Perls Galleries, New York (1944)
Acquired from the above
Thence by descent to the present owner
Havana, Lyceum, Carreño, November 9-16, 1943, no. 8
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Modern Cuban Painters, March 16-May 7, 1944, p. 8, n.n.
José Gómez Sicre, Cuadernos de Plástica Cubana, I, Carreño, Havana, Ediciones "Galería del Prado" La Habana, 1943, illustrated in color
José Gómez Sicre, Cuban Painting of Today, Havana, María Luisa Gómez Mena, 1944, p. 9
Edward Alden Jewell, "Cuba's Pacemakers," New York Times, March 26, 1944, discussed
Alfred Hamilton Barr, "Modern Cuban Painters," Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, April, 1944, Vol. XI, No. 5, p. 8
"Cuban Rhythm," Dayton, Ohio News Week, April 3, 1944, discussed
"El Arte Cubano," Carteles, April 30, 1944, installation view
Alfred Hamilton Barr, "Pintura Cubana en Nueva York," Norte, July, 1944, Vol. 4, No. 9, discussed
José Gómez Sicre, "Pintores Cubanos Modernos," La Revista Belga, July, 1944, illustrated
Harry Salpeter, "Carreño the Cubanist," Esquire, September 1944, discussed
José Gómez Sicre, Art of Cuba in Exile, Miami, Editora Munder, 1987, p. 53, installation view
Lowry S. Sims, et al, Wifredo Lam and his Contemporaries 1938-1952 (exhibition catalogue), The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1992, p. 64, illustrated
Maria Lluïsa and Antonio Zaya, Cuba Siglo XX: modernidad y sincretismo (exhibition catalogue), Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno; Palma, Fundació "La Caixa;" Barcelona, Centre d'Art Santa Mònica, April-December, 1996, p. 38, illustrated
Jacqueline Barnitz, Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2001, p. 124, no. 4.8, illustrated in color
Like fellow Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, Mario Carreño’s work reflects a cross cultural dialogue between vanguard modernist practices of the first half of the twentieth century with a unique subject matter rooted in the Caribbean’s rich syncretic cultural heritage. The precocious Carreño entered Havana’s prestigious Academia de San Alejandro at the age of twelve. His education continued as he traveled extensively throughout most of the 1930s and early 1940s, spending brief sojourns in Spain, Mexico, France, Italy, and later New York shortly after the start of World War II. As a member of Cuba’s second generation of vanguard painters—including such noted figures as René Portocarrero, Mariano Rodríguez, and Cundo Bermúdez—Carreño shared his contemporaries' interest in adapting and infusing the new international style with aspects of their personal and regional circumstances. In their quest to create an art that straddled both of these worlds and a nascent sense of national identity constructed around notions of afrocubanismo, these artists borrowed from a number of sources including European modern art (best exemplified by Picasso’s primitivism), contemporary Cuban literature and music, and Cuban colonial and nineteenth-century art.
Most notable among the Cuban art sources studied by Cuba’s young vanguard artists were the highly accomplished works of the Frenchman Frédéric Miahle and the Spaniard Victor Patricio Landaluze. Lured to Havana in the mid-19th century to work as commercial graphic artists at the service of the booming tobacco industry and a burgeoning bourgeoisie, their prints, illustrations, caricatures, and paintings were some of the first to document and celebrate the beauty of Cuba’s flora and fauna, its sugar and coffee plantations, and its customs and social types. Of particular note are Miahle and Landaluze’s respective depictions of the Afro-Cuban celebration of the Catholic religious feast of the Epiphany in Havana or Día de los Reyes en La Habana—no doubt a historical antecedent to Cuba’s modern day popular festivals or carnivals. Central to both compositions is the figure of the ñáñigo or masquerade dancer–a member of the secret male society known as Abakuá that originated in the African Cross River region of Nigeria and Cameroon and was later introduced in the Caribbean through the slave trade. The rhythmic dance music of the Abakuá is a significant source for the modern rumba as well as other Afro-Cuban derived musical forms. Carreño’s reinterpretation of this popular motif and religious tradition in Danza Afro-Cubana may be seen as a modern successor to Miahle and Landaluze’s celebrated works. However, Carreño’s painting transcends the inherently costumbrista or illustrative approach of these antecedents by boldly and defiantly creating a new visual language that absorbs and transforms international influences within a regional context in order to assert a distinct Caribbean or Cuban identity.
In addition to these popular and regional sources, Danza Afro-Cubana reflects a plethora of art historical references and vanguard tendencies spanning cubist fragmentation of forms, the agitated and dynamic figural compositions of Futurism, the experimental use of paint and the often aggressive and muscular forms of the Mexican mural painter David Alfaro Siquieros whom Carreño admired, Picasso’s classical and primitivist periods, Surrealism, and the ancient frescoes of Pompeii. All of these elements converge seamlessly creating an overall atmosphere of baroque exuberance and vitality culminating in the presence of the two central figures—the ñáñigo and his dance partner whose muscular and voluptuous bodies pulsate to the Afro-Cuban rhythms amidst the lush tropical flora and the reverie of Carnival.
Danza Afro-Cubana is perhaps one of Mario Carreño’s most important paintings, yet it has been absent from public view for over 50 years since it was sold in 1944 by the Perls Galleries in New York to a private collection in the United States. However, prior to its acquisition, it garnered enormous critical attention as is evident in its inclusion in the artist’s solo exhibition in 1943 at the Lyceum, one of the first cultural organizations in Havana to support Cuba’s vanguard painters. A year later it was featured in the groundbreaking exhibition Modern Cuban Painters organized by then Director Alfred H. Barr and curator Edgar J. Kauffman for The Museum of Modern Art in New York. In his essay, Barr wrote: “Mario Carreño is the most versatile, learned, and courageous [artist] of the new generation. Unlike his friends he has traveled widely in Europe and America. For a time he based his style on Raphael whom most painters of his age throughout the world naively despised. More recently Siqueiros’ visit to Havana has inspired him to [do] a series of large panels in Duco of which the Afro-Cuban Dance [is] among the most ambitious and powerful compositions in Cuban painting.”(1) Barr’s reference to Siqueiros is particularly notable, as it was the Mexican mural painter who pioneered the use of Duco in the fine arts—an industrial lacquer typically utilized for automobiles, appliances, toys, and other mass-produced consumer goods—as part of his experimental approach to painting. Like Siqueiros, Carreño must have liked the paint’s quick drying finish as well as its textural or impasto-like qualities. The effects of this technique in Danza Afro-Cubana along with the artist’s absorption of the lessons of Futurism and his bold use of collage elements, such as string, rope, and cloth bring the entire surface of this painting to life in a dynamic and pulsating motion that seduces and envelops the viewer.
Along with Wifredo Lam’s magnum opus, The Jungle, also painted in 1943, Danza Afro-Cubana holds a privileged position in the pantheon of Modern Cuban art, not only because it successfully integrates the tenets of modernism within a specific regional and cultural context—but because in the process it asserts a distinct national and artistic identity vis à vis the dominant European discourse.
1 As quoted in Alfred H. Barr, “Modern Cuban Painters” in The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, April 1944, Volume XI, Number 5, pp. 4-5.
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