We are grateful to the Fundación Arte Cubano, Madrid, for their assistance in cataloguing this work.
Born in the city of Havana, Mario Carreño is considered a leading member of the second generation of modernist painters of Cuba. Unlike his contemporaries René Portocarrero, Mariano Rodríguez and Cundo Bermúdez, Carreño was thoroughly trained in academic art practices, first at the San Alejandro Academy of his native city (1925-30); at the San Fernando Academy in Madrid (1932-35) and in Mexico with the Dominican painter Jaime Colson (1936). Carreño's vast pictorial production, which consists of easel paintings, murals and works on paper, can be classified into five stylistic phases: neo-classical (1937 to early 1943); Mexican muralist influence (mid 1943 to1944); organic-geometric (1945-52); hard edge geometric (1952-62); and "a petrified and silent world"(1) in his last three decades (1963-99). Fuego en el batey is one of the three masterpieces that he painted during his brief Mexican period, the other two being El corte de caña and Danza Afrocubana (both in private collections) of the same year. Although Mexican muralism was profoundly influential among South American painters, it had little impact among Cubans. The exceptions were a number of pictures by Eduardo Abela focused on peasant life during the years 1933-39, that reflect the influence of Rivera; and Carreño's paintings in Duco from 1943-44.
Carreño had experimented with Duco as early as 1937 when he painted a very neo-classical Cabeza after completing his tutelage under Jaime Colson.(2) But it would not be until David Alfaro Siqueiros's visit to Havana in 1943 that Carreño would work with the Duco medium in depth. In 1941 Siqueiros left Mexico at the behest of the government, due to his suspect involvement in Trotsky's assassination on August 20th of the previous year. With the help of poet Pablo Neruda, then the Chilean consul in Mexico, Siqueiros with his wife and daughter fled to Chile, where he lived and worked until 1942. In 1943 Siqueiros traveled and lectured in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, ending in Cuba in early April. The Siqueiros family settled at the Sevilla-Biltmore Hotel in Havana. In order to cover the expenses of their stay, the artist painted a panel for the ceiling of the hotel's restaurant. Still in debt, however, Siqueiros secured the help of Carreño, who was married at the time to Cuban heiress María Luisa Gómez Mena and for the first time in his life was well off. Carreño paid Siqueiros's hotel bill and brought the family to live with him and his wife at their modern home in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. While there, Siqueiros painted a mural in the home's foyer, where he was assisted by Carreño, and he re-introduced the Cuban artist to the uses of Duco.(3)
In May 1943 Carreño ordered cans of Duco paint from the United States. He prepared wooden panels and began to work furiously; in a matter of months he completed between twelve and fifteen paintings using this medium.(4) Art critic José Gómez Sicre would write:
Duco enables him to work at great speed; he now executes a large picture in one sitting. With Duco he cannot obtain subtle color saturations; he uses it in a superimposition of successive layers. He makes full use of the "accidents" that result from the fast drying nature of this medium; he succeeds in producing spectacular effects by his skillful handling of its irregular, crusty surface. He introduces a new variety of collage, affixing to the wet surface such objects as pieces of cloth, shells, or rope and then covering the area with paint, thus intensifying the tri-dimensional effect.(5)
Fuego en el batey depicts three human figures and an animal; a woman hands a nude child to a guajiro(6) on a horse. They are fleeing the burning building (el batey) behind them. The batey is the area consisting of homes and stables in a rustic farm in Cuba. An earlier work with a similar title but a different subject, Fuera del batey, had been painted earlier in 1943. Carreño absorbed the lessons from Siqueiros and transformed them into his own; technically he used pouring and a re-worked and heavy surface, applying the paint with both brushes and a palette knife. Unlike Siqueiros, Carreño did not use air brush, and he added touches of oil in certain areas of the composition. If Siqueiros's monumentality is austere and anchored in dramatic Pre-Columbian forms, Carreño in Fuego en el batey (and in the other two great pictures from this period) achieves a fleshy sensuality that is uniquely Tropical or even Cuban. The woman's buttocks, hips and legs are swooning, the skin of the child's body is tender, even the horse is charged with sensuousness. The overall meatiness of the figures recalls Picasso's neo-classic phase, the evocation of movement through the visual echo of the arms, legs and skirt bring to mind the Italian Futurists, yet the end product is pure Carreño, a skilled and powerful picture that is both classical and baroque in its pictorial language. The colors throughout this composition are intense and bright yet harmoniously orchestrated; bubble gum pink with lime green, light blue with red earth, soft purple with yellow and orange. For Carreño and his Cuban contemporaries, the pictorial definition of national identity had to be multi-faceted, not monolithic or parochial, occasionally social and rarely political. Carreño's subject in Fuego en el batey reflects a commitment to a Cuban national ethos through the depiction of peasants and the countryside. If we read El corte de caña, Danza Afrocubana and Fuego en el batey as an informal triptych, they each manifest an essential aspect of social and specifically Cuban reality: an image of labor and sugarcane, the principal product of the island; an image of ritual and the African heritage of the island; and an image of the family unit and the guajiro as a mestizo representative of agrarian life. Fuego en el batey and the rest of the Duco paintings were exhibited in Carreño's solo show at the Havana Lyceum (Vedado, Calzada and 8th streets), which opened on November 1st, 1943 and ran for two weeks. When Carreño re-settled in New York in 1944, Fuego en el batey was brought up from Havana with his other paintings, and it is very probable that the work was exhibited at Perls Gallery. José Gómez Sicre, who helped Carreño organize his 1943 Lyceum show, recalled in an interview shortly before his death:
In the 1940s Mario painted some of the most iconic works among all of the painters in that period, several of them masterpieces, in my view. Five stand out: El ciclón, Patio colonial cubano and the three magnificent ones in Duco: El corte de caña, Fuego en el batey and Danza Afrocubana.(7)
Alejandro Anreus, Ph.D.
1) Carreño himself defined his work from this period with this phrase.
2) Cabeza is reproduced in a black and white photograph in the first monograph on the artist written by José Gómez Sicre, Carreño, Havana, Ediciones Galería del Prado, 1943, 5. Duco is a lacquer paint developed by the automobile industry in the 1930s.
3) J. Gómez Sicre, interviewed by the author, 17 March 1989. Gómez Sicre, a curator and art critic, was a close friend of Carreño throughout their lives. He was the director of the short lived Galería del Prado in Havana (which was owned by Carreño's wife), the consultant for MoMA's 1944 exhibition Modern Cuban Painters, and the director of the visual arts section of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C. from 1946 until his retirement in 1983. See also M. Carreño, Mario Carreño: cronología del recuerdo, Santiago, Antártica, 1991, 50, 56. All translations from the Spanish are by the author.
4) J. Gómez Sicre, interviewed by the author, 17 March 1989. Among these paintings the most significant are El corte de caña, Danza Afrocubana, Fuego en el batey, Retrato de María Luisa, Alegoría del paisaje cubano and Jarrón con flores.
5) J. Gómez Sicre, Carreño, 13.
6) Guajiro is the word used in Cuba to describe a peasant.
7) Gómez Sicre, interviewed by the author, 15 November 1990.