We are grateful to Fundación Arte Cubano for their assistance cataloguing this work.
Famously regarded as the author of Gitana Tropical (Tropical Gypsy) (1929), a canonical painting colloquially referred to as the Cuban Mona Lisa, Victor Manuel is among the pioneering protagonists of the Cuban vanguardia. After brief studies at the San Alejandro Art Academy in Havana, the artist traveled to Paris in 1925 and again in 1929, where he absorbed the lessons of the School of Paris. Upon his definitive return to Cuba, Victor Manuel began producing the iconic female portraits and tranquil Cuban landscapes so characteristic of his career.
Carnaval (Escena de comparsa) reflects Victor Manuel’s interest in Afro-Cuban subjects, an interest shared by other Cuban modern artists, whose search for expressions of lo cubano (Cuban-ness) prompted many to explore the island’s Afro-Cuban roots. Indeed, depicting a raucous celebration of dancing and music, Carnaval recalls the historic painting, Triunfo de la Rumba (1929), created by Victor Manuel’s peer, Eduardo Abela, when the two artists were living abroad. In both works, a handkerchiefed woman in a flowing white dress stands at the center of an energized crowd, whose dynamic movement is emphasized by the undefined ground upon which they revel.
However, whereas Abela’s work was created in late 1920s Paris, Victor Manuel’s painting likely belongs to the artist’s later years in Cuba. In fact, although Carnaval is undated in keeping with the majority of the artist’s oeuvre, the canvas relates to his nocturnal scenes of Havana’s ubiquitous Malecón. Executed during the later years of his career, these nighttime images of the city’s oceanfront drive are pierced by the headlamps of automobiles and streetlamps, sources of light that are replaced in Carnaval by the farolas held aloft by the parading crowd. These decorative poles with their attached lights illuminate Victor Manuel’s painting, allowing both us, the viewer, as well as the miniscule figures standing on the balconies in the canvas’s background, to observe the scene.
Susanna Temkin, PhD, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University