CON­CERN­ING THE BI­CEN­TEN­NIAL OF THE ACADEMIA DE SAN ALEJANDRO

Art On Cuba - - Index - Llilian Llanes

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. ƒ 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

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