We are grateful to Cundo Bermúdez and Conrado Basulto for their assistance in confirming the authenticity of this work.
Secundino "Cundo" Bermúdez was born September 3, 1914 in Havana. As a child he whiled away the hours making crayon drawings of movie stars whose photographs appeared in Cuban and foreign entertainment magazines. In the early 1930s Cundo studied for two short months at the San Alejandro Academy. By the mid 1930s he was a student of diplomatic and consular law at the University of Havana; it was there that he would meet his friend and champion, the art critic José Gómez Sicre (1916-91). The two young men shared a love of visual art, movies, literature and contemporary music. Gómez Sicre would encourage Cundo's development as an artist for years to come; Cundo would paint the portrait of Gómez Sicre's then fiancé, the poet Fina García Marruz. The painter and the critic would be associated for the rest of their lives. In 1938 Cundo traveled to Mexico to continue his art studies at the San Carlos Academy under the tutelage of Jesús Guerrero Galván (1910-73). In Mexico Cundo would encounter the paintings of Julio Castellanos and Rufino Tamayo; both would be powerful influences on his early work.
Today Cundo remains the only living member of the "escuela de la Habana" painters, which included Carreño, Portocarrero, Mariano, Martínez Pedro, Felipe Orlando and Mirta Cerra. These artists emerged in the Havana art scene between the late 1930s and early 40s, their work--with a preference for Cuban genre scenes, baroque forms and tropical colors--was championed by critics like Gómez Sicre and Guy Pérez Cisneros.
According to Gómez Sicre, Cundo's work can be classified into three major periods: from the 1940s to 1950 his painting is volumetric and colorful, infused with the narrative charm of folk art; in the 1950s through the 60s volume disappears into flatness and there is a predominance of acidic colors, while his figures become more stylized; and finally after leaving Cuba and going into exile in 1967, a subtle, almost mannerist volume returns to his shapes and color regains a lushness that is at times tinged with fantasy and even melancholy.(1)
After leaving his homeland, Cundo settled in Puerto Rico, where he continued an active career as a painter, printmaker and muralist. In the early 1990s Cundo moved to Miami where he continues to live and work. This painting, Columnas, fits easily into the artist's third period, but I would add that it transcends it to become an extraordinary example of "Old Age or Late Style." Old Age or Late Style is a term that can be traced back to the work of Austrian art historian Hans Tietze and his study of Titian's late work. Since then significant art historians such as Julius Held and Gert Schiff have written extensively on the issues associated with the term. One of the definitions of Late Style focuses on the "unearthly serenity and timeless beauty that crowns a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor"(2)--it is within this concept that Cundo's Columnas fits. In the 1950s the female figures in Cundo's paintings acquired all sorts of fantastic head gear, by the early 70s these were transformed into dense turbans or head wrappings, such as the two in this work. These turbaned female figures with their long noses and enigmatic eyes can have a particularly musical connotation in Cundo's work. They evoke the serene sounds of two of the painter's favorite composers; Debussy and Ravel.(3) In the 1980s figures like these appear in compositions with specific musical titles, such as Pavanas de Ravel.
Columnas, one of the painter's largest easel works, depicts two column-like figures, one frontal, the other in profile. The background consists of two flat areas of cadmium red, one darker than the other. The chromatic structure of the figures ranges from gray to tan, luscious touches of pink and blue to a gray olive green. The entire surface of the painting is worked in a consistent media pasta, thereby creating a unified pictorial field. The face of the figure on the left contains only the eyes, which are mysterious and sad. The profiled face of the figure on the right has a long, sharp nose--typical of the artist's vocabulary--and its visible eye stares at the figure on the left. Both bodies are simplified to a column-like shape, and no limbs are visible in either. The forms of the bodies, with their gray, green, blue varieties, create a subtle push/pull tension with the red background. The silhouettes evoke the form of a cello, and the lower half of the bodies, with their wide string-like bands of color, emphasizes the musical charge of the picture.
In Columnas Cundo attains the spirit of clarity and serenity associated with one of the two aspects of Late Style; the ordinary reality of two figures is transfigured into an image of mystery and hieratic beauty comparable to the art of the Egyptians.
Alejandro Anreus, Ph.D.
1) J. Gómez Sicre, "Cundo Bermúdez," in Art of Cuba in Exile (Miami: Editorial Munder, 1987), 13-16.
2) E. Said, On Late Style (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006), 7. Examples of this are the late work of Matisse and Miró, as well as Tamayo's paintings from the 1980s until his death. The other side of Late Style consists of fragmentation, ruptures and rage at a world that is ending; this is best exemplified by Picasso in the 1960s and 70s, Orozco in the years 1947-49, Darío Suro in the 1980s and 90s.
3) The first time I visited Cundo's studio in San Juan, Puerto Rico (May 1981), he was listening to Debussy's "Feasts," as I was leaving he switched to Ravel's "Pavanne."