Camagüey, 1895–Havana, 1949
Fidelio Ponce is a unique figure in the context of modern Cuban art. At a moment when common interests among various groups gave the Cuban modernist movement a particular coherence, Ponce remained isolated—a solitary artist whose work seemed infused by his most intimate concerns and a highly personal spirituality. Nourished by themes of the Decadent movement in Europe and Latin America, his art lacked any visible trace of cubanidad or attempts to express Cuban “local color,” which at the time was considered a mission of sorts among the island’s artists. In a manner not unlike Venezuelan painter Armando Reverón, Ponce sought to express himself through shades of white, nuanced by other pale hues, in this way creating his most outstanding works.
Ponce burst upon the art world in 1934 with his first, and definitive, solo exhibition at the Havana Lyceum. From that point he became a surprisingly major name in modern Cuban art, and his works were quickly considered “classics.” His modern paintings were strongly rooted in tradition, as far removed from academic orthodoxy as from avant-garde defiance. Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, during his 1943 sojourn in Havana, referred to Ponce as a “powerful, singular personality, whose extremely individual style seems to come from a place beyond time and space.”
Ponce’s choice of subject matters was universal: landscapes, portraits, still lives, scenes from the Bible or inspired by mysticism. As Ramón Vázquez—one of the leading experts in his work—has pointed out, Ponce’s art had “deep romantic roots underlying a modernist vocation, channeled through what Alfred H. Barr, director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, called an ‘intuitive expressionism.’” Barr himself, when organizing MoMA’s Modern Cuban Painters show in 1944, had this to say of Ponce: “in his best moments he is the foremost painter in Cuba, veiling his disconcerting figures in soft shades of sienna, white and green.”
It is also in this context that we should place his superb drawings, which represent a substantial part of his oeuvre. Drawings that are veritable masterpieces grace the collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana as well as private holdings. Though most are done on paper of more than humble quality, Ponce’s drawings are in the same league as his best paintings. Such is the case of La Espera (Waiting), with its tremulous, intense line—a magnificent example of Ponce’s draftsmanship. The lines flow naturally, swelling until they reach their definitive form, a challenge for any artist daring enough to try to imitate them. Ponce’s genius shines through all his work, with both his paintings and drawings showing the same matchless, unmistakable style.
Pierre Loeb, the brilliant French art critic who sought haven in Cuba during the harshest years of World War II, cleverly pointed out Ponce’s exceptionalism within the context he lived in: “It is true that modern times present other problems and other concerns,” he wrote, “but Ponce will always be honored for having sung his own song, for having managed to express in his work his most intimate personal struggles, and for having given us all the example of a man of peerless quality and nobility.”
—Roberto Cobas Amate