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Shannon Jeffers
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Published: 6 April 2018

The Work of Antonio Gattorno, a Leader in the Cuban Modern Art Movement

Antonio Gattorno (b. 1904, Havana) graduated from the National Academy of Fine Arts in Havana at age 16, and was subsequently awarded a government scholarship to study painting in Europe—the youngest recipient of the award at that time. During the five years he spent in Italy, Paris, Spain, Germany and Belgium, Gattorno met and studied alongside the likes of Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso.

The Cuba that Gattorno returned to after his travels was on the cusp of a Revolution (1923-34). Though he was not involved in the politics of the time, his work was considered part of the artistic movement spurring the Revolution; the National Academy in Havana was still teaching the 19th century European style of art, ages behind what Gattorno had been taught overseas. His avant-garde European style and non-traditional techniques were met with backlash from critics and peers alike.

In 1932 at a party for photographer Walker Evans in Havana, Gattorno met Ernest Hemingway. The writer was struck by the artist’s clash with the restrictive academic artistic tastes of his country and the pair immediately hit it off, beginning a long friendship which benefitted Gattorno’s career enormously. In 1934, Hemingway and John Dos Passos, another close friend of Gattorno’s, decided to launch the artist’s career in the United States, arranging for a solo show of Gattorno’s work at Georgette Passadoit Gallery in NYC the following January.

1935 was an important year for Gattorno: in addition to the first Passadoit show, the year marked the release of the artist’s monograph, written by Hemingway; in the prelude, Dos Passos praised Gattorno’s portrayal of Cuban life outside of the Havanan suburbs. Following the solo show, he was invited to participate in Chicago’s International Water Color Exhibition, where he was awarded the Watson Blair Prize. Gattorno remained in Havana at this time, where he taught at his alma mater for a year. 1935 also marks the end of Gattorno’s “primitive” artistic phase, characterized by scenes of life in suburban Havana.

Gattorno’s American career flourished in the late 1930s: in 1938, Bacardi hired Gattorno to paint a mural for their conference room in the Empire State Building. After meeting his second wife, Isabel Cabral, he moved to New York in 1940 stating later that he “preferred to starve in the United States than [in his] own country.” Isabel’s income provided enough for the two of them, which allowed for Gattorno to paint full-time.

Thus began Gattorno’s most important artistic period: “In my early period, I painted people. But as I grew older I became aware of bigger things. I awoke from my siesta and found the real feeling I had left out of my work for years.” His paintings took on a more surreal style, ingrained with political and religious symbolism.

Throughout his career, Gattorno was criticized by fellow Cubans for “not being Cuban enough” – either for his modernist style or for his departure from his homeland. One critic in particular, childhood acquaintance Jose Gomez Sicre, wrote quite negatively about Gattorno in the press; such criticism may be to blame for Gattorno’s absence from such important exhibits as MoMa’s 1944 show “Cuban Painting of Today”.

Gattorno passed away in 1980, two years after his retrospective at Southern Massachusetts University. The retrospective consisted of over 70 works from his own private collection, some of which Isabel would sell to a neighbor—for a mere $20,000—following the artist’s death. A second retrospective was held at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables in 2004, marking the centennial of his birth.

Gattorno is known as a leader of the Cuban Modern Art Movement—a style prototypical to Cuban Modern Primitivism and the Vanguardia Group (which included Wifredo Lam, Victor Manuel and Amelia Pelaez). He was the first Cuban artist of his generation to receive contemporaneous international acclaim “that transcended his ethnicity,” and blended contemporary American abstraction with 19th and 20th century European styles.

On May 8, Freeman’s will bring to auction “Classicism Versus Buffonery” (estimate $10,000-15,000) executed by Gattorno circa 1943.

View the Modern & Contemporary Art catalogue today

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