THE UNPRECEDENTED STARE
graphic printing and drawing during the twenties and thirties
The exhibition La Mirada inédita; la gráfica y el dibujo en los años veinte y treinta (The unprecedented stare; printing and drawing during the twenties and the thirties) currently on show in the National Fine Arts Museum in Havana, draws its attention to the strategies of the Cuban plastic arts avant–garde during the turbulent decades of the twenties and thirties in terms of drawing and printing, on finding precisely in those artistic expressions the essential lines of development that marked the evolution of that movement, ahead of the appearance of painting or sculpture.
The plastic arts renewal movements would have important expressions in graphic arts and drawing, being the main routes of the aspirations of the progressive intellectuals of the day to create a model of the nation and to strongly establish in the arts the concept of a Cuban identity. In the magazines of the time, a real revolution took place, continuously in Social, leader of this visual transformation, establishing a new view in the Cuban context. The common man visualized the modern age by accessing these publications. On the other hand, with no inhibitions, drawing tackled the rupture with academic conventions, introducing unexplored topics or superficially considered ones, such as the Afro–Cuban and peasants, or the current social contradictions, with a new language.
A critical view is introduced in plastic arts by Rafael Blanco, a view filled with deep bitterness and sharp irony. Advanced in caricature creation, his wash drawings best define his artistic production, as an expressionist with almost grotesque dimensions, as grotesque as the social and political atmosphere of his day.
In 1929, Eduardo Abela returned triumphant from Paris. He distanced himself from his praised Afro-Cuban painting, and with revolutionary passion returned to el Bobo (the Fool), a popular character created in 1926, representing one of the essential symbols in the struggle against the Machado dictatorship.
In the turmoil of anti-Machado struggle, the Cuban plastic arts movement permanently supported the people’s demands. All artists were one way or another affected by that urgent situation. For instance, Arístides Fernández depicted the street manifestations as a testimony of that peculiar period, drawn with lively and concise strokes to capture the commotion. Carlos Enriquez’s heartrending drawings for the book El Terror en Cuba (published in Paris in 1933), are also in the same line, a naked denunciation of the atrocities and abuses that occurred during Machado’s tyranny. Undoubtedly, Marcelo Pogolotti developed the work with the most lucid sense of social commitment. Pogolotti produced a number of drawings: Nuestro tiempo (1930–1931), exposing the fundamental contradictions of the era, whose key point was the conflict between the working class and capital. No other artist went further in the avant–garde movement in the attempt to attain a synthesis of a pure and wholly modern technique with a deep social content message.
A highly important element of the plastic arts of the time is the search for the national or criollo, looking for a continental scope. In Cuba, the exploration of the popular mainly led to the expression of traditions and legends from the countryside, rural landscapes, and the guajiros (peasants) as main characters. This vision crystalizes in a national or criolla perspective that goes beyond local customs, to present a denunciation of the hopeless and miserable life of Cuban peasants. The variety of approaches to criollismo ranges from Gattorno’s impassive peasants, to Carlos Enríquez’s miserable looking peasants. It is precisely in Carlos Enríquez’s work where we find the main nuances of criollismo, inspired by what the artist called “el romancero guajiro” (the peasant ballad), which served as a theoretical synthesis of his paintings. No other artist was able to investigate the oral traditions of the countryside and take them first to drawings and later to the canvas in works that are still valid, considered a paradigm of criollismo on the island.
After seven years studying in Europe, Amelia Peláez returned to Cuba in 1934. The artist decided not to exhibit the art brought from Paris to Havana, neither in 1934 nor in 1935, instead, she developed an astounding collection of drawings, taking women as the object of visual experimentation. There are substantial changes in her concept of representation with respect to the aesthetic of the first republican generation.
No other avant–garde artist was as bold as Amelia Peláez in her aesthetic investigations on women. Her knowledge about cubism enabled her to create remarkable paintings, breaking with the traditions. This series is exceptional among the avant–garde plastic arts, and merits a special attention.
The erotic work of Carlos Enríquez, beyond the scandal it sparked and the hypocritical rejection of the conservative bourgeoisie, was similarly an expression of the national entity, inherent to the mixture of races that originated the Cuban character, where erotic attraction and sexuality are not excluded from daily life, but are part of it. From the modern standpoint, the view that mystifies Carlos Enríquez as a sexual predator reflecting in his paintings and drawings the fantasies of a morbid mind is unacceptable. We should remember we are talking about the same artist who developed social content art, an artist who not only painted but who was also capable of writing, a fearsome polemist, a lucid intellectual, a sensitive and humanitarian man, sharp when openly criticizing the evils of the Republic, with total moral and ideological integrity. His erotic artwork repudiates the deceitfulness of the bourgeoisie’s “morality” and defies the spirit of the artistic avant–garde. On the other hand, the illustrations appearing in the periodicals in the early twenties, such as Bohemia, Carteles and specially Social magazine, anticipated the presence of a modernity that decisively influenced society. Initially, Conrado Massaguer was the emblematic figure in the concept of a new, elegant and effective image that dazzled Social readers. He started with an art nouveau design, and in the second lustrum of the twenties he introduced a visual highly effective art deco line. By 1927, Revista Avance appeared with a new vanguard artistic and literary proposal. The duo formed by Conrado Massaguer as director of Social, and Alfredo Quílez as artistic director, brought about the collaboration of young talented illustrators with new ideas, until then unknown in the design of covers. New suggestions and designers emerged, starting with Luis López Méndez in March, 1927, and Lily del Barrio, Carlos Sánchez, Esperanza Durruthy, Austrian Harry Tauber and Mexican Emilio Amero in 1929 . New graphic means were introduced by José Manuel Acosta, with the design of magazine covers containing cubist elements. He is yet to be acknowledged as the introducer of the most contemporary arts of the modernist movement of the time.
The Unprecedented Stare exhibition is another look at a fascinating period of Cuban culture, when the modern plastic arts movement emerged. Through graphics and drawings, the spectator of the day witnessed with astonished eyes a new manner to perceive reality without which an understanding of the evolution of contemporary arts on the island is impossible.
Negra, 1934 Ink on paper 7 x 6½ inches CONRADO MASSAGUER Social magazine cover January, 1930
MARCELO POGOLOTTI − Aquí se trabaja para nada, 1931 ANTONIO GATTORNO − Campesinos descalzos, 1935