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 synthetic 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.
In Mujeres en la mesa, Carreño renders a placid interior scene wherein two female figures appear to enjoy the domesticity surrounding the daily ritual of a mid-afternoon tea. Synthesizing European modernist influences and traditional depiction of women in Cuban society, the scene is painted in Carreño’s characteristic color palette of the mid-1940s; a rich harmony of warm pinks, salmon tones and luscious greens applied in a singular impasto technique. Both the diamond-shaped background and the intricate stylized hatching on the back of the chair serve to connect Carreño to the European avant-garde: namely Picasso’s experimentation with Synthetic-Cubism through his use of collage masterly achieved in Still-Life with Chair Caning (1912). Carefully delineated in black and sufficiently abstracted to reveal a multitude of potential readings, the composition anticipates Carreño’s eventual geometrization of the 1950s where he would lead the ascent of Concretism in Cuba to international recognition.
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