Considered a leading member of the second generation of Cuban modernist painters, Mario Carreño's pictorial production is vast and varied in techniques as well as styles. His stylistic phases can be easily divided into five periods: neo-classical (1937 to early 1943), Mexican muralist influence (mid 1943-1944), organic-geometric (1945-1952), hard-edge geometric (1952-1962), and from the mid 1960s until his death, a metaphysical synthesis of both his neo-classical and geometric concerns, where, in the artist's own words he explored "a petrified and silent world."
Fuera del batey belongs to the artist's most monumental period; 1943-44. Beginning in 1941 Carreño explored national identity in a series of Cuban subjects in landscape, genre and still-life. Major works from this period include the oils El Ciclón, 1941 (The Museum of Modern Art); La Costurera and Patio Colonial Cubano, both from 1943 (Private Collections); and the Duco on wood Cortadores de caña and Danza Afrocubana from the latter part of 1943 (Private Collections). All of these subjects reflect Carreño's commitment to a Cuban national ethos through the depiction of the countryside, peasants and Afro-Cuban themes.
In early April 1943 the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros arrived in Havana with his family. By mid summer he was a guest in the home of Carreño and his then wife, heiress María Luisa Gómez Mena. Siqueiros, using Duco on wood, executed his mural Alegoría de la Igualdad y Confraternidad de las Razas Blanca y Negra en Cuba (destroyed circa 1944) at the Carreño-Gmez Mena home on 22nd and 13th streets in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. The Mexican muralist was assisted by Carreño in this endeavor, and the Cuban painter was re-introduced to the medium of Duco.(1) A thorough and methodical technician, Carreño used Duco on a series of supports. According to the art critic José Gómez Sicre, "Mario executed a number of works with Duco on Kraft paper before painting with it on wood or canvas. I am speaking of the year 1943. This is the period of Siqueiros' visit and of the mural he painted in Mario and María Luisa's house in Vedado."(2) Three versions of this painting exist, this one is the largest and it is Duco on Kraft paper. The other versions (currently in private collections) are smaller; one is oil on canvas and the other a gouache on paper.
The subject of this work refers to outside the batey, the space consisting of homes and stables within a rustic farm in Cuba. A later work of the same year, Fuego en el batey (location unknown) depicts a family and a horse abandoning a burning building. This painting seems the earlier work; while the forms may not be as sculpturally defined as Cortadores de caña, Danza afrocubana or the later batey picture, the forms are still powerfully sculptural. In this work Carreño has absorbed the influence of Siqueiros and transformed it into his own vocabulary. From the late 1930s to early 1943 Carreño had worked in a neo-classical style which he had charged with sensual forms and tropical colors, after his encounter with the Mexican muralist his sense of form became much more sculptural and his colors became more intense without giving up their tropical gamut. With Duco Carreño could not obtain subtle color saturation, instead he used it in a superimposition of successive, bold layers. Thanks to the fast-drying nature of the medium, he produced pictorial passages of great force; two, three brushstrokes define an arm, a foot, a face. Carreño's skillful draftsmanship--its economy of means and sound understanding of the human form--is in evidence in this painting.
The picture depicts three shirtless and obviously mestizo peasants trying to control a horse that is standing on its hind legs. Two men are behind and to the sides of the animal, while the third one is laying on the foreground, his back to the viewer, his arm raised as protection against the horse. The three figures are stocky and solid, painted in an intense variation of brown, red and orange. Carreño's highly expressive brushstrokes evoke a sense of violent movement-- close to the Futurists--particularly in the hands, leg and foot of the figure on the left of the painting. The central element of the composition is the rebellious animal. His entire body is defined in abrupt strokes of white, yellows, cool blues and touches of electric purple. The expressionistic brushstrokes of the horse's mane--a variation of divisionist color--is an element of aggressive movement that is echoed in the wild brushstrokes of the foliage in the background. The entire pictorial surface is charged with a vital energy only comparable to Cortadores de caña.
In Fuera del batey, as in his best paintings of 1943-44, the painter created an image of all-consuming action that is universal in its implication; the perennial struggle between man and nature.
The "María" of the dedication could very well be María Luisa Gómez Mena, the artist's wife during the years 1942-44.
Alejandro Anreus, Ph.D.
1) While in Mexico in 1937, Carreño had experimented briefly with Duco. See his Cabeza, 1937, reproduced on page 5 of José Gómez Sicre, Carreño, (La Habana: Ediciones Galería del Prado, 1943) Duco lacquer paint was developed by the automobile industry in Detroit in the early 1930s. Siqueiros began experimenting with it in 1936, while he was running the Experimental Workshop in New York City. All translations from the Spanish by the author.
2) José Gómez Sicre, interviewed by the author, 17 March 1989.