We are grateful to Fundación Arte Cubano for their assistance cataloguing this work.
“There is little reserve and no still life in the volatile art of Carlos Enríquez,” observed Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and curator of the historic exhibition, Modern Cuban Painters, which opened in March 1944. “He suggests the legendary violence and sensuality of his country by fusing desperados, galloping horses, figures of women, and the windy, rolling Cuban landscape into tornados of iridescent color.” Enríquez contributed three paintings to this landmark exhibition, which swept the leading figures of Cuba’s vanguardia – among them, Amelia Peláez, Fidelio Ponce de León, and Mario Carreño – into the museum’s dominant narrative of modern art. Enríquez was at the height of his career at the time of the exhibition, and Héroe criollo – a companion painting to Cuban Outlaw, shown at MoMA – exemplifies the telluric sensuality and drama for which he is celebrated.
Enríquez had first become familiar with the United States two decades earlier, during his brief and tumultuous marriage to the painter Alice Neel, but like many of Cuba’s historic vanguardia he came to artistic maturity in Paris, where he lived in the early 1930s. His exposure there to the work of Salvador Dalí, Francis Picabia, and Umberto Boccioni, in particular, anticipated the Surrealist and Futurist dimensions of his later work. “We may sense divergent traits of Futurism in certain canvases by Carlos Enríquez,” Edward Alden Jewell wrote for the New York Times. “Enríquez has invented an extraordinary plastic device by means of which forms that might have been painted with colored glycerine become transparent, permitting related forms placed behind them to show through and giving thus to violent themes such as ‘The Rape of the Mulattas’ and ‘Cuban Outlaw’ an aspect of Futurism’s famed simultaneity.”
By the time of his return to Havana in 1934, Enríquez had gained fluency in the visual languages of the avant-garde – so much so that his solo exhibition was canceled on account of public outcry over his nudes – and he began to turn his attention to local and national subjects. His iconography increasingly centered around what he called the romancero guajiro (the creole or peasant ballad) and its rhapsodic embrace of the countryside – the landscape and its people – as the source of cubanidad. “I am presently working in what could be called ‘peasant ballads,’” Enríquez wrote, “that is to say the painting of the Cuban peasant in his environment, surrounded by something mysterious and fantastic that fills his solitude with curious legends, which emerge out of his direct contact with the earth.” Enríquez modeled his archetypal (anti-)heroes on both the famed “Mambises,” such as José Martí, the “apostle” of Cuban independence, and their lawless counterparts, epitomized in the legend of Manuel García, who roamed the countryside at the end of the nineteenth century. A charismatic figure, García fascinated Enríquez, who further mythologized him in his novel Tilín García (1939) and in the painting Cuban Outlaw. Almost identical in composition, Héroe criollo pays tribute instead to the guerrillas – above all, Martí – who fought for independence; as a pair, the paintings personify the bravado of the authentic Cuban leader who carried the mantle of the nation. The similarity of the paintings suggests the proximity of the two heroes in popular memory during the 1930s, as the nation recovered from the repressive Machadato and its threat to Cuban freedom.
Shades of the Mambises course through the intrepid Héroe criollo, whose eponymous figure tears through the windswept landscape, his body twisting as one with his horse. Enríquez captures the fugitive drama of the scene: the horse suspended in mid-gallop, the gossamer outline of the rider’s sombrero, the rolling country enfolding them in a lustrous blur of Venetian red and verdant greens. “The technique is soft and somewhat transparent,” Enríquez elaborated in a letter to Barr from 1943. “The tropical light erases the distances, sometimes turns solid objects into liquid, fuses the colors, and transforms the quality of the materials.” Deepening the visual delirium is the suggestive transposition of a woman’s body onto the horse; curling around her body, a hot-blooded hand holds a gun, its shape stark and steel at the center of the canvas. “The essential quality is the rootedness in the Cuban soil,” Diego Rivera observed of Enríquez’s painting from this time. “Humid heat and perspiration that makes the colors run like a woman's mascara during lovemaking. The obsession with the female and the horse, with remembrances of the gun. . . . The whole sad tragedy of semicolonial Indo-Afro-Ibero America.”
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Alfred H. Barr, Jr., “Modern Cuban Painters,” The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 11, no. 5 (April 1944): 3.
2 Edward Alden Jewell, “Cuba’s Pacemakers,” New York Times, March 26, 1944.
3 Carlos Enríquez, “Romancero guajiro ,” quoted and trans. in Juan A. Martínez, Cuban Art and National Identity: The Vanguardia Painters, 1927-1950 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994), 119.
4 Enríquez to Barr, Jr., February 8, 1943, quoted in Martínez, Cuban Art and National Identity, 122.
5 Diego Rivera, “Oleos, dibujos, y gouaches del pintor cubano Carlos Enríquez,” in Carlos Enríquez (Mexico: Palacio de Bellas Artes, 1944), quoted and trans. in Martínez, Cuban Art and National Identity, 125.