An Almost Lost Milagro
In his childlike yet profoundly freighted pieces, Eduardo Michaelsen conjures through the fog of memory a world where Afro-Cuban myths, Cuban folklore, the intoxicating rhythms of his homeland's music, Cuba's architectural and tropical splendor, and kaleidoscopic hallucinations richly combine to buffet the viewer in a wildly inventive storm. In a nondescript house across the street from the Central Bible Assembly of God in Westchester, the artist, whom some describe as Cuba's greatest naïf painter, might finally be getting his due.
"Tribute to the Art of Eduardo Michaelsen: Cuba's Hidden Master" is on display at the Farside Gallery, recently opened by local collectors Dr. Arturo Mosquera and his wife Liza.
During a phone interview with Miami New Times from his San Francisco home, Michaelsen says that when Mosquera -- who calls the artist "one of Cuba's most important and probably least appreciated painters" -- asked him to pop Farside's cherry, he was knocked for a loop. "I became very emotional. To be honest, I no longer expected this type of recognition in my lifetime," the self-taught artist explains.
Fifteen of the 87-year-old Michaelsen's paintings and two serigraphs are on exhibit in a setting as humble as the artist himself. The works have been culled from local private collections and curated by poet Ricardo Pau-Llosa, who also wrote the essay for a color catalogue in which he ladles laurels on Michaelsen, describing him as a "Blakean visionary in the Cyclops-tormented land of Pepe Cojones."
Many of the works come from the collections of the Mosqueras and Pau-Llosa, all unabashed Michaelsen fans.
Though cynics could point out that organizers might be pumping up the artist's historical importance for cash, Michaelsen, whose health is failing, balks at the idea. "I must say, Dr. Mosquera has been one of my biggest supporters, visiting me every December during his ski trips and economically investing in the work."
Then the artist, who came to the United States during the Mariel exodus and settled in San Francisco after spending a few months in Miami, animatedly steers the conversation to details of his past. He was born in Santiago de Cuba, in the province of Oriente, in 1920. His paternal grandfather was German and served as that country's consul in Santiago. He was a gifted linguist who spoke eight languages and was also a musician and artist.
Michaelsen calls Walt Disney an early influence and says he became obsessed with drawing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when the movie came out in 1937. Then he adds that Trio Matamoros and its music has been an inspiration all of his life "because they captured the true spirit of Cuba in their songs."
He studied at the San Alejandro National Academy of Fine Arts but dropped out after a brief stretch. He wanted to express himself in a way that defied being pigeon-holed. "People have called my work naïf and even compared it to Henri Rousseau's. I don't know about that; I just like what I do."
Later he got a job at Havana's National Museum of Fine Arts, where he worked as a janitor, tour guide, and restorer until retiring after seventeen years. It was at the museum that painters like Angel Acosta Leon and Wifredo Lam encouraged Michaelsen.
"My first exhibit was in an employee show at the museum during the Castro government," Michaelsen recalls. "Lolo de la Torriente, a prominent Cuban writer and journalist who had published a book on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera after living with them for ten years, supported my work and wrote a positive review."
He added that the unexpected early success was followed by his first solo show at Havana's Lyceum in 1963.
In those years, the works of first-generation Cuban modernists Carlos Enriquez, Amelia Pelaez, and Lam influenced Michaelsen greatly. "Enriquez because he was morose, Pelaez for her decorative style, and Lam for the Afro-Cuban elements," the artist says.
Michaelsen's voice quakes as he recalls how his career screeched to a halt when a new director of plastic arts was installed at the museum. "Como siempre se aparece el Diablo [Like always, the Devil appears]," he laments.
The woman, Margarita Ruiz, whom he refers to as a Communist Party hack, tried to douse Michaelsen's fire by depriving him of art supplies for nearly seven years, he contends. So he had to settle for painting on newspapers. "When I asked her why, she told me it was because I painted too many virgins.' Yeah, but it's more likely because la Caridad del Cobre -- Cuba's patron saint -- appears protecting three men rowing a boat, I responded. And she became my enemy after that."
Although Michaelsen would go on to hold two more exhibits in Cuba in the late Seventies, during which his work earned recognition and was collected mostly by foreigners, he felt handcuffed by the system.
So in 1980 he fled the island, despite his sister Elsa's imprecations that he was 60 years old and crazy to give up his home. "I came hoping to succeed as a painter, but I have to tell you it has been rough," he says.
Michaelsen first stayed with a brother in Miami but bolted when his sister-in-law "tried to starve him out of the house," the gravelly voiced character informs. "I didn't die of hunger, because every night at 6:00 a neighbor named Teresita brought me a plate of food like I was a stray cat."
Soon Catholic Charities staked the painter a ten-spot and a one-way plane ticket to San Fran. He says that after bunking with a sponsor there for nine months, he decided to head out on his own.
While still in Cuba, Michaelsen had gotten his first taste of the California city through a columnist who called it Baghdad by the bay. "Joe Collins, the son of a California politician, was fixated with la revolución," the once-hamstrung painter crows. "He brought over a bunch of his clueless leftist friends from San Francisco to visit me at my studio in Havana, but I had to shoot straight and tell them que ese sistema era una mierda [that the system is shit]," cackles Michaelsen.
After arriving on the West Coast, he eventually tracked down one of the young men. "When I went to his place, there was a huge red flag with a picture of Lenin on it. Que coño es esto? [What kind of jerk is this guy?], I thought, hurrying off."
The artist says he doesn't like to discuss politics or reference it in his work because "it easily offends people," explaining that he has learned the hard way to keep his nose in his paints. "I've lived very humbly since coming here," Michaelsen goes on. "I speak very little English and have been in the same modest home the past 25 years."
He says he partitioned off one of his rooms with wood he found on the streets and painted every day in a makeshift studio until arthritis incapacitated him in early 2003. Most of the works exhibited at Farside date from 1990 to that time. They echo the work of Enriquez, Pelaez, and Lam like an unseen Greek chorus in his florid dreamscapes.
The artist expresses no regrets even though his work has rarely been shown in the States. He is supported mostly by the Cuban exile community, but not as avidly as he once had hoped.
A notable exception, he mentions, struggling to recall an important show, is "Outside Cuba/Fuera de Cuba," a traveling survey of Cuban art in exile that opened in 1987 at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University.
Michaelsen says he is grateful: "The U.S. government provides me with a roof, and I can honestly say that I've never gone hungry here."
The fading artist confesses that even though he was unable to earn a living as a painter in Cuba or the States, he feels fortunate for this last chance to shine.
"All that's left for me now es un cohete al cielo [is a rocket to Heaven]," he sighs before ringing off.
"Simply Baroque," a poetry reading by Ricardo Pau-Llosa, will take place at the Farside Gallery at 7:00 p.m. Friday, June 29, followed by a closing reception to drop the curtain on Michaelsen's show.
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