One of the nicest surprises of my trip to Puerto Rico was discovering an artistic tradition of which I was completely unaware. I knew that Old San Juan was steeped in history but that was it…now I realize what I have been missing all along.
I traveled to the National Gallery (which contains works from the 18th C. to the 1960s) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (for work from the last few decades) and the sweep of Puerto Rican art was reveled to me (cue sun rays beaming through storm clouds).
I had never heard of José Campeche, considered one of the greatest Rococo painters of the Americas, whose “Niño Juan Pantaléon Avilés” (1808) [pictured here] is freakishly disturbing but simultaneously angelic.
I never knew that this small island gave its two cents to the Impressionist movement in far away Paris through the guise of Francisco Oller, who exhibited with Renoir, Monet and other Frenchie big wigs while retaining a bit of his Latin American roots….his painting of pineapples was absolutely charming.
In the early 20th C. Puerto Rican artists seemed most comfortable grappling with the issues that followed the 1898 takeover of the Spanish-speaking island by the U.S. through the medium of realism. Yet, soon other modernist traditions seeped in and by the late 20th C. (proved by my visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art) Puerto Rico was fully integrated into the currents of contemporary art production.
One of the most fascinating things at the Museum of Contemporary Art (which is housed in a wonderfully spacious structure) was that their permanent collection integrated art from other Caribbean nations.
The Cuban works on display stood out and Armando Mariño’s “El arte moderno explicado a otros” (1998) [pictured below] was a favorite of mine. He perfectly captures the ironic bind many non-white and non-European artists face as they are forced to “re-learn” their traditions through the medium of Western art, which still forms the foundations of contemporary art. The image perfectly encapsulates what Puerto Rican artists (and other Caribbean art makers it seems) are faced with as they make work relevant to their lives today.
For a short useful history of Puerto Rican art during most of the 20th C. visit here.