Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Cuban Adventure Not Totally Objective


Last week,  in the Havana Museum of Fine Arts,  I listened to a guide describing El Rapto de las Mulatas (The Abduction of the Mulatto Women), a 1938 painting by Carlos Enríquez.

I explored the picture as he talked about Enríquez, but when he said, “Enriquez married Alice Neel in 1925,” I started listening.  Alice Neel.  I knew her work, and I recalled some of her life: hard, I remembered, with the death of one child and separation from another. 

I knew none of this mattered if what I wanted to understand was the art in the Enríquez painting, but I, nevertheless, being human and curious, could not wait to trace the story.

As soon as I arrived home, I did.

Alice Neel, born to parents from the Philadelphia area on January 28, 1900, attended the Philadelphia School of Art and Design for Women, now Moore College of Art and Design.  Anne d’Harnoncourt wrote (in the catalog forward to the 2000 exhibition marking Neel’s 100th birthday), Neel was the artist “who took the preferred genre of her Philadelphia forerunners, Charles Wilson Peale, Thomas Eakins, Cecilia Beaux, and Mary Cassatt, into the modern age.” (p. 8).

In July 1924, Neel attended the Chester Springs summer school of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where she met the Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957), son of a prominent family in Havana.

In the spring of 1925, Neel graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, and on June 1, she married Enríquez in Colwyn, Pennsylvania.  However, she was unwilling to travel to Havana with him.  He eventually left for Havana, where he took a job with the Independent Coal Company and participated in his first exhibition with a group of young artists who became the leaders of the Cuban vanguardia movement. 

In 1926, Enríquez returned to Colwyn to convince Neel to join him in Cuba.  She traveled to Havana with him, and they lived with his parents in their house in El Vedado, later moving into their own apartment on the waterfront, and then to a rented house in the neighborhood of La Vibora.  Neel had her first solo exhibition in Havana, and on December 26 gave birth to a daughter, Santillana del Mar Enríquez.

Several exhibits with Enríquez followed, but in May, Neel returned to Colwyn with Santillana.  That fall, Enríquez joined them in Colwyn, and the family moved to an apartment on West 81st Street in New York City.  That winter they moved to Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx.  In December, Santillana died of diphtheria.

On November 24, 1928, Neel gave birth to Isabella Lillian Enríquez (called Isabetta).  In May 1930, Enríquez left Neel, taking Isabetta with him to Cuba.  His two sisters helped him raise Isabetta. 

In August, Neel suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized at Orthopedic Hospital in Philadelphia where she stayed through Christmas.  In January, Enríquez returned to the United States and visited Neel a few times in the hospital.  After she was discharged, he took her back to her parents’ home in Colwyn. 

A short time later, Neel attempted suicide by turning on the gas oven in her parents’ kitchen.  She was hospitalized in Wilmington Hospital in Delaware for a few days and then was returned to Orthopedic Hospital in Philadephia where she attempted suicide by smashing a glass with the intention of swallowing the shards.  She was sent to the suicidal ward at Philadelphia General Hospital where she stayed through Easter.  At some point during this time, Enríquez returned to Paris and then Cuba.  They never saw each other again.

After several months at Gladwyne Colony, a private sanatorium, Neel was discharged, and she resumed living with her parents.  Four years later, she rented a house in the town of Belmar on the New Jersey shore, where her parents stayed with her while Isabetta visited from Cuba. 


For me, it is.  I did not like Enríquez, and I feared my negative feelings about him would influence my analysis of his painting.

Moreover, researching what happened between them delayed the hard work of examining the painting.  I found it so much easier to research biographical information, I kept putting off confronting the painting.

Finally, I got to work.  Here is the painting:

Carlos Enríquez, Abduction of the Mulatto Women, 1938, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana.

This painting attracted me because of its swirls, its light, airy color masses, and because I remembered  Rubens’ painting, The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. In other words, it seduced me.  At first glance, I enjoyed how Enríquez had transformed the Rubens.  Here is the Rubens:

c. 1617, Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Here they are, side by side:



From the point of view of subject, Enríquez uses the same subject facts as Rubens: two women abducted by two men surrounded by leaping horses set in a relatively serene landscape.

And there the similarities end.

Enríquez adapts Rubens’ combination of vigorous movement, swirls of broken light, animation, drama, and bright color into a series of more abstract, light, airy, translucent color masses that twist, turn, and spin in a compressed space.

In the Rubens, the mythological half-brothers Castor and Pollux abduct the daughters of a king of Messene.  Rubens depicts polished armor, horsehair, silk, and flesh, and the textures feel palpable.  The curves of the overall pinwheel composition find rhythmic echoes within the figures themselves.

Our guide said Enríquez had a horse brought to his workshop, tied Sara Cheméndez (his female model at the time) to the horse, and had the animal lashed: this provided him a more realistic scene for the painting.

Our guide went on to describe how Enríquez transformed the Rubens’ painting into a specifically Cuban story. In the Enríquez, rural Cuban policemen, sensual women, restless horses, and a windy landscape of palm trees and rolling hills are the main illustrative elements, a setting establishing confrontation, eroticism, and conflict, he said. Two mulata women, taken on horseback by two armed “mambise” riders (popularized Cuban soldiers of the War for Independence), ride through the Cuban countryside. In contrast to the men in full uniform, the abducted mulatas are nude.

Our guide said the bright red and yellow brushstrokes that erupt from the scene evoke pervasive sexual energy.  The mulatas are depicted as highly sexual beings that find pleasure in being abducted. There is also an aggressive and confrontational element in the women’s character. One of the women, challenging her abductor, is staring directly into the eyes of the soldier who has her in his grasp. The look she is giving him may be read two ways:  as a look of confident seduction or a look of defiance. Either way, the mulata is portrayed as powerful and assertive.

I stopped listening at this point. I felt insulted by the blatant assumption that any woman would enjoy a forceful abduction and a sexual assault.
The antidote, as always, is this: turn the picture upside down.


Now go to work.

That’s right.  I am not going any further in this post.  I have not posted in more than a month.  It has been a long time since I’ve asked you to do some careful looking.  If you do the work, I promise you a rich and rewarding experience.

If you wish to share your discoveries with me, click here:  Marilyn’s e-mail.  Or write your perceptions in the space provided on the blog. 

In the next post, I will summarize your contributions and describe the art in The Abduction of the Mulatto Women.