Picasso-Luna: The Center, the Fringes…and Vice Versa
By Jesús Rosado
Miami, FL. May 2008

…the “center-periphery” model is a false interpretation of the history of culture.


Richard M. Morse

Close Encounters? A Preamble

 

What elements could provide agreement or harmony – or at least affinity – between the artistic trajectory of one of the great masters of the 20th century and the increasingly prolific talent of Carlos Luna? If we allude to a teacher-pupil rapport, the answer is simple. This approach serves as a persuasive formula to soften the collision between the two gaps that separate them: one generational, the other aesthetic. A bit of well-documented reductionism forces a pact between art periods, visual language, and the cultural background of both creators.

 

In the midst of a technological era, access to culture has become so universal that an almost involuntary, inevitable communication occurs at home, among artists and their colleagues, their predecessors, and those whose legacies inform contemporary art. Artistic creation today is subject to a myriad of influences in its construction and to an ever-shrinking palette of exotic innovations. The subconscious dynamics an artist employs to keep his work genuine and energized, however, in no way implies the loss of influence from his environment. To chronicle the relationship between Picasso and Luna from an investigative as well as a curatorial perspective can serve to illustrate such subliminal approximations in their art, as well as the occurrence and fluctuation of the image throughout modernity, as is evident in the work of these two artists so far apart in time and space.

 

Picasso and Luna form, in effect, two distinct universes imbued with very personal obsessions and representational attributes. It is left to both curator and scholar to liven their inquiry with cultural-historical details without limiting themselves to marginal biographical anecdotes. The process should kindle what the French philosopher and anthropologist Paul Ricoeur accurately intuited as the poetic clamor within the concrete forms of the artwork.

To attempt to find the commonalities between the artistic languages of Picasso and Luna is an invitation not only to compare form, volume, and color, but also to articulate a concert of asynchronies, consonances, and common ground. It is precisely on that note that the seductive abstraction of comparing – or contrasting – the two artists may be found. Such rare concurrence becomes a metaphor for timeless coexistence and the restructuring of historical logic, reason enough to be on the alert for what parallels we can identify between Carlos Luna, the diligent artist, and Pablo Picasso, the colossus of the 20th century.

 

Similar Sources

 

“Picasso is not a determining model for me with respect to texture or composition. In fact, he is not even a guide when it comes to my choice of colors,” was Luna’s comment to me during a recent visit to his studio. He values Picasso more as a teacher in his attitude toward modern art and in the way he delved into tradition in order to reprocess his predecessors’ legacy to come up with innovations. Luna’s relationship with Picasso, for all its complications, is in reality the archetype of what Picasso means to the history of contemporary art. Picasso revolutionized the world of visual arts. Among artists today, there is no conceptual or aesthetic space where Picasso’s influence is not manifested. From the great Cubist reform until today, Picasso’s fundamentals remain the key and the motivation for the most daring manifestations of modernity. It is with that body of influence as his guide that Luna acknowledges Picasso.

Luna recalls that, when he was a young student, his professors showed him the most notable exponents of contemporary art. What fascinated him most about the masters was not their undisputed talent or their finished products, but the strategies they employed. As for Picasso, Luna states, “I am impressed by his meditation on art from the perspective of the art itself, how he capitalized on the work of the classics – his mentors – in order to reflect upon it, deconstruct it, and reconstruct it again without repeating previous formulas.” 

Luna’s initial contact with the fine arts and his first artistic musings took place at his grandparents’ house. There he was exposed to a collection of reproductions of works of religious art: Matthias Grünewald’s Christ, as well as those of Andrea Mantegna and Velázquez. The collection also included images painted by Spanish monks in the early Middle Ages, illustrating a later version of Saint Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse. By the time Luna reached adulthood, he rediscovered the connection between the monk’s vignettes and what he was trying to convey on the two-dimensional canvas. That was when he became aware, once more, of the magnitude of what Picasso had accomplished by drawing from such sources, as well as his undisputed mastery of creating a dialogue with the visual past. That is precisely where Luna feels indebted to Picasso.

 

From the moment Luna discovered this, he traversed time through a virtual labyrinth of influences. The young painter examined the Master as guide and set out to find the origins and influences that Picasso himself had sought. Both artists, for example, incorporated Velázquez, who in turn had drawn from El Greco and Titian. The three found their way into Picasso’s imagery the same way that, later, they informed the foundation of Luna’s style. We know that after enrolling in the San Fernando School of Fine Arts in 1897, Picasso registered as a copyist at the Prado Museum on October 13 of that same year, and that he expressed an interest in reproducing the works of Velázquez. The Prado still holds a Picasso notebook in which the young Spaniard’s interest in Velázquez is quite evident; he seems to have been particularly interested in Las Meninas. He also annotated details of Grünewald’s work. These tangents connect the pioneer of Cubism and Carlos Luna.

There are other instances. Picasso drew from Goya’s epic spirit; Luna also incorporates elements of Goya, especially his recurring anecdotal tone. A mere glance at compositional elements reveals that neither Picasso’s Guernica, painted in 1937, more than a century after Goya’s death, nor Luna’s El Gran Mambo, painted in 2007, 70 years after Guernica, can elude Goya’s phantasmagoric presence. Luna, however, avoids academic rigidity; something that is clearly noticeable is the heretical way he allows himself to be influenced.

 

A further possible common thread can be construed from references indicating that Picasso was familiar with the 10th-century Mozarabic Bible in possession of the Arab-influenced Christians of León, a region of northwestern Spain. Experts speculate that this work served as an inspiration for Guernica, and they point specifically to the painting’s animal- and plant-like anthropomorphic fusions, which are similar to those in the Mozarabic Bible. Certain aspects of Luna’s imagery are inspired by that of Saint Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, which dates back to 776 AD and has been lavishly decorated over the centuries with gold, silver, and lapis lazuli. The version of the Commentary Luna draws on is held in the repository of a monastery in Girona, Spain, and its illustrations are related to those Picasso may have seen in the Mozarabic Bible.

 

Picasso is present in Luna’s art by way of other indirect means. He makes his way to Luna through the Mexican muralists with whose work Luna came in contact during his 11-year residence in Mexico.  Picasso was a direct influence on Rufino Tamayo and Diego Rivera. Picasso also brushes against Luna through Cuban vanguard artists such as Wifredo Lam, whom Picasso befriended and on whom he exerted a singular aesthetic magnetism. It is in Lam’s work that Luna observes and reflects upon certain elements of iconographic exuberance, half-Surrealist and half-Baroque.

 

The rest of Picasso and Luna’s common sources confirm an array of influences from Greek, Roman, Etruscan, and Egyptian art; African masks; and objects and drawings from primitive cultures. Picasso was drawn to the animistic symbolism found in primitive carvings from Africa and Oceania. Luna, on the other hand, assimilates the imagery of pre-Columbian art and the legacies of ancient Egypt. Both artists share an inclination to devour the ideography of myths and rearticulate it in more universal terms. In both artists, the recycling process occurs cerebrally, in a way that combines academic considerations with the warmth of the popular culture around them.

 

Among the similarities between the two artists, we can certainly highlight the tendency to reconcile the past with new techniques and revolutionary propositions. From that process emerges an art that is unprejudiced and full of surprises. This confirms that a cutting-edge aesthetic draws from an exchange between artists and historic cultures, and from incorporating aspects of artistic creation from the so-called “periphery.”

 

On a formal level, other points of contact with the Master – basically archetypal methods that Picasso himself initiated – influence the craft of Carlos Luna. For one, I can refer to the renewed norms of figurative reconstruction that distance both artists from classic representation. The first step is usually a sketch (configuration); then follows a deliberate, non-chaotic deconstruction (de-configuration); and finally, an arbitrary phase: the dislocation and unique construction of the figure in which both artists manifest their individual interpretation of the human form and of the object (reconfiguration).

 

Something similar happens when experimenting with color. Luna employs innovative formulas, taking advantage of present-day technology to get singular effects and variables from one work to the next. In chromatic range, there are no ostensible similarities between Picasso’s work and Luna’s. Not so when it comes to the elements of light in their work: Luna grew up under the incandescent Caribbean sun of his native Pinar del Río, Cuba, while Picasso inherited a Mediterranean luminosity from his time in Horta de Sant Joan, Spain, in 1909, where the natural surroundings left an indelible imprint in the Master’s paintings and ceramics.  

A look at Picasso’s ceramics allows us to corroborate the suggested correlation between him and Luna that we have postulated, not only because both artists have worked in this medium, but also because their iconography is permeated by that tradition of myth and archaic referents already mentioned. Let us take, as a didactic exercise, several of Picasso’s ceramic works and apply them as linkable references to Luna’s storyline. Despite their own uniqueness, the similarities will be many as far as their naïve appearance; rusticity; playfulness and irony; eroticism; historic reference; and an exacerbated machismo.

 

The Center at the Periphery

 

The visual intersections between the work of Luna and Picasso reveal how the artistic production of the present generation of visual artists and that of the avant-gard has drawn from numerous common sources. It confirms continuity under the appearance of relative change occurring over time.

 

Of course, the system of intentionally organized signs that we call the pictorial image is redefined – assigned new semantic meaning – according to how codes of social communication change. Furthermore, the palette itself is affected by advances in biochemistry, which explains the continuous evolution of the value of hues and contrasts and the very manner in which the support of the artwork is treated. Postmodern visual thinking, however, reveals at every step of the way the various hybrid processes that artists engendered a century ago.

 

This exhibition, in a sense, transforms the gallery into a laboratory. In it, an intergenerational communication between one contemporary exponent and his inevitable ancestry is revealed, along with all that has been reconstructed in the process. What is new and attractive about this juxtaposition is that it provides an example of how visual referents from so-called peripheral cultures have inserted themselves into the very mainstream circles where Picasso has reigned for the last eight decades. This counterpoint can help explain present efforts to reclassify “centrism and periphery” in the arts, a process that aims to overcome the tensions of cultural postcolonialism.

 

From Picasso’s earliest steps to Luna’s present inroads, the image has been rehearsing for new challenges in visual culture. In our highly scientific present, where representation, philosophical purpose, and knowledge itself constantly intertwine, that new forging of the image has generated a sequel of pluralities, as can be seen in the iconographic comparison between these two artists.

 

The French theorist Gérard Genette points to the tendency of post-classical painters to abandon the illusion of three-dimensionality in favor of spatial two-dimensionality. Picasso and Luna are but two examples of artists who have made use of such a technical device. Each employs very personal techniques: distinct methods of managing space, light, and color. As previously noted, there are times when a specific influence can lead Luna toward solving the two aspects of figuration, inter-figuration and intra-figuration. But their convergence takes place outside strict aesthetic considerations, more in the realm of certain cultural components that are at once idiosyncratic and formative, and that weigh on Luna from the heights of Picasso with pedagogical force.

 

Thus a basic comparison between Picasso and Luna, aided by the role of technology as an instrument of power, begins to erase the theoretically forced coordinates between center and periphery. Worldwide migratory displacements caused by the great political tidal waves of the last 70 years have also helped permeate the boundaries of what is considered the center of contemporary culture and that which the center attempts to define as its orbit or periphery. Carlos Luna’s own biography is testament to such geographic transplants. That and a solid academic formation have equipped him aptly with a kind of intellectual internationalism that informs his craft. If Luna has been gradually accepted in American academia, it is due in part to his innovative contribution to the arts, but mostly because he articulates the vernacular in his visual narrative from within a universal framework.

 

Amid the incessant flow of reformulations with respect to the image and a weakening of orthodox theories, Picasso becomes a paradigm for Luna, who clings neither to postmodernism nor to the trend of breaking with the old, nor to his essential Cubanness. On the contrary, from his local standpoint, Luna reveals an emancipating dialogue with and not against “the center.” He acknowledges the value of influences, but imbues them with centrifugal purpose through his reaffirmation of intentio auctoris, or authorial intent.  His new translation of the primitive, the archaic, and the exotic can be compared with the Eurocentric avant-garde, or with “outsider art” in the United States, to cite two examples. His critical perception adopts total ambivalence, as he assumes the extremes of any given culture as a platform for takeoff. And take off he does.

 

Luna’s prolific output joins the saga, begun by the early Latin American vanguard, of a continuing crusade to persuade the world that the arts from the Old and the New Worlds are bound by the same genealogy. It is as if the patrimony of the Old had been paying attention to that of the New, and vice versa. A young Latin American culture has evolved within a Western context. Latin America has always retro-fed Europe with revolutionary approaches to aesthetic expression from within, a contribution that serves to widen the historical significance of the Old Continent. In Luna, we find a talent that is anthropologically Cuban, inclined to deconstruct and reconstruct the territory of an art that inevitably touches the borders of other major works such as Picasso’s. 

 

A Postscript

 

Recently, I read in a cable from the Spanish news agency EFE that an essay about Pablo Picasso’s Cuban family was about to be published. An investigation by biographer Rafael Inglada revealed as early as 1998 the existence of numerous Picasso relatives in the island; one side of the family is, in fact, of Afro-Cuban descent. Cuban journalist Barbara Mejides revisited these findings; her report is included in a Web page that the Cuban Ministry of Culture created for that purpose. The study was finally published in a monograph, “The Secret History of Black Picassos,” a combination of essay, testimonial, and interview. Its authors are Cuban writer Jorge Garrido and a relative of Picasso, Ramón Picasso Alfonso. Picasso knew of the existence of these blood relatives through Wifredo Lam, who often brought news to his good Spanish friend from the island.

 

This revelation flows like a larger-than-life joke. “If your blood is not part Congo, it is part Carabalí” says an old and very popular Cuban proverb that refers to the pervasiveness of African ancestry among Cubans. I smile at the fact that an exhibition of this nature could link in such familiar fashion the much-misused concepts of “center” and “periphery,” so much so that Luna’s alligators now share living quarters with Picasso’s bulls.

 

1. Richard McGee Morse (1922-2001) was a distinguished American historian best known for his studies of Latin America. He was one of the first U.S. scholars to put forth an unconventional vision of Latin America.

2. Rosado, Jesús. El flamboyán y su sombra, Conversación con Carlos Luna. In Carlos Luna: El Gran Mambo (several authors). Mexico, 2007.
3. Matthias Grünewald (c. 1428-1528) was a German Renaissance painter and hydraulic engineer. He painted mostly religious works, especially somber and anguished scenes of the crucifixion. His most famous work is the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France.
4. Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431-1506) was an Italian Quattrocento painter of the classic human figure.
5. Saint Beatus of Liébana (730-800 AD) was a monk from the Liébana Valley Monastery in Asturias, in northern Spain. His Commentary of the Apocalypse is one of the most famous works from the Spanish Middle Ages due to its theological and political meaning.

6. “Outsider Art” is a term coined by art critic Roger Cardinal to describe art created outside the traditional concepts and the established cultural institutions, reflecting a dysfunctional psychological state, an eccentric personality, or an imagination bordering on the extremes.

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