María Luisa Gómez Mena with a group of Cuban artists at the joint exhibition of Cundo Bermúdez and Felipe Orlando in the Lyceum Gallery in Havana, October 29-November 8, 1943. Right to left: Bermúdez, José Gómez Sicre, Gómez Mena, Mario Carreño, and Felipe Orlando, entre otros. The paintings in the background are all by Bermúdez.
Courtesy José Ramón Alonso Lorea

In the past few weeks, we’ve taken a close look at Cuban art in the 1940s, through Alejandro Anreus’s article on the 1944 MoMA exhibition Modern Cuban Painters and José Ramón Alonso Lorea’s article on Maria Luisa Gómez Mena and her Galería del Prado. Now, Alonso Lorea zeroes in on Gómez Mena’s role in the MoMA exhibition and the influential book that accompanied it.

In a September 1943 letter to Spanish poet and editor Manuel Altolaguirre and his family, Maria Luisa assures them that she is “preparing a mongraph about [Cuban] painting. I will send you a copy.” The monograph, with texts by José Gómez Sicre, could have been completed by December of that year, as we can guess from another letter from Maria Luisa in December 1943: “The monograph is not yet ready, but I’ll send you a copy in a few days.”

Pintura Cubana de Hoy / Cuban Painting of Today

By early 1944, 1500 copies of the book, Pintura Cubana de Hoy / Cuban Painting of Today, had already been printed, of which, “twenty-eight marked A to Z copies have been reserved, outside of trade, signed by the author and editor.”

As the editor, Maria Luisa wrote in an introductory note: “Clearly, after years of hardships, the Cuban painting movement has reached a state of maturity worthy of greater public recognition. Aware of the urgent need for a means of dissemination, this book is published in an attempt to show the courageous sincerity of our contemporary painters. It is a privilege, and also a great honor for me, to be allowed to contribute to the publication of this volume, as it is the first of its kind to appear in Cuba.”

Three basic aims characterized the publication: 1) recognition of an established modern art; 2) a publishing platform with printed text and images to promote the work; and 3) definition of the monograph as an original and unprecedented book on Cuban art.

In Pintura Cubana de Hoy, Sicre writes a series of documented biographical notes on the selected artists. While this book accompanied the Cuban exhibition at MoMA, it isn’t exactly an exhibition catalogue. For the New York show, MoMA published in its Bulletin a text by Alfred Barr Jr. on Cuban contemporary art and a list of the works in the exhibition.

Many of the works chosen for this monograph were painted in 1943, the same year the book was written, and became memorable examples of modern Cuban painting. Some of these works are now part of the collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, on permanent exhibition in their Cuban galleries. Other works are currently circulating through private collectors, breaking sales records in Latin American art auctions worldwide. And many of these paintings, fresh from the workshops of the artists, were part of the collection of María Luisa’s Galería del Prado.

We, as scholars in this field, have wondered: What reasons can we find to explain such pictorial production? In that September 1943 letter to Manuel Altolaguirre, Maria Luisa writes: “the Cuban painting exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art is likely to take place by January, with 250 oils by Cuban painters, 100 watercolors, and 200 drawings. These boys work hard and respond to the little help that I offer in my great enthusiasm.”

The note is an indication of the empathy established between Maria Luisa and those young painters gathered at her commercial art gallery. It´s probable, therefore, that the cause and reason for this pictorial production can be found in the exhibition planned at MoMA, garnished with the “enthusiasm” that translated into financial support on the part of patrons like Maria Luisa Gómez Mena, and the anticipation that her Galería del Prado would open up the emerging U.S. modern art market. As well as, presumably, that special sense of competitiveness among painters. The combination of all these aspects is the reason for that pictorial production, in a year when aesthetic issues in avant-garde painting were being consolidated.

The faςade of the Galería del Prado, with a work by Amelia Peláez in front.
Courtesy José Ramón Alonso Lorea

So between 1942 and 1944, the Galería del Prado became the center of gravity for the vanguardia of Cuban visual art. If we look at the few photos of the period that we’re able to find, we see Maria Luisa standing next to some of the most outstanding Cuban avant-garde artists from both the first and second generations. From the selective First Exhibition of Modern Art in Cuba, 1937, to the permanent group exhibition of the Galería del Prado, those two generations of Cuban modern artists have shared the same showrooms. They include artists such as Víctor Manuel, Carlos Enríquez, Eduardo Abela, Amelia Peláez, Jorge Arche, Aristides Fernandez, Antonio Gattorno, Romero Arciaga, Fidelio Ponce, and Domingo Ravenet, among others who had achieved avant-garde status, as well as the second generation of modern artists who agreed with the avant-garde aesthetic and nationalist solutions of the earlier group: Mario Carreño, Cundo Bermúdez, Wifredo Lam, Roberto Diago, Serra-Badue, Felipe Orlando, Mariano Rodríguez, and René Portocarrero, among others. The ongoing work of these artists led to the consolidation of a modern art.

The leaders of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, through the Inter-American Foundation, were receptive to this art movement, and it was at the Galería del Prado that María Luisa Gómez and José Sicre, along with Alfred H. Barr Jr., organized the group show Modern Cuban Painters for MoMA. Thanks to Maria Luisa, Sicre, and Carreño, Barr visited the studios of the painters.

The process of putting the show together must have been highly stimulating for the patron, who accompanied Barr on visits to the artists´ studios. In early November 1943, Maria Luisa had said to Altolaguirre that “the Cuban painting exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art is likely to take place by January, with 250 oils by Cuban painters, 100 watercolors, and 200 drawings.” According to what was finally exhibited in New York in March-May of 1944, the project that Maria Luisa outlined in her letter was much more comprehensive than the final result. It seems that the patron intended to hang on MoMA´s walls the most representative group exhibition of modern Cuban painting ever conceived outside her Galería del Prado. In a subsequent letter to Altolaguirre, she jubilantly declared that: “The Museum has given us a date for our exhibition in February (…). I think this a great success.”

Gallery view of Modern Cuban Painters at MoMA, April 1944. Works by Carlos Enríquez and Amelia Peláez are visible.
Courtesy Dr. Alejandro Anreus

The show finally brought together just 13 artists and 75 works, and was accompanied by the abovementioned monograph. After MoMA, the exhibition traveled to other U.S. institutions in other states. Similar projects spun off from this exhibition made Cuban modern art known in other Latin American and European countries, and versions of the monograph text were released in other languages.

The monograph and exhibition project, once it finally materialized, made Cuban painters internationally known and legitimized categorical phrases such as “Cuban art” and “school of Havana.” Since then, Cuban painting has had an important place among modern art galleries and museums that collect Latin American art.

Thus, Maria Luisa Gómez Mena was responsible in large part for the realization of various major cultural events of 1942-1944. In this regard, MoMA’s founding director (1929-1943) Alfred Barr Jr. was adamant when he wrote (in the MoMA Bulletin on the exhibition): “By organizing the nonprofit Prado Gallery, subsidizing publications and for her personal generosity and enthusiasm, Ms. Gómez Mena has recently done more for the advancement of modern Cuban painting than anyone in Havana.”

Mario Carreño, Portrait of Maria Luisa Gómez Mena, 1943
Courtesy José Ramón Alonso Lorea

On the eve of the exhibition at MoMA, the patron, in a letter to the Altolaguirres dated December 1943, assured them that “This will be my last letter from Cuba.” However, unexpectedly, after having done so much and paid so much, Maria Luisa could not be at that exhibition in New York. There are two contradictory arguments as to the reason. According to Cundo Bermúdez, María Luisa “was passionate about the Spanish Republic during the Civil War and because of this she was later denied a visa to the United States at the time of the Cuban exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.” According to Mario Carreño, she was denied the visa for having been married to “a senior officer of the Franco Army” who had serious charges leveled against him by the Republican Army.

[NOTE: The 1943 portrait of Maria Luisa by Mario Carreño seen here is included in the upcoming Latin American sale at Sotheby’s, May 28-29, 2014. For interesting background on Gómez Mena, her influential role in Cuban art in the 1940s, and the making of this portrait, see the video on the Sotheby’s website.]

A niece of Maria Luisa´s in Madrid confirmed this second explanation; she reminded me that in Franco´s Spain there was no civil marriage or divorce. So, as of 1926, Maria Luisa was still officially married to her first husband: the Spanish military officer Francisco Vives, father of her only son, Francisco Gómez Vives. Apparently, Republicans in exile reported this. A third malicious argument, published by one Alfaro Siqueiros, who never forgave her, asserted that the visa denial was due to drug issues.

María Luisa was definitely not in New York for the MoMA event, and the reason for her absence is yet to be confirmed. It is true that by March 1944, already separated from Mario Carreño (her second husband), she was in Mexico with Manuel Altolaguirre, beginning the tortuous journey of her last 15 years with the Spanish poet.

Although there is some suggestion that the legal closing of the Galería del Prado occurred in 1945, all indications are that after the MoMA exhibition, the gallery’s vital period came to a close. Maria Luisa, who was the soul and the financial support of the project, was on another path. Paraphrasing Cundo Bermúdez, her interest and passion had shifted. The Cuban painter asserted that Maria Luisa “had incredible energy, and didn´t stop,” but she “became passionate about things and those things became the center of her universe; then suddenly, from one month to the next, her interests and passions would change.” For Maria Luisa, a new chapter of patronage and passion was opened, next to Manuel Altolaguirre, Spanish poet of the Generation of ’27.

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José Ramón Alonso Lorea
José Ramón Alonso Lorea is an art historian. He is a graduate of the University of Havana, where he pursued studies in popular art, art theory and practice, anthropology, and archaeology, cultural advancement, conservation, restoration, and museology. He has been a professor of art history at the University of Havana, and a researcher and curator in the Department of Research and Curation at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. He has spoken at conferences in Cuba, Colombia, and Spain, and has published articles on art and culture in journals and magazines in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Spain. He has collaborated on projects by the Organización de Estados Iberoamericanos and the Centro Español de Estudios de América Latina, both in Madrid. He is the author, coordinator, and editor of the digital project Estudios Culturales 2003.