critical texts


From Silence to Screams
Adelaida de Juan
From Silence to Screams, Amelia Pelaez, Antonia Eiriz

By Dr Adelaida De Juan

Two women are watching us from the limits of the city borough. La Vibora is the name of the first borough, Juanelo, near La Bien Aparecida, the second one founded. The first backyard is quiet and traditional, given plants. Marpacifico, Tarrots of Happiness, Ferns, a large bird cage with iits inhabitants a glass window pure colors; however, the second one, which also has cages and plants, seems seeking to threaten us with rusty wastes and burn their canvas that seized, lean on wails while the osier willow-made armchair opens its arms.

These are the domestic environments of the two celebrities of Cuban art: Amelia Pelaez (1897-1968), who is the niece of poet Julian del Casal, possesses her peaceful site “where one is so well settled down“ near the patio. Antonia Eiriz (1929-1995) allows to humble materials she uses to, invade the backyard because it frequently becomes “the bedroom of her own”, and claimed by Virginia Woolf. The former with the passion of that carefully constructed the latter with the passion of curse. None of them is limited by a fixed form of expression or imitation: painting, engraving, sculptures, ceramics, freshness, assembling are the tools they pick to tirelessly work.

Nonetheless, they are possessed by the demon of creation, they each searched and found, according to the Picasso dictum, their way to express themselves. Grown-up in different times, they are not only related by the need to convey their most intimate thinking and emotions but also each of them, in their own way, create a style revealing two attitudes that vary in appearance but coincide in intensity.

Amelia´s central themes are insistently respected. During an initial learning period, when she has already unveiled as a wise hand, Amelia paints many landscapes. She begins in Havana surroundings, later Europe, they go from a talented reproduction of a model to a nearly abstract composition of an observed nature that becomes a starting point for a structure of transparent colors. She seldom paints human faces: some drawings of naked arms (figures abridging as if to depersonalize the model), a certain maternity in the classic style, with the relative lack of expression in faces of the two characters. Amelia was not given to painting portrays but to creating non-temporal model figures. She asserted once: “I am no longer interested in landscapes, If I do not have or I would not want to have the gift one needs to paint portrays, if religious painting means nothing to me, what can I paint?

Following many tours of Europe and America, Amelia is back in Cuba, she is in Havana, in the large house of her family. There, for years, she has been painting her still life, which I prefer to call interior ones because the environment she creates around them. The early “Still Life upon Ocher and White Table Cloth (both at the start of the 1930s) are still a happy inquiry on possibilities of form and color wisely used. Coming next are those innards full of columns, lowered doors, curled iron works, old arches formed by an exact semicircle and lights of primary colors, pure red and vibrating blue and sun yellow. Amelia is at liberty here; she watches and paints a world permeated of colors. Strong black lines, a remembrance taken from glass works, from forged and melted iron works, are enclosed one upon the other. Unlike other painters who used curled outlines of the encircled line (I am thinking of Cerro’s innards by Portocarrero), Amelia´s continuous black strokes also complete, so to speaking, the composition of the structure from the viewpoint of the painting. She rather uses the closed shape than the open one, her powerful arms mark the extension of the space instead of suggesting it, thus, prevailing an intimacy not exempted of tectonic thrust, showing an universe impregnated with possibilities for a range of structures.

It was believed that some interior spaces are themes typical of a female artist. House dowries, sewing, care for children, a flower bowl, a family group in the best bedroom of the residence. Here it is the appeased and happy environment that some traditions link women who place before an easel. That is how they can create a natural environment ascribed to the genre. In a not remote time, women were allowed to register at art schools, although they could not attend classes in which naked models posed for paintings or photographs; they dealt with a topic typical of their social status¡ It was so different from Amelia’s innards. Amelia creates and depicts at will, she goes farther the things she sees, and that vision constitutes the primary stimulus for a constructive elaboration delving into fine art possibilities of a freely-chosen environment. I think it is important that Amelia, in her creative maturity, has left out the open landscape to focus on the closed one, which she handles where she reigns in solitude. Therefore, generally, Amelia´s innards lack figures than can refer to another presence. They are sufficient for themselves, amid the apparent collection of architectonic and decorated elements, the sift clarity of the glass window brightens. Other elements, the Marpacifico, the Pitahaya or Mammee are frequent and familiar in that closed world the artist builds time after time; once again, they appear in the oleum and govache the painter´s personal vision depicts and rebuilds. The Marpacifico and the Mammee, constitutes the arrow-like red pierced by the black, reverberating in wrought irons and scrolls of architectonic interior spaces, the Pitahaya opens, inviting the gluttonous appetite and strengthening the varieties of the table cloth, the pineapple, on the contrary, it remains closed, ensuring its wrinkled and symmetric rind, and ratify the infinite spins of the florid crown-liked glass windows and the constructive obstinacy.

Many fish appear: some ready to the platter for preparation and consumption. But they have a fully picturesque nature; others dyed –once again the blue, red and yellow- of the traditional glass window, while the rest are rhombus-shaped, necessary as fine art value in the structure of the piece and reappearing in various ideas I will not mention below.

Now I will refer to another theme in Pelaez´s work, which is focused on women´s representation. I have already mentioned some drawings of naked beings and maternities painted later on. During his life as an artist, she insisted on the women´s issue, making changes to a classic play “The Olympiad of Manet,” in 1953. If this line of work is studied, one can find consistency and development of a trait that will also grow into a constant. It is obvious that except some isolated cases like “Gundinga (1931),“ “Las Dos Hermanas” (1945) and “Retrato de Sofia” (1951), Amelia depersonalize representations. Gundinga is an extraordinary fine art achievement in siennas, engraved by white (shirt front of the blouse and little flower on the hair) in which features of the young girl are barely decorated with graffito on the face´s surface. However, the two black strokes of sisters representing the architecture of the interior areas and the piano one of them plays, cross the faces of the sisters, define their eyes, noose and thick lips, granting them a kind of anonymity in their expressiveness.

From the early 1940s, Amelia starts outlining her figures through a thrombus shape to define the faces of women (Mujer 1941-1944), and even the fish occupying the center of a still life (Perez, 1968). She portrays women in couples, as she did “Las Hermanas”, but their faces are more generic and abstract with the shape I have mentioned above: the project for the mural of the Esso building in Havana (1950).” “Mujeres Sentadas” (Sat Women) (1966), halo or crown-shaped angels on the traditional San Juan Bosco at the mural of the chapel of the Salessian House “Rosa Perez Velasco,” currently the library at the Polytechnic Institute “Pedro Maria Rodriguez” in Santa Clara (1956), “Mujeres” (Women) (1958) are some of these examples.

The eye, strongly surrounded by the thick black line, stand out in these heads, in the side crowned by a small crest indicating the hair. But she highlights that eye that does not seem to shape up to see more and better; the mouth is eliminated. This typology of a women´s face frequently appears in easel painting, in murals, in ceramics, she decorates she decorates from 1960 on, in notes, that eternally-opened eye look at us and the mouth that does not exist ca be felt. It could seem a parable Amelia herself feels like hers, suggesting a receptive, vigilant and attentive conduct, keeping silence in an increasing intimacy.

If Amelia Pelaez insists in the silence full of many implications: Antonia Eiriz claims the screams as expressions of her world. Amelia appeals to Monet to make her “Variaciones” (Variations), Antonia shares Van Gogh’s views that the city dump is a site of beauty; the Dutch man wrote: that pile of buckets, wastepaper buckets, pans, tin cans, wires, lamps, pipes and stove tubes people dump, would be for a fairy tale by Andersen “Besides abandoned objects, Eiriz creates her assembling, in which the broken leg of a table, screws and nuts of a pipe tube, the crutch she does not need and the rusty metal iron are in another function, like elements integrating a work of a powerful expressiveness, because those objects considered useless “suggest things and ideas, and the work is enriched if they are used.•”• When she paints, she usually searches the thin canvas “with a burner I have in the backyard” to wipe out its Pristine aspects and drive her close to the dump that is patiently waiting.

Roberto Hernandez Retamar was right when he said that Antonia, in the pictorial language works with four-letter words, “those words uttered by the boy, who is full of tenderness in his inside but has been ill-treated by life and plays to have a bad temper (…..) Antonia paints with rage (Did not she call one of her works “The Hedgehog.” As a matter of fact, Antonia disguises tenderness as something macabre, daily life as something spectacular, natural things as terror. She always denied that poliomyelitis led to her trend towards tragedy in her artistic expressions, asking humorously every now and then “•how many lame people are not able to paint? The truth is that Antonia never resorted to her disability to receive benefits.

Her palette grants privileges top the black barely softened by a gentler color. For Amelia the black is a delimiting arm, but for Antonia, the black is the main surface of the composition, and her brush strokes suggest figures. Although her brush strokes may represent a certain trend to free and expontaneous gestures, Antonia said more than once that she did not paint based on irregularities but on structures, a previous drawing that has spaces. One immediately thinks about Amelia´s pictures, which limit the plain color area and the outline, and simultaneously seeks a kind of expressive value for the figure it represents. Antonia´s arm is not of that type, it shakily goes around the surface, provides the silhouette but in its fullness, including the color, which sifting, turns into an element of a soft contrast. Both painters appeal to the black: one known because of its pure and brilliant color, the other evoking a tremendous violence. Antonia´s themes stem from her immediate environment and street: puppets that are “My Friends” or “The Piranha”, or those who appear as visitors; those barely outlined “before the table” or the juggle with a people´s saying about naked death or in many paintings she left untitled. She always says they are not elements of her imagination, That is how she sees her friends, through that spectacular substrate she perceives in the most daily reality. Thus, she assures her work is intimate and social, and stems from personal immediateness and unfolds to a more-socially generic environment.

I would like to refer to an Antonia´s picture I consider as an example: According to my past and present views, “The Annunciation” is the main work of the first personal display by Antonia (at the Havana art gallery in 1964) and one of the most relevant of all her corpus. The woman sat in front of her sewing machine frighteningly receives the annunciating visit: the archangel is a monster skeleton with flying-coat-like wings constituting an element of contrast and completion. This translation and interpretation of the well known Christian iconography is very revealing. It not only interprets the scene, as painters have from the Middle Ages to contemporary era, -the sewing machine has a popular style, women´s clothes too- but also worsens that nature. Unlike her contemporary Acosta Leon (who she dedicated one her homage), Antonia is realistic when representing the sewing machine, as if to say that the two figures do not touch the breath of the inanimate: the terrified woman has given food for various interpretations. Antonia told me her nephew had asked in front of the painting about her reasons to paint his grandmother that way. Antonia accepts it was by then that she noticed some traits of similarities between her mother and the figure receiving the Annunciation. Without any disquisition, this probably proves Antonia´s everyday mark in characters in her paintings, assembling and works such as engraving.

I also report to this picture given its theme. The Annunciation is the theme of the mystery of Incarnation, Maternity, a function proper of women. Antonia avoids the result of that Annunciation, rules out the representation of her mother with a baby to resort to the previous process, which she sets, unlike other more contemporary Cuban artists (Maria Maria Perez, for example) in the moment of knowing the event to come. And that causes ambiguous reactions, at least: stupor, fright, surprise. Once more, Antonia unveils a rule of the patriarchal tradition, and proves that annunciation is not always nice and welcomed; the archangel not always is the archangel; the event not always is surrounded by happiness and tranquility, as fulfillment of a necessary and wanted function.

Antonia´s representations show faces of figures with very distorted outlines, especially popped eyes and a perennial open mouth in a gesture preparing a screamer howl. In the Annunciation, for example, the woman with a matured body and very fat, shows a strong expression of fright. The black prevails, mainly in the silhouette of a woman and the form of the annunciating angel-devil. But there are strokes of color imitating pastels in the characters: clothes and characteristics of her sewing machine: the rose color of the Virgin´s tunic below her blue gown in the classic iconography reappears in the women´s dress in front of her sewing machine.

Surprisingly for many people, Antonia says that some paintings by Giolio had influenced on the blue shades in heavens and angels she painted. The hands also have an expression, completing the violent traits of faces. In some paintings, most without titles, hands are close to the face, as if to ratify violence of the eyes and mouth. In other such as “Mi compañero” (My Friends), the hand resting on the hip represents a halitus of natural everyday life in the voluntarily-distorted character. Arms and hands of the two characters are paramount in the Annnunciation. The annunciating angel-demon extends a skeletal hand to touch the shoulder of the woman trying to step back. Simultaneously, she stretches out an arm to the audience, like calling their attention and showing her disapproval of the terrifying vision. The visual arch of the two arms projects her vision from the horizontal upper zone of the portray to the interior end and projected to the painting´s outer part. Those elements deepen the interpretation of the iconographic scene, in some examples, the angel and the virgin extend their arms to each other, almost touching the point of her fingers (as Fratilippo Lippi would do) while in others (as Leonardo would do), both characters cross their arms on their breasts, similarly to that seen in many scenes in the Idolatry. Amelia´s works lead to invoke the presence of Cuban elements, as those previous ones by Antonia, Goya, or Bacon. But Amelia was not cubist like that rich school of Europe, nor Antonia only owed her affiliation to the masters refers here. When she mentions Giotto in relation to the Annunciation, one should not be surprised: her deep appropriation of of the classic ones based on Italian Renaissance misses works and ways. In the triptych “Ni Muertos” (Not Even Dead), characters pose as foreshortened figures of Mantegna´s dead Christ.

But if Giotto considers this figure a tour de force of an anatomic nudity, Eiriz sees figures as skeletons with their tufts, mouths and popped eyes. In this dream of a tragic premonition about the horrible photography of the assassinated Che, Antonia creates, as in the Annunciation, elements of a classic art for transmutation, in which tragedy factors and terror hide that lack of random, that former structure she referred to when talking about her work.

Amelia made some assemblings that are homages: the requiem for Salomon, that acute character created by Chago´s drawing, homages dedicated to Acosta Leon, who has been mentioned before, and Lezama Lima. Chosen luminaries are revealing, figures who have been controversial in a certain moment and not understood in their most profound meaning. In 1991, Antonia discloses her tribute to Amelia, in which she refers, as in many of her works, to the meaning the work of her predecessor in time has for her. Through love and comprehension, two key celebrities of our culture are united, two strong woman who, each their way, faced and depicted their world, which is that of us, everyday along time.

Published in “From Silence to Shout. Women in fine Arts,” pages 53-62, Havana, Letras Cubanas Publishing House, 2002.