BY FABIOLA SANTIAGO | Miami Herald
He studied alongside Dalí, rubbed elbows with Picasso in Paris, bantered about art in East Village bars with De Kooning and Pollack, and painted for years at the ominous address of 10 Downing St.
Yet Antonio Gattorno, a pioneer of the modern art movement in Cuba, is a master few know.
‘‘His paintings of Cuban guajiros were key in fashioning a national identity in art . . . but he died hidden from view, ignored by the art world,’’ says his biographer, Sean M. Poole, author of the retrospective book, Gattorno: A Cuban Painter for the World (Arte al Día International, $100).
Perhaps no more.
Poole and Miami art dealer Frank Padron, who became ‘‘obsessed with restoring Gattorno’s reputation to its rightful place among the Cuban masters,’’ teamed up several years ago to unearth Gattorno’s paintings and life story.
Their detective work led to the book and an exhibit by the same title at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables that celebrates Gattorno’s centennial (1904-2004) with a retrospective of his works and memorabilia from his equally colorful life.
The exhibit features more than 50 paintings and drawings that span Gattorno’s 60 year-career. It includes the masterpieces La Siesta (1940) and Omaggio al Quattrocento (1945), in primitive and surrealist styles, respectively. Gattorno himself labeled his post-primitive work as “surrealistic romanticism of classical discipline.’‘
Also on display is a book about Gattorno’s work authored by Hemingway as well as a 1936 Esquire magazine feature on Gattorno’s paintings of ‘‘the poor white of Cuba,’’ as John Dos Passos called the countryside guajiros.
How Gattorno’s most valuable paintings were unearthed is as surreal as their content.
After Gattorno’s death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1980 in Acushnet, Mass., his widow, Isabel Cabral, sold 20 of his best paintings for $20,000 to a neighbor. He was an antique collector and thought his late neighbor’s paintings might be worth something someday because he was Hemingway’s friend.
The man kept the paintings—including La Siesta, a lovely, naked guajira taking a nap in her countryside hut, considered Gattorno’s pivotal work—stashed in his attic for years.
Until Padron and Poole, the husband of Cabral’s niece, tracked them down.
‘‘You can’t imagine what it is like to be in this house, walk up flight after flight of stairs, and to find all these masterpieces stacked up against a wall, surrounded by junk, in an attic,’’ says Padron, who bought the pieces for a sum he won’t disclose.
La Siesta, which Padron sold to a Cuban-American Miami collector, is valued between $500,000 and $600,000, but Padron calls it “priceless because it’s a historic piece.’‘
A child prodigy, Gattorno was enrolled at the San Alejandro Academy in Havana at age 12 and studied under Leopoldo Romañach, mentor to several of the Cuban masters.
As a third-year student, Gattorno painted a remarkably mature portrait of a woman who worked for his family, Dolores/La Criandera (1919), and it won a national competition, earning him a scholarship to study in Europe.
He left Cuba at 16, living and studying in Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and Germany for seven years, where he was ‘‘heavily influenced by the masters of the Italian Renaissance, the French Romanticism of Ingres, Gauguin’s Modern Primitivism and even Art Deco,’’ Poole says.
Gattorno studied alongside Dalí, and his influence is evident in Gattorno’s surrealist paintings like Memories of Rome (1943), featured in one of the exhibit’s posters. But the two had a rocky relationship because Gattorno did not like Dalí‘s clownish behavior nor his penchant for self-promotion, Poole says.
Back in Cuba, Gattorno exhibited and won prizes but had made a formidable enemy—the most important art critic of the times, Jose Gomez Sicre.
The two had a feud dating to their youth. Sicre wrote negatively about Gattorno and kept him from important exhibits, including the 1944 show Cuban Painting of Today at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
‘‘Even in death in the middle ‘80s, he was still castigating Gattorno, saying that while undisputably his work had merit, his arrogance canceled out his aesthetic contributions,’’ Poole says. “With talk like that, Gomez Sicre was very successful in poisoning opinion.’‘
But Gattorno also made a formidable friend—Hemingway.
The two met in 1932 at a party in Havana for photographer Walker Evans, who was working on a book on Cuba.
Their friendship blossomed, and the artist often went fishing with Hemingway on the writer’s famous boat, Pilar. Hemingway helped publish a monograph about the painter’s work and wrote eloquently about his style, along with Passos and Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier.
He also changed Gattorno’s life when he talked him into moving to New York in the late ‘30s.
He sponsored Gattorno’s first exhibit in the United States at the Georgette Passedoit Gallery in New York in 1936. And it was at the World’s Fair in New York in 1939 that Gattorno met the woman who became his wife of 40 years. An executive secretary to the CEO of National Distillers, Isabel Cabral made it possible for Gattorno to devote his life to painting without financial concerns. (Gattorno had been married for a short time to Lillian, a woman he had brought from France.)
Gattorno returned to Cuba in 1946 but never permanently, and he was sometimes attacked for not being Cuban enough—his guajiros too much like Gauguin’s Tahitians, his coffee pot more modern than the typical Cuban tetera.
Still, Gattorno exhibited both in Cuba and the United States to accolades. His primitive masterpiece ¿Quiere más cafe, Don Nicolás? (More Coffee, Don Nicolás?, 1938) and Mujeres junto al río (Women by the River, 1927) hang at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana.
But his career suffered.
‘‘He was not into self-promotion and he lacked the proper career management,’’ Poole says.
He snubbed the major media twice.
In the early ‘50s, when he was living on 10 Downing St. in Greenwich Village, LIFE magazine sent a reporter and photographer to do a piece on him. The journalists told Gattorno they were also featuring another painter who lived on 10 Downing St. across the Atlantic—Winston Churchill, who dabbled in watercolors on the weekend.
To all this, Gattorno responded that while Churchill was a great statesman, ‘‘as an artist, he’s not fit to wash my brushes,’’ and sent the journalists on their way.
‘‘This kind of outspokenness at the expense of promoting his art and his name cost him,’’ Poole says.
In an earlier clash with the press, Gattorno was working on a mural at the Bacardi headquarters in the new Empire State building in New York when the white goat he had brought as a model drank some paint thinner, chewed himself free of the rope, and ran amok inside the building.
Immersed in his mural, Gattorno only noticed after he heard the commotion of men in suits running after a goat floor after floor. The press flocked to the building.
Angry that they had not shown up when Bacardi’s public relations staff invited them to watch the artwork in progress, but were interested now in a crazed goat named El Señor, Gattorno kicked them out. Then, he hung a sign at his work site: “No spectators allowed. Do not wait until asked to leave.’‘
The mural Waiting for Coffee (1938), is now at the Bacardi building on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami—the infamous white goat included.
Such stories, their historic protagonists, the touch of intrigue—and exhibits of the master’s fantastical artwork—are finally attracting attention.
Enough to move a Texas writer/producer to turn the master’s life into the movie script The View From Here. The project is being shopped to major production companies.
And so the painter’s champions hope he will follow his friends into single-name posterity: Hemingway, Dalí, Gattorno.