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  • Antonio Gattorno was a pioneer of Cuba’s Modernist Movement. He was a versatile, innovative and enigmatic artist. His masterfully executed paintings are technically superb. His iconic imagery is mysterious and oftentimes misunderstood.

    Gattorno’s earliest paintings laid the foundation for and became one of the archetypes of Cuban Modernism. Gattorno later developed a Neo-Romantic, surrealist style inspiring many critics to compare him to Salvador Dali. Gattorno's paintings are powerful, sophisticated and puzzling. They are quite frequently misinterpreted.

    Emily Genauer was the art critic for the New York World Telegram. She reviewed Gattorno’s solo exhibit at the Passedoit gallery on October 9, 1944.

    “Gattorno is a painter of extraordinary technical skill and uninhibited imagination. I could wish he did not suggest Dali as strongly as he does. Occasionally, however, Gattorno puts into his paintings a strength of conviction and a concern with world problems that sets them apart from Dali’s dallyings.”

    Gattorno spent the years 1919 – 1927 in Europe. He was influenced by a wide variety of old Masters from Giotto, Titian, Veronesé, and Rafael, to contemporaries such as di Chirico and Modigliani. He became enmeshed in the vast tapestry of European art history with all of it’s epochs, movements and schools of thought. He developed a deep and abiding knowledge of symbolic visual language. He immersed himself in the study of style and technique.

    Antonio Gattorno perceived himself as a storyteller. He reveals himself as a narrative painter throughout every phase of his work. He exhibits a symbolist proclivity in his first as well as his final paintings.

    Critics frequently perceive him as a social crusader with a specific agenda - working to establish a visually unique Cuban national identity. Other critics classify Gattorno as a derivative of more successful contemporaries who never really developed his own style. Either of these assessments is inaccurate, revealing more about the critics than about the paintings or their author.

    This is not to say that Antonio Gattorno had no political message to convey nor does it suggest that he had no singular personal painting style. Gattorno was primarily a narrative painter, a storyteller working in light, color and image. He was a Symbolist painter in the truest sense.

    Gattorno believed that all paintings must be decorative and that all painting must be a meditative, creative process on the part of the artist. Politics were germane to him solely because being seen as politically relevant added credibility, importance and notoriety to the painter and his work. Making a political statement elevates decorative art to a lofty status where it seems somehow more important than mere adornment.

    Gattorno’s participation in the Cuban revolution of 1923 – 1934 was more likely the result of artistic opportunism than of politically motivated idealism. El Grupo Minorista, the loosely organized collective of artists and writers of which Gattorno was a founding member, viewed his ultimate departure from Cuba as a betrayal of the political activism espoused by El Grupo.
    The contentious relationship Gattorno endured with the Cuban academic and political establishment began in his youth and continued throughout his career.

    In 1923, his third year in Paris, conservative traditionalists at the Academy of San Alejandro in Havana, accused Gattorno of falling under the corrupting influence of the European Modernists. These charges nearly cost him his stipend.

    Professor Leopoldo Romañach, Gattorno’s mentor at San Alejandro, interceded on his pupil’s behalf. Romañach declared that it was the young artist’s right to search for any means of expression. He simply needed time and an opportunity to try. Romañach’s intercession insured the stipend remained intact.

    Back home in Havana in 1927 Gattorno participated in the landmark exhibit billed as the First Exposition of Modern Art. Held under the auspices of the Association of Painters and Sculptors of Havana, this show marked the definitive transition from the decline of the Cuban Academic tradition to the dominance of Cuban Modernism.

    Gattorno acknowledges this time of flux in an essay written for Revista De La Habana.

    “ The respect for art that was once taught is often replaced by devotion to skill. The result is to limit the artist’s desire to create great works of art and to conform by painting “studio heads” according to dogmatic academic convention. This simply is not art. Now, with few rare exceptions, paintings are made without the devotion of the primitive artist… Is this the truth in art? No, it cannot be! The natural world must be gathered and arranged - it must be combined with talent. We must create. The only works of art that deserve respect, are those composed with talent, those done by amassing with color the days of torture that the creation of the work provides us…”

    Gattorno’s feud with the stifling conservatism of the Cuban academic establishment continued over the years. In 1935 Ernest Hemingway acknowledged the conflict in his book “GATTORNO”.

    “As things are organized now he could risk his hide a few times for one party or another and if that party won, and had the loot at it’s disposal, he could get his share in an official appointment. But, to see Gattorno, who was made for painting and for nothing else and to ask him to fight is as sensible as using a camel’s hair brush as a bayonet. So he has to go.”

    The book was Hemingway’s idea. It was his way of joining in the fray to aid his friend in the ongoing battles with the artistic establishment in Havana. The National Salon of Havana, which had been held every year since 1916, was controlled by conservative traditional and local academic trends and tastes.

    Antonio Gattorno, Carlos Enriquez, Eduardo Abela, Fidelio Ponce, Victor Manuel, Amelia Pelaez or indeed any of the painters now known as the Vanguardia, were not given the recognition merited by their contributions to Cuba’s artistic legacy, in spite of the indisputable quality of their work. The judging process was widely known to be rife with corruption, favoritism and infighting. The jury was notorious for ignoring the importance of the works of certain artists who were considered innovative or subversive.

    Gattorno writing to Ernest Hemingway in a letter dated June 6 1935.

    “ The painting that won the prize is “Self-portrait and Models”. Everybody said that painting should have won the one thousand-peso prize but the judges were S.O.B.’s and didn’t want to give me the prize, so they split the money into ten one hundred peso awards. Nobody won. I was awarded a five hundred-peso prize, instead of the big prize. And among the winners, I was the first one. This is only a moral victory as in Gorpacio’s play.”

    Hemingway's reply in a letter dated July 3 1935.

    “ My dear friend Antonio, Yesterday I returned to Key West and found two of your letters and 50 samples of your book. In reference to the letters, I am deeply sorry that the contest did not work out. We thought that you had won the grand prize a while ago. It is a shame about that contest. Those judges must be jerks.”

    The Second National Salon of Havana was held in 1938 and dealt with the Vanguardia in the same way it did in 1935. The prize money was divided then split amongst several artists. The title of First Prize winner, assigned this time to Eduardo Abela, was once again only a moral victory ala Gorpacio. Second place was shared between a half dozen artists including Gattorno, Arche, Enriquez, Manuel, Pelaez and Ponce.

    Gattorno’s entry is currently considered one of the superlative representations of Cuban Modern Primitivism. It is an excellent example of Gattorno’s use of surface and symbol.

    “¿Quiere Mas Café Don Nicolas?” appears, superficially, to be a family portrait. A man and woman are seated at a table having coffee while a younger man stands behind them.
    A close study of the painting reveals a complex dynamic concealed beneath the tranquil surface of the image.

    Gattorno has set the scene to tell a story. He has placed the viewer in the point of view of a landowner named Don Nicolas paying a visit to a guajiro family. We are inside a bohio that has bare walls and traditional Cuban furniture. Behind the younger man is a bench. The man and woman are seated on chairs around a table. Upon the table, sit a coffeepot, a trio of cups and a spoon.

    The door behind the older man is open. A guajiro with a hoe over his shoulder walks past outside. Banana leaves fill the open window behind the woman.

    The men in the bohio have just come in from the fields. The older one sits in a submissive pose, his hat in his hands. The younger is holding tools. He is the couple’s son or perhaps the man’s brother. He has no hat and no place at the table. Dressed in everyday clothing the gaunt faced men appear to be hardworking farmers suddenly summoned from their regular chores.

    Conversely, the woman who is perhaps the wife or sister of the older man, is clad in a pretty dress. There is a flower in her hair. She is dressed for entertaining not for working. She is smoking a cigarette. She is desirable. She is vibrantly young and she blooms like the lush tropical foliage outside. Her expression is serene and reserved. An anticipatory atmosphere of quiet tension pervades the scene.

    There are three cups on the table. Only the one poured for Don Nicolas is full. A spoon, having sugared and stirred the cup, lies nearby. The other cups remain glaringly empty.

    The cup is a female symbol. The spoon symbolizes male sexuality. A spoon full of sugar stirring a cup is a man inflaming the passions of a woman. The flower in the woman’s hair, a gardenia, is a fertility symbol. A flower worn behind the left ear suggests an experienced or married woman. The burning cigarette, seen symbolically, is a smoking gun implying the aftermath of a sexual encounter. The color of the woman’s dress is another subliminal element. It is not quite white and covered with a floral print a subtle signal that the maiden herself, while lovely, is not pure.

    Even the title is symbolic. “¿Quieres mas café, Don Nicolas?”

    Evidently the Don has enjoyed a previous cup of coffee. The sentence is in the familiar not the formal style used to address a superior. It is therefore the desirable, vibrant young woman asking the question, not the weary, subservient men. “Nicolas” is not a typical Cuban name, hinting at an ethnic as well as a class difference between the viewer of the scene at the head of the table and the subjects seated below him.

    The political and social messages of the painting are now evident. Surface and Symbol.

    The plight of these guajiros is poverty and hard work. If they do not toil in the fields they go hungry. The men in power, the landowners, who grow wealthy from the labor of the poor, take whatever they want.

    What appears on the surface to be a decorative family portrait is actually a meditatively conceived methodically composed political statement.

    “¿Quieres mas café, Don Nicolas?” is a Symbolist painting executed in the genre of Cuban Modernism. It is completely relevant to the contemporary social and political context of Cuba in the 1930s.

    Gattorno’s depictions of the guajiros, their environment and their way of life, marks the debut of the European Modernist aesthetic applied to Cuban themes. The commonplace meticulously rendered people, settings and situations revealed in these paintings established Gattorno as the first Cuban artist of his generation to achieve the status of a universal contemporary that
    transcended his ethnicity and national origins.

    John Dos Passos, the author of the groundbreaking trilogy “USA”, was sufficiently impressed with Gattorno and his work that he bought a pair of guajiro paintings and commissioned Gattorno to paint the portrait of his wife, Katy. Dos Passos also wrote a piece of lyric prose inspired by Gattorno’s guajiros.

    “If you have been looking at Gattorno's paintings you see them as soon as you leave the suburbs of Havana. He seems to have painted them all. You see the men and boys with pale earth colored faces riding their chunky ponies or working in the fields under their broad straw hats or plowing the heavy land with oxen, or scattered, with their machetes in their hands, among the tall white stalks of the royal palms and the ragged intense green of banana patches and the shining cane fields. You see the bare footed frailly built women standing in the doors of their palm thatched huts that have bare earth floors and walls of white washed boards or interwoven palm fiber, and the rickety children and the chickens and the goats and the black pigs dotted over the rolling dry hills under the circling buzzards and the high piled Gulfstream clouds. And always a look of poverty, a certain malarial refinement and sadness and isolation of a transplanted race. They are the guajiros, the poor whites of Cuba, and Gattorno has put them on paper and canvas so well that once you have seen his paintings you continue to see the guajiros through his eyes."
    **************************************************************************************************************< Image < "¿Quieres Mas Cafe Don Nicolas?" - Oil on linen- Antonio Gattorno, 1937>
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