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  • Antonio Gattorno was fifty-seven years old in 1961. Three decades had passed since his involvement in the volatile Cuban political scene of the 1930s. He was well versed in the power of imagery and in the machinations of the political process in both Cuba and the United States.

    Friends and family recall that he was worldly and sophisticated in his understanding of art, of politics and of human nature. He spoke eloquently about each. His knowledge came from firsthand experience.

    In 1959, during the early days of Fidel Castro’s revolution, Gattorno was optimistic for Cuba’s future. He initially admired what appeared to be Castro’s strength. He believed that Castro had liberated Cuba from a totalitarian regime.

    But it didn’t take long for the artist to decide that Castro had betrayed the Cuban people in general and Gattorno’s family in particular. When Castro visited New York City in 1960 arrangements were made for Gattorno to meet him.

    In newspaper interviews and in conversations with family and friends Gattorno spoke of that meeting. He recounted how Castro had kept him waiting for hours and then insulted him.

    “You should return home to Cuba where you belong. I can help you to become a famous painter.”

    “ I am already famous. I will return to Cuba when you are no longer there.”

    “La Navidad” was painted just one year after that ill-fated meeting between Gattorno and Castro.

    Superficially it tells the familiar story of the Holy Family and the birth of Jesus. Beneath the surface lies a carefully crafted visual metaphor, a subtle, enigmatic political commentary on the birth of a nation.

    The newborn child is in a manger on the floor between his parents. Mary wears red robes with a blue veil as she knits a small piece of white cloth. Above her head shines a single six pointed star. Joseph holds a file and a sickle. A hammer lies at his feet. A pitchfork, ceramic vessels and a heavily laden beast of burden imply agricultural toil and industrial production.

    Mary's face is calm. Her is expression serene. The infant lies vulnerable at her feet. Mary's blood red skirt flows between her legs symbolizing the long and difficult birth of the new Cuba. The man with his tools and his politics is focused on his work. Mary and the child are radiant, luminescent, portending a bright and hopeful future for the nascent nation.

    Gattorno’s “La Navidad” poses symbolic, metaphorical questions of a political and social nature.

    Will the newly born child be clad in the red, white and blue ideals of capitalist freedom as knitted together by the mother of democracy? Or will the infant bear the tools of collective labor under the yoke of its ideological father the communist state?

    Gattorno, always a shrewd and calculating man, was more pragmatic than he was idealistic. The answers to those questions were not as important to him as was the painting asking them. He was far more interested in art than in politics.

    Gattorno considered politics and popular culture, religion and spirituality as nothing more or less than ideal sources of subject matter. If they happened to enhance the social and historic value of his works, so be it. He chose to eschew political activity, social reform or religious debate. He devoted himself instead to gathering and arranging elements of the natural world then casting them in his visual narratives to explore, evolve and express his own unique artistic vision.

    Gattorno steadfastly maintained his creative integrity even at the cost of commercial success. Evidence of this devotion to his painterly principles is the substantial body of work he produced over the course of a career that spanned more than half a century.

    Primitive, surreal or symbolic, the paintings of Antonio Gattorno remain versatile, innovative and enigmatic.
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