Agustín Cárdenas was born in 1927 in Matanzas Cuba and was trained at the Academia de San Alejandro from 1943 to 1949. An important figure from the beginning, he formed part of the group Los Once from 1953 to 1955. He was also part of the Asociación de Grabadores de Cuba from 1950 to 1955. His maquettes, drawings and illustrations leave no doubt that he had a genuine talent for two-dimensional work as well. In 1955, He left Cuba with a scholarship and settled in Paris, where he enjoyed a prosperous career. Indeed, in 1956 his works were exhibited in Paris at the Galerie L'Etoile Scellée, cementing his relationship to the legacy of Surrealism. In 2001, he returned to Havana, where he passed away. As in the work of his compatriots of the Cuban avant-garde, Cárdenas's work is a vistual testament to the issue of double consciousness, as is evident in the variation of voices encountered in his expression. Early works incorporate Surrealist tendencies in a very sensual and organic way, without any concrete reference to race or ethnicity. Later works, notably his "totems" explore the artist's African heritage more directly. Towards the very end of his career, he again favors abstract forms, influenced by his European environment.
From the beginning, Cárdenas showed a facility for working with a variety of materials. His early marble sculptures reveal his interest in exploring the depth and versatility of the material, the sensuous possibilities of its surface. The organic forms take over the need for a narrative, translating abstract concepts into solid forms. Much of this influence came from a non-traditional initiation into the work of avant-garde sculpture from his mentor Juan José Sicre. Once the official class time had ended, Sicre would show his students images of works by Hans Arp, Constantine Brancusi, and Henry Moore. Clearly, these works made an impact on the young Cárdenas, who quickly assimilated the spare, non-objective, modernist style of the avant-garde into his work.
By the mid fifties, Cárdenas is in the zenith of his career, creating works that are self-assured and that reference the forms of African art. Narcissus was created late in his life, but during a period of extraordinary work. The 1980s was an excellent decade for the artist, as he continued to create some of his sparest and most powerful forms. Narcissus exemplifies his lifetime of commitment to the clean, monolithic style of modernist sculpture. The sensuality of the material is readily evident, as in all the artist's work. In Narcissus, the forms of arms and legs, the contemplative pose, the angles of the head all refer to the work of those modernists he came to know through his education with Sicre. Ovid recounts the moment in which Narcissus gazed upon himself:
Here Narcissus, tired
of hunting and the heated noon, lay down,
attracted by the peaceful solitudes
and by the glassy spring. There as he stooped
to quench his thirst another thirst increased.
While he is drinking he beholds himself
reflected in the mirrored pool--and loves;
loves an imagined body which contains
no substance, for he deems the mirrored shade
a thing of life to love. He cannot move,
for so he marvels at himself, and lies
with countenance unchanged, as if indeed
a statue carved of Parian marble. Long,
supine upon the bank, his gaze is fixed
on his own eyes, twin stars...(1)
Cárdenas pose is remarkable for two reasons. The first is the fact that Narcissus appears not to look directly down at his own reflection, as in the Ovidian myth, but instead appears to gaze into space, as though contemplating profound thoughts. The second is the movement and the weight that is born by the figure's shoulders. Though presumably seated comfortably with one leg extended, Narcissus's spirit appears to be broken, his torso deeply hunched over, his internal parts tightly knit. It is a powerful representation of suffering.
Narcissus was made just a few years before two major events in the artist's life. In 1993, he was the subject of a retrospective at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana. And he was awarded the Cuban National Fine Arts Award in 1995, acknowledging his enormous contribution to the history of art from the island. In addition to being acknowledged as a master of sculpture in his own country, Cárdenas was also the recipient of major awards in Japan and in France. His commitment to form as much as content would remain evident in Cárdenas's work until his death. His period of interest in using African form to signify modernity thus becomes a brief, but crucial part of his body of work.
Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Ph.D.
1) Ovid, Metamorphosis, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001, lines 592-606.