NEW VISIONS OF MASTERS “Listen up. Whoever is devoted to me, from here on out it will have to be from the skin inward. Whoever holds me in high esteem will have to keep their eye glued to me.” —F. P. de L. Fidelio Ponce de León (Camagüey, 1895—Havana, 1949) enters Cuba’s plastic avant-garde through the side door. His work, so personal, delirious, and transgressive, is exceedingly distinguished from that of the rest of his contemporaries. Although his name appears next to that of Amelia Peláez (1895-1968), Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957), Antonio Gattorno (1904-1980), and Víctor Manuel (1897-1969), pioneers, among others, of Cuba’s pictorial vanguard, he seems to contradict the rectitude of the conventional discourse on that very vanguard and the characteristics of its artistic expression. In May of 1927, the First Exhibition of New Art was celebrated in Havana. The young artists who gathered there—mostly painters—struggled to create a vital art born of the dynamism of its time which would also recapture and affirm the values of the culture of the fatherland. When nearly all of them were bent on discovering man and Cuban landscape with the formal techniques and codes recently brought from Paris and Mexico City, Ponce de León seemed indifferent to such concerns: he sought to discover himself(1). On a thematic level, he does not observe the elegance of colonial architecture, as does Amelia Peláez nor is he interested in capturing the peasant type, as is the case with Gattorno. He is not even seduced by the sexual violence of Antillean nature, the devotion of Carlos Enríquez. When he appeared publicly in 1934 with his solo show at Havana’s Lyceum Lawn Tennis Club, he came with paintings of Christ, beatified persons, and eighteenth-century ladies. He demonstrates a light air of solidarity only with the art of Víctor Manuel, due to his lyricism and silence. On a plastic level, he has no concern for capturing the light and the color of the tropics, two key concerns for avant-garde painters, who in their day were also called new or modern. His sense of color and light is of the mind rather than the eye. It distances itself from polychromatism, from the sparkling strength of color, from the light homogeneity of the majority of his contemporaries, in order to seek out—through an intelligent use of whites and ochres—the relativity of light and subtlety in chromatic harmonization. In many canvases, he tends to fuse drawing and color while he places emphasis on the density of impastos and scrapes, aspects that also personalize his technique. He wants to be different; he is different. He does not accept the robes of his present time. Rather than be of his time, he desires to move ahead of it. His artistic proposal rejects the principal aesthetic models in force, namely, end-of-the-century sentimental realism, sickly sweet art that still defends the Academia de San Alejandro(2), as well as the European –isms (especially Gaugin-esque primitivism and Picasso-inspired cubism) and Mexican murals, an art that otherwise enthused the new painters upon their return from European travels and/or journeys into Aztec lands. Within the intellectual stagnation of the small artistic world of Havana in the 1920’s where opposing forces struggle, Ponce fought to preserve an identity very much his own. This identity was able to protect him from the inflated values of the past and differentiate him from the present, which makes him sympathetic, but from which he refuses to share trends and sudden shocks.. With highly refined irony, which is still misunderstood today, Ponce takes from here (the present) and there (the past) and filters them through the tangled web of his imagination. It is a mental process where the mnemonic and the fantastic play a dynamic, reconstituting role. With a sagaciously trained eye—that of an avid artist who never knew another country—he apprehends in magazines, encyclopedias, and friends’ paintings, a general visuality of the modern which he will place according to his internal mandates. For Fidelio Ponce, the modern does not only exist in the work of contemporary creators or in the art of the most immediate past. For him, the modern is whatever may suit him in order to express himself. Who cares, then, if he takes the caricatured deformation of characters and things from graphic comics, if he learns the dialectic of mirrors from Velázquez, if he drinks the parallel juxtaposition of figures from the decorative painter Domenico Ghirlandaio... Everything enters his head, it is broken down and transformed in order to create a mythic, suggestive, and highly spiritualized universe. Paradox as Artistic Concept Fidelio Ponce’s work is grounded in paradox. It is born of paradox, and it continually returns to it. Through each one of his paintings, we discover a tension between a universe that wishes to present, expand, and express itself while, at the same time, it searches for concentration, disappearance, and silence. If we are not able to look through the veil or the disguise of the past that his painting hangs before our eyes, we could believe that Ponce is a Frenchified (3) artist, or a rather daring disciple of Leopoldo Romañach (1862-1951) (4). On one hand, the repetition of gallant motifs (damsels, harlequins, seascapes), his etherealness, the mother-of-pearl and opal effects that he achieves with oil, and the whiteness of some canvases establish that very French game of seduction with our eyes. On the other hand, the ochre in his paintings, the coarseness of the pigment, the ugliness and the sickliness, as the repetition of popular Spanish motifs (Christ, beatified persons, monks, processions) refer us to a Hispanic tradition in love with the real, the psychological, and the dramatic. These opposing natures live within the changing painting of Fidelio Ponce: an erotic painting because it seduces with the apparent, and critico-conceptual because it pushes the viewer toward thought, toward meditation. Like a wretched boy, Ponce confounds us or plays at confounding us. In Tuberculosis and La familia (The family), both from 1934, he creates paradoxical units with a level of conceptual subtlety, of technical skill, that is doubtless classic in Cuban art. The nurses of Tuberculosis are sick in body and in soul. The white uniforms not only conceal their deformed bodies and corroded flesh, but they are also straightjackets for the spirit. Those white suits represent the Hospital, a hygienic instance that combats pathologies whenever they are revealed as a fateful warning to the sick gaze(5). Through a collective image, Ponce creates a dual symbolic system. These outcast and repressed women need whiteness as an antidote for contamination. Whiteness covers the geography of their bodies just like the white sheets that cover the temporary vault at the hospital. White dominates the organic sector: bathrooms, rags, bedding, all that is in the immediate prolongation of the body must be dressed in white. For generations it has been the surgical color (…)that warns the body of its dangerous intimacy with itself and erases the pulsions (6). But in Tuberculosis, Ponce does not erase the pulsions; rather, he reinforces them. He turns to bad texture, with dense, superimposed palette knife applications sparkled with bladder green, and he turns the general whiteness into prosaic worldly matter. With this work he smashes to pieces the psychological stereotype of white as the value or shade of positive connotations. La familia, conservative in appearance, anchored in the tradition of Spanish still life and Dutch collective portraits of the seventeenth century, allows the artist to cite western iconography in a parodic fashion and to portray himself. He thus turns the picture into an allegory of his modern aesthetic creed, for in this piece Ponce applies several levels of masking. The protagonists are not the women in the foreground: they are the two characters in the background. They wish to participate in the game of showing themselves before the eyes of strangers. But how can they enter without being sanctioned? With a fine finger, the artist chooses those disguises that best justify the conspiracy: to the right, the harlequin, to the left, the little girl. The comic character of the harlequin is reinforced by the collaboration of a doll on the diagonal axis that cuts across his face. On the other side, Ponce achieves candidness by placing a wig and a child’s dress on a male character. A process of cross-dressing. Ponce doubly transforms the intruders: sexual (from man to woman) and political (from an oppressed entity to a subversive one) transformation. The little girl/transvestite and the harlequin/ clown are the only living elements of the composition: the former is the only character who challenges the portraying eye; the latter is the only one who moves around breaking the established. The intruders that Ponce paints in La familia are very similar to his own body type and to the bold, challenging attitude that he always maintained as an artist(7). If Velázquez portrays himself proudly in Las meninas (Maids of honor, 1656), and Goya merely indicates his presence in La familia de Carlos IV (The family of Charles IV, 1800), Fidelio Ponce portrays himself by making use of disguise and cross-dressing, a strategy with a fully avant-garde flair (recall Picasso’s Au ‘Lapin Agile’ [Arlequin au verre], 1905). The piece also parodies conventional styles, a pure cosmetics of mockery. Compact brush stroke, regular gestures and blemishes on the face in a Hispano-Dutch fashion that is still dear to the Cuban bourgeoisie of the Republican period (1902-1958). First blemish: chromatic scale. The ocherviolet, the black and white, refer to an austerity and poignancy stemming from Iberian culture. Second blemish: deictic elements of genre painting: the knapsack tied to the arm of the chair—popular metaphor of travel—and the small picture in the background that refers to Dutch interiors and to works by Velázquez, like Las meninas and Cristo en casa de Marta y María (Christ in the house of Martha and Mary, 1619). His landscapes, of an imaginary, tortured geography, have nothing to do with the outside world, the Cuban countryside, or a picturesque place in some town on the island. They seem to be evocations of old paintings, recreations of spiritual states, visions of a strange world where seeking out characteristics of avant-garde landscape such as the Cuban, the regional, or the typical, make no sense. In certain landscapes—under or next to the calm appearance of things—we find the ambivalent and the restless. In Paisaje (Landscape, n/d), the horizontal slowness is broken as extremely thin trees rise like crutches. This is not a break in compositional guidelines, but rather a break in meaning. The eye captures the “drunken boat” that sails in the calm waters of the pond, a horizontal strip of land with planted trees reinforces the nineteenth-century look of the scene. However, the gaze continues toward the trees, and when the eye arrives at the upper extreme of the picture, it is obliged to change direction: the foliage is an embalmed body and, when the gaze descends, the first vision has been changed into a different, fatidical one. Neither the best transparencies of the water, nor the dynamism of the branches, nor the luxury of the golds and silvers of which his sea bottoms make a show, can dissipate the painter’s fear before the irrevocable passing of time. He displays a fish trapped in the clutches of some seaweed (Peces Fish], n/d) or, with the vigor of a baroque symphony, he creates a passage through which we believe that the fishes will escape. But without wiping away the smile, under the iridescent veil of the water, the sea spits the rotten flesh back out at us (Peces, 1940). The Dressed and Disguised Body Fidelio Ponce is the painter of dressed and disguised bodies. Like the protagonist in Beethoven’s opera, he knows that his triumph does not lie in the naked skin, but rather in the disassemblance of fabrics. The repeated and subtle appeal to the symbolic power of clothing allows the artist to express himself forcefully and to reveal fundamental clues to his poetics. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, he painted characters dressed up like Benedictine monks, ancient beatified persons, and strange fin-de-siècle ladies. It was an audacious way to show his rebellion, his mocking and non-conformist spirit in the face of so much nationalist art, of recovering Afro-Cuban folklore and the popular, according to formal codes of today. This is an area in which artists of excellence whom time had honored as masters of Cuban art were creating, and in which mediocre painters who, when getting in tune with the trends, only sought quick commercial success. Ponce refused to paint men dressed in suits and Panama hats, voluptuous mulatto women or naïve peasants. So he took from the attic of memory, that common heritage, certain archetypes that he found pleasing: the monk, the novice, the harlequin, Christ. This gesture, which would have betrayed another, less talented Cuban painter, changing the aesthetic creed of San Alejandro, actually saves Ponce. He frees himself from the vulgar, from the hackneyed, because he paints those old figures with a freedom, an outburst, offering such personal chromatic, textural, and compositional solutions that they transform him in a wretched fashion, more than an expressionist one. The academic painters of San Alejandro from the first decades of the century inherited the cold, well-known recipe from nineteenth-century portraiture: satins, watermarks, laces and brooches, the brilliance of thread. Only the sentimental or dreamy brush stroke of Armando Menocal (1863-1942) and Romañach would make the canvases come back to life. Ponce inherited for his painting the emotive literalness of the best academy and, at the same time, the economy and power of expression of avant-garde art.. We find in the painter the modern conviction of clothing as artistic sign, as a fragment of a pictorial structure and not—as was the academic belief—of a second, rectified nature. But the rationalizing impulse that begins to stand out around the ‘40s in many of his contemporaries and leads them to prefer the nude, or to turn clothing into a pretext-zone of a brilliant execution, would always be overcome in Ponce’s work by the lyrical force of his expression. Clothing can function in Ponce’s work as an emblem of institutions of power, a setter of special atmospheres, a sign of modern theatricality. This functional power is pierced by an ontological reflection of man/clothing that reveals the artist’s historical and existential awareness. Body and dress, body and disguise, form a dynamic structure that condenses and communicates their intimate movements to the face. The face (or the mask) is the focus of tension and/or confession. If Bronzino, in mannerist portraits of characters of the Court, liked to slow down the vision of the faces, driving the gaze mad in a tangle of arabesques, Ponce de León hastens the face by confronting it with the quickness of the social eye. He always reveals the head, and from the head, the face: he does not wish to conceal it, but rather to show its excessive truth. Even when his painting threatens to become a mother-of-pearl humus (let us recall Mujeres [Women], 1934, in New York’s MoMA), the face remains as a zone of resistance. The Religious Theme One of the aspects that places Ponce de León in the exception of nearly all Cuban painting is his repeated interest in the religious, especially the treatment he affords to the religious theme in his paintings(8). It should be pointed out that I am not identifying this production a priori as «religious painting.» That would remove the enunciative complexity of his work in the visual order, as well as the conceptual wealth of his proposals, and participate in the error upheld for years by a certain mechanistic Cuban criticism that underscored the religious character of his production in order to brand it antiquated and pathetic. The process of the secularization of culture that would become radical in our century, in conjunction with the spirit of universal renovation and innovation that lies at the heart of the historical avant-garde movements, made the relationship between artists and the powers of the Church and religion problematic. Robert Rosenblum, in his book Modern painting and the northern romantic tradition, calls the subject a true dilemma for the modern artist. Respecting the differences, Ponce is presented at certain moments of his production with a problem similar to the one presented to Turner and Friedrich: ... how to find in a lay world some convincing means of expression for those experiences (. . .) that, prior to Romanticism, had their channels in the traditional themes of Christian Art(9). Fidelio Ponce seems to find the solution by playing with two areas of focus. One is precisely religious, a painting with a mystical inspiration; another is shaped by distinct motivations. In other words, with Ponce de León, we find operating for the first time in the realm of Cuban painting the emancipation of feeling and the religious world-view of themes, motifs, and rhetorical figures that traditionally portrayed such emotions. If the urgency of a proper style or the need to construct a different plastic discourse, calls for it, Ponce will use his license to desacralize what has been historically legalized as “sacred” or vice versa, to place an aura around what is supposedly —through norms and customs— “secular” or “pagan”. In virtue of the aforementioned, in a painting like Los niños (The children, 1938), apparently freed of religion, the artist expresses his piety, his strange relationship with the unknown. In Arlequines (Harlequins, n/d), the adoption of three characters, the evanescent atmosphere, and especially the hierachical and sanctifying gesture of the hand of the central harlequin, gives the work a transcendental symbolic dimension rooted in Christianity. The descralization of the holy is achieved in Novicias (Novices, n/d) where, more than a mere presentation of nuns, he portrays some corner of the sacristy. They look more like “dressed statues” common in Cuban churches since the eighteenth century. Statues that are called dressed because only the head, hands, and feet are modeled by the artist. “The rest of the body, generally formed by a wooden structure, is dressed with very rich clothing (10)”. When we see these inflated mannequins with little, cyanotic heads, ridiculous scapulars, we are not sure if we’ve found something Christian or edifying. Sometimes it makes things more complicated. There are works in which he sacralizes and desacralizes at the same time. This produces a sort of psychic dizziness in the viewer. There is a Christ (Cristo, 1935) that emerges from the void right in the middle of the wood. It has the silence and majesty of Bizancio’s icons. This Christ shows —at one side of the vertical line that centers the head— a seraphic face; and on the opposite side, a face that melts with the slowness of the wax. On one side reverence, fear; on the other, challenge, profanation. This profanation of the image of Christ becomes emphatic when Ponce scratches the support in order to express with three lines the traditional divine halo. The use of this extra-pictorial gesture—he would repeat it in Los peregrinos de Emaus (The pilgrims of Emmaus, 1937), Cabeza de Cristo (Head of Christ, n/d), etc.—denotes a tremendous self-confidence before the very concept of painting as an activity of creation, and a desire to put into crisis the image as a representative and historical entity. The great Cuban writer José Lezama Lima (1910-1976), in spite of his proclaimed aversion to Ponce’s painting, wrote one of the most lucid texts on his poetics (11). With fantastic language, Lezama notices the emergence in Ponce of a bold attitude for his time by treating the themes of the western Christian imagery: Expressive mystical dynamics. Flight of the slow passage of old symbols to the clarityof new incarnations. His vehicle has been the collective symbol, arrived at through historical successiveness or repeated longings—thus approaching calcined Biblical themes. Temptation, medieval Christ, saint from Ávila, where the symbol of everyone achieves an outline, an exploitation of the exact masses, radically differentiated (12). Lezama is not mistaken: he knows that certainly there are works by Ponce where the tone is pathetic and the results common, and others where the artist soars: “.. . . he often joins the night-time of the motif, the dragging of the nails of birds of prey, and the long, quivering whistles with an incompetent hand...” However, other works display “commentary screams in the disloyal fashion of Valdés Leal” and “the elongated nobility of the interrogating necks of El Greco(13).” The poet is not only pointing out expressionist features of the pictorial language of Fidelio Ponce and telling us that El Greco and Valdés Leal (like other masters of the Spanish baroque) are very important in the shaping of Poncian images, but also that the artist proves himself to be irreverent in the confrontation with that European tradition as he revises and changes it. With the remains of that mental destruction he would create new, personal images that seek out the return of a living spiritual body. According to Lezama Lima, romantic, interrogating art bursts into a problem of culture: an extremely useful reaction to an art (Cuban art of the ‘20s and ‘30s) that oscillates between the safety offered by Renaissance norms and the novelty of Parisian trends. Lezama saw in Fidelio Ponce’s romantic reaction —“to which we are not making a reference as historical or physiological romanticism, but rather as an aloof art of presentations...(14)”—not only that first moment that accompanies every revolution, but also a mediating possibility between aesthetic opposites. I particularly place Fidelio Ponce’s work in an area of struggle/play between naturalist emotion and modern conceptuality. A work touching upon that area that we call “abstraction” needs realist figuration in order to be produced. A paradoxical, dual-natured work, for at the same time as it wishes to break off from those absolute values of the tradition (Reality, Representation, History), it also fears penetrating into that relative void which abstract creation presupposes in its radical acceptance. His special iconography is thus born: distant, diffuse, tortured, on the point of dissolving. Although it does not destroy Reality, Representation, History, it does problematize them and puts them into question. His artistic proposal always lies on the borders, on suggestion, and on the threat of change. * Museo Nacional de Cuba. NOTES 1. Ponce did not participate in this exhibition, a milestone in the development of the Cuban avant-garde movement. In this period he was an unknown artist. Although he traveled to the capital, from 1926 on he lived in Güines, a town in the province of Havana where he made a living by painting billboards for movies. 2. Founded in Havana in 1818 by the French neoclassical painter Jean-Baptiste Vermay (1784-1833), the Academy was the island’s center of artistic teaching until 1959. Ponce irregularly attended its classrooms between 1915 and 1917, without ever graduating because, like other Cuban artists, he reacted against the Academy’s dogmatic teaching and anachronical aesthetic tastes. 3. In the artist’s biography written by Juan Sánchez—Fidelio Ponce (Havana: Letras Cubanas, 1985)—this opinion by Wifredo Lam appears: “. . . if Ponce had been born in the period of the Impressionists and in Paris, he would be as immortal as those people.” 4. In the catalog for the show on contemporary Cuban art titled Iluminación (Havana: Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, 1985), Ponce is erroneously discussed as a disciple of Romañach, professor of Color at the Academy of San Alejandro whom the artist admired. Nearly all the young artists who would revolutionaize Cuban painting would pass through his class. 5. The artist probably painted this piece while a victim of tuberculosis or the “white plague.” He painted it while stretched out on the floor of the office of his friend Dr. Antonetti, a specialist in the respiratory system. This illness was the cause of his death. 6. Jean Baudrillard, El sistema de los objetos (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1988) 334. 7. “. . . Ponce considered it his best work. Not satisfied with the decision by the judges of one of our Painting Exhibitions, he personally took it down from the show and placed it in the office of Dr. Antonetti. . .” Revista de Arte y Medicina, Havana, July 1953, p. 20. 8. Monsignor Angel Gaztelu has stated: “Of all the modern painters of Cuba, Ponce is the one who has painted the religious theme most of all. He breaks into our modern painting with a strange and peculiar voice, a tormented and distressingly mystical voice.” Cited in the catalog for the show “Ponce y su época” (Ponce and his period), Cuban Museum of Art and Culture, 9 October through 8 November, 1992, Miami. The Cuban artists of the avant-garde had scant interest in the religious theme, although some of them tackled it with great emotive intensity at some moment of their production. Such is the case of Arístides Fernández (1904-1934) in El entierro de Cristo (The burial of Christ, 1933). 9. Robert Rosenblum, La pintura moderna y la tradición del romanticismo nórdico, Alianza Forma (Madrid: Alianza, 1993) 223. 10. María Luisa Lozano, La imaginería española y su influencia en Cuba (Havana, 1953) 9. 11. José Lezama Lima, «Pintura de sombras,» La Gaceta de Cuba (May-June 1992): 13. 12. Lezama 13. 13. Lezama 13. 14. Lezama 13. Carmen Paula Bermudez Essayist and researcher in Cuban art. Graduated in Art History from the University of Havana. ?
February 22, 2018