Interview with Cuban landscape artist Mario García Portela
Trunks, shadows and fragments are recognizable among the pieces of a unique exhibition inaugurated as 2012 was drawing to a close. However, in the eyes of the spectators, a new universe was opening in Mario García Portela’s work.
Throughout the years, this great artist has made various pictorial changes to his aesthetic proposal. The nib was replaced by the oil, and the panoramic landscape now becomes more intimate, loaded with personal reflections he shares with the public. He comments on his latest solo show, Tierra oscura (Dark Land), and in passing offers his opinions about the artistic production of his native Pinar del Río and on how critics have perceived the genre at different moments in the history of art.
When did you decide to study painting? Where did you first study?
I decided practically as a child, because when I was ready to study I went to a school equal to San Alejandro: the Pinar del Río School of Fine Arts. I liked painting ever since I was small. My mother was a primary school teacher; she prepared her own illustrations and water colors. I used to stand beside her and watch her work. I always liked landscapes and painted one when I was barely eleven. It was a landscape of Viñales, in oil. When I was twelve I started the basic level and afterwards I spent four years in the middle level. I was lucky to have wonderful teachers. I think they were the best in Cuba at the time. In my sixth year – it was 1960 – the Revolution had already won. When I began, most of the professors at San Alejandro retired because they were very old. At that moment there were national competitive examinations and many of the professors from Pinar del Río entered San Alejandro. For that reason, it was necessary to hold examinations in Pinar del Río, too and I obtained a post in drawing. Thus, in 1960, at only 18 years old, I began my professional career as a professor, which lasted for 38 years.
Why did you choose the landscape genre? What were your references for painting?
I think I chose the landscape particularly because of Tiburcio Lorenzo, called “the lord of the landscape” in Pinar del Río. I was a pupil of Domingo Ramos, who, though not a native of Pinar del Río, settled in Viñales in the 1940s and ‘50s and made this region known throughout Cuba. There are very interesting anecdotes about this and there is even a bust of him in Viñales. Ramos has been called the valley painter. He was a professor at San Alejandro in the 1950s and a teacher of Lorenzo, who followed the tradition. I think what attracted them, at that moment, was the extraordinary nature in Viñales, in Pinar del Río in general. Viñales always steals the limelight because of the valley, and it’s not only that area but the entire northern coast, from Guane to Candelaria. The whole zone is very beautiful and attracts everyone to paint.
I think those are the two elements: Tiburcio Lorenzo, as founder of the Pinar del Río School, and the nature in Pinar. Those elements moved me to paint. But I wasn’t the only one; I think the best landscapists in Cuba today are from Pinar del Río.
Scarcely a few months ago the event Paisajes (Landscapes) took place at the City Historian’s Office. What’s your opinion of that event?
It seems to me it was a great event, because it paid attention to the landscape. I have participated in several events taking place in the Historian’s Office, smaller than this one, particularly theoretical, though some were exhibitions. I have presented several solo shows in the Historical Center. However, at this event on landscape painting, they did something very interesting: there were five simultaneous exhibitions of different forms of landscape. There was one at the Hispanoamerican Cultural Center with funds from the National Museum of Fine Arts, and other group exhibitions by young artists. As well, they kindly allowed me to show my work at the Museum of Colonial Art, whose exhibition hall was being reopened at the time. They said to me: “Maestro, do your solo show here.” This caused me some problems, because it was September 2012 and I had been working on the December exhibition for two years. However, I managed to interrupt my work and prepare this retrospective. The exhibition turned out well and I liked collaborating with them very much. Besides, the event was a success.
On occasion, throughout the history of art, critics have not appreciated landscape very much as a genre. In your opinion, what reasons have motivated the critics’ standpoint?
Landscape was greatly underestimated – even more than still life – in the decades of the 1970s and ‘80s. I think that was basically due to the fact that it is a “pretty” genre that people can buy. In the 1980s, there was a small market and it was easier to do and sell a landscape. That contributed to many people combining not to paint artistic landscapes but commercial ones, the same thing that still happens now. You see it at the fairs, at La Bodeguita del Medio. There is an abundance of U.S. cars, of Che, and many reproduce them. That way they attract the tourists’ attention and sell more or less cheaply. I don’t criticize that. They are people who have that possibility and earn their living, although I think many choose the easiest way while they could do something better, a more serious landscape. However, each can do what they like, and in addition, money is very important, because if there’s no money you can’t paint any landscapes.
All this contributed to the underestimation of the landscape, even to creating an aversion to it. So much so, that in the 1970s you almost couldn’t paint landscapes! It was almost a crime! It was a period of a resounding battle against the landscape and in favor of conceptual art, as if one thing competed with the other. During that period the landscape was saved by Tomás Sánchez, who is still one of the most renowned painters in the world. That eased the situation, but did not eliminate it because it was an exception. The situation continued in the same way until the 1980s. Luckily, today we don’t have the same situation, although some critics are enemies of the landscape, but then everyone has their opinion and taste.
It’s been said on several occasions that there is a Pinar del Río School of Landscape. You were commenting to me that precisely because of its natural beauty, the best current landscapists come from that province. What do you think of this statement?
That it’s true to a certain extent, but not completely. When you speak of a school, in the history of art, it’s because a group of artists have created a form of doing something, and, in addition to being imitated very literally, do things that are very similar. In this sense, the statement you refer to isn’t exactly true, but it could be accepted in the sense that there have been a lot of people who have been guided by the Pinar del Río and Tiburcio Lorenzo landscape. It’s difficult, from the point of view art history, to define things; however, it must remain clear that there is no school of which we could say that everybody paints like Lorenzo, although in the work of some, one may identify his tones. In any case, what we have are many painters who have done his landscapes, differently. There are more “tomasitos,” that is, persons who have faithfully copied Tomás Sánchez. In art there are many influences – these things happen. I don’t think they should be criticized or anything of the sort. Concluding, in Pinar del Río there are a large number of painters who have exerted an important force over other painters, but no school exists. Luckily, all of them are quite different.
Is it because of this strength of landscape that the critics, when referring to the work developed in Pinar del Río, speak more about landscape than any other more figurative trend?
I think so. Pinar del Río has always been very strong in landscape, but there are also many painters who are not exactly landscapists who have done very interesting work in Cuba. As well, it happens that the landscapists have been remaining in Pinar, but if you examine the most recent decades, it becomes evident that the most mentioned artists – Pedro Pablo Oliva, Arturo Montoto, Camejo and many others – have institutional acknowledgment and none of them is a landscapist. Pinar del Río has always been a cradle of good art. It is interesting to note that when group exhibitions were held of contemporary artists, almost one third of them came from Pinar. And Cuba has 16 provinces. I think it is due to the force of the Pinar del Río School of Visual Arts, which set a standard for promoting visual arts in general, and particularly, the landscape.
Your paintings have a sober image that grants you a very personal hallmark. Why do you choose shades of sienna and ochre?
In the first place, when I was young I never stood out as a colorist. Besides, I have problems with my eyesight. Although it may seem untrue, I can’t see very well and I have been operated on several times. I don’t know if this fact may have influenced me. Perhaps I owe the choice of these shades to my mother, who was a paradigm for me, and dressed in beige and brown colors, which was how they said sienna and ochre. In general, I’ve always been more a draftsman than a painter. I was a professor of life drawing, like Lorenzo. My landscape professor was Raúl Eguren, a man who also won merits in drama, in opera, and who was a professor at the Higher Institute of Art (ISA). I still visit drawing exhibitions and enjoy them very much. I was never very interested in color, in spite of working with Águedo Alonso, a great colorist who uses violets, yellows and oranges in a remarkable way. However, I do better to work with the line, the values, the textures, more than with colors. I really feel fine with this range, since it has different colors. Besides, it allows me to get away from the traditional landscape.
There have always been references to Cuba’s blue sky and the green palms. I’ve been other places and the sky is also blue, only sometimes it’s gray. From the beginning I’ve been interested in experimenting. There were people who said to me that the landscapes, although they seemed real, had something different, and I made them realize there was another range of color. Practicing it, I discovered, and became convinced, that color is not the essential element in landscape or in any other type of work. Color is a supplement. Painting, more than through color, is based on the design, the structure, the drawing, the line, the textures and the values, which are what make something come near or move away. Color is something added to these elements and it should be used well; if not, it spoils everything.
I’ll keep on working with my colors: ochre and sienna, although I also like to support myself on black mixed with white, and on shadows. There are three things: the siennas are more like the soil and the ochres are darker; the shadows, with a bit of black, become even darker. Then, using these values, I achieve depths, and people see them. I feel comfortable working with this.
This series of elements was essential in your latest exhibition, called Tierra oscura. How did you conceive the project? What was the background?
I would like to clarify that in some works I’ve used a detail in full color, in prints or paintings, but that’s not the coloring I always use, rather a detail in the work. Now about the background. During the 1980s and early ‘90s, I used to do a more panoramic landscape, but always, since I was a child, I’ve been more interested in the small corner, observing the details in the street. The background is an exhibition at La Acacia gallery called Retratos del bosque (Portraits of the Woods). I gave it that name because the works were like portraits of the landscapes. There were some trunks that stood out in the landscape, and the rest was darker.
Tierra oscura is this theme, hyperbolized. They are all tree trunks from the woods, from a path, almost natural size, which was possible because of the large size of the works. The other element is that, unlike other works of mine, the pieces do not contain so much detail. They were done with larger brushes, brush and spatula. Everything is very restrained, following the previous design, but with greater freedom than in other paintings where I was very meticulous. I don’t think it’s a total rupture in my work, but just one more step forward. Here, then, things that were more restrained have been hyperbolized.
Beyond your decision to create works in large format, is there another meaning in the paintings’ fragmentation?
Of course; that’s the most novel concept. It’s the rupture with the traditional landscape I’ve been doing. The fragmentation emerges from concerns one carries inside and interest one as concepts. Originally, I wanted to create a large work, and because of my age it was very difficult to climb scaffolds and such. Besides, I have no space in the workshop for 3x4 meter paintings. Therefore I had to do them in parts, a bit smaller, and put them together later. That was the basic idea. Then, when I tried it for the first time, the idea of fragmentation occurred to me, of separating one painting from the other by 2 cm. I also asked myself why make all of them in rectangular form. It’s a matter of conventions, of things you have seen during your entire lifetime: the human being is a creature of habit. I decided that, if I was to separate them, then I would also fragment them. Besides, I thought of fragmentation as a problem affecting the world and society. In Cuba, the hardest is fragmentation of the family.
I was always lucky to have a very large family, very close, and this is gone. Our contemporaries who are parents don’t see their children because they’re not in the country. I’m interested in the fact that physically they are not there, and that was something I wanted to express through the landscape. Of course, there is also the fragmentation of nature, of the woods, which have been destroyed by development. I wanted to make people think of nature, but also, in a broader sense, about society. However, I wasn’t interested in a defeatist sense, but rather to show that the pieces, though separated, maintain a unity that is achieved mainly through love.
It was difficult to present the show in this way, fragmenting the paintings but at the same time maintaining a unity; it was difficult. However, I think it worked. In fact, that’s why the paintings have no name. Luckily people liked it and got the idea. It’s not a show in which the public may like one painting more than another. There’s a different relationship with the spectator. That’s one of the things I’ve liked most: the fact of achieving a different communication.
After the various distinctions you’ve received for your art work and for the years of teaching devoted to transmitting your knowledge, what’s left to do?
Keep on working, do exactly what I’m doing now, the best way I can. Of course, you can’t fight time. I try to maintain myself the best I can, but you can’t fight time. My plan is to continue working, I don’t know if on a project as big as this one, but anyway... I’ll keep on working as much as I can, with love and passion, which is what matters.
Translated by Olimpia Sigarroa
Revised by CF Ray