Visual Art

Cuban Artist Mariano Gets His Due at Little Havana Gallery

Written By Karen-Janine Cohen
June 2, 2023 at 11:00 AM

“Naturaleza muerta” (“Still Life”), 1946. Oil on canvas is Mariano Rodríguez’s own take on the European standard and is featured in the Latin Art Core gallery exhibit, “Mariano. Everything Possible.” (Photo courtesy of Latin Art Core gallery)

Cuban artist Mariano Rodríguez is arguably almost as popular in the Spanish-speaking world as his compatriot Wifredo Lam. Yet widespread recognition of the modernist master has been more elusive in North America. An exhibition at Little Havana’s Latin Art Core gallery is lifting the profile of this painter, primarily known as Mariano, whose unique vision brought a world of light and color to works that also celebrate his homeland.

Showcasing some of the artist’s most iconic paintings, drawings and watercolors, “Mariano. Everything Possible,” features works from the 1940s through the 1980s, including a room filled with his iconic rooster images. The exhibition also features later work, from the 1960s and beyond.

Mariano, born in 1912, spent his entire professional life in Cuba, and is tightly associated with island identity and culture, though he visited New York and Mexico. Imbibing the styles of Picasso, and other early Cubists, along with the Fauvist approach to color, Mariano was also strongly impressed by the Mexican muralist traditions, according to Latin Art Core President Israel Moleiro, who has been working with Mariano’s art for several decades. The exhibit is a collaboration between Latin Art Core and the Fundación Mariano Rodríguez.

Mujer en interior con piña (Woman in Interior with pineapple), 1943. Oil on cardboard. Curator Cristina Figueroa says that Mariano enjoyed the company of his muses, his peasants, and his tropical fruits.

Greeting visitors as they enter the gallery on Calle Ocho is one of Mariano’s best-known works, “La Paloma de la paz,” (“The Dove of Peace”). Painted in 1940, the allegorical work is Mariano’s cri de coeur about World War II, then raging across Europe.

In the painting, a full-bodied white-clad woman bends backward and releases a white dove from a red handkerchief; beyond is sea and sky. Cuba, an early ally of the United States, was deeply involved in the war. “This is more a political statement about the war in Europe,” says Moleiro, who noted that the war produced a booming island economy, and rapid changes along with fears of German U-boats stalking the Caribbean.

Flanking “La Paloma” are works that highlight how Mariano integrated European and Latin American ideas to produce his signature oeuvre.

“La paloma de la paz” (“The Dove of Peace”), 1940, oil on canvas. Mariano’s comment on the ravages of WWII. (Photo courtesy of Latin Art Core gallery)

“One of the characteristics of Mariano is the connection between the muralist style from Mexico and the surrealist style in Europe,” says Moleiro, adding that many Cuban artists were similarly influenced, but in Mariano’s work, one can see the bridge. “That combination gives you a unique style.”

Mariano was deeply influenced by how the Fauvists and masters such as Paul Cézanne, André Derain, and Henri Matisse used color. Intense painting choices that may have seemed wild under the often-muted skies of Europe, fit perfectly the experience of Cuban island life.

“Most of the intention in the color is in relation to the culture – where you live and express yourself,” says Moliero. “Those are the real colors you see in the tropics.”

The work of Cuban artist Mariano Rodríguez, pictured here in 1964, is featured in a retrospective at the Latin Art Core gallery through June. (Photo courtesy of Ida Kar, The Mariano Foundation )

Those influences can be seen in several of the show’s masterpieces. “Mujer en interior con piña” (“Woman in Interior with Pineapple”), from 1943, shows a woman in purple, holding a pineapple, one leg raised behind her, a symphony of blues, mauve, green and orange.

Indeed, his take on the traditional European still life, channeling Matisse and Cézanne, couldn’t be more wry. In “Naturaleza Muerta” (“Still Life”) from 1946, instead of apples, we see pineapples and the Mexican fruit mamey.

In “Mujeres en interior” (“Women in Interior”), again from 1943, a woman holds a bunch of bananas to her breast, her face composed of greens, oranges, blues, yellows, and beige, referencing another Mariano focus, the intersection of fruits and sexuality.

“He was a very erotic artist,” says Cristina Figueroa, show curator who wrote the catalog’s introduction and text, and who is project manager of the Spain-based Mariano Rodríguez Foundation. “For him, the fruit was like a forbidden fruit,” she explains. Figueroa’s expertise about Mariano has deep roots. She formerly worked at Casa de las Américas, the well-known Cuban cultural institution, headed by Mariano in the early ’80s, where, explains Figueroa, he started the department devoted to art.

“Mujeres en interior” (“Women in Interior”) 1943, oil on board on canvas. Eroticism was many times a subtext in Mariano’s work. (Photo courtesy of Latin Art Core gallery)

Women with fruit weren’t his only erotic commentary. Many first come to know Mariano from his rooster paintings and drawings, a group of which are featured in the exhibit. “It’s a very common animal, but it lets you put all the colors inside,” says Moliero. His roosters were also a national symbol, a connection to the island’s everyday people and a reference to virility. “At that time, the rooster was a symbol of freedom, and of a strong man.”

In the last few years, Mariano, who died in 1990, has been attracting the attention his work deserves. A 2021 exhibit at The McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College showcased the artist, and Miami’s own Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) had a retrospective of his work last year. The Little Havana show now adds to that growing visibility.

WHAT: “Mariano. Everything Possible”

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday. Through June 29, 2023

WHERE: Latin Art Core, 1646 SW Eighth St, Miami

COST: Free

INFORMATION: 305-989 9085 or latinartcore.com

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