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Aguedo Alonso: The Maestro of the campo

Aguedo Alonso: The Maestro of the campo

?guedo Alonso lives in a beautiful house-cum-studio in the vicinity of Club Campestre, approx 30 km from Havana, surrounded by the vivid colours and the imbricate shapes of the exuberant tropical vegetation he loves so much. His intimate parlour quickly reveals our host’s affections: photographs of his children and grandchildren, furniture made of plant fibres, miniature antiques from all over the world, lamps of different styles and epochs, and paintings and installation representative of each stage of his production. With the typical courtesy of the people from the provinces and a friendly smile, this painter and ceramist, recognized as one of the most remarkable Cuban landscapists, welcomed us at his home and quickly took us down the road of his life and work:

I was born on 5 February, 1938 in the province of Pinar del R?o. I grew up in the countryside and a sensitivity towards nature prevailed in me. Landscape and vegetation, with their suggestive colours and the interlacing of their shapes, held a powerful attraction over me. Luckily, my teachers, from grammar to high school, fostered in their students an interest in art-related subjects, and encouraged my vocation which took its course without any major hitches. When I was fourteen, I entered the School of Visual Arts, and at the same time studied photography and began to work retouching negatives, a skill that requires a detailed study of value, which I would later apply in my own work.

Later on, I studied Construction at the Trade School because I wanted to be an architect. Perhaps that is where the sense of proportion, of symmetry, which is so evident in my work, comes from. By the time I was sixteen, seventeen, I would made trips to Havana where I became acquainted with the cultural life in the capital, especially thanks to Mr. Silva, director of the excellent gallery at the Havana Hilton Hotel -today Habana Libre-who introduced me to the great Cuban artists of the time: Amelia Pel?ez, V?ctor Manuel, Ren? Portocarrero. A new world which went beyond academic courses opened up for me then.

When I completed my studies at the School of Visual Arts in 1957, I was painting academic landscapes according to the school’s requirements and personal, planimetric-I am not interested in perspective-landscapes as well with a conceptual purpose. The captivating landscape of Pinar del R?o, to which this province owes its fame and even its name, had already been the focus of attention of 19th-century painters, and in the early 20th century, artists such as Gregorio D?az, Esteban Valderrama and Domingo Ramos would portray this natural environment on a regular basis. Ramos, in particular, would give status to the spectacular Valle de Vi?ales within Cuban painting, a topic that was also a favourite of his disciple Tiburcio Lorenzo, and motif of the few landscapes by Ren? Portocarrero, a city painter par excellence. I am interested in conceptualizing the landscape. This is why I use the palm tree so much, which is for me a highly symbolic element, a symbol of my nationality, of my land, of eroticism, of femininity. It is the most feminine tree in the world. I am also attracted by the overlapping shapes suggested by plants; this is why I prefer the rear part of the Vi?ales Valley, with its exultant nature, its waterfalls, and not the conventional, almost scenographic image known to all.

From his very first works to his present production, ?guedo has been faithful to his love of nature, which has accompanied him since his childhood days. In his first series- Paisajes and Casa del campesino (1960-1970)-he tackles nature in a way that could almost seem anti-ethical. While in Paisajes, his paintings exhibit an overflowing of sensuality, of eroticism-which alarmed some prudes who vetoed the exhibition of several works-of gloating over the voluptuousness of shapes and of the suggestion of transparencies, as if paying tribute to his much admired Carlos Enr?quez, in his paintings of the Casa del campesino series, he reaches an extreme synthesis, an almost geometric reduction to basic forms, the highest expression of content with a minimum of resources, similar to the Cuban poster production of the times, which was then at its height. In addition, he anticipates by several decades the warning on the price of the ?civilizing” effort of transferring man from his natural environment leading him away from ancestral practices which have conformed his idiosyncrasy and culture.

In his Rostros latinoamericanos (1970-1980) series, he resorts to the human figure, to men and women whose faces have been carved by work, to unornamented, plain faces. However, the painter does not seem to be able to renounce to vegetation, which may burst in unexpectedly in the form of a fanciful headdress. His paintings of the Mariposas de Am?rica series and his installations, Crucifixiones (Balseros), made between 1980 and 1990, mark a thematic and stylistic shift in ?guedo Alonso’s work. The former delves into old myths of pre-Hispanic cultures, which allows him to introduce the topic of migration, of the horizon as aspiration and as limit, and the sea, suggested and almost abstract. In the latter, the driftwood used in Crucifixiones alludes openly to the dramatic and marked exodus experienced by the country during the convulsive decade, whereas the delicate china figures that are incrusted in the rough wood-dried-up and punished nature-constitute his clamour against the kidnapping of children in Latin America.

His paintings of the Caribe series (1900-2000), in the words of the painter himself, ?combine the topics of sea and horizon and are indebted to the work of Domingo Ravenet (Valencia, Espa?a, 1905-Matanzas, Cuba, 1969), a pioneer of Art informel in an area of his creation which is practically unknown, and which has been for me a ‘well-kept’ influence for years.” From 2000 to 2005, Autoapropiaciones recurs to topics of previous series, which seem to be thrown into confusion by nervous brushstrokes, making way to the present period, Levitaciones, in which recurrent motifs, such as the palm tree or the boh?o (typical Cuban farmer’s hut) are given new connotations, and seem to float, separated from the nurturing and supporting earth. According to critic David Mateo, who has kept track of this painter’s production, ?the typical lights of his pictures have begun to grow darker and the colours have blurred somewhat the contrast, the exaltation. Placidity has entered a state of shock.”

Given his abundant and fertile production, one would thing that ?guedo has always been a ?full-time” painter. However, he has dedicated 38 years of his life to teaching in the art academies of Pinar del R?o (1960-1973) and Havana (1974-1997), where he left cherished memories in his students, as evidenced by a telephone call that interrupted our conversation. An ex-student wanted to share her finding with ?guedo: while rummaging among old papers, she found a poem written by her class in 1967, dedicated to ?the king of sunflowers / master of gallantry” on the painter’s birthday.”

Teaching for me was very important because it gave me the pleasure of transmitting my knowledge, despite my disagreement with the curriculum because it is my opinion that they have not given technique the emphasis it really deserves. Yet, it was a long period of my life, which I lived intensely, and which I continue to do teaching young talents.

He has also found time to sponsor a project called Baudeco, aimed at the revival of traditional wicker furniture-Arts and Crafts 2002 prize-winner-, or to daydream together with his friend, Eusebio Leal, the tireless City Historian, who visits him on a regular basis. One realization of his dreams would be a ?Lamp Museum”, to which he would donate hundreds of pieces collected by him throughout the years.

Contrary to the critics’ opinion, he considers himself a Romantic artist:

I have a romantic outlook of life, an insatiable need for beauty. I am definitely a nationalist painter. I love nature deeply, the natural environment that my contemporaries insist on destroying. I love my country and its scenery, and in spite of upsetting experiences and lack of understanding, my work and my own life will remain to the end.
October 2007

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