CONCERNING THE BICENTENNIAL OF THE ACADEMIA DE SAN ALEJANDRO
In general there is a tendency to emphasize the deficiencies and limitations of the educational system established in Cuba in the early 20th century and to reject outright the influence its institutions might have had in the preparation and schooling of the young artists that burst upon the intellectual and artistic scene in the 1920s. At least that perspective has prevailed in the art sphere in which la Academia de San Alejandro played a leading role.
However, one cannot overlook the fact that the first generations of artists in the Republic were trained in its classrooms, both those who aimed to guarantee the continuity of its models, as well as most of those who took up renewing them and who later on would be identified as the forerunners of avant-gardism in Cuban art.
It is quite curious that one of them, Eduardo Abela, in the autumn of his life, when he pointed out “the harm that the Academia de San Alejandro had done to Cuban culture,” also wondered how it had been possible that “despite everything, we arose from that place, all of us who started painting in the 1920’s using our own criteria.” And when he dwelled on the subject, he added: “I say all this because for some years now I have had the impression we have been unfair with the Academia…there must have been something that for the time being is indefinable but that must be unfolded and brought to light…and if my good sense does not deceive me, this is why every time the subject of its flaws, which are not a few, is brought up, it is necessary to clarify that Romañach is an exception, as if by doing so, we were washing our hands.”1
Perhaps eventually, as time went by, this avant-garde pioneer who in his heyday launched a harsh attack against this long standing institution, had lost his former rebelliousness. On the other hand, it is also possible that had he analyzed it from a distance and gained in objectivity. Nevertheless, his doubts confirm the need of paying greater attention to the performance of the Academia and its influence on artistic practice during that stage whose importance nobody would dare deny today.
Since its foundation in 1818, San Alejandro was a free institution that at first was under the auspices of the Sociedad Económica de Amigos del Pais. In 1863, the State took charge and it became part of the general system of education. It was then, according to Jorge Mañach, “when due to ingratitude or ignorance its name was changed to that of Escuela Profesional de Pintura y Escultura de la Habana.2 Actually, since that time, even though the official documents registered the change of name, for the vast majority that denomination never existed.
During a long time all the directors of the Academia were foreigners. The first Cuban to direct it was Miguel Melero Rodriguez (1836-1907). He was a painter and sculptor who became famous not only for his artworks, in which he displayed great skill, but mainly for his pedagogical work and for his contribution
to the institution, which he ran from 1878 to 1907. He was born in Havana and started his painting and drawing studies at the Liceo. In 1850, he registered at the Academia de San Alejandro where he graduated as a painter and sculptor. In 1867, he was appointed Faculty member of the Fine Arts Section of the Liceo as he had participated in the Juegos Florales (Floral Games), and had won several awards. This institution granted him a subsidy which enabled him to travel and visit the main museums in Spain, France and Italy and study the works of the great masters of European art. He stayed for some time at the Academia de
San Fernando in Madrid and received lessons from the master Francisco Domingo, who at the time was considered to master his craft to perfection. In Spain he also had links with other famous painters at the time such as Casado de Alisal, Plasencia, Rosales, Pradilla and Ferrant.
When he came back to Cuba he developed a vast work both in painting and in sculpture. His portraits of a romantic tone and delicate realism were remarkable, but mainly he stood out for his compositions dealing with historical and mythological themes. The models seen in Spain and France were a source of his inspiration. In his paintings one can see the influence of the Madrazos, who he must have studied during his travels through Spain.
His extensive sense of composition is manifest in the works exhibited in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, whether the oil-on-canvas entitled Colón ante el Consejo de Salamanca (Columbus Before The Council of Salamanca) or in El rapto de Dejanira por el centauro Nesso (The Abduction of Dejanira by the Centaur Nesso), both made after his arrival to Cuba in the 1860s. The latter saw him win, in the competitive examination in 1878, the position of director of the Academia de San Alejandro.
Besides those mentioned, he painted many others whose titles bear witness to the themes that interested him. Among them we can mention Un Hidalgo, Teresa de Jesus (A Nobleman, Teresa de Jesus) which is located at the Iglesia (Church) de San Felipe, Juicio Final (The Final Judgment) that features at the altar of the main chapel of Havana’s Colon Cemetery, as well as numerous portraits among which the most outstanding is that of his ill-fated son Miguel Angel painted in 1888 and exhibited in one of the halls of the National Fine Arts Museum. He also made some sculptures, busts, medallions and statues. That made of Columbus for the inhabitants of Matanzas must be mentioned, as well as that of José Antonio Cortina, which stands at the tomb of the patriarch in the Havana cemetery.
He received numerous prizes and honorable mentions and earned the acknowledgement of the society of his epoch. For the most distinguished families he became a paradigm, and with his artworks he contributed to the formation of an artistic taste that would spread throughout the 19th century and would still prevail in the early 20th century.
After being appointed director of the Academia, as he had won the competitive examination, he carried on his job for almost thirty years, which enabled him to exert an enormous influence on the generations of painters that succeeded him, passing on his liking for styles characteristic of romanticism and realism—he turned these codes into principles and made them prevail -, therefore he made his successors impervious to the new propositions that were emerging in the art world, confining them in a straitjacket, and many of them were never able to break loose.
What has been stated in no way undermines his teachings, a sphere in which he made notable contributions in his time.
He is credited with the introduction of improvements in lessons, like the re-establishment of a live model, a practice that had been eliminated from the classrooms. He also taught his pupils of painting how to use a preparation of grays as a basic means of assessing the shade of colors, a technique he introduced in his classes de Colorido (Coloring), a subject that he taught for a long time before assuming those of Pictorial Anatomy, Perspective and Art History. Above all, he consolidated the vocation of this Fine Arts Academy and eradicated its original leaning toward utilitarian arts.
Finally, thanks to his initiative the regulations of the Academia were modified, which for the first time permitted women to access its classrooms. The significance of this event transcends the artistic sphere due to the character and nature of its social implications.
Miguel Melero died in 1907, leaving the direction of the school to his former disciple Luis Mendoza, who would engage in maintaining the principles of his master.
In this way, Miguel Melero left his mark on the history of Cuban art with his accomplishments at the head of artistic education for more than thirty years. For better or for worse his imprint remained in force for a long time, even after his physical presence disappeared from the school corridors.
For this and many other motives, I hope this modest remembrance be an honest tribute on the centennial of his death and serve as evidence of the respect that the Academia de San Alejandro owes to the first director of Cuban origin of our bicentennial institution. 1. José Seoane Gallo, Eduardo Abela cerca del cerco, (Havana:
Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1986), 126. 2. Jorge Mañach, “La pintura en Cuba,” Club Cubano de Bellas Artes, Havana, 1925.
Miguel Melero, El Figaro, 1904