Picasso in Lezama’s Eye

Pablo Picasso, an awkward totem of the 20th century avant-garde, died in Mougins on April 8, 1973. A formal militant of the French Communist Party, until that day, his reception in Cuba was always ambivalent, especially after the Marxist-Leninist turn of the Revolution. All the efforts to bring Picasso to revolutionary Cuba, from the most institutional ones of Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, Blas Roca and other communist leaders, to the most unofficial ones of writers and artists friends of his, such as Alejo Carpentier and Wifredo Lam, failed.

The reason for that failure is no longer of interest and it gets confused, in the extensive testimonial of disenchantment, with the dogmatization of Cuban cultural policy. What happened to Pablo Neruda, accused by a group of pro-government writers of being an ally of imperialism, did not happen to Picasso, but almost. The well-remembered scene in Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968), in which Edmundo Desnoes’ character, filmed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, wonders about the “dove that Picasso was going to send,” to be placed in place of the beheaded eagle on the Maine monument, says something.

“It is very comfortable to be a communist and a millionaire in Paris,” adds Sergio, the same character, and a good part of the Cuban political and intellectual class might have been speaking through him. It is most symptomatic, psychoanalytically speaking, that, despite Picasso’s disdain, the Cuban high leadership continued to consider him, for decades, the summit of 20th century art, that in the homes of bureaucrats the bad replicas of Guernica (1937) abounded, and that, frequently, he was brandished as the archetype of the committed artist.

Wifredo Lam in his Studio

In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev awarded him the Lenin Peace Prize, the same year it was awarded to Fidel Castro, and it is said that there is, in Picasso’s archives, a congratulatory message from the artist to the caudillo. Both in Cuba and in the Soviet Union, where the discomfort over his portrait of Stalin in 1953, at the request of his friend Louis Aragon for Les Lettres françaises, was conveniently forgotten, Picasso was officially revered, in good measure, for never having jumped into abstraction. Recent studies, such as those by Abigail McEwen, Ernesto Menéndez Conde and Marty Halley, recount in detail the crusade against abstraction in Cuba and the resistance of a handful of artists and critics.

In a central text of the aesthetic orthodoxy of the sixties and seventies, Conversación con nuestros pintores abstractos (1961), Juan Marinello had absolved Picasso of any abstractionist sin with his defense of the “experimental and objective displacement” of cubism. By that year, Picasso had carefully approached abstract expressionism, especially in the 1950s, but Marinello decided to overlook it. Less prejudiced were the young people of Lunes de Revolución, who dedicated the last issue of the cultural magazine, in November 1961, precisely to Picasso, with essays by Edmundo Desnoes and Oscar Hurtado. Those texts anticipated the revaluation of Cuban abstractionism and concretism of the 1950s—Grupo de los Once and Grupo de los Diez, Consuegra and Llinás, Darié and Soldevilla, Oliva and Vidal… —which would be partially verified in the volume Pintores Cubanos (1962).

The reluctance towards Picasso was also manifested in the image of the Malaga-born artist as a mutant monster, with an excessive capacity for influence. In his essay on Wifredo Lam, “Lam: azul y negro” (1963), Desnoes argues that, during his stay in Cuba, between 1942 and 1945, when he painted La jungla (1943), Lam “became independent” of Picasso. Until then, the Malaga-born artist’s shadow had been absorbing: his reencounter with the West Indian landscape had given the African masks of Las señoritas de Avignon (1907) a corporeality that did not exist in Picasso’s work. According to Desnoes, Lam had come up with a “cubism diametrically opposed” to that of Picasso, Braque and Gris.

While in Europe, Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian were slipping into abstractionism, Lam, says Desnoes, “sees what is authentically Cuban” and captures it on canvas. So, in the post-1959 flank of Cuban criticism, more open to assimilate the extremes of avant-gardism, it is possible to locate a discomfort with Picasso. It would be necessary to go further back, to pre-1959 critics, especially to forgotten authors like Joaquín Texidor, Luis de Soto or Luis Dulzaides Noda, or to writers attentive to 20th century plastic arts, among whom José Lezama Lima stands out by far, to elucidate Picasso’s reception in Cuba.

It is fascinating, these days, to go through Lezama’s experience as a spectator of Picasso. I don’t think another Cuban intellectual of the 20th century—the reading of Alejo Carpentier, with whom he is so much associated in Havana circles, is less sophisticated—has reached that naturalness that, at some point, allows him to address Picasso as “Pablo de Malaga,” as if he were a pre-Socratic philosopher. Lezama’s gaze could be traced back to that youthful invocation to Juan Ramon Jimenez, in 1937, in which he first attributed to the painter from Malaga the phrase “I do not seek, I find.”

José Lezama Lima holding a portrait of himself painted by Mariano Rodríguez

Later, Lezama will distinguish Picasso as the creator of an “organ” in “the domains of the plastic arts,” capable of moving among multiple pictorial strategies: blue and pink periods, harlequins and horsemen, cubism, surrealism… After Picasso’s first exhibition at the Lyceum & Lawn Tennis Club gallery in 1942, Lezama will say that, unlike other artists who remain trapped in their styles, like “islets that fail to become cultural phenomena,” the painter managed to pass “the greatest test,” which can be verified when “the dissociations of the form seem to coincide with the most desperate atomizations of the subject,” achieving “a choral exhibition, as a style of all, comfortably habitable.”

Earlier, hand in hand with his friend Guy Pérez Cisneros, who wrote very similar phrases in Espuela de Plata and Revista Bimestre Cubana, he reacted to the commonplace of criticism that “Cézanne historically was greater than Picasso.” To which he responded with several questions: “Who separates in history the acquired quantitative from the segregated qualitative? And who has taken the trouble to study in Picasso his immobile, secret center, that with which he has never played, nor could he play? In that place where Picasso freed himself from historical circumstance, we will always have to place a crown,” Lezama wrote in 1939, two years after Guernica and in the midst of the defeat of the Republic.

By the 1950s, however, a shift can be observed in Lezama’s vision of Picasso, as in almost all the work of the Havana-born poet and essayist. In that “search for the frenzy of originality” there was “a weariness that drove his steps.” The avant-gardists were like “lazy people who, suddenly, upon arriving at the new season, opened the windows, convulsed their arms and beat the winter blankets with long sticks, like a muleteer beats an immobile herd at a crossroads.”

Then, the youthful Cézanne-Picasso parallel becomes more favorable to the former. In the portraits of both, Lezama observed a substantial difference: while Picasso “tried to imitate, more than the technique of his paintings, the devouring agitation of his flames,” Cézanne “turned it into an exercise, into the dryness of a discipline.” In Cézanne’s “horizontal deformations,” the Cuban poet glimpsed “the joy of the craftsman who ensures the matter by its extension and its support.” Cézanne, who had “begun with the humility of reproduction,” at last, “revealed the wind of the spirit penetrating the forest through the house of the curse.”

Lezama outlived Picasso by about three years, and his later comments on the Spanish artist attest to a distance. In 1975, for example, he commented that a critic once reproached the artist for the absence of landscapes in his painting. Picasso, “with his malicious intelligence,” according to Lezama, was quick to “place little trees behind the windows.” More than once he confessed, in those years, his Picassian interest of the thirties and forties as a youthful infatuation.

Rafael Rojas (Santa Clara, Cuba, 1965). He is a historian and essayist. He has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Havana and a PhD in History from El Colegio de México. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Letras Libres and the newspaper El País, and is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Istor of the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE). He has published the books: Un banquete canónico (2000), Revolución, disidencias y exilio intelectual cubano (2006), La vanguardia peregrina. El escritor cubano, la tradición y el exilio (2013), among others. Since July 2019, he occupies chair 11 of the Mexican Academy of History.


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