2012 Caribbean Crossroads of World, El Museo del Barrio, New York
Sean M. Poole, Gattorno: A Cuban Painter For the World (Miami, FL: Arte Al Dia International, 2004), p. 220.
Havana, 1904–Massachusetts, 1980
Antonio Gattorno was one of the most gifted students at the San Alejandro School of Arts in the opening years of the 20th century. All who knew this young Cuban artist praised his accomplishments as an academic painter. Artist Antonio Rodríguez Morey notes that Gattorno “perfected Romañach’s technique in his own paintings in such a way that his works seemed to be painted by the master.” (1)
In 1921, his outstanding merit earned him a scholarship to pursue studies in Europe. It’s worth mentioning that Gattorno, unlike most young artists of the time, did not go immediately to Paris, capital of modernity, but instead to conservative Rome. There he was able to appreciate the works of the naïve artists, which moved him so deeply he made copies and sent them to Cuba as proof of his progress. He later visited Spain, traveling through Segovia, Toledo, Ávila, Santillana, and Madrid.
Gattorno finished his study tour in Paris, where tradition collided with the modern atmosphere prevailing in the City of Light. Awestruck by the works of some modern artists and even some symbolists such as Puvis de Chavannes, Gattorno burned all his paintings done in Italy and Spain and started his true body of work as a modern painter. Speaking about this moment of truth, Alejo Carpentier notes: “In the year 1924, a sample sent by Gattorno scandalizes his former teachers. He is showered with the most flattering aesthetic insults; there is talk about canceling his scholarship. . . . The reason is that the young painter has thrown aside the photographer’s tripod and has instead infused his paintings with life, a life ‘independent of the one that it imitates,’ as Cocteau wanted.” (2)
It is likely that Gattorno drew this female Nude, which showcases his deft technique, before returning to Cuba in 1926. We have before us not a neat academic study, but an Art Deco-style composition emphasizing the opulence of female flesh. It is not overly erotic, yet there is a certain sensuality in the line. Most important, we can already identify Gattorno as a modern artist.
In Havana in March 1927, Gattorno opened an important exhibition full of modern works like Mujeres en el Río (Women at the River), a great canvas inspired by mural art and one of the essential pieces of the vanguardia, the Cuban avant-garde.
In the 1930s, Gattorno explored the face and figure of the Cuban peasant or guajiro, in indelible images that constitute a fundamental part of his artistic legacy. These paintings inspired American writer Ernest Hemingway, who in 1935 wrote a monograph called Gattorno that cited the words of another giant of American letters, John Dos Passos. In this text, Hemingway prophesied: “Gattorno is a Cuban painter who is also a painter for the world. He was fortunate to be born in Cuba so that he could leave it and having left it he has the good sense to return to it to paint. Now it is time for him to leave it again but he will always return to it wherever he is painting.” (3)
Dos Passos scrutinized the social themes of his paintings: “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. . . . 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.” (4)
The texts by Hemingway and Dos Passos opened the way for Gattorno in the United States, where he settled definitively in 1939. Here he commenced a new period in his art under the influence of a romantic surrealism. He created excellent pieces reminiscent of Salvador Dalí, although Gattorno’s show a concern for human beings and their environment not to be found in the work of the Spanish painter. From this era date pieces like Hitler's Portrait (1942) and Omaggio del Quattrocento (A Tribute to the Quattrocento, 1945).
Among these works is the 1947 gouache Ascensión (Ascension), reproduced in the catalogue raisonné recently published by The Gattorno Foundation based in Miami, Florida. The painting showcases the artist’s magnificent gifts as a draftsman, one of the best of his generation. Ascension is clear proof of his assimilation of surrealism, one of the most revolutionary art trends of the 20th century. Structured as a classic composition, it portrays the scene of Christ’s ascension to the heavens. The crown of thorns hangs by Veronica’s veil, the cross has fallen to the floor, the nails have deserted His limbs, and the tortured body has disappeared, swept up in a whirlwind that Gattorno suggests with brief, dynamic, mannerist strokes. The scene possesses a striking visual balance whose axis is a leafless tree trunk, placed in the midst of a devastated landscape that evokes the destruction of the recently ended world war.
Still unknown in his own country of origin, Gattorno’s work from the 1940s and ’50s deserves a greater recognition in the Latin American context.
—Roberto Cobas Amate
1) Antonio Rodríguez Morey. Diccionario de artistas plásticos de Cuba. Typescript copy. Information Center Rodríguez Morey. National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana, Cuba.
2) Alejo Carpentier. Foreword to catalogue Exposición de Pintura/Gattorno. Havana: Asociación de Pintores y Escultores, March 5-20, 1927.
3) Taken from: Sean M. Poole. Gattorno. Miami, Fla: Arte al Día Internacional, American Art Corporation, 2004.
4) Poole, p. 35.