critical texts


Sculptures in Cuba (fragment)
Luis de Soto
Sculptures in Cuba

by: Luis de Soto

Our sculptures in the past century (19th Century), as well as in the previous ones, could be considered Cuban only because of the site were they were placed and sometimes because of the subjects they dealt with, since the sculptors were foreigners and the contents of the works followed the trends in fashion in Europe then. Toward the end of the century, the romantic concept was added to the realism and academicism of earlier periods, and it is under this style that Cuban sculptures appear.
The last decades of the 19th Century bring with them the first Cuban sculptors, whose names begin this aspect of the history of our art: Miguel Melero, Guillermina Lázaro and José Vilalta Saavedra.
Miguel Melero, sculptor and painter, teacher and presenter, principal of the San Alejandro school of art, where he made improvements that made him unforgettable, is, because of his works and those of his disciples, the first important figure opening the history of our sculpture.
Melero, the sculptor, left some works which place him, in accordance with his European training and the trends prevailing at the time, within Spanish traditional realism with strong Italian influence. His Monument to Columbus, made for the city of Colón (Spanish for Columbus), his busts in the La Caridad Theater of Santa Clara and his Saint Thomas, that until recently was in the Central Chapel of the Havana cemetery, are his most remarkable works and those which best show the characteristics mentioned above.
We have very little information about Guillermina Lázaro, the first woman sculptor in the history of our art, only the contents of one of her letters. Thanks to it, we know that she studied in Madrid, that she was awarded a prize in the Barcelona Universal Exposition, that she made relieves, portraits and exempt sculpture. And with true pride she refers to a statue of Columbus made by order of the Cienfuegos city hall. “The first sculptural monument made by a woman in this country is a work of mine; another woman will make the best one, but I made the first one”, says the artist, thus providing interest information for those studying the history of Cuban sculpture.
José de Vilalta Saavedra is the most important of the three mentioned. He was a Havana sculptor who worked in Cienfuegos and was trained in Carrara, and was the winner of the competition held to build a monument for the students who were killed by the Spanish colonial government in 1871. This was his first important work and also the first monument made in Cuba by a Cuban sculptor.
Other works by this same artist are the groups that top the monumental entrance to our Columbus Cemetery, representing the Virtues, done in heroic sculpture, and the relieves of religious themes that decorate the walls.
Vilalta is also the author of the monument made to Francisco de Albear y Lara, erected in the small square that bares his name. Made in Florence in 1893, it is, according to its style, a realist work, of that pictorial realism that seeks the closest resemblance to the subject and copies with great delight the minutest details of attire and accessories.
Esteban Betancourt, trained in Barcelona and Rome, drank from the purest founts of realist sculpture of all times, and developed his outstanding production within this modality. Whilst Betancourt favored tradition and classicism in his realism, Rodolfo Hernández Giro was a romantic, made in Europe, who, on returning to Cuba, took to his native Oriente the artistic concerns of that continent. Romantic also was Carlos Era, a Cuban-made artist, whom I have sometimes called the Cuban “maker of religious images” of the 20th Century. He was a fantastic wood carver. No one has bettered him in making, with Cuban woods, statues compared to none.
Lucía V. Bacardí brings from Paris and New York, where she studied, the creative impetus of Rodin and Solon Borglum. They planted a seed in the young artist that her strong temperament made fructify upon her return to the homeland. Romantic and impressionist, she enriched our sculpture with her valuable personal contributions. El nacimiento de Eva (Eve’s Birth), La Faunesca (The Faunal Girl), reveal in our sculpture a strong influence of Rodin in her artistic education.
Hatuey, Francisca, El espíritu de la fuente (The Spirit of the Fountain), show Lucía V. Bacardí’s creative personality. Hatuey was her first romantic tribute to Cuban iconography, which should have continued and was interrupted in Tipos de mi tierra (Guys of my Homeland), a series which would have been an interesting contribution to our national art.
José Oliva Michelena, Alberto Sabas, Benito Paredes, Félix Cabarrocas, Crispín Herrera, Antonio Bachs and others, are among this outstanding large group of sculptors who at the end of the first quarter of the 20th Century gave a great boost to our production.
As concerns monuments, now that our artists are being entrusted with the task of immortalizing events and honoring names of our country’s history, Sicre, whose work and name is well known abroad and is one of the greatest representative of modern sculpture here in Cuba, has to his credit, among others, a monument which to me is one of the most remarkable works of American art, his Monumento al Soldado Invasor (Monument to the Invading Soldier), excelled only by that masterpiece, his project that won the competition for the monument to José Martí.
A second promotion of sculptors, whose life begins with the 20th Century and which began to flourish during the first decades of the Republic, joined the already large ranks of the “art of form”. Some common features of the members of this group are the following: the preoccupation which is manifested in new plastic expressions, under the influx of the trends of universal modern art, and the search for their own solutions to the basic problems of sculpture. Stylization in its different modalities, primitivism, the sense of rhythm, the preoccupation with space as a plastic element of sculpture, are guidelines that can be perceived in his work.
Well-known names are at the top of the list of this promotion of sculptors: Teodoro Ramos Blanco, Fernando Boada, Florencio Gelabert, Ernesto Navarro, Domingo Ravenet, Jesús Geraldes Nápoles, Jesús Casagrán, Mirta Cerra y Carlos Sobrino.
Despite being contemporary or there being very little difference between their ages, there are notable differences regarding their respective aesthetic attitudes, aside from the personal aspects that individualize each artist’s production.
Three contemporary sculptors, Caridad Ramírez, Lucía Alvarez and Rita Longa represent, along with Jilma Madera, women’s contribution to the collective work of this group of artists.
While Caridad Ramírez, perhaps because she is also a painter, has remained within romantic realism, with her peculiar way of depicting reality, Rita Longa and Lucía Alvarez have estranged themselves from the purely “representative” concept. Rita Longa has sought that liberation and has defined her personality through decorative stylization. Few expressive elements, “musical” sense of the sculpture where shapes and spaces come together generating rhythms. Lucía Álvarez, has taken stylization even further, venturing into a field not yet trod by our sculptors yet full of possibilities: that of abstraction.
Contrasting with the artists I have just mentioned, there is another group of young sculptors whose work, new and bold in our environment, reveals a different concept of the “art of form”.
I have used the expression “art of form” instead of “sculpture” deliberately, because the work of the artists I am going to mention is essentially that and above all, forms in artistic function, aesthetic manifestation based on organized masses.
Lozano, Tardo, Girona, Madera, Rodríguez, Núñez Booth, Gutiérrez, Estopiñán, González Jerez, Arjona, are the names which illustrate this trend that can be seen in Cuban sculpture.
One can notice two modalities in it: one which, using a term coined in the recent history of art, is usually called “massivism”, because of the predominance of the solid, considerable mass, and another, which, without a specific name, is characterized by a broader concept of sculpture defined in relation to its basic plastic elements: shape and space.

(Excerpts taken from: Soto y Sagarra, Luis de. La escultura en Cuba. In “Libro de Cuba”. La Habana, 1954. P.581-588)