Walking along a Havana street during the summer afternoon can be a refined way of torturing yourself. I walk along Trocadero and I decide to seek some shade and a bit of silence in the Museum of Fine Arts.
It is a pleasure to visit an exhibit alone, if I rule out the immobile woman guard on a corner. Thus I discover the display Los rostros de la modernidad (The Faces of Modernity), comprising portraits painted by 14 Cuban artists, members of the avant-garde in the first half of the 20th century.
Thanks to the curatorship of Roberto Cobas I can see again some of the pieces I have enjoyed for a very long time, though in this protected room I continue being plagued by the large heat wave and I cannot rationally decode the exhibit. It would be fair for me to compare the tradition of the academic portrait with the spirit of the new art, that I dedicate some time to think about the budgets of the Grupo Minorista and the fresh airs that the magazine Revista de Avance brought to the island’s visual arts and, from there, to contemplate with more keenness these works that are not the traditional works the powerful families entrusted to artists to perpetuate their faces in the salons, but rather the daring glance of the painters that inquire with love, with irony, and even with a bit of cruelty, in the external appearance and the intimacy of their colleagues, friends and relatives.
I again smile before the “radiographic portraits” with which Carlos Enríquez pays tribute to his friend the poet Félix Pita Rodríguez, though I pay more attention to this familiar and provoking work that is Eva en el baño (Eva in the Bathroom). More than seven decades after being created, this zinc door of the Hurón Azul where the artist set the delightful nudity of the lover who he would soon abandon, today does not seem provocative to me but rather simply refreshing and even inviting. The jealous Carlos did not think the piece would one day be displayed for the pleasure of viewers, alien to his world.
There are suitable or fatal dates to contemplate a work of art. This time the image of Juan Marinello, painted by Domingo Ravenet, just looks like that of a neighbour we see every day and something similar makes me stop before some of Arche’s creations. Not his Retrato de Martí (Portrait of Martí), about which I have written so many times that it has become transparent for me, not even his paradigmatic Primavera (Spring), but rather a much more austere work, the Retrato de Arístides Fernández (Portrait of Arístides Fernández), made in 1934, the same year he who looks at us from the canvas is going to die, with his chin on his right hand, while the left one lies exhausted to one side. There is seriousness, balance and also a vestige of agony on that surface, in which the model’s restfulness cannot hide the preoccupation of the look and the ideas that try to arise from the closed lips.
All of a sudden, the rest of the display becomes invisible for me and I have concentrated, not in the piece’s author, but rather in the enigmatic portrait, also a creator. Now I don’t care about the rest of the room, because the canvas has forced me to think of Arístides Fernández, that solitary figure who in barely five years of feverish creation left a group of exceptional paintings and drawings and a handful of narrations that only a quarter of a century after his death would become a very rare book. He who painted El idilio (The Romance) and Entierro de Cristo (Christ’s Burial) was truly a character from a novel. Critic Guy Pérez Cisneros remembers him:
Alone, in his room, in the heroic solitude, he went on the most dramatic of adventures, fighting at the same time against the false aesthetics and the world in which he lived. He has penetrated deeply our souls with a sense of primitive wonder, and that man of the Romance, with his tight jacket, measly on the shoulders, stingy on the lapels, is a veritable symbol of ours and also a slap in the face.
Self-taught, so marked by the echoes of Mexican mural painting as well as by renaissance painting and the experiences of Gauguin, his Lavanderas (Washwomen) and La familia se retrata (The Family Has a Portrait Painted) demonstrates his delight in modelling the figures until he is able to give them the consistency of sculptures and places them in a landscape of blues and violets that no one had achieved before.
His name appeared, together with those of Arche, Ravenet, Gattorno, Romero Arciaga, in a letter from November 1933 addressed to the Public Instruction Secretariat to create a Free School of Painting in Havana, similar to the one in Mexico. They also demanded in the letter the possibility of painting murals on public buildings, especially to recall the popular feats against the Machado dictatorship. Both petitions were only more or less partially achieved in 1937 with the creation of the Free Studio of Painting and Sculpture and the murals painted on the José Miguel Gómez School, but death had taken away the painter three years before.
The first personal exhibit of his paintings was carried out in the Lyceum only after his demise, in late 1934. In 1950 the second one was made in the National Capitol Building, and part of his work reproduced in an “Art Notebook” published by the Department of Culture of the Education Ministry appeared that same year, with an introductory text by Lezama, who was his most constant promoter and critic.
When the author of Muerte de Narciso (Death of Narcissus) reviews in his article from 1935 “Tiempo negado” (Denied Time) – his first incursion as a visual arts critic -, his brief and surprising work attempts to resume his contributions in this way:
The gains we should attribute to him and in which he remained are: A) The prison of the face as the original cause and negation of space. B) The multiplicity of the figures in sculptural groups that seem to have escaped from the prison of the air and of the setting of the fall to earth. C) As by a crisscrossing of the essential limpidity with a strong fatality history does not exist and space is born. D) As the figures do not rest but rather are born in the “white” space “of all the colours,” resolving the facial contortions and the interrogating tone in the sculptural group of pure space without the familiar demon of the law of movement.
These opinions can be confirmed in a work like Retrato de la madre (2) (Portrait of the Mother ), today in the collection of our Museum of Fine Arts. There, the woman’s profile stands out on a white background, which emphasises the sensation of austerity and seriousness that the character produces; the painter has reproduced his model in such a way that the weight, materiality of the figure is evinced at the same time as her will to rest, which is strengthened by the slightly sad look of those blue eyes, designed to characterise the model based on a single revealing detail of her interiority. There are no accessory objects, nor details that relate a specific situation, the person has been isolated to concentrate – it seems – the attention of the spectator on the model and particularly in the defining of her character.
In La familia se retrata, the canvas is taken up by five feminine figures who pose for the creator a few steps from the thatched-roof hut; in the background is the sky of that violet colour on which the painter insisted so much, which seems to give the air a certain purple hue. An atmosphere of ingenuity and at the same time seriousness is breathed in this country environment; the figures have been modelled in a such a way that their weight is perceived, while the correspondence of their roundness with that of the mountains that are in the last plain can be appreciated; there is a sort of sacralisation of the curves, which can be associated to the feminine principle of fertility, present in nature as well as in these women who live closely linked to it, only the great white brushstroke of the cloud gives the group some levity.
About this piece Lezama wrote in the catalogue for the retrospective exhibit of this artist made by the Havana Museum of Fine Arts in March-May 1965, after defining that Arístides “penetrated in the Cuban with no ornamental cry” and even more, that in his work “the Cuban is like a way of enveloping the external in the Cuban glance,” he insisted:
In La familia se retrata, another of the most essential moments of our painting, the visible of the Cuban shines. Having taken an entire Cuban family out of their home to place it in the uncontainable nature, having set it, without amputating it, during a time which is the eternity of the wait resolved in a fortunate instant is one of the principal feats of our painting.
However, his Entierro de Cristo – a work that belonged to priest Angel Gaztelu and today is part of the Havana Archbishopric’s patrimony – would be the painting that would become emblematic for the authors of Orígenes, who discovered in Arístides concerns similar to theirs, sacralised by an early death. Apropos, Gaztelu wrote in issue 26 of Orígenes in 1950:
An incomparable work, exceptional in all Cuban visual arts of its generation, a true pictorial island, which emerges before our eyes with the category of miraculous surprise. We perfectly understand once again the close sense of that verse: Spiritus ubi vult, spirat, the spirit blows no matter where and that once by secret and strange plans, wanted to blow, and with what force and deep spirit, in the brush of Arístides Fernández and left us as testimony of faithful mystic clarities that live and eternal Entierro de Cristo.
Revolution and renovation of the spirit come together. The work has touched the substantial and if on the one hand it has taken over the archetypical Titanism of the murals in the fashion of Diego Rivera, on the other it has expressed the religious concerns of a group that is not satisfied with stagnant devotions or with monotonous piety. Poet Fina García Marruz makes a perfect combination of both positions in that same “Homenaje” (Tribute), when she approaches the painter to Martí and above all to Rubén Martínez Villena:
Looking at those already so sure drawings, in which an adolescent holding a book in his nervous hands evokes in us something so intimate like the atmosphere of a bedroom and so unreachable as a symbol, looking at those paintings so astonishingly lacking all distraction that separates them from their dominant centre, of no one knows what set and invisible fire, looking at the concentrated light of those very Cuban purples, that like the ends of some of Martí’s letters remain with us for always without being able to forget them…. Looking at his groups of workers, his reflexive young people, we think of the verses by Rubén Martínez Villena – from his same time and with his same accent, dead like him, too young – “And what am I doing here / where there is nothing important to do?” Arístides Fernández took another road and went toward another unknown, and in his drive and his detention it shines and remains.
Reader of Balzac and Dostoyevsky, Fernández bequeathed us a series of short stories where the imprint of surrealism does not get in the way of his sincere originality. Short, with no rhetoric, they surprise us with their authentic vision of astonishment in the face of the world and with the naturalness with which they register the daily cruelty as demonstrated in “La cotorra” (The Parrot) and “El borracho” (The Drunkard). He seemed to join the author of The Karamazov Brothers in the will to make an incursion into the psychological “underworld” to make a more mystic than social dissection of the miseries.
Less known is the presence of the artist in the novel Paradiso. The visit of José Cemí to the home of Chacha, the mixed-blood medium who evokes the painter’s spirit, the one that, according to her “In his life had three deaths” and they “were a prelude to the road. One can see that he was very friendly with death” also appear in Chapter XIII, which is the mysterious bus where diverse characters come together. Afterwards the narrator brings up the comments he made one night about Papa Goriot, but rapidly returns to the third person of the story so that the reflection can gain lapidary force:
José Cemí recalled how the painter had taken out of his billfold, and here it was necessary to also recall that the name did not make the thing, a quote from that work by Balzac. “Perhaps in human nature there is a tendency to make all those who suffer everything because of true humility, because of weakness or because of indifference to support everything.” And the simple comment: Balzac has done well in joining humility, weakness and indifference.
Meanwhile, the woman guard has woken up and is beside me, though I had taken long in noticing it. She insists that it is time to close and I must leave the room. I contemplate for the last time Arche’s work and I have the impression that Arístides is looking at me with irony, perhaps he has been able to read my mind and discovered that what in him was a vital desire and even delirium, has now become erudition and academic quotes. I have the courage to return the look. A painting exhibit can have an impact a curator has never dreamed of, perhaps that is his principal justification, I tell myself while I submerge myself again in the Turkish bath of Trocadero Street. Perhaps because the sweat falls in my eyes I feel as if a see the Lezama bus go by, but I am unable to get on. (2016)
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