Despite being one of the principal art critics of the first half of the Cuban 20th century as well as one of the intellectuals who accompanied José Lezama Lima (1910-1976) in the drawing up of the Orígenes group’s aesthetic programme, Guy François Pérez Cisneros Bonnel (Paris, 1915-Havana, 1953), is perhaps the less known author of that period.
The son of a Cuban consul in France – who also cultivated painting – and a mother from Toulouse, Guy studied until senior high school in France. He arrived in Cuba in 1933 and his vast intellectual curiosity led him to simultaneously study Philosophy and Letters and Diplomatic Law and, sometime later, he also enrolled in the Manuel Márquez Sterling School of Journalism.
Compared to Lezama, whom he met a short time after his arrival, he took very seriously his juridical studies. His father’s friends were probably the ones who opened the doors for him of the State Ministry in 1934, but he would very soon enter, on his own merits, the foreign service.
Guy did not subscribe to withdrawing from public questions as some of his writer colleagues did. He was a political man, but not in the vulgar mode of the times. He was considered a “technician,” hard working, eloquent, bright, without aspirations of climbing to effective power positions, and that came to free him of the party storms and to consolidate his prestige on an international level. During barely 19 years of work he had, among many other responsibilities, those of Interim Head of the Office of the League of Nations of the State Ministry (1939); General Secretary of the Cuban Delegation to the San Francisco United Nations Conference (1945); Counsellor of the Cuban Delegation in the Preparatory Conference to institute the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organisation (London 1945); General Secretary of the Cuban Delegation to the Conference for the creation of the United Nations (San Francisco 1945-46); and Cuban Representative in the UN Economic and Social Council (1946).
It should be recalled more among us that, at barely 33 years old, he was the delegate of the Republic of Cuba and First Rapporteur in the 11th Inter American Conference of Bogota, where the Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man was approved and that same year he represented the country to the 3rd General Assembly of the United Nations, held in the Palace of Chaillot in Paris, where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved.
In the first issue of the magazine Verbum, supposedly the organ of the Association of Law Students and directed by Lezama, in June 1937, Guy published a veritable programmatic text: “Presence of 8 Painters”. It had served as the opening speech of an exhibit that the author organised together with Lezama in the University of Havana. The exhibit featured works by Fidelio Ponce, Eduardo Abela, Amelia Peláez, Víctor Manuel, Antonio Gattorno, Carlos Enríquez, Jorge Arche and Arístides Fernández, who passed away in 1934.
The text is a declaration of principles as well as a programme. Guy considered his work as: “a call to culture in our University, as a first work in favour of pure intellectualism; as a first scholar work.” The author confronts the political turmoil of those years, as well as the corruption and mediocrity of the university milieu, with this “pure intellectualism” that must fill what he calls “the formless, choking void” of the period and above all, the lack of “some blatant myth to defend or attack,” a shortage that Lezama would aim to fill in that same magazine when he launched the myth of “insularity” in his “Colloquium with Juan Ramón Jiménez.”
The speaker makes a distinction between the “official art” and “just art” and in the face of the low intellectual level of the salons that the first offers he wants to oppose that display, which in addition must have an incidence on the renovation of the university spirit, conceived by him as a sort of invention of culture: “you, the students, are responsible for Cuban culture, for a culture that does not exist, that you do not sense, and which you must form.”
With a provocative will, the speaker denies that Cuban art of “a mixture of maracas, sons, rumbas, Afro-Cuban poetry for tourists” or a weak reference of Spanish art. The painters represented in the University’s display are considered victims, a bit passive, of these circumstances and the critic aims to shake and stir up opinion not just by showing their works but also offering for the public view, with calculated cynicism, “their insufficiencies, vices, diseases.” For this he uses an appalling irony. He offers a verbal portrait of each one of them in which each one is hit by the degree of failure to act according to their principles or personal weakness in the face of the cultivation of pure art. That explains that he referred to Víctor Manuel this way:
Víctor Manuel, the only Cuban artist who has tried to create a style and a school at the same time, but his style degenerated into a repetition of the scarce solutions found and the disciples of his school, demoralised, gave the latter a content of inconceivable and chaotic doctrines. Víctor Manuel of course carries out what he wants, but what he wants now, despite his affirmations in parks and exhibitions, lacks historic transcendence.
After this review, he launches a programme formed by four great points: the first aims “to defeat all artistic attempts of political tendency” unless it is of “strictly national” orientation; the second condemns racist art and includes in it the Spanish-American and Afro-Cuban, since he believes that both can be an obstacle for “the integration of our nationality”; the third proscribes “tourist” art and the last aims to “zealously encourage everything that is able to create national sensitivity and develop a culture.” The text concludes with a call to create a “non-geographic but rather historic” nation and asks that for this the theme of Guillermo de Orange be assumed: “undertake without expecting and persevere without achieving.”
For another Lezamian enterprise, the magazine Espuela de plata (1937-1941), he handed over three fundamental texts: “Sex, symbol and landscape apropos Mariano,” “Linkage of lines in Portocarrero” and “Cézanne’s painting.” He was absorbed by visual arts reviews. Not only did he try to show the work of a second promotion of the vanguard whose work was very close to his regenerative vision, but he also tried to go beyond the pleasing review when promoting it, with a personal hermeneutics that went to the cultural foundations of those works.
While his writings did not achieve Lezama’s density of the language, they have a marked originality and his considerations on the formal are surrounded by strong poetic elaborations, as occurs in the text dedicated to Mariano:
Figures, things and plants live rocked by giant swells of semen. Of course, in painters from the generation prior to sex this had been taken up. But he felt impure and did not have the will to conceive. The gallant destroyed him and belittled everything…. In Mariano, on the contrary sex is as innocent as the wolf that eats the lamb. He sinks into a vast and symbolic cosmic mystery in which man all of a sudden can play with the planets, but also, in which the most humble weed has as much greatness as human conscience.
For Orígenes, Pérez Cisneros was only able to contribute the note on Roberto Diago and the essay “The Atlantic in Portocarrero” and he indirectly motivated the article by Oscar González Hurtado: “Six sculptors,” dedicated to the exhibit that Guy organised in the Lyceum in June 1944, dedicated to “non-academic sculpture,” in which artists Roberto Estopiñán, Eugenio Rodríguez, Rodulfo Tardo, José Núñez Booth, Alfredo Lozano and Rolando Gutiérrez participated. First his public occupations and then his death in 1953 did not allow for more.
In the text in which he reviews the work of Portocrrero, the essential concern of the critic is to launch the thesis of “the Atlantic” as a definition of sensitivity, just like Eugenio D’Ors had adventured to found his culturologic judgments on the condition of “the Mediterranean.” Like in the author’s other pages the too adventurous affirmations coexist with the findings. The ocean is the one that “suspiciously brings all the cultures,” which explains the convergence of styles and tendencies that weigh on Cuban visual arts:
Only with the Atlantic do we cover at the same time the Nordic line, the monstrous romantic, the Spanish baroque, the Indo-Mexican hieratical, the Cuban emotional romanticism, the Byzantine rigidity, the refined Gothic, the asepticism of the 1900s, all present and alive in this work. Only with the Atlantic can we define the spirit of this painter that presents us with a work of so much organic body; in which there is no mist, confetti, vermin, rottenness, a cutting into pieces but rather before on the contrary, chords, religions, sums and simultaneity.
That definition of “the Atlantic” aims to replace another, very common around those years to describe the pole toward which the “new art” seemed to be directed: the Paris School. The critic rejects the partiality of this label and prefers to discover in the painter’s pieces the diversity of objects of a tide that includes: “the barrios of El Cerro, the Cuban and childhood memories and the Bible and the presages of the apocalypse; the dance of the Ñañigo dolls and the Beau Dieu D’Amiens and the cathedral of the thousand flying buttresses and the legend of the Arabian Nights.” However, together with this admirable synthesis of the baroque in the artist, he cannot avoid a boutade, ingenious but difficult to sustain, when defining the Portocarrero style as “A cross between Churriguera and Ingres in which Churriguera wins.”
While preparing his doctoral thesis “Characteristics of the evolution of painting in Cuba,” defended in the University of Havana in 1941, he collaborated from his post as General Secretary of the National Institute of Visual Arts in the preparation of great exhibition displays among which it is necessary to mention the Vicente Escobar Salon and the ambitious 300 Years of Art in Cuba. He worked as curator, wrote the texts for the catalogues in collaboration with other intellectuals and even facilitated works from his personal collection to complete the whole.
Guy conciliated in a non-common way among us the enjoyment and promotion of the arts with the exercise of official posts and his work as a critic. He lived according to a personal project that aimed to reform and increase in stature the country, with the upgrading of democracy, respect for human rights and the free exercise of culture, respectful of national tradition but open to the airs of the world. When a brain haemorrhage put an end to his life on September 2, 1953 he was a figure with important recognitions in the diplomatic and artistic spheres. His thesis was published in 1959 by the Department of Culture of the Education Ministry and a bust of him was unveiled in the Park of the United Nations in the Civic Plaza.
Some years later the park was demolished with the argument that it hindered the large popular demonstrations in the recently baptised Revolution Square and the bust disappeared. Part of his dispersed work as a critic had to wait until 2000 to be collected in the volume “Las estrategias de un critico” (The Strategies of a Critic). Except for Lezama, the other members of Orígenes did not have Pérez Cisneros very present in their memoirs and testimonies about the group. Only now, on his centennial, his civic accomplishments and his intellectual work have started to be cleaned of preventions and prejudices. He was a humanist, honest and positive, someone for whom aesthetics went beyond the strict artistic field to impregnate all of life. (2015)
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