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.
Before 1986 seldom had I ventured beyond the periphery of El Vedado, which I looked upon as the exact frontiers of the world. La Vibora resounded in my mind like an echo, incalculably distant and, in a way, dangerous. Through one of those twists of fate, what once was a neighborhood favored by the bourgeoisie and certain intellectuals, a symbol of the city's first major expansion in the Twentieth Century and a fertile land for experiments of colonial Neoclassicism and later of Eclecticism, had become a peripheral space, disconnected from the city, far from commercial and cultural centers, gradually losing its otherwise questionable exclusivity. Its style was no longer a cause for its prestige. The only things La Vibora contributed to my scale of values were the well-deserved reputation of its rock musicians and the never-waning beauty of its women. Therefore, its only attraction was its offer of adventure. And since I was never the adventurous type, by the time I was over twenty I was not yet familiar with that neighborhood -- other than having occasionally passed through it.
It was while looking at Amelia Pelaez's paintings at the Museo Nacional that I felt compelled to walk the streets of El Cerro and La Vibora, to walk wide-eyed into the houses of Old Havana, and to breathe with renewed vigor the city's beguiling atmosphere. Beyond style and form, Amelia's paintings revealed to me an environment that was the hallmark as well as cause and consequence of a way of life. If such a revelation had anything to do with the topic of discussions on "identity" that used to pop up at every intellectual gathering at the time, then I was willing to "identify myself" with an environment of which I had been a parasitic consumer for two decades.
it was a house like all others in the city, yet different from all others. It had two white columns, two single columns with an Ionic air. Two columns rising from the sea propped up the entire house -- the boat-house, the cloud-house, the frieze-house, the island-house. Two columns like two groans such as the tide makes when it withdraws at dawn. An angel is shipwrecked in the living room. His laughter is like ephemeral crystal dust. He arrives at the shores of the house transformed into a fish. And the party begins.
the fish: its shape, its renunciation eternal. The fish: its trapeze eyes, its rhombus fin -- its radiance, its trail made of refractions and wily bubbles. It takes a dance step and leaves a mark in the lady's heart. It woos her, invites her to leap, to lose herself in that black hole which the fish's limpid and ephemeral wake has become -- a door into another space and another time. A frontier suddenly multiplies in the wood of the furniture, shining like a mirrored surface. The party stops. The waltz, suspended like a cascade of postcards, spills its notes among motionless feet.
I expected Amelia's house to be yellow, like one of her paintings. I even thought that Amelia didn't have a house, that she had always lived inside a painting. It seemed to me ridiculous and profane to take a bus to Amelia's house. Because no one takes a bus to go to a semi-abstract landscape, to a still life, or to a colonnaded interior. Can you imagine riding a route 37 bus through a maze of a collage some call Havana one afternoon in March 1986? Can you think of anything more incongruous than a Hungarian-made bus and a bunch of yellow flowers in a neighborhood with the inexplicable name of La Vibora [the Viper]?
That's why I felt strange taking a bus the first time I visited the house at Estrada Palma 261. The sun -- it should have been spring, but here it's nothing more than the beginning of summer -- crushed the city against the hot earth and enveloped it in a fume that dissolved perspective and fragmented objects and people. Everything was volatile and unstable, almost immaterial. Going through the lower section of El Vedado it seemed as if the bus were flanked by walls that blocked the view of the sea or kept me from wondering what lay beyond the nearest corner. I was afraid of going nowhere. Of making a senseless, aimless trip in a city that was like a carousel inside a kaleidoscope. I had experienced all of that before, but I didn't remember the details.
the angel, sleepless, sings, showing off himself solicitously. In front of the mirror the woman smashes the landscape with a sudden blow. Right now the angel's proximity is her only shield. Meanwhile, beyond, the smoke of a passing ship draws a parabola of coal. With this gesture the flow of dawn begins. The woman runs to her tempera colors; she wants to save all of that glass in her memoirs. The angel, dressed as a rubber plant, rushes through the arboreal night like fire. Naked, he lacerates the inner fist. Tied to the lattice gate, he defends the commotion the pupil enjoys. It was the final bet, the autumnal loss. No one saw him leave, riding a white horse, barely kissing the ashes with his trail. There was no halo in the stalking that was about to begin -- jealously. Dawn arrived like a soft-textured chalice.
When the bus reaches the more-or-less huge Jesus del Monte Boulevard, I recognize walls built of dust and smoke, the smell of rancid urine in lascivious corners of porticoes, and the carnival of noises that lays bare the display windows of aging stores. In a while we shall turn a little more to the south and then, from up high, we shall see the sea, which from that angle is like a suggestion of blue. The landscape makes unexpected movements and assumes fragile poses. I begin to ascend and descend alternatively, going through passageways, sensing a hospitable architecture. Everything is so domestic that I think I smell a faint odor of onions.
That afternoon I learned what poinsettias looked like. I saw them in a garden in La Vibora, and I also saw geraniums and bougainvillea. I saw white ironwork gates and porches with checkered tiles glowing in the shade. One felt like lying there, feeling the coolness of the tiled floor through one's bare feet. Then I thought that Amelia had no studio. That she painted thus, lying on the floor. And that's why nothing in her paintings is like what we see when we are standing up but like what we picture from the floor -- tables, landscapes, fruit, curtains, windows, wicker furniture. Why have a studio when one can lie down on the porch and from below paint the sea, the linen tablecloths, or the piano keys? Paint light and shadow, the breeze and freshness, the scents that visit this house at this time of the evening.
on the table lies the silverware, undecipherable. Meanwhile, the bells announce the zigzag, the prancing of winged trivia. In the garden conversation rings, barely touching its own image. The hues of hibiscuses and begonias, of ferns and lilies, of carnations and cacti shape the tiny rainbow that dominates over the vertical, itself dominated by the dust, which is nothing but time on the lookout. And there are other colors that are unknown so far. Wings never before seen, eyes not open before this discovery, beyond the smoke of a toylike city, between the orchard and that airy vanity table that is the mirror. Greenish-yellow. Like this fan on the wall imitating the evening, secure against gusts of wind, dancing on the hallucinated moss, seeking -- for God knows how many years -- the light precisely now discovered. But she didn't know when it was that she chatted with bewildered fish, domestic fish placing their warm eggs under the fan. This refuge grows for indistinct lovers, preserving this corner of the city, which remains marvelously intact.
I don't remember what streets I rode through. I do remember my astonishment at finding the bright white house. My steps toward the iron gate were timid. It looked like an embroidery [hovering] in midair. [I became aware of] the tranquility of the palm trees. When I stepped over the threshold I entered the world of pure sensations. I felt -- or rather intuited -- marble, crystal, wood, ceramics. I saw myself in a mirror, but I had become once more an astonished shadow drinking a glass of custard apple juice. I remember the conversation between the two women, but the words escaped me. At the end of the corridor there was a spot of blinding light. It seemed as if I were walking toward the end of the world.
And what can one say about a house? Amelia Pelaez lived and died in this house. It was built in 1912. There were few houses in that neighborhood at the time. Many similar houses rise there now. Houses that seem to talk among themselves, connected by an invisible dialogue -- with colonial furniture. Boys run from one sidewalk to the next, taking the house with them in a jolly confusion. In that same way Amelia took the house with her to many places. She took it to Paris and London, New York and Mexico. In Venice she placed it in the middle of Saint Mark's Square and went inside it to dream, facing the quadriga sustained by the shit of millennial pigeons.
And what can you say to a house? Say, "Hello house, I come from Havana. I've ridden through tortuous streets where the sun filters through like a hot sword. I came, puppetlike, hanging from the door of a bus. Let me browse for a while. I promise you that once I leave I'll forget everything. Everything except that spot of light at the end of the corridor, where the flower-bedecked garden glows in humid tranquility. Everything except that canvas on the easel, waiting for the hand that will never again touch it." The persistent odor of oil paint overpowers the environment.
the woman sitting on the rocking chair rocks the breeze. She hums a song while she rocks, almost hovering above a bird's drowsiness. The bird dreams about the woman, but she does not exist. She is only the dream of the bird, which smiles. On a cloud in the woman's dream, a streetcar floats by. Its groaning motion almost awakens the bird. It holds the bird for five seconds above the newly painted gate. Then it releases it gently over the rails, that smell like hot metal. The umbrellas watch in amazement and make comments. The rocking chair stops rocking. For an instant -- five seconds -- the bird prepares to fly away over the aerials of the neighborhood. But the woman undrapes a white and bountiful breast and feeds the bird so it can continue to dream about her being supple on the moist grass.
I touched the swinging half-door, as if I could make it real with my hands, as if I could take it with me into outer space. But my fingers lacked the necessary magic. I was there only to see -- and to remember. Some visits are made to recall a life that does not exist, someone else's past. And yet, how familiar was the opalescent crystal, the voluptuous wood. Memory makes use of such tricks to resist us. And it has buttresses of concrete appearance that vanish when we attempt to give them a place, an owner, a space they don't need. This house seemed to me to be just that. Particularly when I began to feel that I could go through walls. That one of us (the house or me) was in the wrong dimension. I was terrified by the thought that I might be but a dream of the house, a fleeting part of its memory. It was like living a Bradbury story, in which my existence always depended on being thought of and remembered by an entity whose reality escaped my control, and which furthermore endangered my very reality. Beyond metaphysics, this is an allegory of the mutation experienced by cultural objects once they have been displaced. They begin to have an existence of their own, disconnected from collective consciousness. I was an excrescence within that fragment of history, which took care only of the physical attributes, as if tangible things were the most important, as if life and death were not something beyond matter, persisting in the spirituality of gesture and not in the consistency of its outcome.
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night is intuited in her mouth. The smile is full of sharp stars. All tides flow therein with their frothy texture. They flow into her yawn through unknown channels. Everyone leaves, perhaps because the limelights have been turned off. The ocean's echo is too much for their weak souls. The surface of the sea is too vast for their timid steps. They trust their eyes too much. They're not ready for the immense blackness of the fish's mouth. Their ears praise the waltz, but they're needed in twos, at least. Only she dared, fearless. But prophets don't choose their solitude. It is revelation that opens a chasm between the chosen ones and the crowd. She moves forward, but no one sees her. She speaks, but no one hears her. Only the fish borrows her tears. Hypocritical, it fuses her into an embrace. The house is empty. Like a cadaver that has been embalmed.
"I come from Havana," I said, not knowing who had spoken for me, or with whom, because I was back on the sidewalk. The visit was over. Rather, the unvisit, because my passage through the house had been like an escape. My brief stay had not been a meeting but a dispersion. One second has gone by and I'm again walking through the clean streets of La Vibora. A century ago there were empty lots here, vegetation, open fields from which you could see the lights of Morro Castle marking the entrance to the harbor. The city then leaned over the sea, as if lapping it up. I begin to walk and think about this city, which becomes ever more thirsty, ever less visitable, where every contact hides a loss, where every stroll is labyrinthic, where every entrance could be an exit. The number 37 bus stop awaits me -- a Hungarian bus full of yellow flowers in the middle of a still life with melons.
Translated by Narciso G. Menocal and Renato E. Perez