El Museo del Barrio

Francisco Oller, Plátanos amarillos, 1892–93, Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio, New York City

 “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” an ambitious exhibition on view at three New York City museums—El Museo del Barrio, the Queens Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem—features 400 artists, from the beginning of the nineteenth century to today, reflecting a broad range of styles. It’s an immense subject, but a good place to begin is the nineteenth-century Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller (1833–1917). The first work you see at El Museo del Barrio is Oller’s Plátanos amarillos (1892–93), a striking still life of a bunch of plantains, suspended against a simple grey wall. The fruit is native to the Caribbean, but Oller’s skillful depiction reflects his studies in Paris, and demonstrates that the traditional Beaux-Arts style is not exclusively Eurocentric. Oller took back to Puerto Rico what he learned in France and used those lessons to portray the realities of his homeland. His still lifes of plantains and coconuts become metonymies of island people and their staple foods. Coconuts strewn across a table seem to be freshly cut from the tree, with long brown and green stems intact. These are not Cézanne’s apples, carefully placed in a geometrical composition; they are real tactile fruits, meant to be eaten, not just seen.

Oller also appears at the end of the Barrio exhibition, with an 1864 portrait of Cézanne. This portrait was perhaps quite personal, because for a brief period Cézanne was Oller’s student. Oller depicts Cézanne in complete Barbizon plein-air style. Cézanne, with large straw hat and thick beard, is seated on the grass; a large reclining white umbrella provides protection from the sun. His canvas is placed directly on the grass and held upright by only a stick. While Cézanne and his canvas dominate the foreground, the backdrop is a confusion of leafy trees, done in the typical Barbizon palette of muted green, yellow and brown. In 1858, Oller studied under the academic painter Thomas Couture. Here he mingled with the Caribbean-born Impressionist Camille Pissarro, who also befriended Cézanne at this time. Pissarro’s first teacher was the Danish marine artist Fritz Melbye (1826–1869). Melbye and Pissarro left St. Thomas, then under the Danish crown, in 1852, to live, paint and sketch numerous squares in Caracas until 1855. Pissarro’s Square in Caracas portrays, in plein-air style, a market square where a few women are standing holding baskets. Next to them is a small donkey, and other market women are seated, resting against a town wall. The viewer’s eye is blocked by this high wall, and beyond it only rooftops of city dwellings are visible. Right next to Pissarro’s Square in Caracas, in the exhibition, is the Danish artist Hugo Larsen’s (1875–1950) The Market Square (1904). Here the scene is more impressionistic in style; the brushstrokes give an almost hurried glimpse of a town square where people market.

Oller’s landscapes with figures draw on his knowledge of classical French painters such as Claude and Poussin, and the plein-air Barbizon school. From Millet’s gleaners and Breton milkmaids, Oller translated the rural folk from the French countryside and made them his own vibrant characters in a Puerto Rican landscape. Girl with Dog shows a girl in the height of European fashion, somewhat at odds with her tropical setting. But in other Oller works, the rural labor class is not staffage, but a symbol of struggle, part of the work force of indentured servants on European-owned sugarcane plantations. Oller’s figures, far more egalitarian than the conservative Millet’s, are in line with the politics of another of his teachers, Gustave Courbet, whom he studied with at the Louvre.

Landscapes and portraits by other artists deal, implicitly or explicitly, with the complex social consequences of colonization. An example of the kind of work commissioned by rich landowners, Agostino Brunias’s (1728–96) A Planter and His Wife, Attended by His Servant (c. 1780), underscores distinctions between skin color and class. The pale wife’s Gainsborough-influenced ensemble contrasts with the maid’s black skin and simple dress. Ramon Frade’s (1875–1954) El Pan Nuestro (1936) honors an elderly and barefoot jibaro, or farm laborer, in a proletarian shift of point of view. Striking in size, he seems to rise above eye level and dominates the natural setting about him. In his bony and worn hands, he holds the precious bundle of his daily staple, plantains. In Colombia, South America, touched by the Caribbean sea, rises a new icon of a modern goddess, exemplified by Enrique Grau Aranjo’s (1920–2004) La Mulata Cartagena (1940). This Caribbean Venus is surrounded by the fruits and vibrant flowers of her native land. 

The Barrio exhibit allows the viewer, without any form of overly didactic wall text, to absorb visually how the Caribbean cultural map was and still is in a state of migratory fluctuations. It shows how national boundaries are blurred, and the entire exhibition illuminates the conflated historical and geographical lessons of Caribbean art and culture. The exhibition is accompanied by a substantial catalogue, Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World, edited by Deborah Cullen, Director and Chief Curator of Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, and Elvis Fuentes, Associate Curator at El Museo del Barrio. The exhibition is on view June 12, 2012, to January 6, 2013, at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue (at 104th Street), New York, New York, 10029. Telephone (212) 831-7272. elmuseo.org

—Cristina La Porta

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2012, Volume 29, Number 4