Picture Picture

A n t o n i a   E i r í z

This woman doesn’t paint
so we can say: “What strange things
spout from this artist’s head!”
This woman has enormous eyes.
With those eyes any woman could
disfigure the world if she wanted to.
But those faces that spring as if from under a blow,
those twisted lips
not even mercifully covered by a blot,
those strokes that appear suddenly
like roguish old ladies,
they wouldn’t actually exist
if each one of us didn’t stuff them daily
into Antonia Eiriz’s bag.
At least I have recognized myself
among the heap from which she pulls me out still shaking,
seeing my eyes enter those sockets
she mysteriously  finds;
and, above all, feeling so close
to those demagogues she paints,
who seem about to say so much
and finaly dare say absolutely nothing.

From “Fuera del Juego” (1968) by Heberto Padilla
Translated by Orlando Alomá


____________________________________ Between the Lines (“Entre líneas”) 1993
Oil on canvas, 65.5 x 75 inches                  (166.4 x 190.5 cm)
Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, Florida,      
gift of Susana Barciela   

Antonia Eiríz, Cuban, 1929-1995

By Carrie Przybilla

One of the most important artists to come of age during the Cuban Revolution, Antonia Eiríz was a provocative, paradoxical figure. Though she received many awards and honors from the Cuban government, her paintings never conformed to the officially prescribed Social Realist style or subjects. Eiríz associated with members of Los Once (The Eleven) - Cuban artists of the 1950s who, like the Abstract Expressionists, advocated an abstract art that was intuitive and sought to convey existential truths. Although she worked in a figurative mode, Eiríz was sympathetic to the ideas of The Eleven, and through her art and her teaching she influenced two generations of artists.
Eiríz's paintings from the 1960s often dealt with the excesses of demagoguery and (despite her denials) were interpreted as critical of the Cuban government. These works were never officially censored, but the criticism they received caused Eiríz to stop painting and exhibiting for more than twenty years. A 1991 retrospective of her art revived interest in her work and encouraged her to resume painting.
“Entre lineas” (Between the Lines) is typical of the works Eiríz painted from the time she arrived in Miami in 1992 until her death early in 1995. With rich, expressive brushwork, the artist depicts a crowd of skulls hovering above a single screaming figure -- a direct descendant of Edvard Munch's “The Scream” -- isolated in a wide band of muddied chrome yellow. The figure appears between two real lines: the dark bands along the top and bottom edges of the canvas. The title of the painting also implies a hidden meaning written "between the lines." This state of limbo, where the rules are unspoken and constantly shifting, was a condition familiar to Eiríz, and she deftly conveys its terror in this haunting painting.
From “Rings: Five Passions in World Art;” J. Carter Brown; 1996; the catalogue for the exhibition held in Atlanta, Ga., at the High Museum of Art, in conjunction with the 1996 Olympic Games. 

     “Just as we have in Lam a painter of myths, in Portocarrero the painter of rhythm, and in Milián the painter of anguish, we begin to discover in Antonia Eiríz the painter of the tragic.  It is what Orozco represents in Mexico, and years before, Goya in Spain.  Antonia paints from a pain that she carries within and from which — according to Antonia — neither her eyes nor her lovely face, her smile nor her immense talent can exempt her.  She paints with fury.”
                     Roberto Fernandez Retamar, La Gaceta de Cuba, 1964

“The human condition holds its breath, one scream away from death. Even the surfaces of Eiríz’s paintings are eroded and scarred, the perfect match of message and medium. These paintings of disembodied masks, like the huddled souls they represent, are the ghostly leavings of a gentler time.”
                     Helen L. Kohen, The Miami Herald, Dec. 10, 1993

A n t o n i a   E i r í z

By Susana Barciela

 Cuban art collectors and others fortunate enough to have seen her work know her as Antonia Eiríz, an extraordinary artist whose paintings evoke anguish as easily as awe. I knew her as Ñica, my beloved aunt: a shy, unpretentious and supremely compassionate woman with a Mona Lisa smile and wicked sense of humor.

People often would ask what her paintings meant. She never explained. They are whatever you see in them, she would say ­ and smile. Me, I see pain and love both, a love of humanity so great that it cannot bear man’s inhumanity toward man. Whatever the meaning, few walk away unmoved by her work.

One of her oils, “Entre líneas,” was among the 100 works selected by J. Carter Brown, director emeritus of the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. for the global exhibition celebrating the 1996 Olympic Games. In “Rings: Five Passions in World Art” at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, her painting hung near Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and a landscape by Vincent Van Gogh. The day I visited, I watched a couple round a corner, encounter Antonia’s painting and gasp. “Entre líneas,” Brown later told me. “blew people away.’’

Antonia never got to see that exhibition. She died of a massive heart attack in March 1995, only weeks after learning that her painting had been chosen for Rings. “She had a great, big heart,” her widow Manuel Gómez said. “That’s why it broke.’’

I’m convinced that at the time of her death she was living the happiest days of her life. And her work was finally beginning to get the recognition it merited.

The beginning of her story was quite unheralded. Antonia Eiríz was born on April 1, 1929, in Juanelo, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. Her parents were poor immigrants, Gallegos from the north of Spain, and she was the youngest of six siblings. They lived in a modest wooden house built by her father. There she came of age, painted and taught until she and Gómez resettled with me in Miami in 1993.

Antonia could easily have grown up conventionally, as her sisters. But polio struck her at age 2 and damaged her left leg. The ailment marked her as “different’’ and caused her pain ­ both physical and psychic ­ throughout her life.

Those days, of course, women were raised to marry and have kids. The five Eiríz sisters were taught to sew, knit and embroider ­ appropriate domestic arts. Antonia was interested in fashion design until sister Mercedes suggested she apply for a scholarship at Cuba’s well-known San Alejandro National School of Fine Arts. By the time she graduated in 1958, she was a painter in her own right. 

The 1960s were prolific years.  She exhibited for the first time in Cuba's National Museum of Fine Arts, in its National Salon of 1960.  Four years later she mounted a one-artist show of installations there. Her works garnered awards and accolades and showed in Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Tokyo.  She painted her masterwork “La anunciación” (The Annunciation) in 1963. To this day, it remains on permanent exhibit at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana along with another six of her works.

In 1966, she won an art fellowship from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. For six months she traveled to Italy, Spain and France, experimenting with new techniques for engraving and ink drawing.

As a professor at the Cubanacan National School for Art from 1965 to 1969, Antonia taught Tomás Sánchez and Evers Fonseca, among other fine painters. There she won the respect and admiration of a generation of young Cuban artists. “She taught me to see,” Sánchez says. “Antonia knew how to see in painting, how to project life.”

After her mother died in 1968, however, Antonia stopped painting ­ a move interpreted by many as a response to government criticisms of her work. While she never acknowledged that, certainly pressure on artists to work “within the revolution’’ was a factor in her decision, even if at an unconscious level. At the time the Cuban government had launched one of its toughest crackdowns ever on politically incorrect expression, most notably scorching poet Herberto Padilla. At the center of the polemic was Padilla’s book “Fuera del juego” (Out of the Game), which included a poem dedicated to Antonia. That book was banned because of its counterrevolutionary content.

By the early 1970s Antonia had retired to a quiet life in Juanelo, where everyone knew her. Concerned about helping others develop skills and confidence, she began teaching neighbors how to work papier-mâché. Soon, people all over Juanelo were collecting discarded newspapers, learning to draw with dots and lines, painting with Mercurochrome and sculpting with flour paste. Neighbors found themselves creating psychedelic butterflies, serpents and masks.

The kids created their own theater, with their own words and masks, all captured in an award-winning documentary “Art of the People.” Later Antonia traveled the island training other teachers.

In Cuba today, tourists buy tie-dyed cloth and papier-mâché crafts descendant from the modest techniques taught by Antonia. From seeds she planted, uncounted folks earn their livelihoods from creative work. All started because Antonia had an unshakable belief in the power of people to create.

Everyone can draw, paint and create, she said. When we create from our core, we are like God. Even if the end result is a purple paper chicken, the creative process itself can transform your being. Antonia saw this transformation happen in people who never imagined they could create art.

In the 1991, Antonia’s personal work returned to the limelight. With the help of an enthusiastic group of art students, she mounted the one-artist show “Reencuentro” (Rediscovery) at Galiano Gallery in Havana. It featured a remarkable collection of restored assembled works from the 1960s, along with oils, prints and drawings.

Then in 1993 in Miami, Antonia came out of her self-imposed retirement and returned to painting on a large scale. Her first exhibition of new works in 25 years ­ “Antonia Eiríz se expone” (Antonia Eiríz On Exhibit) at Weiss Sori Fine Art in Coral Gables ­ included large oils and inks on paper and drew a standing-room only crowd.

When she died, Antonia was in the process of painting for a solo exhibition at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art. The museum showed the pieces that had been completed along with other, older works posthumously in 1995 in an exhibition fittingly titled “Antonia Eiríz: Tribute to a Legend.”


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