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  • The best-kept secret in the history of Twentieth Century Art was one of the founders of the Modern Art movement in Cuba, a man who fished with Hemingway and feuded with Dali. Throughout his career, his work was well known and his genius apparent so that, like both his friend and his rival, he was known merely by his surname, Gattorno.

    Ernest Hemingway wrote a book about Antonio Gattorno. ESQUIRE, TIME and LIFE magazines, the New York Times, all of the major art critics of the 1930s,1940s and 1950s, knew of Gattorno and the quality of his work. Throughout his career his exhibits were for the most part favorably reviewed. He was a vital contributor to the international art scene for more than fifty years. He was compared with the greatest painters living and dead.

    But in an era when promotion, commerciality and even vulgarity were considered more important than sheer creative ability, Gattorno chose to commit himself to such a high level of artistic integrity that today his name and his work have virtually disappeared. Not only forgotten by the general public, Gattorno is unknown to most collectors, fine art professionals and Art History professors.

    Gattorno is the type of forgotten yet important painter that art-lovers dream of discovering: a hidden master with an impressive provenance. His output spans more than sixty years. It is represented in many media from oil paintings and watercolors to etchings, furniture and ceramic sculptures. Due to their current obscurity, his works are as fresh as the day they were made. Because of the singular vision and incredible skill of their creator, they are as important as any of the great works of art, which have attained recognition as masterpieces of the Twentieth Century.

    In 1938 Antonio Gattorno painted "Waiting for the Coffee", a mural commissioned by the Bacardi Company for their headquarters on the 35th floor of the Empire State Building. A goat Gattorno was using as a model drank some alcohol-based paint thinner, chewed through the rope tethering him to a chair, then in a drunken panic escaped into the maze of offices that comprised the rest of the thirty-fifth floor.

    The painter, up on the scaffold, lost in his work, was unaware that his model had flown the coop until several distraught office employees entered the room, wondering if anyone in there owned a goat. A melee ensued as Gattorno and a gallant band of Manhattan businessmen attempted to capture the escapee, whose name was "El Senor". The roundup lasted several hours, eventually ending on the thirty third floor, El Senor having led the pursuers on a merry chase. The story was picked up by the New York City newspapers for their evening editions and by the wire services the following day January 11, 1938. All that week the story ran in more than fifty newspapers nationwide.

    More concerned with the health and well-being of El Señor than he was with exploiting the incident for promotional purposes, Gattorno took the rest of the day off to tend to the animal.
    The next morning he arrived at the still shiny and new Empire State Building sans goat, soundly disappointing the legion of reporters and just plain folks who had flocked to the thirty-fifth floor to get a glimpse of the eccentric Cuban painter with his now nationally famous caprine model.

    Had Gattorno possessed the marketing genius of Dali, he'd have arrived at the Empire State Building clad in a loincloth, blowing panpipes and leading a herd of goats. But Antonio Gattorno was as different from Salvador Dali as Cuba is from Spain.

    Gattorno's response to all the attention was to become annoyed. He was angry that in spite of the efforts of Bacardi's accomplished marketing and promotions department, not once in the few months that he had already been working on the mural had anyone, let alone the important art critics, come to see the work in progress. Now one silly little goat ran amok, and the whole town wanted an audience.

    True to his style, Gattorno hung a hand-lettered sign on his scaffold,which read, "Do not wait until asked to leave". The sign of course discouraged no one so by week's end Antonio flounced off to Cuba in a huff, disgusted with what it took to get any recognition in New York City.

    Even this bit of a temper tantrum made the society pages of the New York papers. Gattorno's well-known association with Hemingway had made him a familiar commodity to the local press long before El Senor made his dash for freedom. This certainly was neither the first time nor the last that Gattorno purposely rejected the opportunity to promote himself at the cost of what he considered his painterly and personal integrity.

    In many ways Gattorno was his own worst enemy because of his failure to properly manage his career. His earliest mature works, that is those which were done after his student days and his return to Cuba in 1927 and up until 1939, were soundly criticized by many Cuban fine art professionals as being not Cuban enough. The guajiros looked Tahitian was one criticism.

    The coffeepots he often put in pictures were not Cuban coffeepots at all, another critic told him, referring specifically to the vessel in the Bacardi Mural. "What does that mean?" Gattorno asked. "Not a Cuban coffee pot indeed! It is the type of coffeepot my mother always had in the house all of my life. I own a coffeepot now which looks like that. My mother is Cuban. My family is Cuban. I am Cuban. I think it's a Cuban coffeepot."

    In the early 1950's LIFE magazine assigned a reporter/ photographer team to conduct an interview with the Cuban painter whose address was number ten Downing Street in Greenwich Village. The article would compare and contrast Antonio Gattorno with Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister,himself a resident of a 10 Downing Street and an avid weekend watercolorist.

    Inviting the reporters into his flat, Gattorno listened politely to the reason for their visit then quietly told them, "I respect Winston Churchill very much. As a statesman he worked hard to end the war, but as an artist he isn't fit to wash my brushes."

    The men from Life tried to persuade him to be reasonable, to consider the career boosting PR possibilities of such an article, but Gattorno was adamant and the reporters left without their story. It was this sort of stubborn intractability, even at the expense of further promoting his name and his work, which helped contribute to the current lack of knowledge of Antonio Gattorno.
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    "Please Do Not Wait Until Asked To Leave!" - Work in progess- Waiting For The Coffee,1938, Mural, oil on canvas. Photo from the Antonio Gattorno Estate Archives
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