Tuesday, April 13, 2010

San Juan, Part 1: National Expression in the 20th Century

The people of Puerto Rico know their history and culture, and have justifiable pride in both. A longtime colony of Spain and then of the United States, the island is now the latter's “unincorporated territory.” Having a constitution and the right to elect their own governor and local officials, Puerto Ricans are still subject to American law but paradoxically ineligible to vote in U.S. federal elections unless they move to one of the fifty states. Given this somewhat confusing status, during a recent trip to Puerto Rico Marc and I were not surprised to read local newspaper debates on whether the island should maintain the political status quo, petition to become the 51st U.S. state, or seek full independence. Central to the debate is nothing less than the island's long-developing sense of self.

Expressions of Puerto Rican culture are found everywhere across the capital city of San Juan. Walking through its streets, you will see many people with the national flag prominently inked into their skin, and hear music influenced by 400 years of interaction between the island and Spain, Africa, Latin America and North America. Rhythm-driven and highly expressive music forms such as bomba, plena, and reggaeton emanate from neighborhoods near San Juan’s ancient city wall (above) and from clubs around the corner from the Museo Pablo Casals (Pablo Casals Museum). Itself a national treasure, the museum contains a trove of the cellist’s manuscripts, recordings and photographs of performances at San Juan's annual Casals Festival, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious classical-music events.

Around the corner from the museum is the Galeria Nacional (National Gallery) of Puerto Rico. Sun drenched atop the oldest part of San Juan, it was built in the 16th century to serve as a Dominican convent. Off its central courtyard are four rooms in which art from Puerto Rico’s original colonization to the 20th century is thematically hung. The collection is solid throughout and might leave you wondering how popularly accepted canons of great paintings could possibly exclude the work of so many of its artists. Of particular interest to me were paintings in the museum’s third and fourth galleries. Produced mostly after Spanish colonialism was swapped out for American colonialism in 1898, they document an evolution in Puerto Rican cultural and political identity.

Costumbrista (traditionalist) painting developed in Puerto Rico during the first half of the 20th century when colonial transition threatened longstanding traditions and social order. Typically works of this type depict the everyday manners and customs of people who lived across the island. Ramón Frade (1875-1954) became one of the most famous of the costumbrista by sincerely elevating countryside laborers into symbols of Puerto Rican self-reliance and patriotism. In his 1905 painting titled El Pan Nuestro de Cada Dia (Our Daily Bread) an elderly farmer walks barefoot and upright while carrying a heavy load of freshly cut plantains. Nearly life size, the painting is considered one of Frade’s best works and one with which Puerto Ricans would identify through approaching decades of poverty and upheaval. Other notable costumbrista included Oscar Colón, Juan Rosado and Rafael Ríos, the last of whom gained fame as a muralist.

In the middle of the 20th century, Puerto Rico’s economic base began a radical transition from rural agriculture to urban manufacturing and service. With it a great population shift occurred and the island’s artists turned their gaze to new socio-economic concerns. Loosely consolidated under the title of generación del cincuenta (the fifties generation) many of these artists worked for the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (Institute of Puerto Rican Culture), a government agency established in the 1950s to develop policies to enrich and preserve the cultural values of Puerto Rico. Despite the conservative ring of the institute’s mission, its artists often depicted urban life through harshly realistic eyes.

One of the most recognizable names of the period was that of Rafael Tufiño (1922-2008), who was born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents and then moved to the island at the age of 10. In the National Gallery hangs Goyita (above), a 1953 portrait of Tufiño’s mother that, with its determined but weary gaze, introduced psychological complexity to Puerto Rican portraiture. The national sense of self was still strong, but here it is shown with the correlating fatigue of the time. Urban landscapes took on a similar psychological edge, particularly in works depicting streets and their inhabitants in tangles of movement and the accoutrements of modernity. Among Tufiño’s peers were artists Lorenzo Homar, Julio Rosado del Valle and José Antonio Torres Martinó.

I left the National Gallery pleased by what I had seen and learned. But my mind kept returning to a few objects that at first I thought had been discordant with each other. They were a mid-century oil painting calling for war against colonialism, and a dozen primitively carved wooden santos (saints) silently standing in a display case. In what way were they complementary aspects of 20th-century Puerto Rico?

[to be continued]


  1. This is great. Can't wait for the second installment.

  2. cant wait for the part about the cute little boy who said "jim"