This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist, dated 16 April 2018.
“I’ve never rationally said to myself ‘I’m going to paint a Cuban landscape,’” Sánchez says. Yet that selfsame landscape has served as the conceptual touchstone of his practice since the 1970s, when he began to paint first “what [he] could see from the window of [his] house” and, more suggestively, the grounds of the Isla de la Juventud, off Cuba’s southern coast. A counter to the “tourist landscapes with their picturesque scenes of the huts, oxen, royal palms, etc.,” his hyperrealist landscapes carry forward the vanguardia tradition charted by artists like Carlos Enríquez and Amelia Peláez, thoughtfully imbricating the natural and national worlds. Sánchez rose to prominence in the early 1980s as a member of Cuba’s Volumen Uno generation alongside such artists as Flavio Garciandía and José Bedia, and he participated in the paradigmatic, early editions of Havana’s Bienal over the decade. A steady and seemingly inexhaustible subject, the landscape has long acted as a referendum on his relationship to nature—in Cuba as well as in Costa Rica, where he lives part of the time—and, more philosophically, as a key to a self-actualized state of being.
“When I was in school we went to the Isla de la Juventud to work and the campsite was situated on the edge of an artificial lake (one of the many lakes and reservoirs created in Cuba after the Revolution),” Sánchez recalls. “The impression of seeing the calm water with the sky above gave way to a whole group of pictures of banks and shores. . . . I’m talking about a point in time and place where my relationship with nature was very intense.” These formative years, while Sánchez was a student (and later a professor) at Cuba’s Escuela Nacional de Arte, were additionally shaped by his practice of Siddha yoga and meditation, which continue to inflect his approach to landscape. “I like to meditate before the landscape,” he explains. That gives me a different perspective when I finally sit down to paint one. While other painters begin by intellectualizing nature, I think of myself as recreating it.” His studies of Hindu religion eventually drew the censure of Cuban authorities, who frowned on transcendental spirituality as mere escapism from the mundane realities of the everyday world, and Sánchez left the Escuela in 1976 and the island itself in 1990.
Landscape nevertheless remained the fulcrum of his practice, a medium of introspection and of conscience. “My approach to landscape is the result of a confrontation with my interiorization of the land,” Sánchez explains. “I look at landscape with a sense of reverence, but I feel totally included within it. What is inside is also outside. I feel as if I am outside looking at what is inside. . . . I’d say that this is a more spiritual—and more ecological—attitude toward landscape.” Sánchez lobbied the Cuban state unsuccessfully to establish an ecological foundation, and his stewardship of nature has manifested in both pristine, idealized landscapes, like Visión de orilla, and their inverse—garbage dumps of a piece with Pixar’s post-apocalyptic parable, Wall-E. If his naturalist vision mostly prevails, it is through his abiding spirituality—he acknowledges a kinship with the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich and the American Hudson River School—and his sacred practice of meditation. “When I enter a state of meditation,” he reflects, “the mind enters into a great exhilarated state. . . . Where I begin to feel that there’s a point of inner consciousness everything goes toward that inner space, that inner river. Everything goes toward that place of quiet, that realm of tranquility within the forest where there is a lake.”
“I really didn’t set out to create symbolism,” he continues. “Nonetheless, I realize that there are certain symbols which unconsciously come up in my paintings. And some of these are very universal ones, like the bank—or the shore—which, in a way, represents the influence of what I observed on the Isla de la Juventud. On one hand these pictures are based on reality but I can’t deny their relationship with the symbol of the shore in Hindu philosophy, which represents a state that one should strive to attain.” A shimmering body of water stretches across Visión de orilla, its surface a reflection of the pellucid sky and the dense forest of palm and ceiba trees, buffered by a band of low grasses, across the opposite shore. The shore beckons, mystical and aspirational: it marks the spiritual distance that Sánchez invites us to travel as we imagine a complete state of enlightenment, or nirvana.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Tomás Sánchez, quoted in Edward J. Sullivan, “Interview with Tomás Sánchez,” in Tomás Sánchez (Milan: Skira, 2003), 18.
2 Ibid., 18-19.
3 Ibid., 19, 22.
4 Ibid., 21.