This work is sold with a certificate of authenticity signed by José Veigas Zamora and Ramón Vázquez Díaz dated 28 September 2010.
We are grateful to Fundación Arte Cubano for their assistance cataloguing this work.
"Here the "Amelian" arabesque shows off all of its power of invention. The grid, which ascends towards the fruit, appears more as if it had grown as a force of nature that has penetrated the courtyard. Thus, it inserts itself with the central motif of the painting: leaves and flowers that mingle into one identity. These are opulent fruits, displaying as if in an allegory of superabundance their pulps and their seeds. It is a celebration of the bounties of indigenous nature, a painted counterpoint to José Lezama Lima's narrative, Corona de las frutas. --Ramón Vázquez Díaz, Fundación Arte Cubano
Amelia Peláez is recognized as the first and only female artist to emerge from Cuba’s vanguardia generation. In 1944, she was the only woman to be included in the Modern Cuban Painters exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where Director Alfred Barr praised the participants for their use of “Cuban color, Cuban light, Cuban forms, and Cuban motifs.” Though laudatory, Barr’s praise occludes Peláez’s sophisticated fusion of modernist structure with “Cuban” elements, a practice which she developed following her return to the island in 1934 after an extended period abroad, and later defined into her unique, idiosyncratic style during the 1940s.
With its carved columns, intricate molding, and iconic stained glass medio punto, Naturaleza muerta features the canonical elements of colonial Cuban architecture. This traditional space is consistent with Peláez’s own family home within the La Víbora neighborhood of Havana. Scholars have speculated on the confining nature of such domestic architecture in relation to Peláez’s own role as an independent woman in early twentieth century Cuba. Yet, although the two flanking columns and intruding ceiling molding convey a condensed interior space, the painting’s compositional thrust forces attention inward to the central subject of Peláez’s painting, the still life itself.
A fish and a sliced open papaya, its seed bed exposed, are among the individual components of Naturaleza Muerta, although Peláez’s characteristic, bold outline and incorporation of multiple perspectives complicate easy identification. In turning to the still life genre, Peláez melds such quotidian objects with religious allegory, invoking the same traditions earlier explored by Dutch Golden Age painters or the Spanish master, Francisco de Zurburán. In fact, although Peláez would have long been familiar with such associations, in 1948 she returned to Europe, vacationing and visiting museums in France, Italy, and Spain, just one year before this painting was executed. Infusing typically Cuban iconography within this European tradition, Peláez incorporated the compositional device of the medio punto to underscore the spiritual nature of this painting. Indeed, hugging the still life in a semi-circle, the medio punto serves as a halo, filtering Cuba’s soft tropical light into the interior scene. Notably, Peláez does not paint this light as if drawing from a natural source, but rather suffuses the painting with a spiritual or even transcendent luminosity.
The painting’s luminous palette also reflects Peláez’s intellectual consideration of artistic medium. Although working in gouache on paper, her brushy application of color in the geometric planes of the medio punto simulates the effect of light shining through stained glass. Peláez thus treats her material in terms of the image she is depicting, rather than for its actual, physical properties, thereby creating a witty, visual pun. Additionally, her painterly approach in Naturaleza muerta may have been influenced by her incipient exploration of ceramic tile, which she began to develop at the start of the 1950s and which would lead her to create both small-scale serving ware as well as such monumental works, as her 1957 mural on the façade of the Habana Libre (former Habana Hilton).
Susanna Temkin, Ph.D., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University