René Portocarrero’s body of work still awaits a study that will confirm him as one of the most magnificent artists in the history of Cuban painting, despite periods of prolific, sometimes too-commercial excess that have bogged down his reputation.
Portocarrero was born in El Cerro, a Havana neighborhood that had been a resort for the wealthy in the late 1800s, and which would inspire his early series of paintings. Though mostly self-taught, he studied at the San Alejandro Academy, and emerged as an artist with the second wave of the Cuban avant-garde, around the time of World War II. He worked at the Estudio Libre para Pintores y Escultores (Free Atelier for Painters and Sculptors) in Havana. His prolific illustrations appeared in literary magazines such as Verbum, Espuela de Plata, and Orígenes (all sponsored by poet José Lezama Lima), and he painted several murals. In 1944-1945, he exhibited his works at the Julian Levy Gallery, in the “Modern Cuban Painters” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, at the San Francisco Museum of Art, and at other art centers in Haiti, Mexico, and Moscow.
Like Amelia Peláez, Carlos Enríquez, and Mariano Rodríguez, Portocarrero portrayed the “criollo space,” utilizing a creative assimilation of cubism, Mexican muralismo, surrealism, and abstractionism, as well as the influence of individual figures such as Picasso and Matisse. In his inveterate search for cubanidad, the Cuban essence, he chose visual motifs from his physical as well as cultural environment: domestic interiors, foods, women, celebrations, religions and popular saints, views of Havana and Trinidad, and colonial-era buildings. Over the course of his career he returned to those motifs again and again, in numerous series. Through a characteristically precise use of the spatula, he made his images easily identifiable by their dense amalgam of vibrant textures: perfect examples of Latin American baroque.
Despite occasional incursions into rural landscape—a near-cliché of the Cuban pictorial tradition—from the 1940s onward, Portocarrero focused primarily on the city and its architecture. Between the 1942 drawing Catedral (Cathedral) and the 1960 painting Catedral en Amarillo (Cathedral in Yellow), there is a two-decade gulf, rife with the search for and achievement of a personal style. In both pieces, the subject is the Cathedral of Havana, built between 1748-1777, and which presides over the plaza of the same name, located in the historical section within the walls of the old city.
An indefatigable draughtsman, Portocarrero considered drawing as an art in its own right. His evident intention is to create a dislocated, motley, crowded space, where the Cathedral looms over the rest of the buildings. The artist shatters both academic perspective and the rigid design of the colonial plaza to offer his unique vision. His hand is lively but firm, and his signature chromatic outbursts are notoriously absent.
When, in 1960, Portocarrero painted Catedral en Amarillo, he had already become an icon of Cuban art. Although he had gone through an abstract period in the 1950s, producing works in the vein of Paul Klee, he now returned to the fleshy figurativeness, bursting with color, that defined his style. Once again transfigured by his brushes, the cathedral is a subject to which he would often return, in the midst of a febrile artistic activity, until the 1970s. In this piece he forgoes any illusion of volume, placing the linear mass of the building against a plain warm background, almost as if in a hard-edge painting. The use of impasto, thickly applied in swift brushstrokes, allows him to delineate the church as a svelte edifice of emphatically vertical lines, whose towers—unlike the original—are practically enmeshed in the main body of the building. The central oculus becomes a stained-glass window in the primary colors dear to colonial-style stained glass, and columns and pilasters entwine with tropical doors and blinds, complete with resplendent fanlights. Portocarrero has transformed the spiritual building into a temple of sensuality, infused with the optimistic affirmation of life ever-present in his renewed visions of Havana.
—Abelardo G. Mena Chicuri