Like most of his colleagues, Mario Carreño also studied at the Academia de San Alejandro. The Academia's most apparent influence on Carreño's work shows in the dark outlines, solid forms and bright colors seen in his early canvases. Like in the work of other significant Cuban modernists, particularly those that would have been instructors, such as Victor Manuel García, Carreño's work adapts the modernist tendencies of the period to his figures. This style has been described as developing "under the sign of Gauguin" by the Cuban art critic Guy Pérez Cisneros.(1) Slow to change, the academic teachings of the Academia were reinvigorated in the mid 1920s with teachers like Victor Manuel who adapted European Primitivism to a Cuban aesthetic language. In 1931, Carreño went to Spain to continue his studies. In order to support himself he worked as a graphic designer, leaving little time, initially, for painting. The artist traveled in 1935 to Mexico, where he had an opportunity to work with the Mexican muralists. Returning to Europe, he settled in Paris in 1937 where he had his earliest success in exhibiting his works. Welcomed into the circle of Picasso and Lam, Carreño found himself at home among the modern Parisian artists. During this period, he also made frequent trips to New York and had the opportunity to exhibit his work at Perls Galleries. He was included in the Museum of Modern Art's Pintura Cubana de Hoy exhibition in 1944, as well as in an exhibition of Latin American art in Washington D.C. The Guggenheim Foundation acknowledged his merit with a fellowship award in 1956.
In 1957, he moved to Chile at the encouragement of his great friend, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Carreño first met Neruda in Cuba in 1934 and the men became lifelong friends. Carreño made his first trip to Chile in 1948 and exhibited his work at the Sala del Pacifíco in Santiago. In 1956, he was offered a two-year contract to teach a course in contemporary art at the University of Chile, invited by Luís Oyarzún. He finally arrived in Valparaiso in December of 1957 and began teaching at the Universidad de Santa Maria. In 1959, he began teaching a selection of courses on contemporary art at the Unversidad de Concepción. In the same year, he is invited to become one of the founding faculty members of the art department of the Catholic University, where he remained on staff for the next 20 years.
Although Carreño returned to Europe in the 1960s, he never again went to Cuba. For the artist, Chile was like a quiet counterpart to the fast-paced life of New York. As Pablo Neruda had admired the beauty of Cuba, Carreño appreciated the Chilean landscape. He became a citizen in 1969. In 1973, during the coup headed by General Augusto Pinochet, Carreño was suspected of harboring arms in his home and was subsequently exiled in 1976. Thanks to the help of lawyers, colleagues and friends, his exile was suspended and he remained in Chile. In 1982 he was awarded the prestigious Premio Nacional de Arte by the Chilean government.
As its title would imply, this painting pays homage to the memory of Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) and mourns his absence due to his new diplomatic duties. In 1970, President Salvador Allende appointed Neruda as the Chilean ambassador to France, where he spent the next two years until he returned to Chile due to failing health. The style of the image is typical of the artist's mature work. While, in the 1940s, Carreño's works frequently adapted the layering of Cubism with the weightiness of early modernism, his mature work presents an interest in pattern and the flatness of surfaces. A perfect example of this is his treatment of the still life on the surface of the table. Seen directly from the side, each cup, bowl, chalice and fruit becomes a study in design and silhouette. Between the two central figures, a meal is shared. The red pepper that hangs between them would seem to imply a hand holding the fruit, a gesture made more emphatic with its form and color. At the table, one figure is present, bears weight and is covered in classical drapery. With a head also shaped like a chalice, it would seem to imply that the figure is like a vessel. Its companion is a mere cutout, emphasizing absence.
Together, the figures are like a study in different kinds of absence, one more ephemeral and conceptual, like an idea, perhaps poetry. The other is more literal, the landscape visible through its empty silhouette in the wall. Carreño plays with the idea of presence and absence, again, by shifting the two concepts below the tablecloth. The figure that is solid above the table becomes invisible below it. The empty silhouette has solid legs covered by the drapery of the white cloth. This play with solid and void, presence and absence is continued throughout the composition as the furniture, walls and windows echo the patterns set up in the central image. Also present in the work are references to Surrealism, including a wink at Magritte's views through windows, through figures, and patterned clouds. The undulating lines of the distant landscape echo the voluptuous rounded forms of the figures. Filled with such forms, the image is a particularly apt homage to Neruda, whose richness of language was very familiar to Carreño.
Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Ph.D.
1) G. Pérez Cisneros, "Victor Manuel y la pintura cubana contemporánea," Universidad de La Habana 2:34, Jan-Feb, 1941, 223.