After periods in Spain, Italy, France, Mexico, and the United States, Mario Carreño returned to his native Cuba in 1941. Although he would only remain on the island for three years, Carreño experienced significant changes in both his personal and professional life before once again embarking abroad. Various links to these developments are embedded within the imagery and history of the artist's Head of a Woman, a painting that transports the classical image of a female portrait to the lush Cuban landscape.
Depicted within the foliage of a tropical jungle, Head of a Woman references both the geographic and stylistic changes inspired by Carreño's reencounter with his homeland. Just prior to his return to Cuba, Carreño's paintings were characterized by earth tones and highly sculptural, classicizing figures. Although related to these earlier canvases in terms of content, the looser forms and colors of Head of a Woman reveals the artist's shift to a more expressionistic style. Indeed, painted in aquamarine and roseate hues, the Fauve-like pastel passages on the woman's face capture the prismatic light effects of the surrounding jungle while also foreshadowing the artist's subsequent experiments with industrial duco paint.
Carreño's color palette, as well as the juxtaposition between the tranquility of the veiled figure's gaze and the exuberant foliage around her endows Head of a Woman with an aura of mysticism. This relates to contemporary interest in the metaphysical and baroque by Cuban cultural circles of the 1940s. Having married María Luisa Gómez Mena, owner of Cuba's first modern art gallery, in 1942, Carreño played a significant role in these circles, whose participants included Cuban artists, writers, and intellectuals, as well as a number of Spanish exiles. Among the latter was the poet Manuel Altolaguirre, whose life was later intimately intertwined with the artist and art dealer. The publisher of La Verónica press, which printed numerous canonical Cuban texts, Altolaguirre wrote the introduction to Carreño's solo exhibition at Havana's Galería Lyceum in 1942. Gifted by Carreño to Altolaguirre this same year, Head of a Woman was likely presented in recognition of the poet's words in which the impact of the artist's re-engagement with Cuba was eloquently recognized: "Frente a su mar del Trópico, sintiendo su tierra cubana, Mario Carreño realiza sus gran obras."
Susanna Temkin, PhD Candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
1 Although Carreño had worked in duco while in Mexico in 1937, his most famous works executed in this medium were created in Cuba in 1943, following the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siquieros' visit to the island.