This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by Alejandro Rodríguez, dated 17 February 2016.
The famed “pintor de los gallos,” Mariano emerged as part of Cuba’s rising vanguardia in the 1940s alongside such artists as Mario Carreño, Cundo Bermúdez, and René Portocarrero. Essentially self-taught, he enrolled intermittently at the Academia San Alejandro and took classes with Alberto Peña (Peñita) in Havana. In 1936, he traveled with the sculptor Alfredo Lozano to Mexico City, its Mural movement then in full thrall; through the Cuban intellectual Juan Marinello, he came into contact with the circle of Diego Rivera and studied under the painter Manuel Rodríguez Lozano. Following his return to Cuba the next year, Mariano taught at the experimental but short-lived Estudio Libre para Pintores y Escultores, directed by vanguardia artist Eduardo Abela. His own work developed apace, expanding to mural commissions and book illustrations, and he held his first solo exhibition at Havana’s Lyceum in January 1943. Among the protagonists of the Havana School, which coalesced by the start of the decade, he participated in the important period exhibitions of the time, among them the II Exposición Nacional de Pintura y Escultura (1938), 300 años de arte en Cuba (1940), Arte cubano contemporáneo (1941), and the landmark Modern Cuban Painters (1944), in which Guajiro con gallo was shown, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“Cuban color, Cuban light, Cuban forms, and Cuban motifs are plastically and imaginatively assimilated rather than realistically represented,” observed Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of MoMA, on the occasion of Modern Cuban Painters. “Expressionism is the dominant style, whether applied to fighting cocks, sugar cane cutters, guanábanas, barber shops, bandits, nudes, angels, or hurricanes.” He praised Mariano’s “baroque facility in drawing and composition;” the museum had earlier acquired his painting The Cock and a watercolor, Figures in a Landscape. Edward Alden Jewell, writing for The New York Times, declared that The Cock “carrie[d] the day by virtue alone of brute force” in its first showing at MoMA, and the rooster—the bold, bellicose symbol of the nation—became Mariano’s iconic subject, treated in myriad settings and brilliant colors over the decades to come. “The plebian cock somehow seemed to capture his imagination,” wrote José Gómez Sicre, later Chief of the Visual Arts Section at the Pan American Union, in his pioneering book Pintura cubana de hoy (1944). “He created many works around this theme vigourously employing strong, vivid colour harmonies with dramatic effect.”
The impact of Barr’s attention to Cuban art, from his trip to Havana in 1942 to his acquisition of important works by the vanguardia for the museum, can hardly be overestimated. “Both Portocarrero and Mariano have worked hard and progressed immensely all due to your stimulation,” the patron and philanthropist María Luisa Gómez Mena wrote to Barr, in a letter announcing the opening of the Galería del Prado in Havana in 1942. She counted Mariano among her “best selling painters,” and over its short run the gallery cultivated Cuba’s vanguardia, exhibiting the emerging artists—Mariano among them—alongside Víctor Manuel, Amelia Peláez, Carlos Enríquez, and others of the earlier generation. Like Carreño and many other Cuban artists, Mariano traveled frequently between Havana and New York during the 1940s, and he held solo exhibitions at the Feigl Gallery, on Madison Avenue, in 1945, 1946, and 1951.
Mariano’s work approached abstraction by the decade’s end, but the 1940s saw the consolidation of his classic style, marked by chromatic virtuosity and loose, expressive brushstrokes. “Giotto and Cezanne have deeply impressed me by their spatial sense of composition—that is, they create space with spatial forms,” Mariano observed at the time of Modern Cuban Painters. “And, now, Matisse and Bonnard for their rich color.” If his work from the late 1930s had shown “Lozano’s influence in their sober colors and sculptural designs,” as Gómez Sicre acknowledged, the “later paintings done after his return to Cuba suggest an extreme reaction against his teacher’s pallid asceticism,” epitomized in his “series of barnyard princes whose robust forms are matched by their color which might seem garish were it not so well controlled.” The baroque lyricism of his painting dovetailed with the formalist poetics of the literary magazine Orígenes, founded by José Lezama Lima and José Rodríguez Feo, which debuted in 1944 with a drawing by Mariano on its cover. “Mariano’s most recent paintings appear to define a new aesthetic for our painting,” Rodríguez Feo wrote in the third issue of Orígenes. “The sentiment (or anecdote), that ‘Cuban soul,’ which some critics do not find in his work, eludes us in this ironic interpretation of our ‘national reality.’”
In Guajiro con gallo, Mariano combines two of his most enduring motifs—the cock and the guajiro—in a coloristic tour de force that sheds the progressive social concerns of earlier vanguardia artists for a more purely pictorial, rather than sentimental distillation of the nation. “Mariano’s guajiros are types invented by an artistic imagination,” Rodríguez Feo observed, “but they also reveal those essential qualities that would pass unnoticed by the superficial, costumbrista observer.” As in contemporary paintings such as Guajiro tomando café (1945) and Guajiros (1944), in which a guajiro carrying a cock forms a visual parallel to a woman cradling a baby, Guajiro con gallo presents a muchacho wearing the traditional straw hat, described by dynamic marks of yellow and orange and shaded in sharp strokes of violet. His face turned in a pensive, three-quarter view, the seated guajiro holds a rooster in his arms, its black feathers lustrous and its comb a fiery red. The traditional setting, a balcony surrounded by lush foliage, appears nocturnal and suggestively oneiric, awash in darkly luminous shades of blue, green, and purple that ensconce the young guajiro and the gallo. Removed from the workaday environs of the agricultural fields and the fighting ring, Mariano’s subjects sit here in studied contemplation, their rendering a decorative and universal refinement of the hot-blooded machismo and nationalist fervor that had first propelled Cuba’s vanguardia to prominence.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Alfred H. Barr, Jr., “Modern Cuban Painters,” The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 11, no. 5 (April 1944): 4-5.
2 Edward Alden Jewell, “Neighbors; Work of Republics To the South,” New York Times, April 4, 1943.
3 José Gómez Sicre, Pintura cubana de hoy, trans. Harold T. Riddle (Havana: María Luisa Gómez Mena, 1944), 139.
4 María Luisa Gómez Mena to Alfred H. Barr, Jr., 1942, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Papers, I.A.87, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
5 The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Records, 255.31, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
6 Gómez Sicre, “Modern Painting in Cuba,” Magazine of Art (February 1944): 55.
7 José Rodríguez Feo, “La obra de Mariano y su nueva estética,” Orígenes 3 (October 1944): 43.
8 Ibid., 44-5.