Antonio Gattorno, Cuban (1904 - 1980)

Antonio Gattorno was the first Cuban artist of his generation to achieve an international reputation as a universal contemporary that transcended his ethnicity. He is indisputably the founder of Cuba's Modernist Movement, yet he is also one of the most underrated major painters of the 20th Century.

Gattorno was born in Havana, Cuba on March 15, 1904. In 1919, his third year as a painting student at the Academy of San Alejandro in Havana, he won a five-year scholarship to study in Europe. He remained there for seven years, traveling throughout Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and Germany. He became friends and worked with Felice Carena, Georges Roualt and Jules Pascin. He shared studios in Paris, France and in Florence, Italy with the Cuban sculptor Juan Jose Sicre. When Gattorno returned to Cuba in 1927, he had developed a personal esthetic influenced by sources as diverse as Mannerism, Social Realism and the modern primitivism of Gaugin.

During the next decade he constantly refined his plastic technique while exploring traditional Cuban themes in a non-traditional manner. Gattorno's work from this era (1927 1939) became the archetype of Cuban Modern Primitivism and set the standard for the generation of Cuban painters known as the Vanguardia-a group that includes Wifredo Lam, Victor Manuel and Amelia Pelaez.

Gattorno's work during the years 1927 through 1939 played an important part in the development of a national identity in Cuban painting, which was fundamental to the artistic and political ideals espoused by the Vanguardia artists. His images of the Cuban guajiros convey the power of simple human dignity set against a background of poverty, which can also be found in the works of Daumier or Corot.

He served as Art Instructor at Academia de San Alejandro. He executed commissioned murals in public buildings in Havana, (one at the Havana City Hall), also in private homes. In conjunction with work in Fine Arts he also did extensive theatrical decor throughout Cuba.

His monograph, written and published by Ernest Hemingway in April 1935, (with additional critical commentary by John Dos Passos, Ramon Guirao, Alejo Carpentier and E. Aviles Ramirez), contains reproductions of 36 works in several media - oil, watercolor, pen and ink, and pencil. "Esquire Magazine", May 1936, has a reprint of the Hemingway text as well as comments by author John Dos Passos about Gattorno with 8 full-color reproductions of Gattorno paintings not included in the original book version by Hemingway.

Hemingway sponsored Gattorno's first solo exhibition in the United States at the Georgette Passedoit Gallery, New York City, January 12 through February 2, 1936. This led to a commission from the Bacardi Company to paint a mural in their headquarters on the 35th floor of The Empire State Building in 1937. It was completed in February 1938.

Gattorno married Isabel do Carmo Moura Cabral on September 30, 1940. They lived at #10 Downing Street, Greenwich Village in New York for more than thirty years. Gattorno who had been spending more time in New York than in Havana did not return to Cuba until 1946.

Once a leader in the avant-garde art movement which provided the ideological fervor that helped drive the Cuban revolution of 1923 -1934, Gattorno was always more interested in art than in politics. Late in 1939 he shifted his interests from showing the exterior social life of his subjects to a greater concern for illustrating their internal psychological existence.

In this phase of his work, which starts with the painting titled "La Siesta", social issues and ideals begin to serve merely as backdrop for thought-provoking emotional drama, sometimes universally accessible, often enigmatically personal.

There was much resentment against Gattorno on the part of the Cuban intelligentsia as a result of his move to the U.S. Following his creative move into his own style of Surrealism there were persistent accusations that Gattorno had abandoned his place as an artistic leader. His detractors claimed he had betrayed his Cuban heritage by deciding to explore themes that seemed less concerned with establishing some sort of national identity for his homeland than had his earlier work.

In spite of his efforts and the obvious level of skill, talent and development evident in his painting, Gattorno never overcame the stigma of his ex-patriotism in the eyes of those who had once lauded him as a child prodigy.

Rather than abandoning his Cuban heritage, of which Cuban art critics often accused him, Gattorno redefined or restated it in a new visual style. He was creating a personal mythology, in which his cultural heritage, and the ultimate exile from his homeland became an integral if oftimes underlying foundation. He developed a recognizable set of thematic devices and explored a series of graphic elements, which form the major components of his visual vocabulary and are evident even in the pieces painted a year or so before his death.

Gattorno's work evolved from a primitive style reminiscent of Gaugin to a mature phase, which incorporated elements of surrealistic romanticism, classical composition and abstractionism. He continually refined his technique. He developed a unique visual vocabulary, adding his ideas to the vibrant New York artistic community that rocked the art world throughout the postwar era.

Gattorno was invited to participate in the "Painting in the U.S." exhibition at the Carnegie Museum, 1945. Throughout his career he received the following awards: 1st Prize in the First and Second National Salon of Havana, Cuba 1934 and 1937; also other prizes in later salons in Havana. The Watson F. Blair Purchase Prize in the 15th International Watercolor Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, May 1936.

From 1936 until 1955 he presented six more solo shows and was featured in number of group exhibitions in New York City. He presented a series of solo exhibits nationwide in San Francisco, Dallas, Memphis, and Wichita, several locations throughout Latin America including Venezuela and Cuba, and in Europe at galleries in Paris, Rome and Milan.

A significant factor contributing to Gattorno's current obscurity was his exclusion from the 1944 MOMA Exhibit of Cuban Modern Art. Titled "Cuban Painting of Today", it was one of the most important exhibitions of Cuban art ever assembled. Although Gattorno and Wifredo Lam are featured in the exhibition catalog, neither one had works presented in the show.

Each artist had a poor relationship with Jose Gomez-Sicre, the Cuban art critic (and later head of the OAS) who assembled the exhibit and acted as liaison for Alfred Barr, the director of MOMA and curator of the exhibit.

Gomez-Sicre, had personal feuds with both Gattorno and Lam. He could not deny their place in Cuba's Modern Art movement, but he did deny them inclusion in this prestigious event. There is nothing by Gattorno in the catalog that is newer than 1941 however, and there are no color pictures of his work, which since 1939 had been delving ever more deeply into the realm of classical surrealism.

The final words of Gomez-Sicre's commentary on Gattorno resound with feelings of betrayal over the artist's ex-patriotism. " For the last 6 years Gattorno has lived in the United States and as a result his connection with the group of modern painters in Cuba has now become rather remote." There is an undertone of resentment in these words; they seem to be a rebuke, admonishing Gattorno for abandoning his country and his compatriots.

In a letter to Barr addressed March 5th, 1943, Gattorno protests his exclusion from the exhibit. " I regret that I was not in Cuba at the time you visited there, but the mere fact that I was absent, living here in New York City, does not alter the fact that I am also a Cuban artist and I daresay, one who has honored the name of Cuba more than any other living Cuban artist of today. I do not aspire to have the Museum of Modern Art purchase one of my paintings because I am well aware of the fact that these appropriations are made methodically, however, I would appreciate the opportunity of participating in this Cuban show by lending one of my paintings selected by the museum. I believe that if the museum is interested in the record of the artists it exhibits, my record will justify the privilege which I am requesting."

Over the years Gomez-Sicre often spoke dismissively of Gattorno, remarking that his arrogance canceled out the esthetic importance of his work. And Gattorno's letter to Barr, while certainly justified, does have a defiant and arrogant tone. But Gattorno's assessment of his place and his importance in Cuba's modern art movement is accurate and not simply the ranting of an egomaniac.

In his paintings from the 1940s and '50s Gattorno reacted to, while simultaneously being influenced by and utilizing, the tenets of schools of thought with which he did not always agree. He demonstrated with an unmistakable visual showmanship, his mastery of abstract-expressionist technique, classical composition, and surreal perspective, but maintained his commitment to narrative, subject and the illusion of three-dimensional space. This may not seem a radical idea now, but it was certain commercial death in the heyday of abstract expressionism.

Gattorno's work from the 1940s on, is perhaps some of his most important yet it is also his least known for reasons that have nothing to do with the beauty or artistic quality of the work. It is an irony which would not be lost on Gattorno that his early work, to which he often referred as his "primitive period", is that which is most covetously sought after by those few collectors who have an awareness of him.

In many ways Gattorno was his own worst enemy because of his failure to properly manage his career. His earliest mature works, that is those which were done after his student days and his return to Cuba in 1927 and up until 1939 were soundly criticized by many Cuban fine art professionals as being not Cuban enough. The guajiros looked Tahitian was one criticism. The coffeepots he often put in pictures were not Cuban coffeepots at all, another critic told him, referring specifically to the vessel in the Bacardi Mural. "What does that mean?", Gattorno asked. "Not a Cuban coffee pot indeed! It is the type of coffeepot my mother always had in the house all of my life. I own a coffeepot now which looks like that. My mother is Cuban. My family is Cuban. I am Cuban. I think it's a Cuban coffee pot."

His final exhibit, a retrospective spanning 60 years of work, was held at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth in October 1978. He died in Acushnet, Massachusetts in 1980.

Now, 20 years after his death and 70 years or more since some of his most currently coveted works were painted, Gattorno's "Primitive phase"(1927-1939) is considered to be the epitome of 20th Century Cuban Modern Primitivism. Many experts consider Gattorno's work from 1927 through 1939, coffee pots and Tahitian Guajiros not withstanding, to be more definitive in terms of national identity even more technically sound, than similar work of the same style and era by his commercially successful, better known peers Wifredo Lam, Victor Manuel, Mario Carreno and Amelia Pelaez.

Like the Dutch artist Vermeer 200 years earlier, most of Gattorno's life's work was in his house at the time of his death. Vermeer's widow sold most of her late husband's paintings during the 20 years she survived him. When she died the final paintings in her possession were auctioned off and Vermeer passed into obscurity for 2 centuries.

Gattorno's widow, likewise sold or gave away many of his most important paintings during the years she survived him. Additionally, during the last years of her life, Isabel Cabral-Gattorno suffered from a series of strokes that produced symptoms of senility similar to those of Alzheimer's Disease.

During this time many important pieces of personal and professional ephemera such as diaries, letters, inventories, records of exhibits and sales, were lost or destroyed.

The result is that, like Vermeer, Gattorno is in danger of disappearing, of losing his rightful place in art history not in spite of his talent, but simply because that talent was so very unique and its prodigious output was not properly managed.

Gattorno is the type of obscure yet important painter that art professionals dream of discovering: a hidden master with an impressive provenance. Due to their current obscurity his works are as fresh as the day they were made. Because of the singular vision and incredible skill of their creator they are as important as any of the great works of art, which have attained recognition as masterworks of the 20th Century.

Gattorno Bibliography

New York Times - 1/12/36 - Howard Devree - Review
New York Times - 10/8/44 - E.A.Jewell - Review
New York Herald - 10/8/44 - Carlyle Burrows - Review
New York World Telegram - 10/9/44 - Emily Genauer - Review
New York Times - 10/22/45 - E.A Jewell - Review
New York Times - 2/24/46 - Howard Devree - Review
New York Times - 11/17/46 - E.A. Jewell - Review
New York World Telegram - 11/16/46 - Emily Genauer - Review

Photo with caption in Washington Post - 6/10/45 (Promoting show at Corcoran Gallery)

Invitation to view the Bacardi Mural - 3/1/38 - Art Digest Magazine

Monograph by Ernest Hemingway with commentary by John Dos Passos & 8 full color reproductions - published in Cuba April 1935 by Garcia y Garcia 466 numbered/dated copies--No US copyright

Esquire Magazine - May 1936- Reproduction of text from monograph- Only copyright registered for that text by virtue of Esquire's monthly copyright of each issue.

The Villager (Village Voice) - 7/13/61 - front page photo "Ernesto" with accompanying interview.

New Bedford Standard Times - 7/9/61 - interview with photo

Miami News - 2/3/64 - page color photo of Bacardi Mural with article.

New Bedford Standard Times - 8/29/65 - page 21 - by Leona Rubin - Interview with photo of "Portrait of Hitler" (treatment of the horrors of war utilizing double-image technique.)

New Bedford Standard Times - 10/1/78 page 24 - Interview with photo by Ray Whittaker

New Bedford Standard Times - 3/11/79 - page 41 - Carol Lee Costa interview with color photos by Hank Seaman

Arquitectura Magazine - of the National College of Architecture, Havana, Cuba - July 1952 #228 - Interview, article and commentary with photos (source of slick veloxes in portfolio) promotion for 1952 exhibit in Cuba.


Back to Artists Wanted Page



RoGallery Logo

Phone: 800.888.1063 or 718.937.0901 - Email:

47-15 36th Street - Long Island City, NY 11101