Surrealism in Cuba?
– By Virginia Alberdi Benítez –
Alejo Carpentier, a Cuban writer of universal hierarchy, was a witness in Paris to the appearance of the surrealism in the European culture of the period between the World Wars. He even wrote articles for the magazine Revolution Surrealiste at the request of André Breton. Being pursued by the tyranny of Gerardo Machado that at the end of the twenties of the last century kept Cuba under his rule, the writer moved to Europe. The French poet Roberto Desnos, affiliated to surrealism, facilitated for Carpentier to move to France. An anecdote, told by Carpentier himself, reveals the nature of the perception that they both had of art and life:
“One day Robert Desnos and me were walking through the surroundings of the old market of Paris that exists no more; we passed in front of a store that we didn’t know called “Factory of Traps”. Traps of all class were sold there: to catch foxes, to catch bears, huge traps, mousetraps, in short, all kind of traps for dangerous or harmful animals. And over the sign, two catholic priests wearing their soutanes were looking through the windows of a guesthouse above the store. We immediately took a picture of the scene and published it in the magazine, because that was an authentic pure surrealist picture”
However, Carpentier broke up with surrealism, from its Latin American and Caribbean experience, he started to think about another perspective of the subject.k Then, the theory of the wonderful reality approach was born. In the foreword to his novel “The Kingdom of this World” (1948), he drifts apart from the European current since it did not believe in the wonderful approach “obtained through magic tricks, meeting objects that are not usually met: the old and lying history of the fortuitous encounter of the umbrella and the sewing machine on a dissection table, generating ermine tablespoons, the snails in the rainy taxi, the lion head on the pelvis of a widow, of the surrealist exhibitions”.
For him the wonderful reality “starts to be wonderful in an unequivocal way when it arises from an unexpected alteration of reality, from a privileged revelation of reality, from an unusual or especially favorable illumination of the inadvertent ones of riches of reality, from a broadening of the scales and categories of reality.”
It seems pertinent to remember the remarks of Carpentier when considering the incidence of the surrealism in the Cuban art of the XX century. Because in the traffic toward the Caribbean territory, surrealism experienced a decantation and critical assimilation process that in a certain moment, according to the Carpentier logics, gave place to other stages that difficultly qualify, at least approximately, with the European mainstream.
So, many people insist on pointing out the exclusivity of Wifredo Lam as the maximum Cuban representative of the surrealist school. The artist´s own trajectory is in favor of this appreciation.
Lam, son of a Chinese immigrant and a black mother, arrived in Havana in 1916, Lam had been born in Sagua la Grande, a city to the north of the central region of the island. He studied in the academy of San Alejandro from 1918 to 1922; then he got the chance of continuing his training in Spain.
In 1938 he settled down in Paris. There he met Picasso, in his studio on the Grands-Augustins Street. The brilliant Spaniard called him “cousin” and that is how he introduced him to Braque, Matisse, Miró, Léger, Eluard, Leiris, Tzara, Kahnweiler and Zervos. He met Pierre Loeb, the owner of the Pierre Gallery in Paris, where he made his first personal exhibition in 1939.
Shortly before the arrival of the Germans, Lam leavers Paris to travel to Bordeaux and then to Marseille, where many of his friends, particularly surrealist artists, were grouped around André Breton in the Air-Bel Country house: they were Mabille, Char, Brauner, Masson and Péret. From January to February 1941, he illustrated the poem of Breton, FataMorgana. On March 25, Lam and his wife Helena Holzer travelled to Martinique. Breton and Lévi-Strauss also travelled with them. Being retained in that island, Lam becomes a friend of Aimé Césaire.
Finally, Cuba, after almost twenty years of absence. Lam rediscovers his Afro-Cuban roots. From surrealism he moves to another reality closer to his origins. The jungle (1942) is and is not a surrealist work.
The Cuban painter and critic Carlos M. Luis who, by the way, more than once has been considered as a follower of the surrealist trend, has said on the evolution of Lam: “Having as starting point the essence of the pictorial European tradition, as Breton saw, an integration of cultural diverse sources took place in his painting .-the transculturation that Fernando Ortiz coined in his ethnology works- where from the symbols of the Afro-Cuban religion to diverse images related with the esoterism and the European demonology are present, as we can see in his works The Wedding (1947) and Belial emperor of the flies (1948).”
Evidently, from the moment he recovered his identity in contact with his native land, the work of Lam stops responding to the approach fixed by Breton in the second Surrealist Manifesto about the prevalence of “a mechanism toward a mental world of infinite possibilities, a moment in the mind where life and death, the real thing and the imaginable thing, the past and the future, the communicable thing and the incommunicable thing, the high thing and the low thing, they stopped to be perceived as contradictions.” Its construction of images is not mental, but visceral.
Apart from Lam it would be necessary to speak at most of surrealist influences in the work of several of the Cuban masters of the vanguards of the XX century. One of the most important was Eduardo Abela.
The Chilean critic Miguel Rojas Mix points out as an interesting fact, in the case of Abela, that his contacts with the European surrealism in the decade of the twenties were only assumed by the fifties, what could be seen in the Hall of the National School of Visual Arts (April, 1950), when he exhibited thirty two pieces that mean the transformation of his painting.
“Rojas Mix revealed: There, what is formal acquires a great importance, but it is not an empty formalism since there the form acquires a symbolic value. From his magic world the social reality or the Cuban world did not disappear. Abela works using texture effects in order to give even more sensitivity to the image. It evokes a magic-wonderful world. It is a magic realism where the reality is seen as fantastic: very lyrical, with nothing anecdotic. In his paintings the space is flat, without illusionism of any kind.”
In a seemingly much more tangential way we can see the bonds between surrealism and the work of another great master of the Cuban painting of the XX century, Carlos Enríquez. His iconography is characterized by the figurative stylization and the masterful use of transparencies. He painted characters and landscapes of unyielding Cuban character. But there were reminiscences of his training stay in Paris. The art critic Luz Merino Acosta has pointed out how the artist’s procedures are close to those of Salvador Dalí when he proclaimed to apply “a spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical interpretative association of delirium”, and to prove that, he tells us that two of the most celebrated works by Enríquez, The kidnapping of the mulattresses and Creole Hero, seem to illustrate that precept.
In sculpture we find Agustín Cárdenas. Living in Paris from the 50s, his esthetics is close to abstractionism. However he is considered as a partner of the surrealists for participating in the exhibition L’ EtoileScellée Gallery in 1956 and then, in 1965, in the international last exhibition of the survivors of the movement. That sense of belonging is also supported by the opinion of Breton that said of his work: “As skilled as a dragonfly, Cárdenas’s hand, for our fortune, remains in that highly privileged condition. Arising from his fingers there is the flourishing great totem that, better than a saxophone, makes the figure of the beautiful women bend”
Even today, the elements of surrealism arrive to the Cuban art in union with other trends of the art, more contemporary, characters and atmospheres that belong together with the insular idiosyncrasy and that constant union of realities and daily daydreams.
Havana, summer, 2016