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Alejandro Anreus, Art Critic
A la memoria de Hugo Consuegra (1929-2003)

The origins of printmaking in Cuba dote to the I7th century, specifically to a wood engraving by an unidentified author, dated 1628. Entitled La destruccion de la Flota de Plata en lo Bahia de Matanzas, the print depicts a marine scene where the Dutch pirate Piet Hein attacks and destroys the Spanish silver fleet.(1) From this earliest example, we can follow the evolution of printmaking in the island from wood engravings of landscapes, both "historical" and fantastic, to site-specific lithographs created as illustrations for cigar boxes, to populai genre - costumbrismo - illustrations for periodicals. In Cuba it is not until the 20th century that printmaking - whatever the chosen medium - is transformed from a purely commercial technique into an art form taught in the national art school, Academia San Alejandro. Printmaking, with an emphasis on etching and aquatint, began to be taught at San Alejandro in 1928 by the Spaniard Mariano Miguel (1885?), yet the best example of a commitment to printmaking within the art school is to be found in the work of Enrique Caravia (1905-1990). Caravia, who was a professor of drawing at the art school since 1936, produced etchings as well as woodcuts very much under the influence of the Mexican School, and in 1949 was one of the founders of the Association of Cuban Printmakers.

Within the pictorial avantgarde  that  emerged in Cuba in the late 1920s and early 1930s, hardly any of its artists practiced printmaking, and when they did, it was in an irregular manner. Eduardo Abela (1889-1965) and Carlos Enriquez (1900-1957) did a few etchings and  woodcuts  in the early 1930s, these tend to be stylistically expressionistic and thematically deal with Cuban subjects such as rumba dancers, cockfights,  peasants, fantasy, etc.  Other members of this avantgarde, such as Amelia Pelaez (1896-1968) and Victor Manuel (1897-1969) did not take up printmaking until the late I950s or after the arrival of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, producing the occasional lithograph or serigraph. The second generation of avant-garde painters, those who reached maturity in the I940s such as Mariano Rodriguez (1912-1990) and Rene Portocarrero (1912-1986) did not get seriously involved with printmaking until after the Cuban Revolution facilitated production through the establishment of printmaking workshops, where the preferred mediums tended to be either serigraphy or lithography. Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), Cuba's most internationally recognized modernist painter, did riot start to seriously focus on printmaking (etching and aquatin)~ until the late I 950s and early I 960s, when he was living back in Europe. Among the artists born during the decade of the 1920s, Carmelo Gonzalez (19201990) was primarily a printmaker who worked in the woodcut, etching and lithography mediums. Technically he was a traditionalist in the strictest sense. while stylistically his work was influenced by the prints of Mexico's Taller de Grafica Popular and the W.P.A. in the United States.

Carmelo (as he was known) was active in the Association of Cuban Printmakers, and was the founder and editor of its newsletter, Buril (1951). Among the artists to emerge in the I950s, those committed to a newer, more contemporary visual vocabulary which reflected and transformed post World War 11 styles such as abstract expressionism in painting and neo-figuration in sculpture. It is the sculptor Roberto Estopinan (1921- ) and the painter Guido Llinás (1923- ) who have been committed to printmaking as an independent medium since the late 1950s. Starting in the late 1950s Estopiñan began experimenting with monotypes. Since then he has worked in practically every printmaking medium, excepting woodcut, linocut and serigraphy. Stylistically his prints have explored similar tracks as his drawings and sculptures, a recovery of the human figure where humanist values and formal concerns are synthesized  into a visual vocabulary.(2) Guido Llinás, the subject of this essay and exhibition, is a gestural abstract  painter who began his serious involvement with printmaking in the late I950s.

Born in Pinar del Rio in 1923, Llinás studied for several months at the local school of fine arts. At this time he also visited the libraries of both the Escuela Normal and the Instifuto de Pinar del Rio, where he encountered modern painting through books and periodicals, and read for the first time about engraving techniques.(3)" Llinás arrived in Havana shortly after turning 20 years old - he was already "a militant of modern painting," having copied Picasso's Guernica, in the original size for the headquarters of an anarchist group.(4)" In the capital he met and befriended the painters Hugo Consuegra, Antonia Eiriz, Antonio Vidal, Raul Martinez, and the sculptors Tomas Oliva and Agustin Cardenas. All except Eiriz would form the nucleus of the group Los Once (1952-55). This group would break with the established figuration in Cuban art and introduce the abstract expressionist aesthetic in Cuba.

Llinás recalls that after he was established in Havana, together with sculptor Tomas Oliva, he decided to make some woodcuts. Llinás explains, " Since we were already in a position of rupture with anything that was figuration, Tomas Oliva and I started to make 'woodcuts' which in reality were 'rubbings,' and we would send these to the salons and exhibitions. Carmelo (Gonzalez) who was classical in his approach to printmaking, so you can imagine our battle with him, would look at our work with a magnifying glass, to see our technique. Of course, there were no incisions since these were just pieces of wood with its fibers and holes, accidents, etc, which we were just inking and 'printing' by rubbing.(5)

Eventually Llinás would execute more traditional woodcuts with incisions. Yet these would always be nonfigurative. His technical knowledge regarding printmaking continued to be self-taught and acquired mostly through books or magazines. During the mid I950s Llinás traveled to New York several times where he encountered the paintings of De Kooning, Kline and Motherwell. Their abstract expressionist aesthetic, with its emphasis on gesture, would be a powerful influence on his work (6). Llinás spent the last two years of the Batista  dictatorship in Paris, where he encountered all kinds of printmaking. He was affected by the prints of the German expressionists Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff, as well as by the prints and watercolors of Georges Rouault. He then returned to Cuba in January of 1959, shortly after Castro's revolution had come to power. By November of that year he was back in Paris, this time with a scholarship from the new government, for him to continue his art studies.(7)  As part of his scholarship and with guidance from Wifredo Lam, who picked up the phone and called Stanley William Hayter directly, Llinás went to work at Hayter's Atelier 17.(8) Stanley William Hayter (I901-1988) is considered one of the most significant experimental printmakers of the 20th century. His own work in the techniques of engraving, soft ground etching and the integration of color was groundbreaking late (1920s through the early I960s). In 1927 Hayter founded on experimental workshop for the graphic arts in Paris, which by 1933 became Atelier 17, a pace where research into the techniques and methods of printmaking was carried out and informal instruction given to students and artists. In 1940, due to World War II, Hayter re-established his printmaking workshop in New York City. Yet by 1950, he had set it up in Paris once again.(9) At Hayter's, Hinds was introduced to engraving and working with various acids. He also realized that the  workshop was a place for producing "little Hayters," that the emphasis was always on [he purely technical, arid most significantly that engraving on metal was not his chosen printmaking medium,(10) Llinás returned to Cuba once tension began between the Castro regime and the United States government, and by 1963 he was permanently settled in Paris.(11) It was there where he continued to make prints, producing color aquatints, and most significantly woodcuts, which is without a doubt his preferred printmaking medium.

Llinás explains his process in making a woodcut thus, "I adopted my gestural manner to the wood. I do not cut or engrave, but rather I tear pieces in an improvisational, almost haphazard manner. I ink it, pass it through the press, and if I like it, then that's how it stays. If not, I begin again, tearing. I have a strange tool, like a guataca cubana (spade), it is small, and it permits me to tear the wood towards me and this is how I obtain the whites that seem  ripped. Of course, I use traditional engraving tools to make a few lines here and there. Since I prefer very rough wood with holes, this helps in the overall surface that I am pursuing. When I have engraved on metal I use the acid directly without any preliminary drawing or lines, and sometimes I use so much of it that l make holes on the metal plate. This scandalizes the more traditional printmakers.(12)

The vigorous mark making described in the above process is evident in works like Untitled, a 1966 aquatint, and the extraordinary woodcuts such as La Lune sur les Barricades, 1968, Una oscura pradera, 1972, Un recuerdo quizás, 1985, Signos negros, 1990 and Signos blancos, 1996, just to name a few. Llinás transfers the gestural essence of his painting into printmaking. The purely technical and at times very rigid aspect of printmaking is broken down by his intuitive, improvisational approach. The scale of Llinás prints varies from modest (9 x 12 inches) to large (over 30 x 40 inches). Most significantly he keeps his editions small, ranging between 10 and 60 prints, thereby controlling the quality of the impressions. Physically bigger prints with large editions had to be produced at various printmaking workshops instead of in Llinás studio. In the studio he pulls the smaller prints by hand.(13) To this day Llinás considers printmaking a constant surprise, much more so than painting, since he refuses to read the image in reverse and doesn't "see it" until after it has been inked and pulled. He continues to have "a horror" of getting lost in the technicalities of printmaking, preferring instead to subvert these with his very direct way of working.(14) Throughout the I980s and I990s he produced an extraordinary body of work in both black and white and color woodcuts, making over twenty four editions. At the same time he has combined mediums (woodcut and aquatint), and in 1995 did four serigraphs. These, Signos negros, Untitled, Signos III and Serigrafia negra, subvert the preciousness of the technique, and create a scratched and rough series of surfaces where blacks and whites push and pull with reds, blues, yellows, pinks and purples.

An aesthetic of improvisation is essential in Llinás ability to transform his prints beyond the purely technical. He states "I improvise within the limits of what is possible in printmaking, perhaps this is why wood (its roughness lending the surface to improvisation) is my favorite printmaking material . when I work in black and white I use different kinds of black inks, I do not engrave by pushing, but rather by pulling, tearing towards me. For color woodcuts I improvise superimposing We or three plates, yet I do this intuitively. The perfect mediums for improvisation are watercolor and Chinese ink. I try to always improvise in printmaking, even with serigraphy, which does not lend itself."(15)

Printmaking in Cuba, since the triumph of the 1959 Revolution, has developed in formidable ways. Not only is printmaking taught (from the traditional to the most experimental) in all of the art schools from the provinces to the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, but also several printmaking workshops have been established throughout the island, specializing in specific technical processes (The Taller Experimental de Grafica in Havana which produces lithography, etching and engraving).(16) The newer generations of artists, such as the late Belkis Ayllon, Abel Barroso, Sandra Ramos, Ibrahim Miranda and others, have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to the printmaking medium. Outside of Cuba, in the context  of the exile, a couple of printmaking workshops have produced significant works in Miami. In the early 1990s there was Miami Press, which published editions by Mijares, Consuegra and others. Most recently there is the Malgon workshop, run by master printer Joaquin Gonzalez, which has published prints by Llinás and other exiled Cuban artists.

In the context of printmaking in Cuba, Llinás presence and body of work is very significant. Since the early 1960s, when printmaking became a central aspect of his work, Llinás has been producing a consistent and open-ended corpus, one which complements his substantial achievements as a painter and brings the abstract expressionist ethos to printmaking (in Cuba, Latin America, and perhaps the world). No other artist of his generation in Cuba (with the exception of sculptor Roberto Estopiñan has dedicated himself to printmaking with such focus.

In his eighth decade of life Guido Llinás has entered what art historians like to define as "late style," while he calls it "last style"(17), the force and vigor of his recent prints and paintings is anything but the end.

Antoine Coron, director of Rare Books at the National Library n Paris, has written of Llinás the printmaker, "The paradox of engraving on wood is that of being a negative, perhaps it is here where it has that privileged relationship with black. That which singularly gives it meaning is what is untouched, what is intact. The printmaker's work only produces an absence, a limit: the white. The woodcuts of Cuban painter Guido Llinás offer the evidence of a revisited culture, light taken out to the black, as signs of plasticity. These flexible and tense forms seem to be disposed  on the plate as if flowering from memory. The evidence of the gesture manifests the slow apparition of its image. The remains of the engraving tool, the explored holes, are not dissipated in the uniform whiteness of the paper. If black -the wood plate - betrays at times its texture, its knots, the lines of its fibers, the white - evidence of the tool's transit - also offers itself to the eye and the touch. The labor of printmaking, a slow march towards resurgence, shows here all its force, hemming in the somber vein that Guido Llinás, happy explorer, discovers without impatience."(18)

I conclude by paraphrasing the well-known lines about Hokusai: Guido Llinás is an old man mad about painting, mad about printmaking. And we are grateful for the surprise and joy his prints and paintings bring us.


1 Jorge Rigol, Apuntes sobre la pintura y el grabado en Cuba. (La Habana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1982), pp. 120-121

2 Alejandro Anreus, Roberto Estopiñán, 5 Decades of Prints, (Jersey City: Jersey City Museum, 1996), pp. 9-13

3 Guido Llinás, typed response to questionnaire sent by the author, December 24, 2002, p. 1 This and all other translations from the Spanish are by the author.

4 ibid.

5 ibid.

6 Guido Llinás, typed response to questionnaire sent by the author, February 28, 2003, p. 2.

7 Llinás, December 24, 2002, pp. 1-2.

8 Ibid, p. 2.

9 Graham Reynolds, The Engraving of S. W. Hayter. (London Victoria and Albert Museum, 1967),
pp. 2-8 Hayter was a chemist by training, due to this he had an unrivalled knowledge of the technicalities of printmaking. He authored two books on the subject, New Way of Gravure (1949) and About  Prints (1962).

10 Llinás, December 24, 2002 p. 2.

11 Ibid.

12 ibid.

13 lbid.

14 Ibid, pp. 2-3

15 Llinás, February 28, 2003, p. 1.

16 For a discussion in English of recent Cuban art and art education, see Luis Camnitzer, New Art of Cuba (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994).

17 February 28, 2003 p, 1.

18 Coron, Antoine, printed text without reference sent by Guido Llinás to the author. Translation from the French by Marie-Sophie Armstrong.

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