The Road to Dystopia: The Paintings of Antonia Eiriz

Article excerpt

Antonia Eiriz (Havana, 1929), a painter of tragedy, as she was christened by Roberto Fernández Retamar in 1964, died yesterday in the United States, the victim of a heart attack. She leaves behind an important body of work where she captured a dramatic vision of man and his social life, marked by touches of irony and human compassion.

-Toni Pinera, Granma, March to, 1995

In Miami, she returned to painting after a hiatus of 25 years. Struggling with her own life and her country's arimness, she quit painting in 1969.

-Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald, March 10, 1995

Shortly after she died of a heart attack on March 9, 1995, in Miami, Florida, the Cuban painter Antonia Eiriz received countless tributes in newspapers and magazines in both Cuba and the exile. Ironically, although both sides mentioned the harshness and tragedy of her paintings, drawings, and prints, they avoided dealing directly with the critical essence of her work-perhaps her paintings mirrored reflections too brutal for either side. This "critical essence" consists of an uncompromising neofigurative visual vocabulary, one in which all subjects-particularly "sacred" ones referring to motherhood, leadership, and patriotism, among others-are up for an autopsy-like inspection. In this article I will discuss her life and paintings by placing them in the context of her times. Eiriz's work was not a tool of either Castro's regime or reactionary Miami; instead, her pictures interrogate the ideological obfuscation on both sides. Little known in the United States, the literature on Eiriz is scarce for an artist of her achievement-this is partly due to her being a woman within a traditionally machista culture, as well as to the political restrictions of Castro's Cuba.1 Born in the Havana suburb of Juanelo in 1929 to a family of modest means, Eiriz suffered from polio as a child and would depend on crutches for the rest of her life. Eiriz began her interest in art by drawing dresses. Her older sisters encouraged her, paying for her to take a drawing course at a local graphic design school.2 By 1953 she was registered at the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts in Havana, the island's principal art school, "My sister who was in New York told me that I should attend San Alejandro. I received a scholarship of twenty-nine pesos a month, a so-called scholarship. It was not enough to buy art supplies. The avant-garde artists thought that graduating from San Alejandro was a stigma, that all the painters that came out of San Alejandro were mediocre. Much later I learned that Amelia [Pelâez] had graduated from the school."3

Eiriz graduated from San Alejandro in 1957 after receiving an old-fashioned, if thorough training in drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture.4 Yet even before Eiriz graduated from the art academy, she became involved with the emerging avant-garde and participated in group exhibitions.5 Years later, already in exile in Miami, she recalled the 1950s: "For me the 1950s was one of the most Cuban moments in the culture in every sense: fashion, music, in the visual arts as an expression of a Cuban ethos. The group of Los Once [The Eleven] wanted a wider vision, not just to paint what was 'Cuban.'"6 Los Once initially consisted of eleven artists, painters and two sculptors, committed to a gestural-abstraction/ abstract-expressionist exploration. These artists were rejecting the art of the earlier modernists (with the exception of Wifredo Lam) as too picturesque and local, as well as politically opposing the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. Their first exhibition took place in 1953; they disbanded as a group in 1955", but continued to exhibit together until 1963.7 The leading artists in this group were the painters Guido Llinas (b. 1923), Hugo Consuegra (1929-2003), Antonio Vidal (b. 1928), Raul Martinez (1927-1995), and the sculptorsTomas Oliva (1930-1996) and Agustin Cardenas (1927-2001).8 Eiriz was particularly close to Llinas, Consuegra, and Martinez, and she was briefly married to Vidal's brother Manuel. …