From Art Nexus, July-September 1994
Antonia Eiríz: An Appreciation
By Giulio V. Blanc
Born in the Havana suburb of Juanelo in 1929, Antonia Eiríz graduated from Havana's San Alejandro Academy in 1958 and soon emerged as a new, significant figure at a crucial time in Cuba's artistic and political history. Artistically, the 1950s witnessed the rise of a third generation of modernists; successors of such pioneer figures as Amelia Peláez, Wifredo Lam and René Portocarrero.
Many of the young painters and sculptors of this period, following trends in New York and Europe, turned to abstraction. Beginning in the early 1960s “revolutionary art" began to overtake abstraction and other styles. Innovative propaganda posters, Servando Cabrera Moreno's scenes of heroic peasant militias, and the Pop Art inspired Che Guevaras of Raúl Martínez became the internationally recognized hallmarks of Cuban art.
Some artists attempted to find a balance between "classical” Cuban art, abstraction, and engagé art. Antonia Eiríz is the outstanding example of such an artist. Eiríz was close to most of the abstract artists and sympathized with their aims. At heart, she claims, she prefers abstraction. Her drawings and paintings constantly show this as she eschews precise detail in favor of loose brush strokes and overall effect of color and form. While the figure is always present, it is defined by sparse references to identifiable features. In this she resembles De Kooning and Dubuffet, two artists she admires.
As far as political statements are concerned, they are made at a universal level. Eiríz has always dealt with the capacity of man for cruelty and with the arrogance of power. But like Goya, to whom she has rightly been compared, Eiríz goes beyond literal commentary towards the humanistic aspect of things. Anxiety, grief, paranoia and loneliness are what she interprets in her expressionistic images. Although this may reflect the artist's experience of time and place, it also transcends it.
Eiríz’s best known work, “The Annunciation,” with its skull-faced apparition and terrified seamstress, speaks of the terror of an unexpected visit by some powerful evil spirit. But the primal emotion here is that experienced by anyone confronted by an attack of anxiety, a kidnapping, an assault by criminals, or a knock on the door in the middle of the night by a repressive government. If anything, Eiríz’s paintings and black and white works on paper of the last thirty years are variations on this and other works of the 1960s. This is evident from the exhibition of canvases painted in Miami in 1993 and shown at the Weiss-Sori gallery in that city last December.
“Crucifixion” shows three homunculi dancing in the flames of an abstract hell. In “Still Life” we find a subdued crowd of ghostly spectators mourning a covered corpse. “Between the Lines” depicts an individual in agony against the richly textured golden background of a wall: Above, empty-eyed faces scream out as if they were watching a bullfight. In “Interior Landscape,” an enormous open-mouthed creature intimidates four cowering faceless forms.
This is repeated in “These People,” which, with its red, white and blue color scheme so removed from the artist's usual dark tones, seems to allude to the Cuban flag. In other paintings Eiríz displays neat rows or stacks of decapitated heads that recall the Tzompantlis of pre-Columbian Mexico.
Today Antonia Eiríz lives and paints at the home of her niece Susana Barciela in Miami. The fact that she uses a wheelchair does not prevent her from creating monumentally scaled canvases. Modest and possessing a cryptic, sphinx-like smile, she talks little and prefers to let the viewer come to his or her own conclusions about the meaning of her art.
The following interview, which took place last February, provides sibylline insights that reveal something of her development as an artist. Eiríz is admired in Cuba and outside it for her intellectual and moral honesty, for her influence on such students as Tomás Sánchez and Ever Fonseca, and for her contributions to art education and appreciation on a popular level. We can now look forward to a productive new phase in her career.
Blanc: What was the artistic environment like in Havana in the 1950s? With the arrival of the "Group of Eleven" and abstract painting, was this not a transition period?(1)
Eiríz: The 1950s were for me the most “Cuban” in every way: in clothes, music, art. The Eleven wanted to broaden artistic vision even further, rather than just paint what was "Cuban." Meetings were held in Raúl Martínez’s house with painters and sculptors like Tomás Oliva, Guido Llinás, Antonio Vidal and Hugo Consuegra. The only time I was in Portocarrero's house was when we went to see him because he was a bit angry with us. They explained that they were not against him, but that as young artists they needed to do something new. I shared the ideas of The Eleven, although I was never part of the group.
Blanc: Of the pioneers of modernism in Cuba, who are the most interesting for you?
Eiríz: They are all interesting for me: Amelia, Milián and Portocarrero... Acosta León is an extraordinary painter for me of universal importance. I also like the landscapes of Víctor Manuel. How useful it would have been for me if I had seen them in the academy. He does abstract works of Cuban landscape like Cezanne. He was a fabulous painter.
Blanc: What about the Europeans and North Americans?
Eiríz: People have talked about the influence of Goya. I did not know Goya well. Perhaps his influence was transmitted to me through my Spanish roots. They have classified me as expressionist, but I alway wanted to be an abstract painter. I love De Kooning, Kline, Tapies, Miró and Dubuffet. Cezanne saved me for the landscapes in the academy. He eliminated everything that was superficial in painting. Orson Welles once said talking about cinema that what was important for a director was not what he had to put in his film but what he had to cut out. This is also true for the painter. I admired abstract painters very much but in my case, little heads and figures appeared almost in spite of myself. I was also interested in the COBRA group,(2) and would have liked to paint with their brilliant colors.
Blanc: And Francis Bacon?
Eiríz: I like his work very much.
Blanc: How did you begin to paint?
Eiríz: I never thought that I was a painter. It is very difficult for me to paint. I wanted to be a fashion designer. My sisters paid to send me to a commercial design school. My sister Mercedes, who was in New York at the time, said that I should go to San Alejandro. I had a - sort of - scholarship of 29 pesos a month. It wasn't enough for materials. The avant-garde artists thought it a bit of a stigma to graduate from San Alejandro, that painters from there were rather mediocre. But I later learned that Amelia Peláez had also graduated from there.
Blanc: “The Annunciation” (1963) is an icon of Cuban painting. The figure of the woman sewing who is visited by an exterminating angel is hallucinating, impossible to forget. How did you come to paint this picture?
Eiríz: Guido Llinás is very important for me, as a professor. He told me: “You have to paint. You are a painter.” One day he talked to me about a Mexican painter who had done a modern annunciation. A black angel. I decided I would do one, too. I looked at other versions, by Fra Angelico, Da Vinci. I found Giotto useful because of the color, the blues, the textures and the little angels crying. I wanted to do a modern annunciation. The figure of the woman is not a classical figure, but a popular one.
Blanc: And the sewing machine?
Eiríz: Perhaps I used it because I was an embroiderer of children's clothes. A Chilean painter who saw the picture in the National Museum in Havana said to me that it was a portrait of my mother; although I never really thought about her when I did it, it is true that there is a real likeness.
Blanc: Why did you stop presenting one-woman shows and in group exhibits after 1968?
Eiríz: When I began to hear remarks that my painting was "conflictive,” I began to believe them. “The Tribune,” for example, was criticized very harshly. It was about to be awarded a prize and then there was no prize due to the criticism. One day I saw all the pictures together for the first time in many years. I said to myself: This is painting which expresses the moment in which I am living. And if a painter can do that, then he or she is a real painter. Thus I absolved myself.
Blanc: Tell us something about your interest in handicrafts.
Eiríz: A painter is also an artisan. There was the use of papier maché. I did not mean to use it, but one day I found myself giving classes to children and families living in my neighborhood. This teaching experience was very important to me: As I taught, I began to see what was the simplest way to do a creative piece of work. I discovered that merely through participation it was possible to bring people closer to artistic work. I continued to give classes throughout the island - not only for family groups but for art instructors. Today there is a Cuban papier maché popular movement.
Blanc: In his text for your Weiss-Sori exhibition, [Hugo] Consuegra calls you a sybil and says that your “painting is post-apocalyptic: what is left over in the inkwell of St. John the Theologian; beyond the seventh seal, the day after Armageddon.”
Eiríz: I like very much the reference to “sybil” and “apocalyptic.” I believe in everything that cannot be seen. Everything has a cause but we cannot see the causes. We cannot see the black holes, although it seems they exist. One day my son did my astral chart and it revealed my painting. I carry the mark.
(1) The "Group of Eleven" was originally made up by of Francisco Antigua, José Antonio, René Avila, Jose I. Bermúdez, Agustin Cardenas, Hugo Consuegra, Fayad Jamis, Guido Llinás, Tomás Oliva, Antonio Vidal and Viredo. The group showed its work for the first time in La Rampa, Havana, in April 1953. Raúl Martínez subsequently replaced Bermúdez who had gone to the United States.
2) COBRA, which included Karel Appel and Pierre Alechinky amongst others, was a group of European figurative neo-expressionists established at the end of the 1940s. The name comes from the letters of the
cities Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam - where these artists lived.
Giulio V Blanc: Art critic and historian, was Editorial Advisor in the United States for Art Nexus/Art en Colombia.