Cuban modern art came into its own in the 1930s as did the work of one of its leading practitioners: Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957). At the beginning of that decade Carlos Enríquez lived in Paris and Madrid, where contact with the art of the museums and galleries as well as with the Surrealist movement stimulated his first mature works. Living a bohemian existence of extreme poverty and heavy drinking, he nevertheless learned a great deal from the art of old masters, such as Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, and Eugene Delacroix and the art of contemporaries, like Salvador Dalí and Francis Picabia. He also managed, when living literally out of a suitcase, going hungry, and hardly able to obtain painting material, to create at least twenty-one paintings and eleven drawings and watercolors, which he exhibited in Madrid at the Salón del Patronato Nacional del Turismo from May 26th to June 10th 1933. Few of those paintings and drawings survived, the whereabouts of the majority of them is unknown. The known works from the European period--Goyesca, 1931; Primavera bacteriologica, 1932; Crimen en el aire con guardia civil, 1932; Virgen del Cobre, ca. 1933; Retrato radiográfico de Felix Pita Rodríguez, ca. 1933; Hamlet, ca. 1933; and El rapto, 1933-- represent the beginnings of his personal style. This is visible in his palette of pitch black, soft grays, sparing touches of sky blue, accents of blood red, and patches of ocher. Most importantly his unique technique of transparent and overlapping forms began to take shape at that time. His nascent style is also apparent in his choice of subject matter: nudes, female dancers, female riders, lesbian scenes, as well as Afro-Cuban rituals, and social criticism. Overall, Carlos Enríquez's paintings from the European period have a certain violent, provocative, and yet graceful quality about them.
One of the paintings that exemplify that period is El rapto. Using a fluid expressionistic line, limited palette, and a tightly compressed composition, Enríquez envisions a torrid and gruesome scene. A calmly seated male figure, with a bearded face and a bloodied outlined hand, is shown embracing a kneeling female nude, whose body has been severed from the shoulders up. This murder-rape takes place, up close, in the foreground of a deserted landscape. The contorted and transparent bodies, veiled background, and incongruous sight suggest a dream or mythic event. In style and theme, El rapto points to Picasso's neoclassical drawings of the same year from The Vollard Suite. Enríquez reaction to Picasso's drawings was to turn idyllic scenes of relaxation and love making into a violent surrealist rape. Images of violence, sexuality, and the fantastic, particularly in combination, served Enríquez in the early 1930s to let his imagination and desires fly in the face of a society that he considered extremely restrictive, materialistic, and conventional. Enríquez returned a number of times to the subject of abduction, but not rape and murder.
The immediate reception to Carlos Enríquez's European work was mixed, as measured by the response to the aforementioned 1933 exhibition in Madrid and his cancelled one-person show at the Lyceum in Havana the following year. The general public rejected the paintings and drawings due to what they considered scandalous subject matter and expressionist style, whereas the opinion of progressive intellectuals and artists was favorable. One voice that stands out in praise of Enríquez's European production is that of the American poet and early supporter of Picasso, Gertrude Stein. She wrote to Enínquez in Madrid on July 1933, supposedly after seeing his exhibition, "I am interested in your pictures. I like the Hamlet very much, I also like the Cuban virgin and the Crime in the Air, there is a fine clear feeling in them...There is [in your work] a genuine imagination, great cleanness, and a delicate elegance, all of which together interest me."(1) In her letter, Stein offers the best contemporary description of Enríquez's European production and of essential qualities that will remain a part of his work for years to come. Today his paintings and drawings from the early 1930s are valued for various reasons, not the least of which is that they represent one of the earliest and most transformative interpretation of Surrealism by an artist from Latin America.
Juan A. Martínez, Ph.D.
(1) Gertrude Stein letter to Enríquez, Par Belley Ain, postmarked July 23, 1933. Archives of Casa Museo Hurón Azul.