Plastic arts in Puerto Rico
The plastic arts in any society are an expression of the longings, feelings and realities of the society in which they are created. The artists, as individuals with the ability and talent to manage the plastic media – painting, drawing, sculpture, engraving, ceramics and photography – create works to communicate their ideas, sentiments and values with the intention that the observer will understand those messages in the works. That is why in practice and in development, the artistic forms approach a particular aesthetic sense of the public receiving the work.
Puerto Rican plastic arts are one of the most significant and defining expressions of our culture. Customs, the relationship to nature, the ethical sense, the political and religious ideas, and the vision of the history as a people are some of the displays we have seen in the arts over time. The national reality, with its particularities and accents, is presented in the context of a society that is highly complex in historical, political and socio-economic terms. The artistic community is witness and participant in this reality, while the art expresses the vision of the surroundings of the human beings who make up the society.
The first centuries of the colony
References to art in Puerto Rico in the first two centuries under Spanish rule are few. According to scholar Arturo Dávila, the oldest known work that has survived the ravages of time is a renaissance oil painting, “La Virgen de Belén,” that for four centuries remained in the Our Lady of Bethlehem Chapel in the San José Church. The mural “San Pedro González Telmo” is considered one of the oldest works created on the Island. Painted on the north wall of the crossing of the San José Church, the mural was covered at a later time and was discovered during the restoration of the church in 1978. The restoration of the San José Church, finished in 2021, has found artistic works that have yet to be studied and the findings published.
The oldest painting attributed to a Puerto Rican is “La Virgen de Monserrate” in Hormigueros. The painter was Manuel García. There is a difference of opinion between Dr. Arturo Dávila and Dr. Osiris Delgado about the authorship of the “Adoración de los Reyes Magos” in the Hormigueros Church, a work from the 17th century.
Another work to consider from this period is “Ex voto de la Virgen de Monserrate.” It tells the story of the miracle of Hormigueros, the appearance of the Virgin of Monserrate to Giraldo González when he called for protection from a bull who was charging him on the plains of Hormigueros. This legend has a singular presence in the popular Puerto Rican imagination.
There are various anonymous works from the early 17th century, such as “Santa Bárbara,” “Nuestra Señora de Valvanera,” “Nuestra Señora del Rosario” and “Nuestra Señora de la Divina Aurora.”
Defining the island personality (1750-1898)
At the beginning of the 18th century, two families that worked as gilders, decorators and carvers were the Campeches in San Juan and the Espadas in San Germán. Motivated by religious devotion, these families of artists and artisans dedicated themselves to supplying convents, churches and the faithful with devotional carvings and paintings.
Production of paintings fell almost entirely on the shoulders of José Campeche (1751-1809). Considered the best portraitist of his time in the Spanish Americas, he was the son of Tomás Campeche, a freed slave, and María Jordán, a native of the Canary Islands. Campeche studied in the family workshop.
Campeche’s works, though they did not focus on local themes, carry the taste, vision and concerns of the society that surrounded him. Examining his work, we see authentically Puerto Rican elements. Religious works dominate Campeche’s output in quantity, but in quality, it is his portraits that stand out. He met the parameters of an official painter and exalted the prominent people of the Island within a Puerto Rican setting. He incorporated items such as tropical fruits and a Puerto Rican child’s toy into these portraits, as in “Dama a caballo,” (oil painting on wood, 38.8 x 30.5 cm) and “Retrato de las hijas del gobernador de Castro,” (oil painting on canvas, 45 1/2″ x 31 ½), the island landscape as in “El retrato del Ramón de Carbajal” (panel, 45cm. X 32cm., 1792) and the “Retrato del gobernador de Castro” (oil on canvas, 236cm. X 167cm.). Historical events were an important part of Campeche’s work, such as the British invasion of 1797, which was turned back by the Island army under the command of Governor Ramón de Castro, in “Exvoto del asedio de las armas británicas a la ciudad de Puerto Rico,’’ (oil on canvas, 64 x 86.2 cm., 1797), in the Archbishop Palace collection, and other historical events, such as the representation of “El salvamento de Don Ramón Power,” (oil painting, 43 x 31 cm., 1788).
Along with the anecdotal elements incorporated into the portraits of the powerful, Campeche showed the social and political position of his subjects. These portraits reveal the Puerto Rican society of the era, its prominent personalities, governmental officials, military officers, clergy, scientists and society personalities. Campeche shared with Paret an affection for miniatures, in which they carefully examined objects to discover and depict minute details in the work.
Campeche’s contact with European painting came through meeting Luis Paret y Alcázar (1746-1799). Paret, a painter, came to Puerto Rico in 1775 when he was exiled from Spain by King Carlos III. The painter’s drunken sprees with the brother of the king in Spain caused an uproar and he was exiled to Puerto Rico as punishment. Paret, accustomed to life in the Spanish court, tried to convince the king to allow him to return but he did not obtain permission until 1777.
Until that time (1775), Campeche’s painting showed a linear nature that imparted a certain hardness to his work. With lessons from Paret, his work took a new direction marked by use of color that evoked the influence of the Rococo blue and light red tones.
Campeche especially focused on religious themes. The models for his religious paintings were the engravings in the mannerism style that he studied in the treasured books in his library. Among his religious paintings are “Ánimas,” “La Sagrada Familia,” “Visión de San Francisco,” “San Felipe Vinicio,” “Santa Teresa de Jesús,” “Virgen del Rosario,” “Virgen de las Mercedes,” “Virgen del Carmen,” and “Virgen de Belén,” of which he made several copies.
The portrait was Campeche’s greatest expertise. Anecdotal and historical in nature, and showing great attention to detail, Campeche’s outstanding works include “Gobernador D. Miguel Antonio de Ustáriz,” “Dama a Caballo,” “Capitán D. Ramón de Carvajal” and “María de los Dolores Martínez de Carvajal,” among others.
The painter began to introduce references and elements of the Puerto Rican landscape into his portraits. Examples are the landscape of the city of San Juan shown in the painting of Governor Ustáriz, in “Las hijas del gobernador D. Ramón de Castro” (1797), in which one of the girls holds a maraca and there is a pineapple on the floor, and, in the portrait of Governor D. Ramón de Castro (1800), the panoramic view of the Condado and Puerta de Tierra.
The first three decades of the 19th century
From the death of Campeche to the emergence of the works by painter Francisco Oller (1833-1917), many painters carried on the tradition in Puerto Rico. Among these artists are Florentino Martínez, Petrona Font, Antonio Viera, Pedro Crebasol, Pascual Cuevas, Felipe Durán, Manuel Felipe Castro, Vicente García Sahagan, Miguel Orlando, Joaquín Goyena (died 1834), Francisco Goyena O’Daly (1785-1855), Juan Fagundo (died 1847) of Spain, Juan Cleto Noa, Amalia Cleto (1826-1900), Magdalena Cleto and Asunción Cleto (1842-1906), Ramón Atiles y Pérez (1804-1875), Eliah Metcalf (born 1785), Jenaro Pérez Villamil (1807-1854), Charles Walker (died 1843), Samuel F. B. Morse (1791 -1872), Pedro Pablo Pommayrac (1819-1880), Adolfo Marín Molinas (1858-1914), José Cuchi y Arnau (1857-1936), Pedro Lovera (born 1815), Petrona and Beatriz Massana (1820-1896), Cipriana De Andino (1794) and Bernardina Rubin De Celis.
Artists from Spain and other foreign countries visited the island, but it was Oller who gave painting a sense of national identity and defining character.
Colonial government stimulus of the arts
During the second half of the 19th century, the Island government sponsored activities aimed at economic progress and cultural activity. Among these activities, the Exposition Fairs had the purpose of stimulating industrial, agricultural and artistic activity and demonstrating the development of the last Spanish colonies in the Americas. The Fairs were the forum for exhibiting and spreading the arts for fifty years. They were an official governmental platform for presenting and demonstrating the development and quality of the plastic arts being done in Puerto Rico.
The first Exposition Fair was held in San Juan in 1854. It was followed by other fairs in San Juan in 1855, 1860,1865, 1871 and a fair in the city of Ponce in 1882. The fair celebrating the fourth centennial of the discovery of Puerto Rico took place in 1893. It was the last during Spanish rule of the Island.
At the first fine arts fair, 42 works were exhibited by 10 artists. Participation increased in the second fair. Over the years, there were more opportunities to exhibit art works and have them appreciated by a larger number of Puerto Ricans.
Participation by women in these fairs was important and has not been researched enough to do justice to their work. Among those exhibiting at the Exposition of 1855 were Tomasa González, of Caguas; Emeteria Cebollero, of Manatí; Josefa Lloreda, of Mayagüez; and María de la Paz Carrión (1839-1911), of Gurabo.
In the 1865 fair were Elisa Racine de Hecht, and Cecilia St. Víctor de Goico (died 1891), both of San Juan. In the fair of 1882, Rita Miticola y Cabrera, and Matilde L. de Lohse, also of San Juan. Also active were Amparo Fernández Náter (1871-1943), Rosario Dabán (1849-1909), Obdulia Cottes (1867-1930), Sievens de Llensa (1859), Micaela Inés Finlay (1806-1884), Victoria Finlay (1872), Sara Finlay, López de Cabello, María Eulate (1871-1961), Adela Lynn, Rosa Echeveste, Carmen Echeveste, Emilia Finlay de Waymouth (1869-1926), Lorenza Guerra (1875-1966), María Garriga (1881-1952), Caridad Garriga, Rita Serra Palau, Lucia Arias y Ariste, and Herminia Meitz.
Francisco Oller y Cestero
Oller y Cestero is the most outstanding Puerto Rican painter of the 19th century. His instruction on the island began in the studio of Juan Cleto Noa between 1844 and 1845. He later studied in Madrid and Paris (1858-1865) at Thomas Couture’s studio along with Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley, among others. It was during this first time in Paris that he learned of the work of Gustave Courbet, a realist painter who was one of the most distinguished of his time. Later, after his participation in the Paris exhibition of 1864, he returned to Puerto Rico and between 1866 and 1872 he created several works that illustrated his abolitionist thinking and his societal concerns. Works from this period include “Un boca abajo,” “Castigo del negro enamorado,” “Almuerzo de ricos,” “Almuerzo de pobre,” “Una madre esclava y libre a los sesenta.” These works on the topic of slavery were completely realistic and presented a story without using symbols to communicate the concept. To accomplish his societal task, realism was essential. He stayed in Puerto Rico until 1873, when he began his second stay in Paris (1873-1878).
During this period, Oller actively participated in the impressionism movement. He incorporated this style by making light and color preeminent. Light became the protagonist and defined color and tone, effects that can be seen in his country scenes, in both his French and Puerto Rican landscapes. This form of painting allowed him to discover how light affects color.
A participant in the development of impressionism in France, Oller opened the doors of Puerto Rican art to the modern art of the time with his works that put Puerto Rico on the map internationally. Both “Paisaje francés II” and “El estudiante” are emblematic works of impressionism for their use of light and color, the intimate setting and the natural representation. However, his social conscience led him to use realism as the stylistic language that best expressed his social concerns, which is why realism and impressionism co-exist in his work. The topic determined which language was used. The realism of “El velorio” provides a glimpse through the door and window of two impressionist landscapes. Oller brought Puerto Rican customs, the beauty of the landscape and social problems to his paintings. Realism allowed him to create works that showed his deep dislike for social injustice and his objection to the despotic governmental authorities of his time. Some of his works of social criticism include “Un boca abajo,” “Castigo del negro enamorado,” “Almuerzo de ricos,” “Almuerzo de pobre” and “Una madre esclava.” “El velorio” is Francisco Oller’s master work. In it, he sharply criticizes the custom of the wake. The work presents the excesses and lack of decorum over the death of a child. Its anti-clerical position is obvious, as well as his criticism of racism, social inequality, and frivolous customs as noble values are incarnated in the black character Pablo, the only one who takes a dignified attitude toward the death.
Impact of the invasion in 1898
In 1898, the United States invaded Puerto Rico as a result of the Spanish-America War. A new order was imposed on the Island which, among other changes, began a fierce program of Americanization that would impact education, civic life, and religious institutions and would try to eliminate Spanish as the language of Puerto Ricans. Although the economic situation in Puerto Rico was precarious, it is important to emphasize that its society had firm beliefs, values and traditions that characterized it and tied it to the Spanish culture, as well as the Taino and African heritages.
As a result of the dislocations caused by the invasion, the arts showed a desire to identify and define the characteristics of a threatened identity. The landscape, characters, customs and ways of Puerto Rican reality were the source of inspiration. The figure of the rural jíbaro arose as an icon of cultural affirmation and resistance to the cultural aggressions and the rejection by a portion of society of the Puerto Rican culture. The search for identity can be seen in literature, music and the theater, permeating the psyche of the Puerto Rican people, and it can also be seen in the plastic arts. The work of artists, all born before 1898, reveal this will.
Manuel E. Jordán (1853-1919), Ramón Frade (1875-1954), Miguel Pou (1888-1968), Oscar Colón Delgado (1889-1968) and Juan Rosado (1891-1962) recreated in the landscape and figures an attempt to define what was Puerto Rican. In their works, they homed in on the Puerto Rican identity, through customs and folklore, the beauty of the landscape and daily life. Manuel Jordán, with his predilection for landscapes, was influenced by his teacher, Francisco Oller. The landscape of his work is a mute witness, presenting little human participation or interaction of people in the urban settings of Jordán’s work.
The work of Ramón Frade reveals the need to define the characteristics of the island personality. His characters are men and women of strong character, hardworking like the jíbaro in “El pan nuestro,” his most emblematic painting, and representative of traditional customs and work.
A similar approach can be seen in the paintings of Miguel Pou. Works such as “Río Portugués con lavandera” and “Paisaje del sur de Puerto Rico” show his desire to exalt the beauty of the land. In his style, Pou used an impressionist palette with a marked tendency toward realism. Oscar Colón Delgado, in a more romantic form, followed the footsteps of his contemporaries. Landscapes such as “Mañana de primavera,” “Casita de la loma” and “Lavandera” won him excellent reviews. Meanwhile, the work of the popular Juan Rosado brought attention to scenes of San Juan, as shown in works such as “La espera,” “Casita con dos escaleras” and “Puerta de Tierra,” among others.
Artists such as Mario Brau Zuzuárregui (1871-1941), Julio Medina (1867-1937) and Félix Medina (1881-1927), Juan A. Rosado (1891-1962), Rafael Ríos Rey (1911-1980), Rafael Palacios (1905–1993), José López de Victoria (1898-1948), Fernando Díaz Mackenna, and Elías Levis Bernal (1871-1942) were active in producing art works. The artists of this period persevered despite living in poverty and isolation.
Foreign artists and their contributions
Various events affected the development of the plastic arts and brought a new wave of foreign artists to the Island. As a result of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), artists and intellectuals found open doors at the University of Rico for teaching and creating. The Island was a propitious place where Spanish artists such as Alejandro Sánchez Felipe (1895-1971), Gonzalo Gil de León (1873), Cristóbal Ruiz Pulido (1881-1962), Ángel Botello (1913-1986), Francisco Vázquez “Compostela” (1898-1988), Carlos Marichal (1923-1969), Eugenio Fernández Granell (1912-2001), Franz Howanietz (1897-1972) from Vienna and George Warreck (1899-1991) and Walt Dehner (1898-1975) from the United States were able to teach.
With the arrival of Walt Dehner in 1929 as a professor, teaching of art began at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. He organized exhibitions on the works of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Meanwhile, artists such as Sánchez Felipe, Cristóbal Ruiz, Carlos Marichal, and Fernández Granell began teaching at various educational institutions to help prepare a new generation of artists. The Art Department at Inter-American University in San Germán began courses in 1932. Edith Morris and Maria Luisa Penne de Castillo (1913-2005) taught in the first years of the department and were later joined by Jaime Carrero, Noemí Ruiz, (1931) Sadot Marchani, Genoveva Comas, and others. This institution has since trained a huge number of artists and art educators in Puerto Rico.
From the 1920s through the 1940s, official efforts began to help Boricua artists exhibit their works. It was not the Island government that began these efforts. It was the universities and the New Deal programs that created an environment supportive to the arts and exhibitions. The colonial agenda brought to the Island federal employees, teachers, university professors and, above all, ministers and workers to the Protestant churches. Without the change of political control of the Island, the number of ministers, associated health workers and teachers, along with their families, who came to the Island would have probably been less. The U.S. artists organized the Professional League of American Artists. Setting aside ideological concerns in their works, the U.S. artists’ work was markedly different from that of the Puerto Rican artists with whom they shared exhibition halls in that time. U.S. artists did not show concerns about the political order or national compromise, but instead their works responded to the artistic trends of the era. Both local and foreign artists participated in the league.
Among the projects of the Puerto Rican Emergency Relief Administration (PRERA) was the establishment of four academies of drawing and painting: in San Juan, directed by Alejandro Sánchez Felipe, in Arecibo directed by González Seijo (1907-1971), in Mayagüez directed by Oscar Colón Delgado and in Ponce directed by Horacio Castaing (1899-1935). Artists such as Luisina Ordoñez, Augusto Marín (1921-2011), Guillermo Rodríguez (1913 – 2004), Fran Cervoni (1913-2001) and José Rafael Juliá studied at these schools.
Young artists of the 1930s and 1940s
Some young artists settled in the United States in search of a better environment for their art. The experiences of Luis Quero Chiesa (1911-1994) and Rafael Palacios (1905-1993) are examples of this group. For them, the representation of Puerto Ricanness became an object of exploration. Quero Chiesa, with popular images with tones of tenebrism, sought a new image of the jíbaro in works such as “El jacho.” Meanwhile, Palacios portrayed blacks and the racist environment surrounding him. The works “Pena negra” and “Tabú” present this theme that was novel in the national arts and served as a reminder of blackness in our society.
The 1940 generation
The style of the art that preceded the 1950s generation was predominantly realism. In the 1940s and 1950s, artists who had emigrated or who had served in the U.S. military in World War II returned to Puerto Rico after having had the opportunity to study at art schools abroad.
In 1940, a new exhibition hall was inaugurated at the Puerto Rican Athenaeum and in 1945 the Edna Coll Academy of Art was founded, which operated for four years. In that decade, government institutions arose that channeled a vigorous artistic movement that launched the school of engraving and the national poster. When the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was established in 1952, artists who joined the government workshops channeled their aesthetic sense into the search for affirmation and national identity.
The first government workshop to have an impact on the arts was the Cinema and Graphics Workshop of the Parks and Recreation Department, which transformed into the Division of Community Education (DIVEDCO) in 1949 and remained active until 1989. U.S. artist Irene Delano (1919-1995) directed the workshop, which produced posters and graphic works with social and educational messages. The workshop employed young artists, some without formal education in the arts, who showed talent. It was there that the artists of the 1950s Generation were formed. These young artists were educated in the techniques of serigraph, a medium of high pictorial quality that does not require a press and allows hundreds of impressions, making it the ideal method of production. Among those who worked there were Lorenzo Homar (1913-2004), Rafael Tufiño (1922-2008), Carlos Raquel Rivera (1923-1999), Julio Rosado del Valle (1922-2008), Antonio Maldonado (1920-2006), José Meléndez Contreras (1921-1998), Manuel Hernández Acevedo (1921-1988), Eduardo Vera (1926-2006), José M. Figueroa (1931-1964), Félix Bonilla Norat (1912-1992), David Gotía (1932-2004), Isabel Bernal (1935), Carlos Osorio (1927-1984) and Francisco Palacios (1916-1972), among others.
In 1950, artists Lorenzo Homar, José Antonio Torres Martinó (1916-2011), Julio Rosado del Valle and Félix Rodríguez Báez (1929-2013), established the Puerto Rican Arts Center (CAP). Using the medium of engraving, they produced works that emphasized that which was Puerto Rican in media that was easy to exhibit and acquire. The CAP’s work was replete with social and political issues that responded to a desire to express the feelings of the people. The Industrial Development Agency designated a board in 1954 that commissioned a series of murals to decorate factories on the Island. Painters Rafael Ríos Rey, Rafael Tufiño and José A. Torres Martinó participated in that project.
Other factors contribute to the development of national arts
The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP) was another central element in the surge in plastic arts in the 1950s. Created in 1955 to strengthen and promote Puerto Rican identity and culture, the ICP promoted the exhibition of art works. It created museums, collections, exhibition halls, traveling exhibitions, the San Juan Biennial of Latin American and Caribbean Engraving, which became in 2004 the San Juan Poly/Graphic Triennial, and sponsored scholarships for artists to develop their talents. In 1957, it established the Graphic Arts Workshop directed by master artist Lorenzo Homar. It was there that the next generation of artists formed, such as José Alicea (1928), Myrna Báez (1931-2018), Antonio Martorell (1939), José Rosa (1939), Jesús Cardona (1950), Luis Alonso (1951) and Luis Maisonet Ramos (1952).
A series of events stimulated the development of a strong plastic arts scene in Puerto Rico in this time as artists commented, presented and recreated the world around them. The late 1940s and into the 1950s and 1960s was a period of great economic development as the Puerto Rican economy transformed from agrarian to industrial with all of the disruptions that implies.
In 1951, the first formal museum in Puerto Rico was founded, the Museum of History, Anthropology and Art at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. From its beginnings, it housed a valuable collection of archaeological artifacts and art works from the original inhabitants of the Island, especially from the Taino period, as well as historical documents. It also had a fine collection of paintings, engravings and posters by Puerto Rican artists. In 1959, Luís A. Ferré founded the Ponce Museum of Art, an institution with a magnificent collection of European art, as well as a solid collection of Puerto Rican art. In 1965, the museum moved from an old house on Isabel Street in the historical zone of the city to its current building, designed by Edward Durell Stone, which is itself an architectural jewel, located on Las Americas Avenue.
The Pintadera Gallery, opened in 1955 by photographer Samuel Santiago, served for many decades as an exhibition hall and place for selling Puerto Rican art. In 1959, another significant gallery opened, the Campeche, founded by Domingo García (1930). It was also a school-workshop for a generation of young artists, among them Rafael Rivera Rosa (1942) and José Rosa (1939).
The generation of the 1950s
The so-called 1950s Generation burst into painting and engraving with great creativity, adopting contemporary styles into their language. We will mention here those who deserve inclusion in this general essay for their formative influence, their extensive works both in number and in media, or their contribution to the renewal of the plastic arts. This generation worked in evolving styles of plastic arts and joined various trends of modern painting.
Diversity of approaches to styles and trends is a constant among the Puerto Rican artists of this and other generations. This diversity is consonant with each artist defining a personal style. Between figurative and abstract are styles such as realism, social realism, expressionism, abstract expressionism, surrealism, primitivism and other trends that enrich the national arts.
Within the figurative trend we can mention artists such as José Oliver (1901- 1979), Luisina Ordóñez (1909-1975), Rafael Ríos Rey (1911-1980), Luisa Géigel (1916-2016), Rafael Tufiño (1928-2008), Lorenzo Homar (1913-2004), Fran Cervoni (1913-2001), Osiris Delgado (1920-2017), María Rodríguez Señeriz (1928), María Luisa Penne de Castillo (1914 -2006) and Alfonso Arana (1927-2005).
Julio Rosado del Valle (1922-2008) was the first to approach abstract. His work broke realism patterns of recognizable images without ceasing to be Puerto Rican. His painting is known for the vibrant use of color and composition. Olga Albizu (1924-2005), Víctor Linares (1929), and Roberto (Boquio) Alberty (1930–1985) are part of the first generation of artists who adopted abstraction as a medium of expression. Joining them later were Noemí Ruiz (1931), Luis Hernández Cruz (1936), Jannette Blasini (1941-2003) and Marcos Yrizarry (1936-1995).
Expressionism was cultivated by Puerto Rican artists who, parting from the surrounding reality, adopted an attitude of strong expression and great energy. José A. Torres Martinó (1916-2011), Augusto Marín (1921-2011), Félix Rodríguez Báez (1929-2013), Domingo García (1932), Myrna Báez (1931-2018), Francisco Rodón (1934) and Carlos Irizarry (1938-2017) filled their works with great expressive strength. Julio Rosado del Valle also explored abstract expressionism on occasion with great strength and control, such as in “Vejigantes.” With this incursion into expressionism, our artists created interpretations that were not limited by objective reality, with the work taking on the subjective interpretation of the artist.
Also exceptional was the incursion of our artists into experiments with a local form of surrealism. University centers provided the environment for more “universalist” styles not adopted by the 1950s Generation and its Puerto Ricanist agenda. Spanish master Eugenio Fernández Granell, who stayed in Puerto Rico from 1951 to 1955, promoted surrealism in his work “Los limones voladores.” Artists such as Félix Bonilla Norat with “La violencia,” “Cuatro brutos,” “Pegaso y mujer” and brothers José Doval (1917-1957) and Narciso Doval (1916-1970) with “Dos caras,” Luis Maisonet, with “Víspera del eclipse” and, above all, Carlos Raquel Rivera with “La enchapada,” created works that, through their images, interpretation and composition, represented the best surrealist painting of Puerto Rico, perhaps without intending to do so.
The neo-figurative movement did not move away from recognizable images but the artist molded and recreated them to introduce a new creative interpretation through shape and color. The artist presents a conceptual interpretation of the image. It is not realism, but it is not abstract in intention. It is the evolution of the image through the vision and palette of the painter. Neo-figurative is the evolution of a painting, which reinvents the image. José Meléndez Contreras (1921-1998), Carlos Osorio (1927-1984), Rafael Rivera García (1929-2014) and Jaime Carrero (1931-2013) cultivated this style.
Primitivism is characterized by a simplified form of approaching the image presented in the work, through the use of brilliant color and because the spaces have a non-scientific perspective. Without any training in the arts, Manuel Hernández Acevedo distinguished himself as an excellent primitivist painter, as did José Ruiz. Hernández’s work interpreted his surroundings through line and color, as in, for example, “La capilla” or the serigraph “Casas en el mangle.”
The decade of the 1960s
The economic prosperity and rapid transformation of Puerto Rican society in the second half of the 20th century opened new horizons for Puerto Rican art and more artists studied abroad. The mass media brought our artists closer to international trends. With greater opportunities to travel and participate in international events, Puerto Rican plastic artists embraced new movements. The socio-political events of the 1960s, such as the Vietnam War, the university strikes, the Popular Democratic Party’s loss of hegemony and the growth of cultural and political annexationism with the New Progressive Party, kept some artists immersed in art with political content. Others branched off to explore new contemporary currents.
In this period, artists such as Antonio Martorell (1939), Jaime Carrero, Francisco Rodón, Myrna Báez, José Alicea, Julio Rosado de Valle, Roberto Moya (1931-2008), Rafael Ferrer (1933), Carlos Irizarry, Marta Pérez (1934-2003), Nelson Sambolín (1944), Lope Max Díaz (1943), Paul Camacho (1929-1989), Antonio Navia (1945), Carmelo Sobrino (1948), Andy Bueso (1950-2000), Carmelo Fontánez (1945), Olga Albizu, Jeannette Blasini,(1941-2003), Roberto Alberty, Rafael Colón Morales (1941), John Balossi (1931-2007), Jaime Romano (1942) and Domingo García, among others, produced a rich output of works that moved between abstract and figurative, experimental and traditional.
Joining that group were artists such as Betsy Padín (1933), Roy Kavestsky (1946), Julio Suárez (1947), Elizam Escobar (1948-2021), René Santos Irizarry (1934), Antonio Cortés (1951), José Bonilla Ryan (1947-2001), Daniel Lind (1953), Nick Quijano (1953), Oscar Mestey (1955), Pepón Osorio (1955), Arnaldo Roche (1955-2018), Carlos Collazo (1956-1990), Dennis Mario Rivera (1957), Anaida Hernández, Jorge Zeno (1956), Rafael Trelles (1957), Eric Tabales (1962), María de Mater O’Neill (1960) and Nora Rodríguez Vallés (1957).
The 19790s brought the most bitter controversies about Puerto Rican culture in modern-day Puerto Rico. Debates and activism among all the cultural classes in Puerto Rico resulted from the New Progressive Party policy of downplaying cultural identity in favor of an assimilationist agenda. Similar to the controversies about national identity in the early 20th century, the culture encountered a governmental posture of lack of support, censorship and even distortion of the culture.
Artists lost their teaching jobs and many who did not support official policy were censored. This also caused many artists to leave Puerto Rico. The Contra Biennial of Latin American and Caribbean Engraving was created with a boycott by Puerto Rican and many Latin American artists of what had until then been one of the most prestigious biennials in the hemisphere. The Brotherhood of Graphic Artists and the Cultural Defense Committee were organizations that arose as a reaction to the crisis. Other organizations of artists were active in this period of time, such as the Association of Women Artists, the Puerto Rico Sculptors Association and the Association of Abstract Artists.
Between 1977 and 1984, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture was dismantled, causing a setback in the recovery and preservation of cultural artifacts that still has effects today. These actions stopped with new mandates from Governor Rafael Hernández Colón beginning in 1985, although they left scars that have been difficult to heal.
Engraving, a medium favored by the Puerto Rican Art Center of the 1950s and the Division of Community Education, became the medium of choice for many artists who moved between painting and engraving. Lorenzo Homar, considered by many to be the father of Puerto Rican graphic arts, Rafael Tufiño, Carlos Raquel Rivera, Julio Rosado del Valle, José Alicea, Myrna Báez, José Rosa and Antonio Martorell produced excellent results in both media.
A thriving new generation of artists who distinguished themselves at an international level almost exclusively in this medium consisted of María Emilia Somoza (1938-2020), Susana Herrero (1945), Isaac Novoa (1945), Luis Abraham Ortiz (1946), Carmelo Sobrino (1948), Consuelo Gotay (1949), Joaquín Reyes (1949-1994), Manuel García Fonteboa (1949), Analida Burgos (1949), Jesús Cardona, Mercedes Quiñones (1951-1999), Luis Maisonet, Lizette Lugo (1956), Diógenes Ballester (1956), Haydée Landing (1956), Martín García (1960), and Marta Pérez García (1965), among others. With new, non-toxic techniques, engraving today is in a new stage of exploration.
In addition to what we have mentioned in painting and engraving, Puerto Rican artists have made important contributions in sculpture, ceramics, drawing and photography.
Puerto Rican art today
In the Puerto Rican plastic arts today, we find a strong group of young artists approaching new art languages, along with others who continue the traditional media. This shows artistic production that is on par with the latest trends caused by globalization. Conceptual art, installation art, construction, multi-media, the use of cyberspace and electronic art have found fertile ground on the Island. Artists such as Carlos Ruiz Valarino (1967), Arnaldo Morales (1967), Enoc Pérez (1967), Aarón Salavarría, María Navedo Rivera (1949), Heriberto Nieves (1957), Eric French (1969), Víctor Rodríguez Gotay (1978), Jesús Ortiz Torres, Ramón L. López Colón (1972), Reynaldo González Bravo (1968), Marta Lahens (1975), Charles Juhasz Alvarado (1965), Cacheila Soto (1979), Miguel Luciano (1972), Ricardo Ramírez (1958), Rosa Irigoyen (1951), Roberto Barrera, Carlos Marcial Torres, Néstor Otero (1949-2021), Wilfredo Chiesa (1952), Juan Sánchez (1955), José Morales (1947), Carlos Dávila Rinaldi (1958), Rafael Colón Morales (1941), Carlos Fajardo (1953-2017), Antonio Fonseca Vázquez (1972), and Raquel Quijano (1972) make up part of the new generation of Puerto Rican art today.
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Torres Martinó, Antonio. “El arte puertorriqueño de principios del siglo XX”. http://cmas.siu.buap.mx/portal_pprd/work/sites/arpa/resources/PDFContent/455/arte_puerto.pdf. Retrieved 5/3/2021.
Vidal, Teodoro. “Cuatro campeches de regreso a Puerto Rico”. San Juan: Ediciones Alba, 2011.
Author: Dr. María García Vera
Updated: April 12, 2021
Revision: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo, May 9, 2021