On January 14, 1981 a highly controversial exhibition of radical art opened in Havana. “Volumen Uno” represented a breakthrough on the part of artists such as Flavio Garciandía, José Bedia and Juan Francisco Elso (among others), all of whom would go on to create the iconic examples of the new avant-garde at the hands of Cuba’s young painters and installationists. After the decade of the 1970s that witnessed certain instances of government censorship of the visual arts, the men and women in this show forged a new path for Cuban contemporary art. Among their members was Tomás Sánchez. While remaining faithful to observed reality, this classically trained artist (who had studied at the Academy of San Alejandro and the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana) has consistently painted scenes that combine evocations of the past and intimations of the future in a manner that incorporates a dream-like atmosphere within the framework of depictions of places that may – or may not – exist.
Sánchez’s art, while described as “conservative” by painter-critic Luis Camnitzer in his path-breaking book New Art of Cuba (1994), has, in its own unique way, broken boundaries and served as a beacon for a younger generation of artists who wished to radically transform the traditional format of landscape painting. The present example is a classic instance of the expertise of this artist at creating images that take reality to a new plane. Yet Tomás Sánchez did not always paint in this serenely placid, luminescent and limpid manner. Studies of his earliest caricatures reveal the impact of the importance to him of such widely diverse artists as James Ensor, Goya and Antonio Eiriz. During a lengthy sojourn in Mexico, Sánchez evoked in a series of moving and even disturbing canvases, ecological disasters by painting mounds of rotting garbage. Yet even these pictures contain the kernel of the placidity of his mature art of which Meditador y laguna escondida en el bosque is a perfect example.
Sánchez has been a peripatetic artist, spending time in the U.S., Costa Rica and elsewhere. In each place he seeks both solitude and an inner place of tranquility. He also seeks to perfect his technique of yoga, which itself brings him into a sphere of meditation and communication with inner peace. This painting contains an element that often appears in Sánchez’s art – the small figure that is seen from the back, placed before the grandiosity of nature. Anyone aware of traditional western art history will immediately be reminded of paintings by some of the members of the German Romantic circle of the early nineteenth century. The most famous of these artists, Casper David Friedrich, often included such figures in his compositions of the overwhelming power of nature. In Friedrich’s paintings a lone man observing the often-tumultuous landscape serves as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of human life. On the other hand, Sánchez’s renditions are more about the integration of the human being within the larger ebb and flow of the natural world. Through meditation we are able to imagine our oneness with the trees, rocks, mountains and bodies of water. This absorption into the natural flow is at the root of Tomás Sánchez’s landscape painting. What he creates are indeed landscapes of the mind and soul.
Taking a more careful look at this work we observe the artist’s meticulous craft. Every branch of the trees, every blade of grass and even the evanescent foggy atmosphere is rendered with immense expertise and care. While we might be reminded (in a superficial manner) of works by certain European Surrealists who also took great pains with the details of their paintings (I am thinking, for example of René Magritte, who is cited as a source for the artist by Camnitzer), Sánchez, nonetheless, creates his own vision that relies only very tangentially on the art of other modern masters of the twentieth century. Sánchez’s art can be read as having as radical a nature as that of his fellow participants in the “Volumen Uno” exhibition. His resistance to following trends of experimentation with non-traditional forms of art and his insistence on remaining true to his inner vision of reality represents an approach to the Avant garde that marks him as a believer in the transformative value of re-configurations of forms of art-making drawn from the past.
Upon first glance it may appear that Sánchez is trying to evoke a specific place within the Cuban landscape that he remembers from the years before he left the country. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, one would be very hard-pressed to find a true “jungle” in Cuba, a place whose countryside (with the exception of the mountainous areas in the central part of the country such as the Escambray range) has been tamed through farming. The forest that this artist paints is not unlike – at least in spirit – the “jungle” that the great Cuban modernist Wifredo Lam evoked in his masterpiece “La Jungla” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Although completely different in style and meaning from Lam’s painting (in which the orishas of Santería emerge from the trees), Sánchez evokes an equally spiritually charged space. In his rendition of the forest, man confronts nature in a calm, tranquil manner. Both artists –Lam and Sánchez - employ the trope of the forest as a site of holiness, a place of energy and power. Sánchez, however, works in a transcendental mode, allowing his viewers to enter the scene and imagine themselves to be immersed in the calm atmosphere of light and meditational serenity.
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