Caribbean Rhapsody

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, September 2012 | Go to article overview
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Caribbean Rhapsody

Stern, Fred, The World and I

You might not think of the Caribbean, that chain of islands from the Bahamas to Grenada, as a paradise of the arts--and yet it is.

And just now and until January 2013, The Museum of the Barrio, the Studio Museum of Harlem, and the Queens Museum of Art--all located in New York City which is generally considered a hotbed of the visual arts, and an arbiter of what is great art--have combined to present an enchanting kaleidoscope of the arts produced in the span of two centuries in Caribbean nations, and other countries bordering the Caribbean Sea. In all, 39 countries are represented in this wide-ranging exhibition, but the emphasis is on those in the Greater Antilles, including the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico.

The exhibits number more than 500 paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures and are a great tribute to the curators and aides who spent the better part of 10 years assembling this astonishing display.

If you don't live in the Greater New York City area you are not automatically locked out of viewing Caribbean art. The works of Caribbean artists are displayed in many regional museums. For example, more than 75 museums across the country are part of the "Cuban Art Project" that makes Cuban art available to appreciative audiences.

Familiar Names and Influences

You may be surprised by the names of some of the outstanding artists who were born or lived in The Caribbean Islands.

They include John James Audubon (1795-1851) who was born in Haiti of a Creole mother and a French naval officer. He left at an early age but never forgot his abhorrence of slavery and thrilled to the feats of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the native--born Haitian general who led those overthrowing French colonialists in 1804 to establish the world's first Black republic and the second free republic in our hemisphere.

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) whose main studio was in Maine, made two trips to the Bahamas and created memorable paintings based on his experiences there, in particular "The Gulf Stream" in which a single sailor tries to brave a threatening sea. Many of his other paintings and drawings also recreate his adventures in the Caribbean.

Camille Pissaro (1830-1903) is another artist who had his roots in the Islands. Pissaro was born in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, which is now American, but was then Danish. A recent exhibition about Pissaro at St. Croix, Virgin Islands, brought more than 40 drawings of his Caribbean vistas to an excited public.

A very important figure in Caribbean arts is none other than Paul Gauguin who visited the French-speaking island of Martinique. It was there he decided to leave behind European civilization and move to the South Seas. He painted Martinique's exotic landscapes as well as its women. In 1877 he wrote his wife, "I am off to Panama to live like a savage." He even worked on the construction of the Panama Canal but was fired a few weeks after he began.

Romare Beardon (1911-1988) also lived and worked in Martinique during his later years. His water color scenes and collages are "rich in shady foliage, quiet pools, and mysteriously seductive nudes."

The Caribbean--Crossroad of Many Civilizations

Just a few years after Columbus's discovery in 1492 Europe's great powers began to build their hoped-for empires on the American continents, and the Caribbean was a foothold. Of course the Caribbean had its own native population. They were basically peaceful, and back in Europe, their vulnerability was recognized. Describing the Caribbean Indians, a contemporary reported to the Spanish king, "a people with little knowledge of fighting ... With 50 men we could keep the entire population captive and make them do whatever we want." Ultimately, Europeans needn't have bothered to consider armed conflict for subjugating indigenous populations; imported diseases and the physical inability to meet the excessive work demands of their European overseers, decimated the natives in many locales.

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