A major interest of the 1940's generation of Cuban modernists was the pictorial exploration of the island's Spanish colonial architecture as a symbol of Havana and by extension of Cuba. This architectural style and its neo-classical offspring of the early part of the century had a strong impact on the paintings by Amelia Pelaéz, René Portocarrero, Cundo Bermúdez, and Mario Carreño, among other artists of that generation. Aesthetically, these artists were moved by that architecture's rich ornamentation, consisting of stained glass windows, iron grilles, cornices, columns, tile floors, and extensive furnishings. Culturally, its association with Cuba's Spanish heritage was seen by many writers and artists of that time as a positive antidote to the rapidly growing hegemony of North American culture in Havana. In some cases, the artists themselves lived in neo-colonial style homes, so that kind of architecture was part of their intimate daily life. The end result was that in the 1940s Cuba's colonial architecture became a leading theme in the island's modernist painting.
On returning to Cuba in 1941, Carreño "was filled with a burning, driving impetus, eager to grapple with the artistic problems and possibilities of his native soil" (Gómez Sicre, 1943). For Carreño one of those artistic problems and possibilities was Havana's Spanish colonial architecture, which he admired and studied. Although this subject only held his attention for a brief period of his career in the early 1940s, he painted some of the most idyllic images ever of that architecture, as seen in Patio Colonial Cubano of 1943. In this painting, his most ambitious on the subject, Carreño paid tribute to the Spanish colonial architecture's most alluring space, its interior patio or atrium. Made up of masonry and plants, light and air, this space offered its inhabitants a private area for relaxation, conversation and play. A place where culture and nature, interior and exterior, the personal and the collective intermingled.
In Patio Colonial Cubano Carreño expresses all of these aspects of the Cuban interior patio in a personal and pleasing visual language, adapted from various European sources ranging from Renaissance and Baroque painting to Renoir and Picasso. The gigantic planter, opulent and capricious staircase-balcony, and the multicolored fan window define the patio itself as a criollo cultural space. The architectural-cultural realm is complemented by thriving vegetation, signifying Cuba's tropical nature.
Interestingly, Spanish architecture and Cuba's tropical plants share in the same baroque exuberance, contrasting with the contained and relaxed representation of the Cuban women. The female figures, which play a secondary role in the composition, represent different activities upper-class women would have carried out in Havana's grand interior patios. In actuality, most of Havana's colonial houses were by the 1940s tenements, and shared in the overall deterioration of Old Havana.
Carreño's metaphorical interior patio as a meeting place of Spanish civilization and the untamed tropics is not only suggested in this painting by the juxtaposition of buildings and plants, but by the formal elements themselves. The synthesis of elaborate forms and bright colors signified for Carreño and others of his generation "the seductive and capricious nature of the tropics" (Gómez Sicre, 1943). Patio Colonial Cubano, along with a group of related paintings of 1943 including La Costurera, Interior, Mujer con Mariposas, and Mujeres con Mangos, represents Carreño's most mythical and sensual celebration of tropical, yet civilized Cuba.
Juan A. Martinez, Ph.D.