Antonia Eiriz, born in the Havana suburb of Juanelo in 1929 to a family of modest means, Eiriz suffered from polio as a child and would depend on crutches for the rest of her life. Antonia Eiriz began her interest in art by drawing dresses. Her older sisters encouraged her, paying for her to take a drawing course at a local graphic design school. By 1953 she was registered at the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts in Havana, the island’s principal art school.
Antonia Eiriz graduated from San Alejandro in 1957 after receiving an old-fashioned, if thorough training in drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture. Yet even before Eiriz graduated from the art academy, she became involved with the emerging avant-garde and participated in group exhibitions. Years later, already in exile in Miami, she recalled the 1950s: “For me the 1950s was one of the most Cuban moments in the culture in every sense: fashion, music, in the visual arts as an expression of a Cuban ethos. The group of Los Once [The Eleven] wanted a wider vision, not just to paint what was ‘Cuban.'” Los Once initially consisted of eleven artists, painters and two sculptors, committed to a gestural-abstraction/abstract-expressionist exploration. These artists were rejecting the art of the earlier modernists (with the exception of Wifredo Lam) as too picturesque and local, as well as politically opposing the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. Their first exhibition took place in 1953; they disbanded as a group in 1955, but continued to exhibit together until 1963. The leading artists in this group were the painters Guido Llinas (b. 1923), Hugo Consuegra (1929-2003), Antonio Vidal (b. 1928), Raul Martinez (1927-1995), and the sculptors Tomas Oliva (1930-1996) and Agustin Cardenas (1927-2001). Antonia Eiriz was particularly close to Llinas, Consuegra, and Martinez, and she was briefly married to Vidal’s brother Manuel. On many an occasion Antonia Eiriz would identify Llinas as her “teacher and mentor,” in the sense that he introduced her to the most contemporary ideas regarding painting in the 1950s. (9) Throughout this period Eiriz was absorbing art beyond the art academy’s offerings: “I was interested in the landscapes of Victor Manuel, Amelia [Pelaez], [Raul] Milian, [Rene] Portocarrero … for me [Angel] Acosta Leon is an extraordinary painter…. There has been talk of the influence of Goya. I did not know Goya well at that point. Perhaps his influence is transmitted through the Spanish roots that I have. I have been catalogued as an expressionist, yet I have always wanted to be an abstract painter. I love de Kooning, Kline, Tapies, Miro, and Dubuffet. I admired the abstract painters a great deal, but every time I painted it was little heads and creatures that emerged.” (10) Years later critics would find stylistic commonalities between Eiriz’s works and those of Francis Bacon and the Mexican Jose Luis Cuevas (b. 1932). She, however, did not encounter their work until after her own visual vocabulary had developed, and unlike their work, hers would be devoid of narcissism and always have a political edge. Even though Antonia Eiriz does not mention in any of her interviews the Cuban expressionist painters Fidelio Ponce (1895-1949) and Rafael Blanco (1885-1955) as influences, I believe that in their distortions and satirical visions of the society of their time, they are part of the same “family.”
The grotesqueness of their work had more to do with a post-Auschwitz, postatomic world, a world of military dictators and corrupt democracies, and the distortions of their figures reflect the disintegration of humanist politics in post-World War II Latin America. The narcissistic emotionalism of early-twentieth-century expressionism, at times so self-absorbed, was very different from the deliberate, if emotionally charged, political statements of neofiguration.