Going inside Humberto Calzada‘s home is like stepping into one of his paintings. He and wife Carmen greet us at the door. The scene reminds me of Entrance to an Imaginary Past (1995) or The Icon: Homage to Cundo Bermúdez (1993). It could be an Indiscretion (1996), but we have an Invitation to Drink Coffee (1992).The work of Humberto Calzada (Havana, 1944; Miami) can be organized by the recurring themes he has used at different times in his career.
Two facets mark his early period from the late 1970s. The first includes works with very colorful and undulating lines, as in Casa de Campo (1975). With a smile he admits, “it was a very psychedelic stage”, and we see an artist looking for a way of expression. The other, characterized by works such as Balcón de Finca (1973) and The Balustrade (1974), forecasts the development of his future work: paintings of buildings and stained glass windows perfectly delineated, recognizable within the context of the design of the city of Havana.
A second period begins in the early 1990s. He introduces abstraction to complement the otherwise figurative style. In addition, he establishes a conversation with works from the history of Cuban Art: Years of Fading Symbols (1995); The Remains of the Legacy: Homage to Amelia Peláez (1994); The Stable: Homage to Wifredo Lam (1993), The Collapse of an Island (1998).
In 2007 he begins a lesser-known series that introduces another recurring theme in his work: the “floating” islands, Islands (2010). These paintings are not included in the book used to catalog his work because in 2006, when The Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, published the book, on the occasion of the exhibition Humberto Calzada: In Dreams Awake, A Thirty-Year Retrospective, this series did not exist yet.
In 2011 he unveiled the collection “fire”. Like in Islands, this group represents a very drastic stylistic break in his work. It is charged with a high degree of drama, The Annunciation and What Remains. He presents his beloved Havana shelled-shocked and collapsed by fire.
The latest series, not yet exhibited, is informed by all previous periods and will remain in our minds as his works of restoration, If Antonia Had Known (2012).
Calzada is a self-taught painter, an engineer by training, although his first career choice was architecture. He’s found his place in art, in painting, after having worked as an engineer for seven years. He began painting as a hobby, but “once I started, I increasingly painted more and worked less”, he says.
Cuba’s colonial architecture has been a remarkable source of inspiration. According to Calzada, from the beginning of his exile, Miami had everything a Cuban could wish for: the people, the food, the music; “but what we saw in architecture was very different, and I missed it a lot.” Like other artists, and Cuban exiles in general, he was affected by the void caused by the visual perception of his new city.
He admits that although his work is realistic, he has at times been labeled a surrealist (the pieces that depict floods, for example). “I play with architecture and memory to express my feelings of rootlessness, solitude, loss and hope”. It is significant to mention that the human figure is absent from his artwork.
Humberto Calzada talks to us about his life in Cuba, his childhood memories. He shows us the family album. Then talks about how he came of age in Miami and shows us more photos. His family feels like a tribute to beauty; one can breathe harmony and good taste in his house. Carmen is the most discreet woman I’ve ever met, among the many who share their lives with talented, creative men. She serves us coffee in the room where The Dance of the Millions (1989) is displayed.
We ask him about the black and white tiles, another recurrent motif in his work: “Three of my relatives’ homes in Cuba had them. I remember them specifically at an uncle’s house (the oldest in the family, the Patriarch), where we had lunch many Sundays. I also saw them in my grandmother’s house and in the house of another cousin. Although these tiles are essentially European, they were often found in the colonial mansions of Cuba. I, at least, always think of them as Cuban”.
We see the Cuban colonial houses painted by Calzada: high ceilings, floor to ceiling windows crowned by stained glass; and a little further, embedded in the window, the balustrades and gratings with arabesque and floral motifs. In the background, the red tile roofs of the houses across the street. And we lose perspective; the decoration of Calzada’s house, his driveway, his studio, and his works take us back to Havana.
We ask what became of his first work. “My first work was La Primera Casita (1972), a small work on paper, painted with amateur watercolor. It belongs to my collection. I will never sell it.”
Continuing this feeling of intimacy, we inquire about other works he wouldn’t sell, and about his private collection. There are a number of pieces he gave to his wife, and he is organizing a selection for his grandchildren. His private collection is small and includes works by other artists such as of Rafael Soriano, Agustín Fernández, Cundo Bermúdez, Amelia Peláez, Gay García, Connie Lloveras; and drawings by Rafael Vadia, Pablo Cano and the Colombian Félix Ángel.
How do you see your work in the context of Cuban art? “I am not even sure that I am included in the history of Cuban art. My work has been featured in several books, particularly about exile artists and in some that include artists from both sides. But I cannot display my work at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. Sometimes I feel discriminated against for not being a painter from the island.”
He doesn’t know if he would exhibit in Cuba while his country is under a dictatorship. Truth is he does not have an option. “I explored the possibility, albeit with reservation. The answer I received was that the Museum exhibits works by exiles who were already renowned before they left Cuba, like Cundo Bermúdez, Rafael Soriano, Mijares, etc.; and also works from artists of the generations of the 80s and 90s: those who were trained in Cuba’s art schools before they left the island. They said there was no room for my group, artists who left Cuba as children or adolescents and were schooled in the United States. The reason, they said, was that the Museum was no longer under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, but under the jurisdiction of the State Council (in other words, the central Government of the Castro brothers), and these were their guidelines”.
Calzada’s large format pieces are highly valued in the market for Cuban art. What prices do they command? “My paintings range from $5,000 to $50,000, depending on the size. I’ve sold a few pieces for a little more than $100,000, but those were triptychs or murals that covered entire walls”, he says. “I also make serigraphs and digital prints (engravings made using a high definition camera and printed on paper or canvas)”. Prices start at $350 and can reach $3,500 for limited editions.
Calzada arranges his work depending on the element that inspired it. In this case water and fire.
In the early 90’s he started painting flood scenes. “I wanted to represent the tragedy and ruin of Cuba, using the flood as a metaphor. Symbolically flooding represents the greatest tragedy, but also purification and rebirth. The duality of that message was very interesting to me as it applied to Cuba. Toward the end of that series, I thought ‘fire’ would be a good starting point for the next series”.
It took him a few years to materialize the idea, but at the end of 2010 the Frost Museum at Florida International University suggested a one-man show in October 2011, where he presented his “fire” collection inspired by the Arab Spring.
From there Calzada has moved to what could be described as the city’s restoration period. “I just started a new phase in which I’m combining the figurative with the abstract. I have always worked in acrylic on canvas. The only difference in the new work, or the new technique, is that, compared to the previous one, now much of the picture is abstract, and my hand, color and brush are completely free. The results are sometimes a surprise.”
He is currently working on one of the first entries of this series. It is a reproduction of his grandparents’ home in El Vedado, Havana, currently in total disrepair. The proof is in the photographs Calzada took when he traveled to Cuba in 2008. These show the house falling to pieces, like an alarming number of other buildings in Havana, from both the colonial era as well as more modern structures. It is not surprising that after seen the destruction of his beloved city, he has gone through a sort of catharsis.
In this new series, Calzada works from photographs of Cuba’s ruined colonial architecture. Humberto Calzada is restoring the city of Havana through his paintings. ■