My trip to the library afforded me, among other treasures of the non- supernatural romance variety, a book on Caribbean art. In reading about the Cuban vangaurdia of the 1930s, I learned about a movement that was trying to define Cuban-ness and espoused the forms of Modernism. Ironically, these post-colonial activists espoused Gauguin’s Primitivism as much as Cubism or Futurism. One prominent artist of the time stood apart from this. Fidelio Ponce de Leon focused on depicting a somber, internal world rather than making socio-political statements or studying European schools.
The artist lead a bohemian life, disappearing for years at a time to travel around the countryside. Few fixed details are known. Originally born Alfredo Fuentes Pons in 1895, he entered the San Alejandro Academy in Havana to receive drawing classes when he was about 20. He is said to have had a vivid imagination and created his own name. Unlike fellow vangaurdia artists, he never travelled to Europe to study. Instead, he disappeared on foot into the countryside where he worked his way through the land. Ponce de Leon came back an alcoholic with tuberculosis in 1930. Despite these circumstances, his work was shown in Havana and he began to receive critical attention. In 1943, he began rambling again and six years later he died of tuberculosis.
This mysterious outsider is sometimes considered the most authentic Cuban artist of his time because of his lack of interest in European styles. However, he did travel to Russia and Mexico, and listed influences such as Modigliani and El Greco. As you can tell from these images, Ponce de Leon was obsessed with the color white, which he used to call “pintura nacarada,” nacarada meaning mother of pearl color. He enjoyed Kandinsky’s words that white acts like “a deep and absolute silence full of possibilities.”