The paintings by Antonia Eiriz were like an early warning. The other side of a sweetest and apologetic triumphalism made her, against all suspicions, more revolutionary than any other. At a time when many other palettes exuded euphoria while portraying the epic of change, Antonia could afford to restrict his expressions to lights and shadows which could convey all that was dramatic and contradictory about those difficult years, idealized later by the longing for a long gone prodigious decade, or at the time by the fervor of epic enthusiasm.
She was then weaving a poetics of marginalized pain, of forbidden horror, which while exorcizing the demonic that threatens the existence of man expelled the terrible aspects out of daily experience. Antonia Eiriz conjured the demagogy of fake tidiness which in fact confounded what was edifying with what was petrifying, when the absolute claim of the constructive became its very opposite, within the realm of virtual reality, that while deceitful, accelerated the advent of disillusionment.
Faced with the orgasm of pregnancy, it was perhaps reasonable a certain dose of skepticism, of reflexive distance, of scrutinizing breach. But in the heat of carnival, almost no one noticed it; Antonia herself was not aware that hers was a letter of authenticity which made the process credible, while portraying it was humanizing it; meanwhile discrediting its cardboard epiphany, which invested history with the cosmetic of a candy box.
In retrospect it is somehow understandable that Antonia’s turbulence became inappropriate in the glorification of the new as a value. In those years the world was living through a glorification of the new, which barely left room for discouragement: new novel, new figuration, new wave, new Latin American cinema were very inspired notions, convinced of their transforming ability to admit that the new was not possible despite “the old” or different, and that, furthermore, it is in itself dramatic for all that it represents in terms of denial and destructiveness. The shine of utopia not only tends to present itself as positive –it needs to do so to occupy its place– but also does it furiously not tolerating dissent, commonly interpreted as a delaying obstacle, as excreted from the past.
All in all, it is not in her sociological shrewdness where the painter carries the true gift of transcendence: in the same way that the first image that comes to mind when we hear about Goya does not necessarily belongs to the XVIII or XIX century Spain, but to the man himself, thus in a generic way, in its eternal dilemmas, let us not think of Antonia associated primarily and definitely to that 60’s Cuba. Hers is a painting emanating from an arcane and deep tragic vein, as immanent in the extensive relations of sensible artists that through art history have claimed for virtue and suffer in pain its absence, who sacrifice their peace of mind to denounce the suffering of those who do not get a glimpse of happiness. Hers is a painting “of gender,” of the human gender, above circumstances and contingencies, coming from way back, for the genesis of man itself; a painting from Cuba to and for the world. If Munch recorded in one of his works the roaring scream of the helpless man in the confines of the previous century, all of Antonia, all of her work and of herself, composes another scream, perhaps less roaring (it is no chance that a century has elapsed) but more intimate, more introspective, as a wail with a mute, as a cry to the inner core.
The above said does not presuppose at all that her art was divorced with her time, interested in other universal essences. She left us her electrifying portraits of Girón, of La Coubre, giving faith to a strict attention to the period, because you simply cannot be –nor do you need to be– an abstract humanist, an alienated and fortuitous entity unhinged from the world. But do not expect the document outside of the artistry that implies the transformed memory footprint, for Antonia did not allow the referential or anecdotal iconicity that indexes reality in a pedestrian and analogical way. Her painting does not describe or allude, but rather connotes from some sort of emotional allegory. Perhaps the motivation is contextualized by the title: the framework only registers the footprint of impact, the emotional wound brought about by the topic, and thus, the stain itself is the dramatic situation.
In Antonia we find the surface as seme, the deep gnostic value of paste and texture. A painting such as La Anunciación (The Announcement), besides its allegoric grandeur, represents an essay on pictorial matters displayed in its potential semantic resonance: every physical portion of the scene –which does not happen over time, but over the symbol– is registered on a different illusionary texture, from the most informal expressionism of the gesture to the most firm and precocious hyperrealism, and these textured variations of the representation lay out a semantic path which strengthen the textual circuitry of the work.
In her case, we deal with a representation divorced from the similitude or true remission, to announce itself as the presentation of the instant capture of the event, which condenses it in its dramatic climax. We could talk about this work as a sign of shaking, as a factual consequence of lightning, as it happens as well with her nearest predecessor for more than one reason: Fidelio Ponce. In both cases, we face the painting as a purging of sins, as the expiation of pain, as a receptacle for anguish and as detonator for a probable salvation in spirituality. Painting as wound and healing balm, as psychoanalysis of the world and as a fetish not of the ego, but of a subjectivity injured by ridicule.
Such metabolisms of bitterness could have suffered the ill of emotional redundancy, of the affective manipulation which spoils other attempts in historical melodramas, but this is not the case with none of the painters, and not for different reasons: subconsciously, Ponce protects him himself from the expressive pleonasm with the key, a high key that in its case and the thickness of his binding becomes very low, because light is diffused into fog and white into night. There is color, there is tone in Ponce, but we barely remember it. In Ponce, the key travels through multiple values, but although gray is not physically present, the mark of this painting is none other than gray and sienna, the color of blood and time.
What happens then with Antonia, of such dim lighting, of such somber appearance, the Antonia of the trace as light, of veiling as atmosphere? I believe that Antonia escapes of the utterance through a totally different resource: through black humor, which at times softens the seismic violence of the event. This humor exists somehow in Ponce, but very subtly, very obliquely, much beside it all; however, in Antonia it is essential because it structures, composes. Thus works by her such as La muerte en pelota (Death in the nude) bring her much closer to the grotesque painting of Umberto Peña, for example, but if in Umberto the grotesque is an expression of style which inserts him within the context of popular culture with a certain mood of say horizontal involvement, in Antonia the grotesque element is inner, implosive, a defense mechanism used to isolate and protect from pain.
This record of humor not only links her with colleagues of the visual arts: it connects her, very much so, with the cathartic spirit of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea in cinema, as it were. The Cuban art scene of the 60’s was fully impregnated by an expressionist will which responds and exacerbates the violence of change. We can scrutinize the confluences that are present in two works with an apparent but also deep and mysterious relation: La muerte en pelota, by Antonia Eiriz, and La Muerte de un Burocrata, by Gutiérrez Alea. This is an exciting analysis, especially as it concerns the expressive equivalences of the specific pictorial and filmic elements. Such as this, we might perceive many other parallels between literature and music, dance and theater, because this was a coherent decade in its prolific output, convergent in its openings.
It is this sense of modernity, of topological synthesis, of the text as metonymy of context, of figuration as pure emergence of the abstract, what turns Antonia Eiriz, rather than an early master of the New Figuration or an advanced remodeler of the combine painting of Rauschenberg, into a forerunner of Neo-expressionism that would swamp the decade of the 80’s around the world and would turn to a contraction of the forms and the references much more ferociously that the one carried out by the first vanguard, still depending on a criteria for composition and representation in a good way inherited from that of the previous century.1
Furthermore, not only was Antonia Eiriz an enlightened exponent of the new expressionist wave; teaching was also inextricably intertwined with her work: the entire generation that followed her is marked by the linguistic legacy of her work, whether the artists were her students or not. The signs of Antonia vibrate in Fabelo, in Pedro Pablo Oliva, in Tomás Sánchez, in Nelson Domínguez, the internally organized aggressiveness of her drawing, the color abruptly emanating from matter, the diagonal and violent perspective. But if her morphological legacy turns them into eternal disciples who receive, even to this day the creative potential of Eiriz by almost blood transference, the decade of the 80’s is even more in debt of the founding lineage, because the link now runs substantial in its spirit, essential in the notion of the creative act and its senses. The noble and redeeming iconoclasts, the emancipating and prophylactic project, the inquisitive rebellious spirit, the repulse to the interested servitude, the “anthropological expressionism” of the 80’s, have their embryo, their inspiration, their source of sincere righteousness, in the genesis-like art of Antonia.
I am sure that followers will multiply in the future, the reflexive studies and the cult –always humble, as she viewed herself– to her figure. In the same way that many other painters only achieve to dissolve in forgetfulness with the passage of time, the art of Antonia Eiriz is only beginning to cast its light, as also happens with that other great master of her generation, vitalist Raúl Martínez. Just as in Raúl, although in her own way, Antonia Eiriz was a woman tremendously consequent. During the last months of her life, when she was living in the United States, the artist could not rid herself of her ghosts and returned to painting in the tone of the 60’s, perhaps in a clearer atmosphere.2 This return to her obsessions has been interpreted in a simplistic way as a sign of exhaustion, at a time when it was the only possible exit for a woman who remained quiet and sad for almost twenty years, who in the face of lots of problems due to misunderstanding and upheavals decided to retire, knew when to retire. Her verticality can only be compared to the committed but reserved distance that the extraordinary writer Dulce María Loynaz has managed to maintain. And upon returning, as only the great ones know how, followed by the requests of so many devotees who in her own country encouraged her and showed her that love that despite many censors she never completely lacked, she did not have to renounce that inexhaustible and artificially slanted wellspring and that was her painting, her engravings and her ensembles of the 60’s. It was the time to regurgitate that which was blistered, to ratify what was mutilated, to attempt an organic continuity of her sorrowful splendor. It was even a psychic need of establishing herself, of self-assurance and ultimately, circumstances were not that different. As always, her painting went back to being catharsis and expiation. No constriction, never that; perhaps an evolution over the interrupted space that was not filled by some tender but childish papier-mâché dolls that barely served as drainage.
Antonia Eiriz has passed away and an enormous feeling of love and guilt hangs heavy upon us. She preferred silence because great artists do not suffer commiseration, as they would not accept imploring or begging. And we lost so much time that Antonia died far away, without us even attempting a repair of the irreparable. That is why now, here, among her own, where she lived and gave birth to the essence of her work, the effort will never be enough to provide dimension to her figure as what she really stands for: one of the greatest painters in the history of Cuban art, and that goes for both male and female painters.
She was harassed savagely, as only gravediggers can harass: in grand style. And the saddest part is that they did not even realize that unbridled violence was but a deep and reverted longing for kindness, in someone who all that needed was some love. It is up to us to prevent that abandonment to turn into indolence, or apathy into ingratitude; from us it is expected that wrath becomes a well-deserved recognition. What I am about to say might stir a few feathers, let it be understood as some sort of impunity, and perhaps as a dangerous indulgence, but in any case, I prefer generosity to resentment: even after death, it might not be altogether too late.
Published in “Antonia Eiriz First Post Mortem Homage,” La Acacia Gallery, Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturales, 1995. Also in Casa de las Américas, no. 199, 1995.
1. When we refer to the differences in neo-expressionism of the figurations emerging in the 80’s with regard to the expressionist vanguard of the early century, differences already noted in Antonia’s poetry, we are referring to a group of memories of an evolution which transited from minimalist expressions until renouncing, well along the way, to that emotional maximalist, expression quite allusive to the bohemian ego of the beginning of the century. That other expressionism which is born of that journey will adopt a more physical character, not so much as a representation or referring to emotions, as an activation of mood triggers, in a more ontological than contextual way.
On the other hand, it would be quite revealing to carry out a serious study of how Antonia Eiriz rapidly and organically inserted herself in that objective tendency and the transition to the ephemeral during the 60’s. Particularly, her wonderful ensembles anticipate the objective discourse of the 80’s in Cuba, which would devotedly return to that bitter and acrid sense of the artistic as “expressive waste.”
In such constructions, Antonia also announces the taste in Cuban visual arts for the logic of the pastiche, the quote and the homage –extended in the 60’s, as a consequence of an emerging post-modern propensity–, when she dedicates precious tributes in wood, textile and metal to emblematic figures of our culture such as Acosta León or Lezama Lima.
2. I say author with all intention, because, as the other great woman of Cuban painting, the unforgettable Amelia Peláez –to whom, by the way, she paid tribute with a beautiful installation ensemble in 1991–, the art of Antonia Eiriz was absolutely personal and irreproducible, a true poetry in the authorial and cosmogony sense of the term: her spirit is perpetuated easily, but her quality and resolution are hardly successfully matched.