Antonia Eiriz, a transcendental figure of Cuban art

Specialists consider that information about the artist’s work is insufficient and incomplete in Cuba.

If it weren’t for the Hemingway Museum, the municipality of San Miguel delPadrón would not appear in the capital’s tourist routes due to its peripheral location and the archetypes that don’t see beyond Old Havana, Centro Habana, El Vedado, Miramar and the beaches to the east of Havana. But it is precisely there, in an intricate place of Havana, where one of the most genuine and transcendental figures of Cuban art lived: Antonia Eiriz.

The name of Antonia Eiriz is inscribed in relief  in the history of the island’s visual arts, and her work, as corresponds to her greatness, is well represented in the Museum of Fine Arts, but information about it is insufficient, incomplete, mutilated, just like many of the creatures coming from her brushes.


The great majority of Cubans identify Antonia Eiriz almost only as the initiator and promoter of the papier-machéinitiative because they ignore the rest of her work; those who contemplate her oil paintings in the building of Cuban art of the Museum of Fine Arts, all of which are from the 1960s, perceive the magnitude of her painting and ask themselves what came afterwards.


It is really impossible to have a full idea of the human dimension of Antonia Eiriz if the site where she was born and remained for 64 of her 65 years of life is not visited, in the district of Juanelo. It was a date we had postponed for too long, despite the nearness of the place.


The additional motivation, the drive to reach the Casa Antonia Eiriz, was provided by Maykel Herrera’sPuzzle exhibition, inaugurated on April 1, on the 87th anniversary of the birth of the artist, as a personal tribute by the also painter, draftsman and engraver from Camagüey.


In the works on display, created with mixed technique, there’s a ludic intention that brings to mind, in a sidelong way, Eiriz without resorting to the expressionist aesthetics and black humour that were related to her, but rather a picaresque and reflexive humour, mixing symbols, objects and characters with signs of a certain veil of gentleness.


The part of the Casa that functions as a gallery was part of the space where the bedrooms were located of the wooden house with cemented floor that no longer exists: it was demolished in 2001 because of an unfortunate state of construction and rebuilt in 2004. That is why the Casa Antonia Eiriz, belonging to the municipal department of culture of San Miguel del Padrón, is a heritage site, not a house-museum, according to what its director, Jorge Luis Luzardo, told us.


In addition to Luzardo, another four professionals work there, responsible for giving drawing, painting and papier-maché workshops in the community, as Eiriz used to do.


The narrow street of Pasaje 2da, where the Casa is located, is humble, as is all its surroundings. Antonia was the youngest of the six children of a couple of Spanish émigrés and her birth occurred on the threshold of the decade of the greatest economic hardships on the island, during the government of Gerardo Machado.


We know nothing of the efforts and sacrifices she went through to study painting, drawing and engraving in the San Alejandro Academy. Her vocation must have been great to get around them and to graduate in 1957.


The rest of the events of her life during the 1950s included her marriage to painter Manuel Vidal, the birth of her son Pablo, and her close ties with the Cuban artistic avant-garde; she shared the first collective exhibitions with several of them.


The following decade saw the most relevant events of her artistic career: important awards, international recognitions, successful personal displays, and the creation of the works that established her, that even immortalised her, but, at the same time, thanks to which – what a paradox – she was demonised.


In the austere catalogue of her personal exhibition “Pintura/ensamblajes” (Painting/Mixtures) of 1964, her friend Hugo Consuegra wrote: “Antonia Eiriz’ painting is an alloy of kicks and raspberries, but in such an acute, plain dose, with no decorations and concessions that it becomes almost unbearable for the spectator, or better said, for the spectator who only likes to be praised, entertained, sweetened.”


And Consuegra continues: “Antonia paints to condemn; if she goes into depth on pain…if she puts us face to face with the ridiculousness, vanity and cruelty, it is because she does not resign herself to man having to be ridiculous, vain and cruel.” Later, anticipating questions that would come afterwards, he pointed out: “Her painting is not an art of negation, but rather of compassion. Her message, affiliating and acidifying in humour – a humour that is more than black, dark, dirty –, will follow the paths of Rabelais, Voltaire, Bertolt Brecht.”


That is what makes the background of expressionist painting, going against the current of the celebratory, affirmative discourse demanded by the ideologues of the power in Cuban art around those years.


Together with the paintings that express pain and play with death, Eiriz exhibits her mixtures, which are the ideothematic continuation of her painting: similar contents based on diverse forms, notably getting ahead of what would come years later: the sculptured objects and the installations. Those mixtures contain irreverent, iconoclastic, challenging, transgressing humour, so costly for the generation of the 1980s and the following.


But that irreverence by Antonia was troublingin her work “Unatribunapara la pazdemocrática” (A Tribunal for Democratic Peace), described as no less as counterrevolutionary, and a learned Torquemada burned it at the stake in 1968. The censor’s phrase fell like a tombstone over the artist and the roads were closed for her.


In the 1970s, Antonia sought refuge in the teaching of the papier-maché technique, which she started in the very Juanelo, which places her ahead of the cultural projects in the community. She called it “People’s art.” For many years she devoted herself to that teaching work. She was recognised, celebrated for it, but her most personal work was silenced.


When in 1993, far from her homeland, the creating energy was reborn in her, her time on earth came to an end barely two years later; death, which she had represented so much, sought her out.


We will never know how much the work of Antonia Eiriz would have continued evolving if it hadn’t been cut short in full growth, but what is known is the force of her legacy and of her legend; she lives in them as her censors never imagined. (2016)


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