Carlos Enríquez (Cuban 1900-1957)
Carlos Enríquez (Cuban 1900-1957)

Elegía a Jesús Menéndez

Carlos Enríquez (Cuban 1900-1957)
Elegía a Jesús Menéndez
signed and dated 'Carlos Enríquez 53' (lower left)
oil on canvas
24¼ x 21 in. (62 x 53 cm.)
Painted in 1953.
By descent to Isabetta Enríquez de Lancella, Havana.
Acquired from the above circa late 1950s.
J.A. Martínez, Carlos Enríquez: The Painter of Cuban Ballads, Miami, Cernuda Arte, 2010, p. 257 (illustrated in color).
Miami, Museo Cubano de Arte y Cultura, Carlos Enríquez: Cuban Painters Series, March 1986.

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Camila Femenias
Camila Femenias

Lot Essay

We are grateful to Fundación Arte Cubano for their assistance cataloguing this work.

Carlos Enríquez was one of the leading painters of the so-called vanguardia generation, which introduced modern art to Cuba. He developed his mature style in the mid-1930s characterized by his use of transparent color forms and dynamic compositions. He is best known for his representations of the Cuban countryside: its landscape, people, history, and legends. Enríquez is also known for paintings sharply criticizing the social conditions of the countryside. Elegía a Jesús Menéndez (1953) is one such example of Enríquez’s more socially engaged works. Ménendez was a black Cuban union leader and representative in Congress for the Partido Socialista Popular, assassinated in 1948 by the local police in the town of Manzanillo.

Enríquez illustrated Nicolás Guillén’s 1951 long combative poem paying homage to Menéndez and two years later painted this work. The painting depicts a Cuban landscape dotted with palm trees, stormy clouds, and a leafless tree in the foreground. Curiously the tree has white flowers at the tip of its branches, a sign of renewal and hope. Buried, at the foot of the tree, is the body of Menéndez wrapped in strips of white cloth and below him is a large strong hand with roots. The tree and the hand are manifestations of Menéndez reaching deep into the earth and up to the sky perhaps as symbols of his work and the enduring legacy of his ideals. The representation of the earth with rich ochre tones dominates the composition. In Criollismo, a 1930s literary and artistic movement, direct contact with the earth was an important element of national identity and authenticity. Enríquez was a strong proponent of this concept. A significant example of the artist’s socially-orientated work, Elegía a Jesús Menéndez was one of the key works featured in Carlos Enríquez’s first exhibition in the United States, organized by the former Museo Cubano de Arte y Cultura in 1986.

Juan A. Martínez, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Florida International University

In 1951, Enríquez illustrated the first edition of Elegía a Jesús Menéndez, a tribute to the assassinated trade union leader, by Nicolás Guillén who was later honored as the poet laureate of revolutionary Cuba. Known as the “General of the Sugarcanes,” Menéndez (1911-48) agitated for the rights of sugar workers within the plantation economy, and Guillén’s poem closes with a rousing stanza that envisions the liberation of the working class:

Then he will come,
General of the Sugarcanes, with his saber
made of burnished lightning;
then he will come,
riding a horse of water and smoke,
a soft smile and a soft salute;
then he will come to say,
Jesús, to say:
“Look, here is sugar already without tears.”1

Guillén was a regular visitor to El Hurón Azul, Enríquez’s home and studio on the outskirts of Havana. Since the 1930s, they had shared a commitment to the values of afrocubanismo, acknowledging and celebrating the role of African culture in shaping the rhythms, languages, and customs of Cuban arts and literature. Enríquez had returned to Cuba in 1934 following travel in Europe, and like others of the historical vanguardia – among them Eduardo Abela, Antonio Gattorno, and Wifredo Lam – he found rich sources in the Afrocuban tradition. His mature iconography centered around what he called the romancero guajiro (the creole or peasant ballad) and its telluric embrace of the countryside – the landscape and its people – as the source of cubanidad.

An homage to both Menéndez and Guillén, Elegía a Jesús Menéndez depicts a sugarcane field against a luminous backdrop of elegant palmas reales and gently sloping mountains. Menéndez’s body, which was carried in a coffin through the streets of Havana, is portrayed here at rest, pale and shrouded, and fittingly returned to the earth. At the edge of the field, his body divides the canvas vertically, separating the expanse of the landscape from a cross-section view of the ground beneath him. Stretching suggestively through Menéndez’s torso, the roots of the tree in the foreground transform into a hand that reaches into the depths of red-sienna soil, nourishing itself in the earth. The sustenance and the fruit of the land – the soil and climate so favorable to the sugar economy – are here suggestively juxtaposed with the blood and the labor of the sugar workers, to whose cause Menéndez gave his life.

Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

1 Nicolás Guillén, “Elegy to Jesús Menéndez,” quoted and trans. in Antonio Benítez-Rojo, “Nicolás Guillén and Sugar,” Callaloo 31 (Spring 1987): 344.

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