious Puerto Rican engraver.
Many are the challenges the TEGH still has, not only artistic, but also economic,3 especially because of the non-existence of a national input market, thus requiring to make orders from abroad— generally in an individual way—to be provided with materials. Anyway, the main incentive continues to be the technique in itself as a point of departure for experimentation, which was made visible in the exhibition Todo INK (All INK) in the Twelfth Havana Biennial.
It is not my intention to overestimate the activity in a space which is in a revitalization process, recovering that energy characterizing it for decades, but to acknowledge in its fair measure the aesthetic values of Cuban contemporary engraving and the role this has had in the TEGH, an institution that tries to honor its name after half a century of history.
1. The references to works and artists that will later be made have to do with their most recent creations, especially what is at present in the gallery of the Graphic Experimental Workshop. This is why all the topics, techniques or supports with which these engravers have experimented are not dealt with.
2. The series Veinte mil leguas de viajes y mentiras (Twenty Thousand Miles of Trips and Lies), in which the characters are divers, is particularly attractive.
3. According to what Octavio Irving told me, with the changes in the economic order that have operated in Cuba, the National Council of Visual Arts has asked the TEGH to rethink new forms of management.
The possibility of changing the structures and nomenclatures has been considered so the income it may yield can be used in the institution itself.