Born in Havana to a family of means, Carreño entered the San Alejandro Academy at the age of twelve. After brief studies there, he was apprenticed in the photogravure section of the newspaper Diario de la Marina. In the next few years his art education would continue at the San Fernando Academy in Madrid, as well as private lessons with the Dominican neo-classical painter Jaime Colson. Between 1932 and 1941, Carreño lived the life of an itinerant modernist, studying and painting in Madrid, Mexico, Paris and New York City, where he began to exhibit at the Perls Gallery. Carreño returned to Havana in late 1941.
Together with René Portocarrero, Mariano Rodríguez and Cundo Bermúdez, Carreño forms the most significant quartet of the second generation of Cuban modernist painters. These artists emerged on the scene with their distinct styles in the late 1930s; art critics such as Guy Pérez Cisneros and José Gómez Sicre defined this group as la escuela de La Habana. In April 1944 Carreño and twelve other Cuban painters were highlighted in The Museum of Modern Art's exhibition Modern Cuban Painters. By the end of that year, Carreño's marriage to heiress María Luisa Gómez Mena ended and the artist re-settled in New York City for the second time in his life. Carreño would live in New York City until his return to Cuba in 1952. While in Manhattan he exhibited his work at Perls Gallery and taught painting at The New School for Social Research. Throughout the late 1940s and 50s, next to Wifredo Lam, Carreño was the best known Cuban painter in the United States.
Niña con globos belongs to the artist's second New York period. It is a work where according to the painter, "my painting began to represent a more personal aspect . . . It became less voluminous, giving way to certain planes of color where personages from the tropics emerged . . . Something of the metaphoric quality we find in the poems of Pablo Neruda."(1) Two years later José Gómez Sicre would discuss this phase of Carreño's style as "Without reflecting a direct contact with Pre-Columbian art, these recent works posses a rare, ancestral American flavor."(2) Niña con globos depicts a world of whimsy and fantasy where an adolescent girl ascends to the sky with the aid of seven balloons. Her delicate feet barely touch the pink, brown and gray platform she is based on. A pink kite flies next to her figure, which is a variation of reds, pink and brown. Her impassive face brings to mind a Meso-American mask. The entire composition has a hieratic quality, reflective of a synthetic cubist understanding of shape and pattern. Yet Carreño alters the extreme austerity of the French style with a harmonious palette of greens, blues, grays, reds and pink that is indicative of a Latin American sensibility to color. The overall drawing is a synthesis of the organic and the geometric, containing a deliberate awkwardness that emphasizes the child-like charm of the scene.
Niña con globos is a significant work within the artist's organic-geometric oeuvre. Like other painters from this period, such as the Mexicans Tamayo and Carlos Orozco Romero, Carreño was transitioning from earlier, explicitly national subjects that "narrate the theme," to a visual plasticity that emphasized formal qualities. These very qualities serve the artist in Niña con globos to depict a transfigured world, where his poetic is one of whimsy and an almost metaphysical beauty.
By the early 1950s Carreño would abandon this style in favor of hard edge geometry.
Alejandro Anreus, Ph.D.
(1) M. Carreño, Mario Carreño: Cronología del recuerdo, Santiago, Chile: Antártica, 1991, 65. All translations from the Spanish by the author.
(2) J. Gómez Sicre, Mario Carreño, Washington, D.C.: The Pan American Union, 1947, 7.