The Vanguard of Five Brushes:
Many are the children of the Caribbean island who have inscribed their name in the history of modern art. Musicians of the stature of Ernesto Lecuona, writers like José Martí, dancers like Alicia Alonso and filmmakers like Santiago Álvarez, figure as renowned personalities in Latin American and universal culture. However, one of the most applauded fields of art in the Greater Antilles is painting. In the plastic arts, the nation can display illustrious exponents who knew how to synthesize the most avant-garde of their time with an essence rooted in Cuban identity.
Carlos Enríquez and the romanceo guajiro
The most faithful and constant lover of the Cuban land, its creatures and legends, in which is the root of an authentic Cuban art is, without a doubt, Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957). Owner of a very particular pictorial style, called by him romanceo guajiro, his brushstrokes in sinuous and transparent lines were combined with a deep feeling of national identity and awareness of the problems that plagued the weakest sectors of the national rurality.
In El rapto de las mulatas or in English "The Abduction of the Mulatas" (1938), the artist's masterpiece, we appreciate another mark of his work, eroticism and female anatomy. Carlos Enríquez endowed the violent scene in the countryside with sensuality, on the canvas everything is intertwined, from the red of blood to the stormy sky. What is unique about this painting is not the shape, but the mobility of the figures.
Although he came and left the world like a whirlwind, like his own life, the trail of the work of Cuban painter Carlos Enríquez remains unforgettable among the most prominent of the national art. Félix Pita Rodríguez characterized the artist's legacy with these words: for Cuban art, the significance of Carlos Enríquez is that of a dawn, a spring, a discovery.
Wifredo Lam: expression of three continents
Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), the most universal of Cuban painters, the son to Chinese father and a mulatto woman, he brought mestizaje mixed race identity to its maximum expression in painting. His works are a mixture of elements of African, Asian and Caribbean origin. The artist participated in all the avant-garde movements of his time —cubism, surrealism— that encouraged freedom, favored access to the unconscious or explored the marvelous through graphic automatism.
With a style characterized by the exuberance of his paintings, enormous plastic power and reflection of dream worlds indebted to the surrealist universe, he was focused on being able to bring together and respond in a revolutionary way to the latent Afro-Cuban legacy in his country. In that sense, his masterpiece: La Jungla (1943) exposes the inspiration that national myths and rituals meant for him when making the composition. The critic Alain Jouffroy called La Jungla "the first plastic manifesto of the Third World".
Although he was recognized as a great painter and an excellent draftsman, his non-conformist spirit encouraged him to work in other disciplines in which he achieved total mastery. Thus, he ventured into ceramics, also projected murals, practiced paper collage on black cardboard, succumbed to the charms of graphics and even created an extensive production of etchings and lithographs.
Amelia Peláez: exoticism and color
When talking about Amelia Peláez (1896-1968), an eclectic symbiosis comes to mind. Still-life of her, the Caribbean, femininity, eroticism, expressed through the prism of European modernism and a conscious attachment to Cuban culture, parade through her work; exotic, guajira and tropical. A favorite disciple of the great Cuban painter Leopoldo Romañach, the artist developed her career in very diverse styles and techniques, including ceramics, illustration, muralism, oil or glass, to which she imprinted a unique seal.
In Amelia's meticulous work there is also a "baroque" style inspired by colonial architecture and Havana architectural landscapes, bequeathed by the Spanish presence on the island. The stained glass windows that are so representative of her work recall the windows of churches or houses. of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her plastic production stands out for the intentional use of marked black lines, sparkling colors and geometric relationships.
Perhaps one of the most latent traces of Amelia Peláez in Havana is “Cuban Fruits”, a mural from 1957 —made up of 700,000 tesserae, with a surface area of 69 meters long by 10 meters high— and which confers an almost legendary at the Habana Libre hotel. The other mark left by the painter for those who admire her work was that of a carefree plastic, sometimes surreal, but always indigenous and sublime.
Tomás Sánchez and his felt landscapes
Water, clouds, reflections and shadows, midnight suns, echoes of waterfalls, that pleasant feeling inside when looking, and a single nombre Tomás Sánchez (1948-…), Cuban painter. His work is conceived to be observed intensely, since its content is always a discovery. Thanks to the peculiar way in which landscape works, this plastic theme, which was considered exhausted in its possibilities, is renewed and every day there are more who enjoy contemplating his works.
The artist does not work from a photo, like the hyperrealists. Sánchez's tropical forests arise from within him, his way of painting is linked to the gesture, the stain and other resources of informalist abstraction. It is not a landscape seen, but felt. Hear the waters (1995), one of his best-known works, shows an ideal landscape, almost perfectly symmetrical, and is the visual image of how the artist imagines Cuba before the arrival of the conquerors.
Sánchez is an artist with a deep commitment to the problems of his time, he refuses to be classified as a painter of realistic and seductive scenes. Man's place in his environment and in the universe, his destructive and self-destructive properties, constitute his primary concerns.
Lesbia Vent Dumois: costumbrism and femininity
A benchmark of contemporary Cuban art is Lesbia Vent Dumois (1932…). Possessing a masterful command of engraving and woodcut, the artist fuses the past and the present, she paints from nostalgia and gives us true poetry in each of her creations. About Vent Dumois, the intellectual Miguel Barnet states: "Lesbia refuses the ephemeral and grants everything she touches the gift of perpetuity."
Although most of her career is focused on engraving, Lesbia has studied painting, drawing, sculpture, lithography and pedagogy. All her production has a halo of manners and expressionism. Among her creations in recent years, the series “Flavors” (2015) stands out, made up of small sculptures that simulate tropical fruits enclosed in acrylic boxes. The visual power of each of these structures denotes the versatility, creative capacity and originality of the author.
Between 2016 and 2020, Vent Dumois has worked on another series, which articulates texts, drawings and other objects, allegorical to recognized personalities such as Rita Montaner, Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo, or Tina Modotti. And it is that Lesbia's work vindicates the role of women in society, as an emancipating, liberated and progressive entity. For the work of life and her undeniable contribution to Cuban art in recent decades, the creator was awarded the 2019 National Prize for Plastic Arts, a recognition that was also granted in tribute to her commendable work in the defense and art promotion.
By: Naimy Herrera and Mabel Torres