Saturday in the Museum with Antonio

Image: Antonio Gattorno, ¿Quiere más café, Don Ignacio? (1936).

For our weekly art post we turn to Cuba.  Antonio Gattorno was of the generation before Che and Fidel, who came of age as part of a group of leftist intellectuals called El Grupo Minorista.

Gattorno connection to his homeland was strong but fraught.  During an extended early trip in Europe, his sponsoring institution worried he was falling too strongly under the influence of European painters.  Returning to Cuba, he grew in prominence as a muralist.  As part of the “Vanguardia” of artists he tapped into themes of rural Cuban life combining them with a modernist style.

His reputation received a boost when Ernest Hemingway produced a monograph on his work in 1935 – with other critical commentary provided by John Dos Passos, Ramon Guirao, Alejo Carpentier and E. Aviles Ramirez.  In 1936, Hemingway backed a solo exhibition at a New York gallery. 

In 1940, Gattorno took up residence in Greenwich Village with his wife, again raising eyebrows of his Cuban colleagues who criticized his increasingly tenuous connection to Cuba.  He also shifted his style, moving away from the pastoral to more psychological.  In 1944, The Museum of Modern Art mounted a show of “Cuban Painting of Today.”  The exhibition was organized by Jose Gomez-Sicre, who said of Gattorno, “For the last 6 years Gattorno has lived in the United States and as a result his connection with the group of modern painters in Cuba has now become rather remote.”  Gattorno was excluded from the exhibition.  He wrote to MoMA’s Alfred Barr: “I regret that I was not in Cuba at the time you visited there, but the mere fact that I was absent, living here in New York City, does not alter the fact that I am also a Cuban artist and I daresay, one who has honored the name of Cuba more than any other living Cuban artist of today.”  Ironically, Gomez-Sicre, like Gattorno, would eventually settle in the United States permanently.

Gattorno died in the United States in 1980, and his reputation is slowly being re-established.

The painting highlighted in this post, ¿Quiere más café, Don Ignacio? from 1936 is one of the most lauded of Gattorno’s paintings.  Some critics said of him that he romanticized the harsh world of the Cuban countryside rather than critiquing it.  Gattorno’s biographer, however, notes that this painting is fraught with political and class implications:

“The political and social messages of the painting are now evident. The plight of these guajiros is poverty and hard work. If they do not toil in the fields they go hungry. The men in power, the landowners, who grow wealthy from the labor of the poor, take whatever they want.  What appears on the surface to be a decorative family portrait is actually a meditatively conceived methodically composed political statement.  ‘¿Quieres mas café, Don Nicolas?’ is a Symbolist painting executed in the genre of Cuban Modernism. It is completely relevant to the contemporary social and political context of Cuba in the 1930s.”

The painting is in the collection of the Museo Nacional del Bellas Artes in Havana.


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