An article by Joseph Zeballos for FSW News.
Segundo Fernandez, a Tallahassee attorney specializing in environmental law, likes to joke to his friends that he’s “a lawyer by day and an art historian by night.”
“I’ve had a passion for art since I was three years old,” the Cuban-born lawyer says. “Growing up, my parents would go to New York City and I would want to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and stay there.”
Having grown up in Miami after emigrating with his family at the age of ten to the United States, a year after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, Fernandez has always remained close to his Cuban roots.
And now, Fernandez’s passion for art and its role in shaping the identity of a nation has led to the largest Cuban art exhibit in the United States since 1944, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York City showcased 80 works from a dozen of Cuba’s leading artists.
Titled “Cuban Art in the 20th Century: Cultural Identity and the International Avant-Garde,” the ambitious exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts (MoFA) aims to provide a glimpse into 125 years of Cuba’s history and culture through 104 artworks by successive generations of Cuban artists.
According to Fernandez, who also chairs the Dean’s Advisory Board at the College of Fine Arts, the exhibit came together with crucial support and help from Peter Weishar, the dean of FSU’s College of Fine Arts; Allys Palladino-Craig, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts; along with Ramón Cernuda, a Miami-based art collector.
“We had the full support of the college. And without Mr. Cernuda, none of this would have been possible,” Fernandez says. “We identified works from all sorts of private collections in the state and Mr. Cernuda helped package, insure and transport these paintings to the museum at his own expense.”
It’s a timely exhibit given the recent restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States, though Fernandez says it’s not meant to be political. The idea for the exhibit came two years ago, well before the tectonic shift in U.S-Cuba relations.
The exhibit’s visual journey begins in the colonial period, with folkloric images of lush green landscapes and peasant life during the final decades of Spanish rule, progressing through the early days of Cuba’s fledgling republic and delving into three separate eras of Modernist art leading to the contemporary period.
As the curator, Fernandez, who is also a current FSU Ph.D. candidate in art history completing a dissertation on 18th century British landscape painting, seeks to dispel the notion that 20th century Cuban artists were merely taking cues from European schools of art in their work and adapting it for a Caribbean audience.
“There is a notion in some circles of art history that art from Latin America or Cuba is derivative of what was happening in Europe in the 20th century. I reject that,” Fernandez says. “These artists interacted with the European avant-garde to create a class of art in its own using who they were, along with what they had seen and learned.”
“These artists may have been Cuban but they weren’t creating Cuban art,” Fernandez says. “They were creating art in dialogue with the international avant-garde.”
Indeed, the ability of Cuban painters to draw from various international crosscurrents and quickly forge their own path in the world is what makes the march of Cuban art history so unique.
The first generation of artists, known as the vanguardia, flocked to Paris soon after Cuba became a republic in 1902 to pursue their studies. Freed of artistic constraints imposed by the conservative Spanish monarchy, the brushstrokes of painters like Amelia Peláez and Wilfredo Lam helped redefine their native culture when they returned to their homeland during the late 1920s, a period of political, social and economic reform within Cuban society.
“After independence, all hell broke loose in the art world,” Fernandez says. “These artists were free to roam the world and create their own art. One could argue that they were creating a national identity during this period.”
And it was the vanguardia who laid the groundwork for ensuing generations of Cuban artists. From the 1940s onwards, painters like René Portocarrero and Mario Carreño pursued increasingly abstract themes that melded their own personal experiences as Cubans with broader international art movements to create artworks that are suis generis – Latin for one of a kind.
“Very soon, members of the first generation broke away from exploring Cuban identity into doing works that you could never classify as Cuban,” Fernandez says. “In a sense, they outgrew it. They became artists of the world.”
As part of the Opening Nights Performing Art Festival, a reception was held for the exhibition’s opening night this past Friday at the MoFA with hundreds in attendance, everyone eager to engage with artworks from an island that Christopher Columbus is said to have described as “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.”
“Cuban Art in the 20th Century” will be shown at the Museum of Fine Arts from February 12 to March 27, 2016. The exhibit is free and open to the public.”