Earlier this month, we presented Alejandro Anreus’s reflection on the 1944 MoMA exhibition Modern Cuban Painters. Now, historian José Ramón Alonso Lorea brings us a closer look at one of the most influential figures in Cuban art of the 1940s, and a prime mover behind the MoMA show: the little-known cultural patron and gallerist María Luisa Gómez Mena.
The history of Cuban art seems to include only lists of movements and names of artists and masterpieces. Beyond this simplified view, however, facets of a more complex and no less exciting phenomenon have begun to emerge—including the historical role of women as art-world managers and cultural promoters. Here, historian José Ramón Alonso Lorea introduces us to the life and influential activities of one largely overlooked woman: María Luisa Gómez Mena.
María Luisa Gómez Mena (or María Luisa Amelia Florencia Gómez Vivanco) was born on October 3, 1907 in Cuba. Her family was well known on the island as owners of major sugar mills and real estate. Gómez Mena was an important patron in the “golden age» of Cuban painting, and some of the most significant painters of the vanguardia made her the subject of important portraits.
Three key activities reflect Gómez Mena’s influential cultural sponsorship. During the Spanish Civil War, she supported Spanish intellectuals who arrived in the island as refugees. She vigorously supported Cuban modern painters. And the final ten years of her life, spent between Mexico and Cuba, were devoted to publishing and film production, along with the Spanish poet Manuel Altolaguirre. In other words, she financed and participated in literary, publishing, art, and film projects.
Late in the 1930s and early 1940s, María Luisa often met with Cuban ethnologist Lydia Cabrera and the Spanish poets María Zambrano and Concha Méndez. Along with Cuban and foreign intellectuals, she took part in the social gatherings that Carlos Enríquez, “the Painter of Creole Ballads,” organized at Huron Azul, his estate on the outskirts of Havana. These are the years that Enríquez and Mario Carreño painted portraits of her. During this time, María Luisa, by personal choice, stood at the epicenter of Cuban avant-garde art and its development.
On October 9, 1941 María Luisa married the Cuban painter Mario Carreño, and launched an important project to promote young modern artists on the island. Just one year later, the couple established the Prado Gallery at 72 Prado Street in Havana, along with José Gómez Sicre, an organizer of the 1944 MoMA show Modern Cuban Painters.
The three founders based the Prado Gallery on six objectives: to be the first gallery in Cuba to present the work of all contemporary Cuban artists in group shows only; to maintain a permanent exhibition of modern Cuban art, as the gallery’s letterhead proudly proclaimed; to create a collection of modern Cuban art; to lend works to other cultural events, exhibitions, and art organizers; to publish works in print; and to sponsor and support events.
The first three objectives supported the presentation of art, turning the Prado Gallery into both a supplier and an advocate for art collecting. The second three focused on guaranteeing that each artwork occupied its own distinctive space—physical and conceptual—in a way that was almost museum-like, creating art-historical documentation for the work, and at the same time placing it within the dynamics of the international art market.
The Spanish poet and editor Manuel Altolaguirre, then in exile in Havana, recorded the gallery’s opening in the October 26, 1942 issue of the little review La Veronica: «On the left side of Havana´s Prado, facing the sea, defended by a small garden, is the Prado Gallery. Within its walls, friends of the visual arts will find a continuous and renewed activity. Nothing about death or about the glory of museums. In an art gallery, pictures cannot afford the sleep or dreams granted to the immortals. They are there temporarily.”
Elsewhere in the article, Altolaguirre specified the commercial character of the gallery and the group of modern painters and sculptors participating in the project. «The Prado Gallery presents for sale, at suitable prices, oils, watercolors, gouaches, drawings, and etchings, by Jorge Arche, Cundo Bermúdez, Diago, Carlos Enríquez, Escobedo, Max Jiménez, Maríano, Luis Martínez Pedro, Felipe Orlando Amelia Peláez, Ponce, Portocarrero, Serra Badue, and others. Sculptures by Lozano, Ramos Blanco, Rodulfo, Eugenio Rodriguez, Sicre, Núñez Booth, Esnard, Rolando Gutierrez and others.” Almost all modern Cuban painters and sculptors of the time were gathered around this gallery.
As evidenced by catalogues from this time, works of this “permanent exhibition» could be viewed in solo and group shows that were organized in other Cuban institutions. Such is the case of An exhibition of contemporary Cuban painting and sculpture (June, 1943) organized by Gómez Sicre at the Cuban Hispanic Culture Institute. Its catalogue states: “This catalogue is a courtesy of the Prado Gallery, the only permanent exhibition-gallery of modern Cuban painting. 72 Prado, Havana.”
Later, the exhibition catalogue Carreño. Oils, ducos, gouaches and watercolors (Lyceum, November 1943), stated that «Mario Carreño´s works can be obtained at the Prado Gallery, Paseo del Prado 72, Havana, and at Perls Galleries, 32 East 58th, New York.” This note confirms the close personal relationship that existed between the two commercial galleries, María Luisa´s in Havana and Kathy Perls´ in New York. In 1944 and 1945, paintings from the Prado’s “permanent exhibition» could be seen and even purchased in New York and 11 other U.S. cities, courtesy of the touring group show Modern Cuban Painters, initially organized for MoMA.
Modern sculpture was also part of the gallery’s “permanent exhibition.” In June 1944, the Lyceum in Havana presented a major exhibition, accompanied by a text by Guy Pérez Cisneros, affirming the re-emergence of this artistic practice. This exhibition, Presencia de seis escultores (Presence of Six Sculptors) was presented and sponsored by the Prado Gallery. On the back cover of the catalogue, a note reads: «The works by sculptors Roberto Estopiñán, Rolando Gutiérrez, Alfredo Lozano, José Núñez Booth, Eugenio Rodríguez, Rodulfo Tardó can be purchased at the Prado Gallery. No. Prado. 72 – Havana.”
If we examine the credits that appear in some publications of the time, more than 30 works from the Prado Gallery, or related to it, are very significant works of Cuban art now. Also through the Prado Gallery, María Luisa published books and other projects, as the monograph Carreño, 1943, with plates reproducing his works and a text by José Gómez Sicre—one of the most significant publications. The title Cuadernos de Plástica Cubana, I (Cuban Visual Arts Notebook, I), which appeared on the cover of this catalogue, indicates the intention to develop a series of similar monographs.