Born in Havana, Cuba in 1904, Antonio Gattorno enrolled at the San Alejandro Academy at the age of thirteen, where he studied with Leopoldo Romañach. Five years later Gattorno went to Europe on the coveted five-year scholarship from the academy. While in Paris he befriended fellow Cubans painter Victor Manuel García and sculptor Juan José Sicre, and continued his art studies in France as well as Italy and Spain. In these formative years Gattorno was profoundly influenced by the paintings of the early Italian Renaissance, the work of Paul Gauguin and contemporary art deco. In 1927 Gattorno returned to Cuba with fellow artists Victor Manuel and Sicre. In March of 1927 Gattorno exhibited his European production at the Asociación de Pintores y Escultores in Havana, thereby becoming one of the pioneers of modernist painting in Cuba.
Antonio Gattorno, together with Victor Manuel, Eduardo Abela, Amelia Peláez, Carlos Enríquez, Fidelio Ponce and Marcelo Pogolotti, belongs to the first generation of Vanguardia painters who rebelled against the San Alejandro Academy and introduced modernism to the island from the late 1920s through the 1930s. By the time Gattorno returned to Cuba he had developed a visual vocabulary he could call his own, consisting of simplified and monumental forms, a vivid palette and well balanced compositions. From the beginning of his career, Gattorno was a virtuoso craftsman who possessed a refined painting technique grounded in stylized but solid drawing.
Gattorno's vision of Cuba is an idealized one; the tropics is a lush environment of sugarcane, tobacco, palms and banana trees where the inhabitants live and work in an abundant and sun-filled place. Beginning in 1927 Gattorno focused on the Cuban peasant as the central theme of his art, producing seminal works such as El Río, Guajiros y Plátanos, Pareja Guajira and ?Quiere más café, Don Nicolás? (the last in the collection of the Museo Nacional in Havana). This interest in the Cuban peasant and countryside as symbols of national identity (together with the Afro-Cuban) were very much a part of the agenda of the Grupo Minorista and Revista de Avance magazine, leading exponents of the political and cultural avant-garde in the Havana of the 1920s and 30s. Gattorno participated in the later stages of the Grupo Minorista and he collaborated in Revista de Avance. Unlike fellow painters Carlos Enríquez and Marcelo Pogolotti, who in their work would critique the deplorable social conditions of the Cuban countryside, Gattorno chose to depict idyllic views of rural life.
A monumental exploration of these themes was his 1938 mural Waiting for the Coffee for the Bacardi rum company. Painted in site for the thirty-fifth floor headquarters of the Bacardi Company at the Empire State Building, the composition synthesizes subjects from earlier works; a boy grazes a goat, lovers are riding a horse, a man is being served coffee by a young woman.
This fragment of the mural, the left side and an entire quarter of the original work, depicts a peasant woman seen from behind, walking up a country road. On one arm she holds a child that stares at the viewer, while on the other she carries three stalks of sugarcane. To her left are three modest houses with red tile roofs, and from the background coming towards her is a peasant on a horse carrying a bushel of sugarcane. The overall drawing is simple and bold, the colors bright and almost flat--the schematic aspect of the technique obviously dictated by the scale of the work. This fragment, like the rest of the mural contains an indirect reference to work; the presence of sugarcane as the principal source of the island's economy and a livelihood for the peasantry. The woman's and the child's dark hair and olive-tone skin represents them as mestizos--the end product of the island's racial diversity and mixing. This fragment--like the entire mural--is a life-affirming celebration of Cuba's vegetation and climate, as well as its peasantry.
This very composition, minus the horse and rider, appears in Gattorno's Self-Portrait of 1938 (Private Collection), where an alert and energetic artist stares at the viewer. Behind him are the wooden boards of a peasant hut and a window through which the peasant woman and her child walking up the road are visible.
After 1959 the Bacardi Company moved its headquarters from the Empire State Building in New York City to Miami, Florida. At that time this fragment was cut so that the mural would fit into its new site.
In 1940 Gattorno settled in New York City and soon thereafter his art moved away from Cuban themes and his bold figurative style was replaced by a classicizing surrealism with tragic overtones.
Alejandro Anreus, Ph.D.