Still Life with Dream about Amelia Pelez

An Introduction
By Helen L. Kohen

A Cuba-of-the-Imagination exists inside Cuba as well as outside. It is what Juan Antonio Molina, a Cuban national living on the island, exalts in a surreal and loving tribute inspired by a visit to the home and studio of the Cuban painter Amelia Pelaez. Molina's fantastical ruminations are included in the current issue of the Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, which is devoted exclusively to Cuba's contributions to art and architecture.

The house at Estrada Palma 261 in the Havana neighborhood of La Vibora, where Pelaez lived until her death in 1968 at age 72, is both an encircling cosmos of her art and life and a microcosm of the Cuba of her day. Now a kind of museum/shrine to the artist (her sister Carmen still lives there), its ten rooms cast a spell even on the precise intellect of Molina, a curator, art historian, and poet who obviously could not resist the impulse to create a vision of a tropical Xanadu where direct description would seem to have been welcome.

But Amelia Pelaez's paintings beg for just that kind of looking and dreaming. Pelaez made art of the design features of her home environment. She created an aesthetic from Havana's elaborate iron grilles, its stained-glass windows and fan lights, the intricate patterns of its tiled floors, its Baroque versions of classical columns and entablatures, the lacy curves of its wicker furniture, its ubiquitous still lifes -- bowls of lush fruit, platters of tropical fish, hibiscus picked in her garden. She ordered a paradisal system, a whole voluptuous out-of-this-world universe from what was literally at her right hand.

The fifth of eleven children, Pelaez studied painting at the Academia de San Alejandro in Havana, then spent half a year at the Art Students League in New York. In 1926, accompanied by the Cuban ethnologist Lydia Cabrera, she left for Paris, where she became acquainted with the work of the most important new artists of her day. She won good reviews in the spring of 1933 for her first solo exhibition, though critics noted the private nature of her art and how it was turned inward, away from common human experience.

The sugar boom of the Twenties that had supported Pelaez's expatriate existence came to an end. At age 38 she returned to Cuba and took up residence in the family home, a ten-room single-tiered wedding cake of a Havana house her father had built in 1912. She would remain there for the rest of her life, living out of her time in everything but her art. Her daily routine, aside from the art activity, was that of a colonial maiden lady, retiring and reserved. But she wished her paintings, and later her ceramics, to live on the outside, and she continued to take part in exhibitions from New York's Museum of Modern Art to venues throughout Europe and Latin America.

Combining inspiration from her surroundings with what she learned from the Old Masters and, more significantly, what she absorbed of the works of the best of this century -- Picasso, Braque, and Matisse -- she created a signature art. And when one stands in the long center hall of her house, in full view of the formal arrangements of stiff and casual furniture, a model for her own syncretic art emerges. The way the Fifties modern bookshelves fit together with the European chairs and chests, how they each "go native" in the tropical light, become metaphors of Pelaez's style, providing clues to her singular arrangement of midcentury rhythms -- new with old, line with curve, blocks of clean, simple form with lush, emotional color. The work transcends each and all of its sources, entering a realm both richly Baroque and sharply Cubist.

It is from there that Juan Antonio Molina takes off, providing yet another view of the house in La Vibora and its beloved occupant.

Helen L. Kohen is an art historian and former art critic of the Miami Herald. Her introduction to Molina's "Estrada Palma 261: Still Life with Dream about Amelia Pelaez" appears in expanded form in the Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, available at bookstores and through the Wolfson Foundation. The journal's special Cuba issue will be the subject of a seminar at this month's Miami Book Fair International.

The train entered thundering through the narrow door of the living room. It sabotaged the coffee that rested delicately in its cup. It stirred up the whole interior as it gamboled down the empty hallway. And as it was going out, leaving behind a trail of smoke and grit in bedrooms that prepared themselves for the intimacy of a siesta, the house was no longer the unknown dwelling on the riverbank, with its back turned, but not rudely so, to a sugar cane plantation and a country trail that remained useless in their absurd sfumato. Suddenly, the horse dreamt up in the humid morning disappeared from between one's legs. And it was no longer the house in never land, where the horse was always the well-endowed pony forbidden to swim with the girl by the soft shore lapped by the bluish-green water. She continued to live under the rocking chairs and the beds, atop wardrobes and windows. Ahead was the last door through which the train escaped, dethroned and sad.

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