– By Virginia Alberdi Benítez –
The presence of Alicia Leal´s work in the Artemorfosis gallery, in Zurich, and her proximity to a certain poetics of the popular art in Cuba, encourages us to offer a panoramic on the expressions of a visual culture rooted in the Antillean Island.
However, before that, we need to offer two explanations. One explanation is about the categories usually used to classify the work of the creators out of the academy. The other explanation points to the necessary distinction among the results of who paints and draws in a spontaneous way and those, like Alicia Leal that finds inspiration in them.
As we all know, the adjective naïf (naive, in French) appeared in the artistic environment in France at the end of the XIX century to refer to the work of individuals that intuitively painted as a hobby (naive artists, in plural), in their free time after finishing their main jobs, without previous studies.
The History of the Art distinguished as paradigms of the naïf art the French Henri Rosseau, the Customs officer (1844. 1910) and Louis Vivin (1861. 1936). Then, they applied that category, to the American Anna Mary Robertson Moses, the Grandmother (1860. 1961) that began to paint when she was seventy years old, and the English Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) who sold fishing accessories for sailing.
The naïf painting is characterized as that lacking of the rules of the composition, brilliant colors, similar to the children’s drawings. It seemed that the self-taught feature should be a condition for a painter to be considered as a naïf artist. .However, the liking of the simplified images, not subjected to the rules of the perspective inherited from the Renaissance, spontaneously expressive, is not exclusive of the naïf art.
Let us take Paul Gauguin, for example. He lived in Britain, toward 1886, when he had the revelation of that necessity while observing the statues of churches and altars. There, he broke his ties to Impressionism. Later, while staying in Oceania he painted works that could be classified as naïf.
Nevertheless, the Western aesthetic taxonomy began to weaken when the look moves toward other environments. From long ago, the humans tried to catch the images of nature and to be caught themselves. Even though with the advances of the civilization men created schools and workshops in diverse latitudes and cultures, there were always some people that painted on rocks, walls, wood, cloths and any other material they could have, for their own initiative and without paying any attention to the established conventions.
Before the time when the market of the art distinguished the category naïf in France, in Russia, in XIX Century not few individuals reproduced icons and religious scenes for domestic use, what gave birth later to a classification that sometimes intersects with the naïf art: Primitivism.
Even before the proclamation of the independence in most of the African countries, schools were founded like the ones in the old metropolises; there were not only carvers and goldsmiths, but also spontaneous painters in those countries. That presence was outstanding in the schools of Poto-Poto in Brazzaville, the Sep Setal movement in Senegal, Lubumbashi, Dakar, Maputo, Harare, Rorke’s Drift in South Africa, Oshogbo in Nigeria, and Cyrene in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe,
In the present Mexican territory, colonized by the Spaniards, the mural painting flourished in religious buildings and in aristocratic houses from the XVI century. The interesting thing was that the creators were native painters, directed by friars, but that ignored such guide, and they painted what they had intuitively assimilated from their native culture.
Considering the differences, a similar case in Cuba was that of Vicente Escobar Flores (1762. 1834), a mulatto born in Havana. The poet and researcher Roberto Méndez, when studying Escobar´s biography, tells how the artist’s family, in spite of their ethnic origin, enjoyed a certain economic comfort. Vicente started as a self-taught painter; according to the tradition, he copied a group of saints’ images own by the family. Probably, Méndez says, he would had been only a well-known artisan, if not for the wide net of family contacts that included not only the mixed-bred small bourgeoisie of the city, but also Creole farmers and colonial civil servants. That was what made possible that the young painter could become an artist with an important number of customers.
The researcher remembers that at the end of the XVIII century the members of the top class of the Island, wealthy because of trading sugar and black slaves, have become more refined. That is demonstrated by the palaces they built, the huge acquisitions they made abroad, such as glasses, China potteries, silver objects and fine laces, and the growing demand of so diverse articles as Holland lingerie and musical instruments. The government’s civil servants, wealthy tradesmen, and rich farmers wanted to have their images in pictures in the wide walls of their rooms and to bequeath them to their descendants, illuminated by the windows, but they could not find a painter worthy for that purpose. Then, they discovered Escobar. The painter, without academic studies that did not exist in Cuba, imitates academy, but he makes it for intuition and with ability.
However, Escobar and others like him are not really naïf. That qualification appeared in the panorama of the Cuban fine arts by the middle of the XX century, starting from the scale of values of the History of the Art in the Western world.
That was how critics and specialists discovered Benito Ortiz (1896. 1989), a mailman that was born and still lived in Trinidad, one of the first villages founded by the Spanish settlers in Cuba for the center and south of the island, and that preserves the architectural features of that time even at the present time.
While Ortiz traveled through the streets of Trinidad, to distribute letters and packages, he observed the urban landscape. One day, already in his middle age, he decided to reproduce what he saw. He painted streets and squares, churches and palaces, delineating the contours with inked pencils of common use in the post office and squaring the surfaces. In 1977, the Cuban moviemaker Constante Rapi Diego filmed a documentary that showed Ortiz’s daily activity in Trinidad and his relationship with landscapes and neighbors.
A bigger recognition deserved Ruperto Jay Matamoros (1912 -2008). He even received the National Award of Fine Arts, a distinction reserved only for creators of the vanguard with academic formation and that have left their imprint in the Cuban art from their setting-up in 1995. Jay was born in San Luis, in the Eastern region of the country, near Santiago de Cuba. For several years, he worked as the driver of one of the wealthiest women in Havana but he always dedicated time to painting and he was part of a group of artists advised by the vanguard painter Eduardo Abela.
The American critic Edward Sullivan was not fair when he says that the success of Gilberto de la Nuez (1913. 1998), starting from the seventies of the last century were due to the combination of political propaganda and the imagery of the religious altarpieces. Long before De la Nuez had called the attention of critics and art dealers because of the meticulousness of his pictorial compositions, in which he intended to reflect some kind of a chronicle of the daily life of the Cubans. Obviously, that daily character, as his work grew, had to take into account what happened in his close environment, but it is necessary to place among his most representative works those that he dedicated to describe the popular parties in the Havana in the fifties and the representations of the eclectic religiosity that characterizes the average Cuban individual.
Juan Andrés Rodríguez, The Monk (1930. 1995) is another naïf artist well known in the artistic Cuban circles, mainly for his implication with the history and the customs of his native village, Sancti Spíritus. After he exhibited his work in 1971 in Havana, there were many invitations to exhibit in galleries in Cuba and abroad. One of his last personal exhibitions, “Güijes” of The Monk, in Santa Clara City, clarified his thematic proposal; to catch figures of the popular mythology in the rural and suburban environments, without giving up painting his very personal and imaginative view of the city where he lived.
The artists here mentioned are, with their differences, among the first painters in Cuba considered as naïf, candid or spontaneous painters. Other painters have been noticed later, such as Julio Breff (Sagua de Tánamo, Holguín, 1856), one of the most well-known abroad. He tells that the first thing he drew was a butterfly. About his hobby, he admits: “I had to work as a farmer, to place my hands on the soil, but in my free time I drew with vegetable coal, not with charcoal, but with what is used to cook food. Nobody has trained me. I just tried to copy nature, the blue sky, the rivers, the plants, the peasants, the woman; I saw the parties and the traditions of my neighbors in my town and I felt an irresistible desire of registering the things I saw. I felt that I did not have another choice and I had to paint the ideas that were in my mind.”
We still can see butterflies in Julio Breff’s works, but also the contrast between the field of Cuba and the city is a recurrent topic in his work. In several works of Breff, he reflects the progress and the victory over the obstacles “I love the country and I want the country to develop with modern means, in my works you can see that; I paint peasants that fight against poverty and underdevelopment.”
In the other end of the Eastern area, near Yateras, in the Guantánamo province, a naïf sculptor, Ángel Íñigo (1935-2014), created one of the most prodigious works in that area: a zoological of stone. When he was forty-two years old, he began to chisel the stone in their small country property called of Alto de Boquerón. From his hands, a lion emerged, the first of his three hundred sculptures that include pieces of a few kilograms until masses of incalculable tonnage, showing scenes that reflect the author’s vitality. He was inspired by images of animals in books and magazines. He called his last work Tomorrow and Strength and it was sculpted in the peak of a mountain, it shows a man faces a bull to knock it off.
Those who have followed this review will see that the naïf art in Cuba, like in other countries, contains individual creators that have been dedicated to the painting, and in one case, to the sculpture for their own interest, without being aware of that classification.
In a future article, we will address to other two insular variants of the naïf art, promoted to a group scale and with premeditation; I refer to the group of painters and popular designers of Las Villas and to the movement of the Mella municipality, in Santiago de Cuba. Everything is to be told while in Zurich the Cuban painter Alicia Leal exhibits her extraordinary personal extraordinary work.
Havana, May 2016