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​‘No one escapes the spell cast by Tomás Sánchez’

As three of his paintings head for Christie’s Latin American Art  sales on 24-25 May, the Cuban exile talks to Alastair Smart about his preoccupation with the natural world, meeting Fidel Castro — and having his paintings burned by the authorities

One of Cuba’s leading contemporary artists, Tomás Sánchez (b. 1948) is known above all for his lush and timeless tropical landscapes. Having made his name as part of the Volumen Uno  movement, which is credited with transforming Cuban art, Sánchez won numerous prizes in his homeland, including the Amelia Peláez Award for painting at the inaugural Havana Biennial in 1984, and was given a retrospective at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana while still in his thirties.

One of his biggest fans, the novelist Gabriel García Márquez, said ‘no one escapes the spell cast by Tomás Sánchez: the more we know his work, the more… certain we are that if the world deserves to be made again, it is because, as much as it can, it resembles his painting.’

In 1990, however, Sánchez left Cuba indefinitely, after the last of many fall-outs with the Castro regime. He moved to Miami and became a hit with US critics, Hilton Kramer in the New York Observer  hailing the discovery of ‘a master talent’ who brings ‘epic vision to the depiction of landscape’. In 2012, his painting Buscador de Paisajes  achieved $626,500 at auction, an artist record. Aged 68, Sánchez now lives in Costa Rica.

Tomás Sánchez (b. 1948), Aguas ocultas en la selva, 1990. Acrylic on canvas. 78 x 96 in (198.1 x 243.8 cm). Estimate $400,000-600,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York
Tomás Sánchez (b. 1948), Aguas ocultas en la selva, 1990. Acrylic on canvas. 78 x 96 in (198.1 x 243.8 cm). Estimate: $400,000-600,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

The landscapes you depict almost look too good to be true. Are they real places?

Tomás Sánchez: ‘They’re inspired by different elements of real places — in Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico and Central America. But they aren’t pictures of specific places, no. They’re not postcards, they’re idealised mixes of different landscapes.’

In creating them, how aware were you of the European tradition of landscape painting?

TS: ‘Very aware. They’re my local spin on that tradition really. I always liked 19th-century artists such as Turner, Monet, Van Gogh — and especially Caspar David Friedrich. His works are so much more than just visual records of [Germany’s] Black Forest. They’re full of the personal awe he added. I like artists who find a way of expressing themselves through landscape — of offering an interiorised vision in an exterior scene.’

How much of your 'self' is in your paintings?

TS: ‘I believe there’s one supreme force that created the universe and everything in it. Man and nature are really one — which is something I’ve experienced walking through various forests and mountains over the years, and something I try to express with the small human figures in many of my landscapes. In that sense, I’m in every picture I paint.’

Tomás Sánchez (b. 1948), Meditador entre aguas, 1996. Acrylic on canvas. 23¾ x 47½ in (60.3 x 120.7 cm). Estimate $120,000-180,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Tomás Sánchez (b. 1948), Meditador entre aguas, 1996. Acrylic on canvas. 23¾ x 47½ in (60.3 x 120.7 cm). Estimate: $120,000-180,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Talking of those figures, is it true that their size got you into trouble with the Cuban authorities?

TS: ‘Yes, I was accused of misanthropy and a lack of patriotism because of the small scale of my humans in relation to the rest of the landscape [in works such as Oir las Aguas and Pescador ]. I was criticised for a belittling representation of the Cuban people.’

And on another occasion you had some of your paintings burned?

TS: ‘Yes, some burned and others given to students at the National Art School to paint over. It was the mid-1970s and I was a teacher there. At the time I was very interested in yoga, Vedanta and Indian philosophies, but that was in conflict with official ideas of the communist state. So I was dismissed from the school and had a number of paintings destroyed.’

Your relationship with the Castro regime was always tense. Did you ever meet Fidel?

TS: ‘Yes, a few times. Though only once did we have a proper conversation. His brother Raul [now Cuba’s president] had bought him one of my paintings as a birthday present. It was a rare occasion that I’d painted directly from nature — [it was] a spot in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountain range. It turned out it was the exact same view that Fidel had had from his cabin in 1959, when he and his men were hiding out in the Sierra before launching the Revolution. He told me he was impressed by the texture I’d given one particular tree, as he remembered it well — from using it for shooting practice.’

Tomás Sánchez (b. 1948), Contemplador de Montañas, 2005. Acrylic on paper. 22½ x 30 in (57.2 x 76.2 cm). Estimate $35,000-45,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Tomás Sánchez (b. 1948), Contemplador de Montañas, 2005. Acrylic on paper. 22½ x 30 in (57.2 x 76.2 cm). Estimate: $35,000-45,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

The ‘Volumen Uno’ movement, of which you were a founding member, is hailed for opening new horizons for Cuban art. How important was it?

TS: ‘I’d say very important. It started out as an exhibition [in 1981] by 11 artists who wanted to move beyond political motifs and pieces championing the revolution. We were all very different — with work ranging from performance to Pop — but united by a support for each other and standing against what had come before.’

Why, a decade later, did you leave Cuba for good?

TS: ‘I wanted to set up an ecological foundation. By the late Eighties, the value of my work was on the rise — though the government only allowed artists to collect a small fraction of any money they made (a maximum of 20 US dollars per month). I came up with the idea of the foundation as a way of redirecting the money I was earning but wasn’t allowed to keep. When the government refused permission for even that, I felt I had no option but to leave.’

Tomás Sánchez (Cuban b. 1948), Basurero, 1991. Acrylic on canvas , 43 x 58⅞ in (109.2 x 149.5 cm). Sold for $182,500 on 26-27 May 2010

Tomás Sánchez (Cuban b. 1948), Basurero, 1991. Acrylic on canvas , 43 x 58⅞ in (109.2 x 149.5 cm). Sold for $182,500 on 26-27 May 2010

After the landscapes, your most famous paintings are of urban garbage dumps. Ostensibly they're very different subjects — but are the two sets of works actually connected?

TS: ‘Absolutely. I believe it’s through nature that man finds freedom, achieving unity between himself and the world around him. When he starts to think he needs something more, however, and starts buying things — like fast cars and computers and big houses — problems come. There’s no lasting satisfaction that way: the mountain of things we throw out as garbage are the ultimate proof of that.’