To Maria Elena Jubrías, for the secret inspiration and the not always easy mutual love.
Diálogos Constructivistas en la Vanguardia Cubana, untold tales
In recent years the work of artists creating in Cuba, in particular those working within the boundaries of Abstract art after World War II, has been the focus of wide international attention. For many this observation comes as a surprise, especially when it seems opposed to the work by other members of Vanguardia Cubana, more inclined to create in a figurative mood and interested in building upon the ideals of national identity.
There might be several reasons for this latest development, but undoubtedly the recent scrutiny to which Latin American art has been subjected is a factor, due to its research and the study by art historians and curators. Consequently, their efforts have found a receptive dynamic echo in private collections that, through their force, have helped to move the production of those abstract artists to the frontline, heading into exhibitions in museums and galleries from Havana and Miami to London and New York.
Leading galleries like Galerie Lelong have recently added noteworthy substance to the conversation with the exhibition, Diálogos Constructivistas en la Vanguardia Cubana: Amelia Peláez, Loló Soldevilla and Zilia Sánchez (April 28 – June 25, 2016), with the consulting curatorship of Ingrid W. Elliott.
The show was accompanied by a well prepared and illustrated exhibition catalog featuring an essay by the curator, titled Between the Real and the Invisible.
The exhibition has been curated using artworks in several mediums, from works on paper, drawings and ceramics by Amelia Peláez (1896-1968), collages and sculptures by Loló Soldevilla (1901-1971) and Zilia Sánchez (b. 1926), as well as from paintings by the three artists. Giving equal attention to each artist, the thirty one pieces were accompanied by a display of ephemeral materials, like historical exhibition catalogues and photographs. In addition it included a vintage homemade color film of Havana from the late 1940s, shot by the Cuban-born art historian and founding curator and director of the Museum of the American States, José Gómez Sicre (1916-1991). The film could be seen as a homage to Gómez Sicre’s centennial.
In her essay in the catalog, Ms. Elliot is able to successfully shed some significant light on the intellectual connections between the works of these three Cuban amazon painters. She articulates organically the relationship of the works of Amelia and Loló, and how Sánchez took on their pictorial legacy, clearly pointing out what brings them together and apart. However, at times, she fails to establish a more complete background against which those artists were working in the island, and misses substance in her historical research.
Those Constructivist Dialogues on which the exhibition at Galerie Lelong focuses were started much earlier than the 1950s frames chosen by the curator to illustrate, and those exchanges built the base connecting the pictorial conversation between Peláez, Soldevilla and Sánchez. Along the way, the work of many artists that at the time were fundamental in the development of abstraction in Cuba have fallen into oblivion; today only a handful of them have been internationally “re-discovered” under the present currents.
While Abstraction started to be part of the island’s artistic landscape beginning in the early 1920s, and then blossomed in the 1950s, it became almost silent after the first half of the 1960s, but by some means has shown signs of vitality in recent years.
The social-economic path that the island nation has lived from the 1960s to the present somehow helps to leave Abstraction and its history in a contradictory state, in plain sight and obscurity at once. After 1959, the genre was never openly censored but was also not promoted by the new state which, until recently, was the sole proprietor of galleries and museums.
Giving equal attention to each artist, the thirty one pieces were accompanied by a display of ephemeral materials, like historical exhibition catalogues and photographs.
The group of modern painters known later as the First Generation1 of the Cuban Vanguardia officially broke into the artistic scene on May 7, 1927, with Primera Exposición de Arte Nuevo in association with Revista de Avance, an Avant Garde literary magazine of progressive orientation. The artists, not all of them Cuban,2 presented works that were not all modern, but the sense of the organizers3 and their intention of breaking barriers with the establishment at the time made the exhibition a success, and later a landmark in the national intellectual realm. In following decades, some of the artists and organizers became bastions of support for and opposition to abstraction in the island.
Among the artists associated with Revista de Avance, José Manuel Acosta (1895-1973),4 a photographer and illustrator, was responsible for the design of the first published abstract book cover in Cuba, a constructivist composition for the book of poetry Hermanita (1927), by his well-known brother Agustín Acosta.5
Beginning in 1923 he was publishing, alongside Enrique Riverón (1902-1998), illustrations with cubist and abstract influences in Social and Carteles magazines. His photography was inspired by the work of Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, as well as by Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, whom he had known around
1931 after traveling to New York. That same year he started his photographic experimentations with constructivist compositions over emulsified paper, shown in 1939 at El Lyceum.6
Both publications, Social and Carteles, were founded and owned by Conrado Massaguer (1889-1965), a Cuban caricaturist based in New York. He was a celebrity in the island and in the city, where he frequently collaborated with The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among other relevant publications. Massaguer and Riverón, among other caricaturists, were to blame for the introduction of modernity into Cuban visual arts. A part-time New Yorker, Riverón began creating abstraction in 1930 while living in Paris. Fascinated by lineal compositions and color contrasts, he exhibited at Havana’s El Lyceum in June 1934.
Also at El Lyceum in September of that same year, Ernesto Gonzalez Puig (1913-1988), in his first solo show, was exhibiting organic abstract drawings and paintings that were charged with a surrealistic innuendo. By 1938 Marcelo Pogolotti (1902-1988), a participant of Primera Exposición de Arte Nuevo with Revista de Avance, had definitely returned from Paris to Havana after being part of the Futuristic group led by Marinetti, but it was not until 1940 that he showed his abstract experimentation with Aeropittura, done no later than 1933.
The following year, Amelia Peláez reintroduces herself in this conversation upon her return to Havana in January 1934. After being part of the Parisian experience, since May 1931 at the atelier of Russian Constructivist painter Alexandra Exter, who phrased Peláez work as “very synthetic, and her research of composition and lines are clean and beautiful.”7 This moment is well depicted in Ms. Elliott’s catalog essay. In 1931 a young Carmen Herrera (b. 1915) traveled from Havana to Paris for the first time and visited with Peláez, a longtime family friend.8
By the time that Peláez returned to Havana, her work underwent a significant transformation; she was no longer a painter of still lifes or sad marinas like her well-known former professor at the Havana San Alejandro Academy, Leopoldo Romañach (1862-1951). Her goal, like those of artists early associated with Revista de Avance, was to create a modern painting that reflected upon and expanded ideals of national identity, and the constructivist realm embellished in its new developed style worked just perfectly.
Her artworks are about her personal domain, a feminine world where males are out of place and not to be found. But also Peláez’ orbit is not mannered, for instance, with an affected femininity. On the contrary, it is built with austerity and rigor, feelings that transpire above the baroqueness of the forms and colors on her paintings. At Diálogos Constructivistas, clear examples are Naturaleza muerta en un interior/Las puertas de las Habana (1948) and the Boceto for the Havana Hilton mural (1956-57).
The association with literary magazines seems to be a staple in the development of the avant-garde in Cuba. Peláez’ work caught the attention of the intellectual and writer José Lezama Lima (1910-1976), who was an admirer of her maternal uncle, the Latin American modernist poet Julian del Casal (18631893). Lezama, responsible for the creation of some of the most important literary magazines in Cuba and the Spanish world toward the second half or the 20th century, invited Peláez to be an advisor and illustrator for some of his magazines:
Espuela de Plata (1939-41), Nadie Parecía (1942-1944) and Orígenes (1944-1956).9
Clustered around Orígenes group and the intellectual statute of Lezama Lima, those Constructivist Dialogues took another life with an exponential dimension. It would be interesting to know what might have been the reaction of the Origenistas to the presence in the magazine of the later created group 10 Pintores Concretos (1958-1961),10 led by Loló Soldevilla, who returned to the island from Paris in 1956, the last year that Orígenes magazine was published.
After being invited by the American Federation of Art in
1948, significantly impressed by the museums in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, Soldevilla decided to become an artist. The personal friendship with Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) and his encouragement was important to her decision to pursue a career in the arts. Even though he showed no interest in abstraction, he recognized her abilities in that genre through a preference for her sculptural work.11
Her successful career as pedagogue and politician, and personal relations, help Soldevilla to be titled Cuba’s Cultural Ambassador to Europe, moving to Paris, while there, like Peláez, attended La Grande Chaumiére. Paris was the city in which Soldevilla acquired, as Peláez did, her constructivist language from the likes of Dewasne, Edgar Pillet, Ossip Zadkine and later Vasarely; artists with whom she developed personal and professional relationships. Her private diaries of the time are an incredible recollection of Soldevilla daily struggle to leave behind a tendency to work in a figurative manner, something that she never fully achieved. However, on January 2, 1953, Soldevilla announced her last big figurative painting12 and, on May 29, her intention to destroy all the figurative work under her possession at the time, against the opposition of Lam.13
Diálogos Constructivistas presents such artworks, in which the attained abstract geometric language by Soldevilla is already solid, such as in the sculpture Untitled (El Damero), 1955, and Sueño Astral, 1957. It is worth mentioning the overall unevenly finished quality of Soldevilla’s artworks, which on occasion seem to be shoddy, an attribute that is not always related to the long hard life of the artworks or their poor conservation.
Those Constructivist Dialogues have their first clear voices as early as the 1920s, when artists in Cuba were encompassing innovative ways of expressing their created intellects.
Upon her definitive return to Havana, Loló Soldevilla had her first solo show in February at Galería Cubana,14 owned by Florencio García Cisneros15 (1924-1998), who later was responsible for showing her work several times in Venezuela, both before and after he became director and co-owner of Sardio Gallery. Also in 1956, in June, Zilia Sánchez held a one woman-show at the gallery. García Cisneros was the first to exhibit interchangeably the works of Peláez, Soldevilla and Sánchez in Cuba and Venezuela.16 Years later he presented their work in Caracas, Maracaibo and Valencia at the Centro de Bellas Artes, the Club del Comercio, and the Asociación Venezolana de Periodistas, among others.
As Ms. Elliott mentions in her essay, without a doubt Pintura de Hoy. Vanguardia de la Escuela de Paris,17 the exhibition curated by Loló Soldevilla at the Instituto Nacional de Cultura in Havana “sparked a wave of artistic experimentation.”18 Nonetheless, it would be fair to say that more likely the relevant exhibition with international artists came to reinforce a genre in which artists in Cuba had been already working.
In October, 1950, El Lyceum exhibited Estructuras Pictóricas by Sandú Darié19 (1908-1991), a Madi series of artworks; on December 23, Carmen Herrera had the first solo abstract exhibition by a woman in the country, with artworks that went from lyric to hard-edged abstraction. The following year Mario Carreño (1913-1999) showed on May 25 at El Lyceum his recent geometric paintings previously exhibited on January 2 at Perls Galleries in New York. On April 25, 1955, Darié and Luis Martínez Pedro (1910-1989) held the first Concrete Art exhibition in Cuba at the School of Social Sciences at the University of Havana.
Early on, those leading artists following a constructivist poetic were also having a wide international presence, one that included Herrera’s participation at the Reallities Nouvelles Salons in Paris from 1946 to 1954, Soldevilla being invited to the salon from 1952 to 195620, Wifredo Arcay’s (1925-1997) joining in 1952 and showing on September 18 at Galerie Arnaud, Darié’s inclusion in Some Areas of Research exhibition in May 1951 at Rose Fried Gallery in New York, Martínez Pedro’s acquisition and UNESCO award at II Sau Paolo Biennial in 1953, and many others.
In Cuba since 1953 journalists and art critics had been insistently commenting on the wide interest among young artists in abstraction as a realm of choice for expressing themselves, which went from Tachism, Abstract Expressionism to hard-edged Abstraction. Vivid reflections of those artistic concerns were the works presented at the VI Salon Nacional de Pintura y Escultura held the same year.
On October 31 1957, in Miramar neighborhood in Havana, Lezama Lima was in charge of the inaugural speech of Color –
Luz, a gallery that Soldevilla and her new romantic and artistic partner Pedro de Oraá (b. 1931) created after they returned from Venezuela. Established with the ideal of becoming a cultural center that irradiated new artistic ideas, not so much as a commercial space, it quickly moved to the recently vacant locale of Galería Cubana, where Soldevilla and Sánchez had exhibited the previous year.
Color – Luz became the center of the 10 Pintores Concretos group, some of whose members were long time collaborators with Orígenes; among them, Martínez Pedro, Darié, and Oraá, who was one of the few younger poets invited to publish.21
Exhibited alongside Amelia Peláez and Loló Soldevilla, in a group show of religious theme at Galería Cubana on March 23, 1956,22
Zilia Sánchez’s work is phrased by Cuban art critic and historian Graziella Pogolotti as “limited to a delicate juxtaposition of tones.”23 Six decades later it is the same connotation that Ms. Elliot observes, conceptually and formally, building upon the linage of constructivist pictorial structures of her works after Soldevilla and from Peláez, through the use of light and the drawing line.
By 1956 Sánchez was starting to leave behind her colorful Rayonism compositions that reflected on the Caribbean island’s life, also captured by Amelia Pelaez’s work. She was simplifying and depurating her compositions while shifting toward a monochromatic aesthetic that the constructivist Soldevilla occasionally favored, and building upon the uses of black drawing line after Peláez; a connection well drawn by the curator’s essay. The canvas Azul, Azul (1956) is an example of that type of transitional work.
The now transforming previous expressionistic language was built alongside and within the formalist concerns of the several associations Zilia Sánchez was part of in Cuba, like the Group of Youngest of Thirty24 and Los Once25. The two were informal groups, integrated by artists in which no pictorial aesthetic positions were paramount; more relevant was the interest in modern painting and political ethical concerns.
In January 1955 after splitting with Lezama Lima as co-editor and financial backer of Orígenes, the intellectual José Rodríguez Feo (1920-1993)26 created Ciclón (1955-1959), with Virgilio Piñera (1912-1979), a writer and poet and also a dissenter of the Orígenes group. Since the first issue Ciclón welcomed abstract art as the current expression of the newer generation and, with that, younger intellectuals and writers like Severo Sarduy (1937-1993), a longtime friend and collaborator of Sánchez.
After leaving Cuba, and a short period living between New York and Madrid in which she experimented with abstract material painting of thick impasto, Sánchez recaptured the dialogue with constructivist pictorial ideals. Back in New York in the summer of 1970, she presented at Sarduy Gallery Structures and Prints, a one woman show, with her minimal modular tridimensional paintings.
At Galerie Lelong Diálogos Constructivistas, Amazonas (1993) is an example of that type of work done later, while Topología erótica (from the series Amazonas), 1968, simplifies and builds upon the idea. Lunar Blanco (1984) is the result of a radical pictorial posture of the same principle in which the painting attains a full freestanding sculptural quality, a Concrete abstract statement.
It was Severo Sarduy, as early as 1956, in Sánchez’s Galería Cubana solo show catalog, who mentioned for the first time the hidden nature of her work, “the elegant masterful uses of the black line moving through the color areas” in her bi-dimensional paintings that at times evoked some flat Soldevilla’s sculptures.
The spark for the creation of those unique volumetric organic-constructivist shaped canvases arose to Zilia Sánchez while in Havana, but came to life in New York with the related artworks of artists like Lee Bontecou, Louise Nevelson and Donald Judd. By 1973, Sarduy brought attention to the sensual organic tactile quality of Sánchez’ work as the one attribute that drove it apart from her contemporaries.27
Sánchez is able to build a unique suggestive pictorial abstract discourse in which the feminine is at its core, as Peláez. The eroticism of her forms invites the viewer to a new type of sensorial experience with the implied female body parts, a reflection of her queer persona and a step further of Amelia Peláez’ depiction of her queer world.
In Sánchez’ new country of choice, Puerto Rico, she associated herself with the magazine Carga y Descarga, more or less like Peláez did before with Orígenes. However, Zilia Sánchez engaged in a dynamic active role when she undertook the complete design of the magazine, in which a constructivist language surfaced, enhancing and extending those Constructivist Dialogues previously established with the Vanguardia Cubana, but at this time modulated under the international currents.
The constructivist foundation that appeared in Peláez’s work, used in ways that helped express the whiteness in Cuban culture (those clear lines and color compositions that Exter once highly praised), was pictorially expanded and reduced by Soldevilla.28 Sánchez later use those lines when she wrote/drew over those white clear sculptural expansive surfaces of her paintings and calmed with them her Mulata mestizo roots.
Perhaps those who believe that abstraction with a constructivist language is a way to walk away from the exploration of national identity will be challenged while standing in front of Sánchez’s paintings, because they are the result of a more complex phenomenon that has been built over the years.
“The hard-edged geometric compositions that emerged in Cuban painting in the 1950s appeared to be a radical and deliberately international break with the vanguard’s earlier pursuit of a modern and authentic expression of Cuban national identity in the 1920s to 1940s.”29 While this assertion by Ms. Elliot has been proved to be right, in reality it was an organic development with timely international currents. Those Constructivist Dialogues have their first clear voices as early as the 1920s, when artists in Cuba were encompassing innovative ways of expressing their created intellects.
1. At a later time other artists were considered.
2. Participant artists taken from the original catalog exhibition: Eduardo Abela, Rafael Blanco, Gabriel Castaño, Carlos Enríquez, Víctor Manuel, Antonio Gattorno, José Hurtado de Mendoza, Luis López Méndez (Venezuela), Ramón Loy, Alice Neel (USA), Rebeca Peinck de Rosado (Mexico), Marcelo Pogolotti, Lorenzo Romero Arciaga, José Segura (Spain), Adja Yunkers (Latvia) and Alberto Sabas. Later accounts mentioned more artists among them Peláez, but it is not real evidence of her participation. By November 1 she was living in Paris with a government fellowship.
3. Martí Casanovas, Francisco Ichazo, Jorge Mañach and Juan
4. For more information see: Llanes Godoy, Llilian, “José Manuel Acosta: renovaciones de un visionario”. In: Más allá de la crítica, ArteCubano Ediciones, Havana, Cuba, 2008, p 173 - 182.
5. He had an intensive political and intellectual career for which he became a political prisoner, by 1955 the Cuban Congress awarded him the title of National Poet.
6. El Lyceum was located at Calzada & Calle 8, Vedado.
7. Vázquez Díaz, Ramón. Cronología. Amelia Peláez. Una mirada
retrospectiva (1928-1966). MNBA. Fundación Caixa Galicia, 2011, p 37. 8. Carmen Herrera conversation with the author, June 2005, New York. 9. La Revista Orígenes y la Vanguardia Cubana, Ediciones Turner,
Madrid, Spain, 2000 / De Juan, Adelaida. La plástica en la Revista Orígenes, Galería Latinoamericana, Casa de las Américas, Havana, Cuba, June, 1994. cat exh. / Oraá, Pedro. “Las afinidades plásticas de Orígenes”.
In: Visible e Invisible, Letras Cubanas, Havana, Cuba, 2006, p 76 – 87. 10. The group was integrated by Pedro Álvarez (1922-?), Wifredo Arcay, Salvador Corratgé (1928-2014), Sandú Darié, Luis Martínez Pedro, Alberto Menocal (1928-2004), José Mijares (1921-2004), Pedro de Oraá, Loló Soldevilla, Rafael Soriano (1920-2015) and José Rosabal
11. Loló Soldevilla’s personal diaries, January 5, 1953. Private
collection, New York.
12. Idem, January 2, 1953. 13. Idem, May 29, 1953.
14. The gallery was located at Calle 10 No 152 & Calzada Ave, Vedado,
15. His real name was Francisco R. García.
16. He was one of the few dealers in New York that exhibited Carmen
Herrera, [Nov 23- Dec 11] 1965.
17. The exhibition ran from March 22 to April 8, 1956.
18. Elliot, Ingrid W. Between the Real and the Invisible. Galerie
Lelong, New York, 2016, p 8.
19. Darié, Rumanian born, immigrated to Cuba in 1941, became a
citizen in 1947, developed in the island his entire career.
20. She was personally invited by Michel Seuphor, a friend and
mentor. On a letter to Arcay, Nov 4, 1957.
21. In 1960 José Rosabal became Lezama personal assistant while
working at the Consejo Nacional de Cultura.
22. El Tema Religioso en la Pintura Cubana. March 23 - 31, 1956. Galería Cubana. Participants: Abela, Cundo Bermúdez, Fidelio Ponce, René Portocarrero, Mariano Rodriguez, Emilio Sánchez, Eberto Escobedo, Agustín Fernández, Zilia Sánchez, Tomás Marais, Enzo Gallo, Amelia Peláez, Loló Soldevilla and Maria Luisa Ríos.
23. Pogolotti, Graziella. “Pintura religiosa.” In: Diario de la Marina, April 3, 1956, p 4. “… Zilia Sánchez se limita a una delicada yuxtaposición de tonos…” (Zilia Sánchez limits herself to a delicate juxtaposition of tones…)”
24. Carreño, Mario. La plástica cubana de hoy. Espacio, Sept – Oct,
1952, p 52 -57.
25. Los Once (1953-1955), an informal group that followed Abstract
Expressionism, not all the members work on the genre.
26. Rodríguez Feo came from a very affluent family.
27. Sarduy, Severo. Las “Topografías Eróticas”, de Zilia Sánchez.
La Provincia, Puerto Rico, April 8, 1973.
28. Martínez, Juan. “Lo Blanco-Criollo as lo Cubano: The Symbolization of a Cuban National Identity in Modern Painting of the 1940s in Cuba.” In: The Elusive Nation. Interpretation of National Identity, University Press of Florida, FL, 2000, p 277-291. 29. Elliot, Idem, p 5.
Habana Libre Mural Sketch, 1956-57 Tempera on paper / 15¾ x 55 inches © Amelia Peláez Foundation
Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York Installation view
Diálogos constructivistas en la vanguardia cubana: Amelia Peláez, Loló Soldevilla and Zilia Sánchez, Galerie Lelong, New York, April 28 – June 25, 2016 Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York
Untitled (The Checkerboard), 1955
Casein on wood with metal / 11 x 13 x 2 inches
© Loló Soldevilla / Garfunkel Collection, New York
Sueño astral, 1957
Mixed media on wood with wooden components 30½ x 39 x 1¼ inches
© Loló Soldevilla / Courtesy Tresart, Miami
Lunar negro con tatuaje, 1975
Acrylic on stretched canvas / 43¾ x 33 x 8½ inches © Zilia Sánchez
Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York Installation view
Diálogos constructivistas en la vanguardia cubana: Amelia Peláez, Loló Soldevilla and Zilia Sánchez, Galerie Lelong, New York, April 28 – June 25, 2016 Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York