The Miami Herald
Aug. 10, 2003

Who's who in the pantheon of Cuba's most collectible pre-Castro painters

Cuba's foremost artists made their mark in the Vanguardia period before and after World War II. They combined the modernism of post-Impressionist European artists -- from Matissean hues to fractured cubist spaces -- with the island's vibrant landscapes and people.

  Decades ago, some of their works sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars in private galleries or family sales in Cuba and the United States. But most of the artwork was locked up in Cuban museums, and the genre didn't gain commercial appeal until 1991, when Cuba lost its economic benefactor, the Soviet Union.

  The demand for such rare paintings sparked keen interest among wealthy Cuban exile collectors in Miami, Mexico City and Madrid.

  Juan Martínez, associate professor of art history at Florida International University, said that as the Vanguardia paintings fetched increasingly higher prices, a ''vacuum'' was filled by forgers trained in art schools on the island. They would make complete copies, superimpose prominent artists' styles on lesser-known works and inscribe painters' signatures with dates of the period.

  ''There was a group of artists who could do forgeries very well,'' said Martínez, author of Cuban Art and National Identity: The Vanguardia Painters, 1927-50.

  Here are thumbnail sketches of some of Cuba's top Vanguardia painters:

  Wifredo Lam: Born in Sagua la Grande, 1902. Studied in Spain and moved to Paris, where he was influenced by Picasso and others. Returned to Cuba in 1941,
  rediscovering the Cuban landscape and his Afro-Cuban heritage. Focused on graphics and ceramics in 1950s. Died in Paris, 1982. Major works included La jungla (The Jungle, 1943).

  Amelia Peláez: Born in Yaguajay, 1896. Studied in Cuba, New York and Paris, where she was influenced by Matisse, Braque and Picasso. Returned to Cuba in 1934. Enriched her cubist technique with arabesques, bright colors and baroque compositions. Focused on abstraction and geometric styles in 1950s. Died in Havana, 1968. Major works included Frutero (Fruit Dish, 1947).

  Mario Carreño: Born in Havana, 1913. Worked as graphic artist in Spain and muralist in Mexico in 1930s. Blossomed as painter in Paris before World War II, joining the same artistic circle as Picasso and Lam. Moved to New York in 1940s and began abstract painting. Returned often to Cuba but left the island for Chile permanently in 1957. Died in Santiago, 1999. Major works included El Guitarrista (The Guitar Player, 1944).

  René Portocarrero: Born in Havana, 1912. Started painting at an early age, with first showing of sketches at age 12. Traveled to Haiti, Europe and the United States, where he opened an exhibit at a New York gallery. Noted for painting a series of home interiors of his Havana neighborhood, El Cerro. Worked on murals and ceramics. Awarded in 1981 the Order of Félix Varela, one of Cuba's top cultural awards. Died in Havana, 1985.

  Mariano Rodríguez: Born in Havana, 1912. Studied under Mexican muralists. Started working on his Gallos (Roosters) series, his most popular work, in the early 1940s. Opened his first exhibition at the Lyceum in 1942 and exhibited in New York after World War II. Died in Havana, 1990.

  Carlos Enríquez: Born in Zulueta, 1900. Took painting classes in high school but went to business school in Philadelphia. Returned to Cuba in 1925 with wife, painter Alice Neel. Worked for a coal company and painted in his spare time. Lived in New York, Paris and Madrid, developing an attraction to surrealism. Returned to his homeland in 1934 and eventually moved toward expressionism. Died in Havana, 1957.