Anyone who visited the show noticed it started with abstraction and ended with it; because Raúl was a consistent abstract painter.
I, Publio. Confessions by Raúl Martínez was the title of the memoirs of this Cuban artist, who was awarded the Fine Arts National Award in 1994 for his life achievements. Allegretto cantabile was the name of his retrospective exhibited from November 2017 to February 2018 at the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center in Havana, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of his birth (1927). And we could rename this show I, abstract.
Chronologically and progressively structured and curated by Corina Matamoros, Gabriela Hernández and Rossana Bouza, the show covered periods or milestones through 45 works belonging to the collections of the Fine Arts Museum – for the most part –, the National Council for Visual Arts, the Council of State of the Republic of Cuba and Abelardo Estorino.
Anyone who visited the show noticed it started with abstraction and ended with it; because Raúl was a consistent abstract painter. In the first room, the viewer could see abstract collages, ink and oil paintings from the 1950s, and even notice some rectangular shapes, more or less lyric, more or less geometric.
In the second hall – corresponding to the 1960s – one could find pictorial and gestural abstractions with added materials and texts that could be associated with Rauschenberg's combine–paintings. You could perceive the rectangles wanted to talk, to communicate with words (few, but enough, like in good old graphic design).
You could also notice a transition to figuration. The face of Martí would be repeated, marking the beginning of his series with Cuban historic figures, a listless variation of Warhol's pop. Martí would be inside each rectangle. But, would the viewer distinguish that it wasn't an empty or learned geometric figure anymore but full of imagery instead? It hosted an icon that carried a monumental symbolic value, higher than a thousand well–worn words.
The public could also note that Raúl's figuration – this time in the company of Mario Garcia Joya – reached the domain of photography. It obviously did so in ¿Foto – mentira!, which some people simply consider a series; though it is rather consistent with the concept of photographic essay: that is to say, a group of photographic images where synthesis, plot, sequence and technique converge.
Raúl and Mario wanted to subvert or question the veracity of photography as an accurate document of reality. They manipulated the typical rectangular composition of the frame, exposing different angles or points of view of the same scene. Maybe they wanted to express that the notion or understanding of reality is abstract? In any case, the public was able to see that the centers of interest were, at least, prosaic; that there were other areas of reality, different from the ones approached by the epic photography of the time.
In the third small room – also from the 1960s – the viewer witnessed a contest, an argument. The various faces of Martí conversed with the different, “anonymous” faces of other children of our Homeland. In one of the rectangles, one could recognize Raúl Martínez, as among equals, integrated into the people, into the masses. It is an essence abstracted in the conceptual but also formal level, since the artist started from photographic references.
It was an abstraction with a double meaning, to which Raúl kept coming back to interpret the human and social landscape. And so comes 1970, the year of a utopia: the ten million ton sugar harvest. “We can make it, we can!”– was repeated officially, in the middle of a widespread revolutionary spirit; and finally, we… couldn't. The painting Nosotros (Us) is from that time, with physiognomies of various expressions: smiling, serious, pensive. From that same year are the temperas that Raúl made of each one of The Beatles, when their music was clandestinely listened to in Cuba since it was considered ideological diversion; or not politically correct, as we would have said today. But that is no longer necessary.
The public probably noticed a chronologic gap in the exhibition until 1976, right when the Grey Quinquennium ended – which intellectually confined artists like Raúl himself – and the Ministry of Culture and the Higher Institute of Arts were created. In the same room, the collective portraits smiled up until the
80s. Choral euphoria, individual and collective wellbeing was also expressed in the musical title of the pieces Allegretto cantabile and Te doy una cancion (I give you a song), exhibited in the next room, corresponding to the 1990s.
And then we get to the Special Period. Here, between collages of the series Oh, America and charcoal sketches from the final years of Raúl's life (1994 – 1995), the public could admire an abstract painting that closed the room and the exhibition: Atardecer en la Isla (Sunset on the Island) (1994), in which two rectangles seem to intersect in the shape of a cross and then fade.
At the end of his life and during times of restoration of the aesthetic paradigm, of the enlightened metaphor, Raúl went back to abstraction. Like the ouroboros, eating his own tail, he came returned to the trend that positioned him amongst the avant– garde of Cuban art; that had allowed him to express an aesthetic, artistic and social rebellion; and that had connected Cuba with the international mainstream: a current that comes and goes, or is recycled, like a dialectic river.
Azul, ca. 1954 Oil on masonite 47½ x 34 in
Oil, collage, metal on masonite 47 x 62½ in
Photos: Fernando Fors Courtesy Centro Wifredo Lam