The visual arts -which encompass painting, drawing, graphic art, sculpture, photography, and ceramics, among other forms and genres- are always a reflection of given people. In Puerto Rico, visual art stands as one of the most significant defining expressions of the island’s culture. The unique characteristics and accents of Puerto Rican art offer insight into a highly complex society which can be viewed from a range of political, social and economic perspectives. The island’s artists, who serve as both witnesses and active participants, use art to express their own vision of reality and to communicate and explore the very essence of their being.
The Early Colonial Period
There are scant specific references to non-indigenous art in Puerto Rico during the first centuries of Spanish colonization. According to cultural scholar Arturo Dávila, the oldest known European work on the island to survive the vicissitudes of time is a renaissance Flemish devotional panel known as La Virgen de Belén, which has graced the Chapel of Nuestra Señora de Belén at the San José church in Old San Juan for more than four centuries. A mural depicting San Pedro González Telmo, is considered the oldest painting to have been executed in Puerto Rico. Painted on the northern wall of the apse of this same church, the work was later walled over, remaining undiscovered until the church underwent restoration in 1978.
The oldest work that can be attributed to a Puerto Rican artist, Manuel García, is La Virgen de Monserrate, in the town of Hormigueros. The same painter produced Adoración de los Reyes Magos for the Basilica Menor in Hormigueros.
Various anonymous pieces can also be dated to the early 17th century. These include Santa Bárbara, Nuestra Señora de Valvanera, Nuestra Señora del Rosario and Nuestra Señora de la Divina Aurora, most of which are preserved in the town of Coamo.
Another important devotional work from this period is the Virgen de Monserrate, which graces the archbishop’s residence in the western town of San Germán. This painting retells the Miracle of Hormigueros, which would become ingrained in the local imagination since it depicts one of the earliest miracles said to have occurred on the island.
By the early 18th century, two families emerged on the island as skilled gilders, carvers and decorators: the Campeche family in San Juan, and the Espada family in San Germán. Inspired by their own religious convictions, these artists and craftsmen created extended workshops, which supplied convents, monasteries, churches, and devout patrons with devotional sculpture, carved and gilded woodwork, and paintings.
José Campeche (1751-1809), considered the greatest portrait painter in Latin America during the time, was the son of a freed slave and a woman who originally immigrated from the Canary Islands. Campeche received his initial training in the family workshop; however, his great skill at rendering minute details and human physiognomy within the framework of Rococo conventions eventually brought him fame. His works were sought by patrons from Caracas to Havana, and possibly Santo Domingo.
Without any formal training in art, and never having left the island, Campeche had the good fortune to find a mentor in Luis Paret y Alcázar (1746-1799). Paret y Alcázar, a renowned court painter who had been exiled by Charles III due to a minor scandal, would relocate to San Juan in 1776. Campeche’s early style, which was marked by rigid, linear compositions, would soon be transformed under the tutelage of Paret y Alcázar, who also helped him to expand his palette by embracing the soft blue and pink hues that were characteristic of the Rococo period.
Religious themes continued to dominate the works of Campeche. The models used by the artist were generally taken from the art books that filled his library, with their engravings by Mannerist masters. Some of Campeche’s more important religious paintings include Las ánimas, La Sagrada Familia, Visión de San Francisco, San Felipe Vinicio, Santa Teresa de Jesús, La Virgen del Rosario, La Virgen de las Mercedes, La Virgen del Carmen, as well as the hundred copies of La Virgen de Belén.
Portraiture, however, would remain the genre in which Campeche truly excelled. Often anecdotal or even historical in nature, works such as Gobernador D. Miguel Antonio de Ustáriz, Dama a Caballo, Capitán D. Ramón de Carvajal and María de los Dolores Martínez de Carvajal are a testament to Campeche’s masterful attention to detail. Campeche also used portraiture to introduce certain Puerto Rican elements, as in the vista of San Juan which serves as a backdrop to his portrait of Governor Ustáriz, in the maraca and pineapple depicted in Las hijas del Gobernador D. Ramón de Castro (1797), or the panoramic view of El Condado and Puerta de Tierra in the portrait of Governor Ramón de Castro.
The Early Nineteenth Century
From Campeche to Francisco Oller (1833-1917), the tradition of painting in Puerto Rico would be carried on by a handful of talented artists. The vitality and relevance of the visual arts would also be further invigorated by artists who visited the island from Spain or other parts of the world. However, it was Oller who first explored and defined aesthetic notions of national identity.
Francisco Oller y Cestero
Francisco Oller y Cestero is unquestionably the most important Puerto Rican painter of the 19th century. An artist who would inevitably be shaped by the latest artistic currents of the time, Oller began his training in the studio of Juan Cletos Noa (1844 to 1845). He later pursued formal studies in Madrid and Paris (1858–1865). It was in Paris that the artist trained under the guidance of Thomas Couture, in the company of such celebrated painters as Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley. It was also during this time that Oller fell under the spell of another instructor, the renowned realist painter Gustave Courbet. After participating in the Salon de Paris exhibition of 1864, Oller returned to Puerto Rico, where he would become involved in the abolitionist and independence movements.
During his second stay in Paris (1873-1878), Oller began to actively participate in the groundbreaking movement known as Impressionism, which dramatically realigned the importance of light and color. Working under natural conditions, often outdoors, light now became a protagonist in Oller’s art, redefining color and tone, effects that can be readily seen in the landscapes this artist produced in France, as well as subsequent work executed in Puerto Rico.
This first-hand experience in the impressionist milieu would provide Oller with a key for opening Puerto Rico to modern art. Both Paisaje francés II and El estudiante represent characteristically impressionist works with their use of color, intimate arrangements, and representation of natural settings. However, Oller’s sense of social commitment found a more suitably expressive language in realism, rather than impressionism. The themes of particular paintings would often determine the artistic emphasis. Thus, the central, naturalist treatment in Oller’s masterwork El Velorio (The Wake – 1893) gives way to two impressionist landscapes seen through the door and window. Oller’s painting would bring a new focus to Puerto Rican customs and traditions, the natural beauties of the island, as well as some of the more pressing social problems of the time. Through realism, the artist would find a space to voice his deep aversion to social injustice and a despotically authoritarian government. Some of his more socially critical works include Un boca abajo, Castigo del negro enamorado, Almuerzo del rico, Almuerzo del pobre, and Una madre esclava.
For Oller, El Velorio represented his crowning achievement. Here, the artist offers a stinging indictment of the baquiné, or child’s wake. Aimed at depicting the excesses and lack of decorum that generally marked this custom, El Velorio also hurled criticism at the clergy, racism and social inequality. The frivolity and inappropriateness of the revelers is offset by the noble stance of the only black man in this scene, Pablo, who assumes a stance of mournful dignity before the dead child.
With its victory in the Spanish-American War, the United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898. A new order was imposed, one that initially sought to eradicate Spanish as the language of the island. While Puerto Rico’s economic condition was quite precarious, it is also true that the island had its own beliefs, culture and traditions, all of which were characteristically Hispanic.
Due to the social and cultural dislocations triggered by the invasion, the need to define and promote Puerto Ricanness gained greater urgency in the arts. The landscapes, customs and innumerable forms of Puerto Rican reality all served as primary inspirations. The figure of el jíbaro, the ennobled rural peasant, would become an icon of cultural affirmation and a rallying point for resistance against cultural incursions. The search for identity, which can be seen in literature, music andtheater, would be forever lodged in the national psyche, finding its obvious parallel in the visual arts. The work of four artists in particular, all born before 1898, serve as a perfect expression of this new direction.
Ramón Frade (1875 –1954), Miguel Pou (1888-1968), Oscar Colón Delgado (1889-1968) and Juan Rosado (1891-1962) all sought to define what it meant to be Puerto Rican through their incisive approach to both subject and setting. A clearer picture of Puerto Rican identity would emerge through the treatment of natural elements, customs, history, folklore and daily life.
Frade’s art is devoted to uncovering and exalting the traits of Puerto Rican identity. His subjects, men and women full of character and inner strength, such as the jíbaro in the artist’s most emblematic workEl Pan Nuestro, provide a snapshot of customs and traditional pursuits.
A similar approach can be seen in the work of Miguel Pou. Paintings such as Río Portugués con lavandera and Paisaje del sur de Puerto Rico are indicative of the artist’s attempt to pay tribute to the natural beauty of his homeland. Pou’s style displays an impressionist palette inflected with strong influences from realism. Colón Delgado, possibly the most romantic of this group, received critical acclaim for his landscape paintings, such as Mañana de primavera, Casita de la loma and Lavandera. Juan Antonio Rosado, whose work tends toward more popular themes, generally focused his attentions on daily life in San Juan. This emphasis can be clearly seen in such works as La esperaand Casita con dos escaleras.
The Contribution of Foreign Artists
The Spanish Civil War brought a constellation of artists and intellectuals to the island, many of whom found creative refuge at the University of Puerto Rico. The island soon became a second home to such Spanish artists as Alejandro Sánchez Felipe (1895-1971), Gil de León, Cristóbal Ruiz Pulido (1881-1962), Angel Botello (1913-1986), Francisco Vázquez (Compostela)(1898-1988), Carlos Marichal (1923-1969), and Eugenio Fernández Granell (1912-2001). Also immigrating to the island at this time were the Viennese painter Franz Howanietz (1897-1972), and two Americans, George Warreck (1900- ) and Walt Dehner (1898-1975), who spent many years teaching at the University.
The arrival of foreign talent also brought new stylistic currents to the island. Walt Dehner, who taught in the art department at the University of Puerto Rico from 1929 until 1946, organized a series of important exhibitions devoted to the works of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The establishment of art collectives, which began to emerge during the 1930s, also provided fertile ground for local talent. Artists such as Sánchez Felipe, Cristóbal Ruiz, Marichal, and Fernández Granell, directed their efforts to teaching and pursuing their own creative activities, thus forming a new and highly visible generation of artists.
New Artists Emerge in the 1930s and 1940s
Due in part to the difficult economic realities facing the island, several of the younger artists who began working during this time relocated to the United States in order to find a more suitable creative environment. Luis Quero Chiesa (1911-1994) and Rafael Palacios (1905-1993) are examples of this trend. For Quero Chiesa and Palacios, the representation of Puerto Rican identity became an overriding subject for exploration and development. Quero Chiesa, known for his somber treatment of popular icons, sought to create the image of a new jíbaro in works like El Jacho. Palacios focused on the condition of blacks in Puerto Rico and the racist environment with which they were forced to contend. Pena negra and Tabú are perfect examples of this groundbreaking approach to racial inequality in Puerto Rican society.
Most of the artwork produced prior to the 1950s in Puerto Rico was overwhelmingly Realistic in nature. During the 1940s and ’50s, many artists who had emigrated to the mainland United States or served in the Second World War, returned to the island, often after receiving a formal education at foreign art schools.
In 1940, the exhibition hall at the Puerto Rican Atheneum was inaugurated, and in 1945 the Edna Coll Art Academy also opened its doors, although this latter establishment would only remain in operation for four yearsBeginning in 1946, government-sponsored institutions and campaigns were launched, thus providing greater impetus for artistic movements as well as for the formation of national schools of graphic and poster arts. With the establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1952, artists working at government-funded studios began to more seriously direct their attentions to reaffirming national identities.
The first government studio to have a real impact on the arts was the Film and Graphic Arts Workshop of the Division of Parks and Public Recreation, which after being transformed into the Division of Community Education (DIVEDCO, for its Spanish acronym) in 1949, remained active until 1989. Irene Delano (1919-1995) served as the director of the graphic arts studio for this program, which produced a series of posters and other graphic works with social or educational content. This studio served as a creative breeding ground for some of Puerto Rico’s most renowned artists.
The studio also employed many promising young artists, many of whom lacked any formal training in the arts. It was here, where new talent would be directed in the skills and techniques of silkscreen, that the Generation of the 1950s first came into being. Silkscreen, a highly adaptable and visually refined graphic process that requires no printing press, can produce hundreds of impressions, thus proving a perfect medium for artistic production. The studio would provide a working environment for many artists who would go on to international acclaim, such as Lorenzo Homar (1913-2004), Rafael Tufiño (1922), Carlos Raquel Rivera (1923-1999), Julio Rosado del Valle (1922-2008), Antonio Maldonado (1920-2006), José Meléndez Contreras (1921-1998), Manuel Hernández Acevedo (1921-1988), Eduardo Vera (1926-2006), José M. Figueroa (1931-1964), Félix Bonilla Norat (1912-1992), David Gotía (1932-2004), Isabel Bernal (1935), Carlos Osorio (1927-1984) and Francisco Palacios (1916-1972).
In 1950, artists Lorenzo Homar, José Antonio Torres Martinó (1916), Julio Rosado del Valle, and Félix Rodríguez Báez (1929) established the Center for Puerto Rican Art (CAP for its Spanish acronym). Using the medium of graphic art, these artists would produce works that aimed to promote Puerto Rican identity in a readily reproducible format that was also easy to exhibit and acquire. The projects initiated at CAP articulated the social and political concerns of the time and reflected a concerted effort to provide a voice for the people. In 1954, the government-based Industrial Development Company organized a board to commission a series of murals for factory buildings across the island. The artists Rafael Ríos Rey, Rafael Tufiño and José A. Torres Martinó all participated in this program.
New Support for the Arts
The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP for its Spanish acronym), created in 1955, soon became a pivotal force behind the promotion of the arts. The ICP, which had as its objective the consolidation and fostering of Puerto Rican culture and identity, embarked on a series of major projects to showcase the island’s rich artistic legacy. The Institute created museums, galleries, exhibition spaces, traveling shows, as well as the renowned Bienal del Grabado Latinoamericano de San Juan (San Juan Biennial of Latin American Graphic Art), which was reconfigured in 2004 as the Trienal Poligráfica de San Juan (San Juan Polygraphic Triennial). It also offered grants and stipends so that artists could further develop their talents. In 1957, the ICP established a graphic arts studio under the direction of Lorenzo Homar, thus providing a fertile creative environment for the next generation of artists, which would include José Alicea (1928), Myrna Báez (1931), Antonio Martorell (1939), José Rosa (1939), Jesús Cardona (1950), Luís Alonso (1951), and Luís Maisonet Ramos (1952).
A series of circumstances would pave the way for further developments in the arts. While much of the work being produced during this time was largely figurative in nature, this stylistic approach was seen as particularly suited to the island’s artists, who generally sought to provide commentary and reflection on the world that was developing around them. The 1950s were a decade of tremendous economic advances. Puerto Rico was transformed virtually overnight from an agrarian to an industrialized society, with all the disruptions and dislocations that such a monumental change might imply.
In 1951, the first museum in Puerto Rico opened its doors. The Museum of History, Anthropology and Art, under the auspices of the University of Puerto Rico, had already assembled an impressive collection of local Precolumbian art, historical documents and Puerto Rican and European artworks -with a specific emphasis on painting, and graphic and poster arts. In 1959, Luis A. Ferré (governor of Puerto Rico from 1968-1972) founded the Ponce Museum of Art, an institution with a magnificent collection of European masters as well as Puerto Rican art. In 1965, the Ponce Museum of Art was moved to its current home, a brilliant example of modernist architecture created by Edward Durell Stone.
The Pintadera Gallery, established by photographer Samuel Santiago in 1955, would serve as a commercial gallery and exhibition space. En 1959, the island’s first art gallery, Galería Campeche, was founded by Domingo García (1930). This space also served as a studio for a new generation of artists, including Rafael Rivera Rosa (1942) and José Rosa (1939).
The Generation of the 1950s represented a radical break with the past. The powerful works produced during this time strove to adapt contemporary artistic idioms to local realities. While the tremendous contributions of these artists will be dealt with in greater depth in another Encyclopedia article, some mention of the extensive range of styles and mediums, which reinvigorated and utterly transformed the local arts scene, does merit inclusion here. The diversity of approaches to style and technique seem to be the only constant in this later phase of Puerto Rican art. This diversity reflects the virtually unlimited possibilities that each artist has to define his or her own style and conceptual direction. Thus, between figuration and abstraction, we find such styles as realism, social realism, expressionism, abstract expressionism, surrealism, primitivism, as well as many other approaches, all of which have enriched Puerto Rican contemporary art.
Artists who have chosen a figurative direction include José Oliver (1901-1979), Luisina Ordóñez (1909-1975), Rafael Ríos Rey (1911–1980), Luisa Géigel (1916), Rafael Tufiño (1928), Lorenzo Homar (1913-2004), Fran Cervoni (1913-2001), Osiris Delgado (1920), María Rodríguez Señeriz (1928), Maria Luisa Penne de Castillo (1914-2006) and Alfonso Arana (1927-2005).
Julio Rosado del Valle (1922-2008), is the first major local artist to delve into abstraction. His work, which breaks with the realist constructs of creating a readily identifiable image, also leaves an imprint that is quintessentially Puerto Rican. Rosado del Valle’s painting displays an exceptional use of vibrant color and skillful composition.
Olga Albizu (1924-2005), Víctor Linares (1929), and Roberto (Boquio) Alberty (1930–1985) are the first generation of artists to adopt abstraction as their primary medium of expression. Their ranks would be later joined by Noemí Ruiz (1931), Luis Hernández Cruz (1936) and Marcos Yrizarry (1936-1995).
Expressionism, an approach that uses objective or subjective interpretations of reality as a platform for formulating a uniquely powerful expressive idiom, has been cultivated by such local artists as José A. Torres Martinó (1916), Augusto Marín (1921), Félix Rodríguez Báez (1929), Domingo García (1932), Myrna Báez (1931), Francisco Rodón (1934), and Carlos Irizarry (1938). Julio Rosado del Valle has also explored abstract expressionism in such formidable yet controlled works as Vejigantes.
The impact of surrealism, with its own Caribbean variants, has been considerable. Since the 1950s, various educational institutions, most notably the University of Puerto Rico, have provided an auspicious environment for developing more “universal” styles, ones that were not part of the nationalist agenda promoted by the Generation of the 1950s. Eugenio Fernández Granell, whose works include Los limones voladores, resided in Puerto Rico from 1951 to 1955, acting as a vocal advocate of surrealism. Félix Bonilla Norat (1912-1992) (La violencia, cuatro brutos, Pegaso y mujer), the brothers José Doval (1917-1957) and Narciso Doval (1916-1970) (Dos Caras), Luis Maisonet (1924) (Víspera del eclipse) and particularly Carlos Raquel Rivera (1923-1999) (La enchapada) would produce works that, based on the vibrancy of images, perspective and composition, have, even if unwittingly, greatly expanded the surrealist idiom.
Practitioners of neofiguration use recognizable images which are then molded and reconfigured—often focusing on form and color—according to the artist’s own conceptual or interpretive constructs. While not embracing either realist or abstract conventions, the image evolves and is reinvented based on the painter’s own vision or palette. José Meléndez Contreras (1921-1998), Carlos Osorio (1927), Rafael Rivera García (1929) and Jaime Carrero (1931) are all Puerto Rican neofigurists.
Primitivism employs a simplified approach to the image presented on a canvas, one that may incorporate brilliant or even exaggerated colors and a non-scientific or irrational approach to space and perspective. Two of the most important practitioners of primitivism in Puerto Rico are Manuel Hernández Acevedo, who never received any formal training in the arts, and José Ruiz. Hernández’s uses form and color to reinterpret objective reality, as can be seen in La Capilla or the print series Casas en el mangle.
Economic prosperity and the rapid transformation of Puerto Rican society would create greater opportunities for expansion in the arts. From the 1960s onward, more Puerto Rican artists have been able to continue their studies abroad. The mass media has also placed local talent in closer contact with international currents and trends Given the enhanced possibilities of traveling and participating in international events, Puerto Rican art has continued to move in new directions and embrace new artistic movements.
The major sociopolitical events of the 1960s would all translate into a heightened political content in art. This tendency has also been paralleled by a growing number of artists concerned with the more formal explorations in contemporary art.
During this period, artists such as Antonio Martorell, Jaime Carrero, Francisco Rodón, Myrna Báez, José Alicea, Julio Rosado de Valle, Roberto Moya (1931), Rafael Ferrer (1933), Carlos Irizarry, Marta Pérez (1934-2003), Nelson Sambolín (1944), Lope Max Díaz (1943), Paul Camacho (1929-1989 ), Antonio Navia (1945), Carmelo Sobrino (1948), Andy Bueso (1950-2000), Carmelo Fontánez (1945), Olga Albizu, Jeannette Blasini (1941-2003), Roberto Alberty, Rafael Colón Morales (1941), John Balossi (1931-2007), Jaime Romano (1942), and Domingo García would continue to produce works that shifted between the abstract and figurative, the experimental and traditional.
Other artists would begin to receive critical attention during this time, such as Betsy Padín (1933), Roy Kavestsky (1946), Julio Suárez (1947), Elizam Escobar (1948), René Santos Irizarry (1934), Antonio Cortés (1951), José Bonilla Ryan (1947-2001), Daniel Lind (1953), Nick Quijano (1953), Oscar Mestey (1955), Arnaldo Roche (1956), Carlos Collazo (1956-1990), Dennis Mario Rivera (1957), Anaida Hernández (1954), Jorge Zeno (1956) Rafael Trelles (1957), Eric Tabales (1962), Pepón Osorio (1955), María de Mater O’Neill (1960), and Nora Rodríguez (1957).
Graphic art, specifically the print and poster forms so favored by the Center for Puerto Rican Art and by the studios and workshops of the Division of Community Education during the 1950s, would also maintain its importance for many artists from the 1960s onward. Lorenzo Homar, considered by many the father of Puerto Rican graphic art, Rafael Tufiño, Carlos Raquel Rivera, Julio Rosado del Valle, José Alicea, Myrna Báez, José Rosa, and Antonio Martorell would continue to work in this medium, as well as in painting.
Meanwhile, a new group of artists, including María Emilia Somoza (1938), Susana Herrero (1945), Isaac Novoa (1945), Luís Abraham Ortiz (1946), Carmelo Sobrino (1948), Consuelo Gotay (1949), Joaquín Reyes (1949-1994), Manuel García Fonteboa (1949), Analida Burgos (1949), Jesús Cardona, Mercedes Quiñones (1951-1999), Luis Maisonet (1952), Lizette Lugo (1956), Diógenes Ballester (1956), Haydée Landing (1956), Martín García (1960), and Marta Pérez García (1965) would bring Puerto Rican graphic art to international attention, working almost exclusively in this medium. New advances in non-toxic printmaking technologies have ushered in a new era for this creative medium.
Puerto Rican artists have also made noteworthy contributions in sculpture, ceramics, drawing and photography, which will be covered in subsequent articles devoted to the arts in Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rican Art Today
Puerto Rican art continues to advance along a network of often diverging paths and directions, as some younger artists explore the most cutting-edge idioms, while others prefer to work in more traditional mediums. The work produced in Puerto Rico thus reflects many of the latest international trends, largely due to current globalizing processes. Conceptual art, installation, construction, multimedia, cyberart, and digital and electronic art have all found fertile soil on the island. Artists such as Carlos Ruiz Valarino, Arnaldo Morales, Enoc Pérez, Aarón Salavarría, María Navedo Rivera, Heriberto Nieves, Eric French, Víctor Rodríguez Gotay, Jesús Ortiz, Ramón López, Reynaldo González Bravo, Marta Lahens, Charles Juhasz, Cacheila Soto, Miguel Luciano, Ricardo Ramírez, Rosa Irigoyen, Roberto Barrera, Carlos Marcial, Néstor Otero, Wilfredo Chiesa, Juan Sánchez, José Morales, Carlos Dávila Rinaldi, Rafael Colón Morales, Carlos Fajardo, Antonio Fonseca,and Raquel Quijano are all part of this latest generation of Puerto Rican artists.
Author: María García Vera
Published: September 08, 2014.
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