Many scholars today consider Amelia Peláez de Casal’s (1896–1968) highly ornamental, domestic colonial interiors of the early forties to be the first Cuban paintings that are both highly individualized in style yet also nationally significant for having created a distinctly Cuban idiom. In these works, Peláez departed from earlier vanguard strategies for the creation of a national art, strategies that had involved the depiction of Afro-Cuban and guajiro (peasant) subjects and the wholesale adoption of modern European styles. While the changes brought by Peláez—a highly ornamental line and richly saturated color, both derived from colonial architecture—have been interpreted by scholars as innovations unique to the 1940s, my research demonstrates that these innovations must be understood as stemming from the artistic experiments she began in the wake of her return to Cuba from Paris in 1934.
I investigate the significance of the fact that her first major monographic show in Cuba, in 1935, was held at the Lyceum, a women’s club that provided a crucial venue for the vanguard. My research on the reception of that exhibition and others reveals that critics understood her work to be involved with a surprising matrix of concerns, including the nature of modern femininity, as well as vanguard practices involving the overt expression of the artist’s subjectivity and the effort to find a new basis for Cuban identity. I argue that the domestic colonial interiors Peláez developed in the years after her 1935 Lyceum exhibition demonstrate that her aesthetic evolved in response to these debates.
In 1935–1936, Peláez developed a distinct aesthetic, one ostensibly based on the domestic colonial interior and the place of the female subject within it. During these same years, interest in the colonial past developed widely and permeated other sectors, including new architectural histories, building restoration projects, and literary themes, and I explore her work in relation to this “Colonial Renaissance.” I also track how Peláez initiated a modern Cuban aesthetic and found her personal style by experimenting with the incised textures, geometric patterns and odd perspectives of tablecloths and fruit dishes, and how she went on to develop these techniques by integrating domestic objects with architectural decorations. I argue these domestic objects and architectural features invoke the vanguard’s introspective notion of artistic practice in part because they reference nineteenth-century notions of creole domesticity wherein creole proto-nationalism depended on chaste women’s isolation at home; yet in place of a female sitter, Peláez installs still-lifes that draw the viewer’s attention to modernist modes of artistic creation, and, sometimes, to female sexuality.
Consequently I examine not only how Peláez engaged with the vanguard’s ideals as articulated in the Lyceum debates, but, more importantly, how she explored tensions within these ideals, particularly in regard to women’s possible contributions to national culture. Furthermore, in my study of Peláez’s relationship to critical debates on the nature of Baroque painting, I build on Robert Altmann’s 1945 analysis to argue that Peláez uses Baroque ornamentation to engage and merge multiple histories and assorted styles—past and present—to arrive at a contemporary Cuban idiom.
Throughout the dissertation I evaluate the relationship of Peláez’s themes and styles to those of her vanguard peers, considering in particular images of courtship, maternities, and family portraits (E. Abela, A. Fernández, D. Ravenet, C. Enríquez); of windows compared to paintings (V. Manuel, A. Gattorno); and of domestic colonial interiors (M. Carreño, R. Portocarrero, C. Bermúdez); these juxtapositions all point to the continuity over two decades of Peláez’s relentless pursuit, and display, of style. I also compare her work to contemporary Afrocuban artists (A. Peña, T. Ramos Blanco), which shows that, contrary to scholars’ “white creole” interpretations of Peláez’s interiors, multiple readings of her work are possible with respect to race. Finally, by examining how Peláez engaged and contested notions of vanguard art and femininity in the context of contemporary socio-political tumult, blind-spots within the vanguard’s ideals are revealed, particularly in regard to questions of race and class.
In 1943, when Peláez had a retrospective exhibition at the Hispano-Cuban Cultural Institute, critics related her work to the vanguard notion that the domestic interior could be a source for establishing an authentic national identity, and to a closely related notion that the artist should draw upon his or her own subjectivity and introspection in the hopes of producing an “interior” vision that would also be genuine. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)