Currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is “Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950,” the biggest survey of Cuban art in America since a 1944 Museum of Modern Art exhibition. In mind of the occasion—and in part to portray ways that colonialist and racially problematic means of thinking about Cuba and artists from different locales have changed—we have republished a review of the MoMA show from the April 15, 1944 issue of ARTnews. H. Felix Kraus praised the show and its artists, most of whom were largely unknown in America, for their “freshness” and “enthusiasm.” He also drew on unfortunate presumptions and language indicative of the time. The review follows in full below.
“Imports from Cuba: Verve at the Modern Museum”
By H. Felix Kraus
April 15, 1944
Among all the countries represented at last year’s Latin American exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art there was one whose vivacity and variety was outstanding: little Cuba, our island neighbor, stretching like an eel between the Caribbean and the Atlantic, opposite Key West. Official goodneighborliness (somehow always too strongly subjected to political considerations) has thereafter less to do with the Museum’s current presentation of Cuba’s contemporary painters than genuine interest in a young and daring generation of artists who ask nothing better than a chance to present their work abroad and let it stand on its own merits.
These merits, upon investigation, can only be ascribed to the sun of the Elysian island—a sun whose radiance is even more intense than the one that dazzled Van Gogh at Arles. “If you have any talent at all,” says Cuban critic José Gómez Sicre, “you are compelled by our sun to paint.” This is evident in the double invasion of Cuban art in New York, the painter Mario Carreño, besides being represented in the Museum, having just held an extensive show at the Perls Galleries. The animating rays of this sun might become even more far-reaching if a project were realized which so far only figures among Gómez Sicre’s pet dreams: the Inter-American Museum at Havana. Situated in a spot which Cristobal Colon described as “without doubt the most beautiful any human eye has ever seen,” such an art center would be sufficiently remote from the continents to facilitate an unbiased exchange of culture and yet to be accessible to travelers and to new tendencies.
A main reason for the astonishing ease with which the Cuban artists have embraced a modern idiom (unlike so many of the other Latin Americans who are still caught in the toils of an out-lived academicism) is the fact that Havana’s Academy of San Alejandro exerted very little influence on them. Even the older ones have stood up against it—men like “the mad Murillo” Ponce de León, a solitary rebel whose Impressionist impasto technique has been turned to Expressionist ends. Like Cundo Bermudez (who numbers ten canvases in the show, among them the outstanding Barber Shop), Ponce is a “Master of the Big Noses,” humor being a notable characteristic of both painters, who, for all their vastly different techniques, refuse to take their subjects too seriously. Ponce is the most erratic of the Cuban artists, sometimes dropping out of sight for years at a time only to win even greater acclaim for his sensitive murals and lyrical figure pieces. Today the artist has reduced his color elements to a narrow scale of zinc-white built up in plastic layers, sienna, and sap green. At the same time he still imbues a fundamentally intellectual art with a sufficiently personal flavor, not carrying his experiments as far as Carlos Enriquez whose scintillating Nude of 1940 has a strange hollowness of form frequently observed in painters of predominantly literary interests.
Amelia Peláez, while older than Cuba’s amazingly young generation, is nevertheless, along with Wilfredo Lam, perhaps the most individual and radical of them all. Having started out as an outstanding exponent of academicism, she studied in 1924 at the Art Students’ League in New York before going to Paris where she came under the influence of Braque, Gris, and Picasso. Since then she has worked out her own solutions in a very definite manner which ranges from near-abstract designs reminiscent of the Argentine Emilio Pettoruti that capture in stained-glass color the flavor of tropical sun and fruits, to bold mosaic compositions such as Fishes and Three Sisters.
Lam, son of a Negro and a Chinese, like quite a few of his colleagues, is an extensive traveler who has studied both in Spain and Paris. Aided by a strongly decorative sense, he applies Picassian iconography to Afro-Cuban voodoo themes. In their pagan ferocity, some of his pictures rank among the most striking in the show.
Mario Carreño is not only a painter of great productivity and invention but has actually become the driving force behind Cuban painting today. Having married a well known figure in Cuban society, María Luisa Gómez Mena, he has so interested her in the cause of Cuba’s neglected artists that she has not only opened the first private gallery in Havana exclusively dedicated to moderns (and changing no commissions), but has just published an excellent illustrated book, Pintura Cubana de Hoy, which is being used as a bi-lingual introduction to the exhibition at the Museum. Not satisfied with this, Señora Mena is also sponsoring the entire expenses of the current exhibition, which included unexpected export and import taxes clapped on by Cuba’s watchful government officials.
Along with Bermudez, another exponent of brilliant color is Mariano (Rodriguez), whose favorite subject, roosters, is rendered in the singing array of tones we see in his vigorous Cockfight. Though Felipe Orlando shows a strong tendency of becoming a second Ponce de León, he too favors stronger colors. Portocarrero’s drawings and oils are also rich and brilliant, the almost pointillist Interior producing an effect comparable with the gold-leaf foliations of an eighteenth century Brazilian church—a manner which, we are told, actually stems from the artist’s passionate obsession with Spanish colonial subjects.
To round out this stimulating exhibition—one which, to be sure, may contain no giants like Siqueiros yet is full of fresh work intelligently done, the Cubans have brought along a couple of engaging primitives as effective in their way as any of the Museum of Modern Art’s own discoveries. As frequently happens, these unknown islanders have a sense of style, a rhythm which their more professional colleagues can hardly parallel. There is Moreno, with his miraculous Garden of Eden and the church singer Acevedo, who is so single-purposed that he will only spend on painting materials what he earns with his voice. This artist, after reading in a calendar about Charon and the ferrying of the souls, created an amazing composition whose coffins are at least as good as those in Orozco’s Cemetery and whose imaginings would not have shamed Blake himself.
If, all in all, no new master of world-shaking importance is to be found among the Cubans, neither do any of them show the distressing second-hand qualities so often observed in places far removed from the great cross-roads of the world. Their youth, freshness, and enthusiasm, their strength of pictorial conviction and security of expression can safely challenge any other island of 4,000,000 inhabitants and perhaps countries considerably larger. A trip to the Museum of Modern Art before April 30, will bring its own reward, and surprise to those unacquainted with our island neighbor.