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Umberto Peña. From Maturity to Excellence

Umberto Peña. From Maturity to Excellence


The year just coming to an end has been a significant one for Umberto Peña (Havana, 1937). After more than three decades without a solo exhibition, in the month of January he opened Pinturas y Dibujos (Paintings and Drawings) at the Sociocultural Centre Caja España-Duero, in Salamanca. Part of these artworks was later exhibited during the summer, at the Club Diario in Ibiza. Likewise, when the year 2013 begins, another show of his artworks will be opened in Havana. Such a recovery of his activity as a painter is also within the framework of being, on December 6th, 75 years of age. The opportunity is, then, ideal to review the career trajectory of a master venerated by a whole legion of artists, many of which have him as a referent of excellence.

In an interview made to him by writer Abilio Estévez, Peña stated on the origins of his vocation for painting: “I was a boy like any other. At school I showed a special skill to illustrate notebooks; nothing else. I cannot remember when my interest in painting began”. And regarding his formative stage, he made this remark to Almayda Catá: “There are self-taught painters and there are others who go to schools, lyceums or academies. I was one of those who enter the academy to learn the trade. After four years I gave up. I was an excellent student with very good grades and awards, but all of that did not do me any good at all, I simply did not know how to paint. The academy is good in that sense; you learn what you should not do. When the Revolution triumphed, I won a scholarship to study abroad. I went to Mexico and entered the Polytechnic Institute to know about the use of new techniques as silicate, vinelite, pyroxylin, etc. But Mexico began to suffocate me a little too. I was nothing but repeating the sketches of the Academy, I needed to compare and to discover (…) From Mexico I traveled to Paris and Spain. I discovered the primitives and the Flemish, who have been the painters that have influenced my artistic education the most”.

Indeed, from 1954 to 1958, he studied at the Academy of San Alejandro, although he did not finish. Antonia Eiriz, Angel Acosta León and Miguel Collazo were some of his fellow students. In 1959, he joined the Asociación de Grabadores de Cuba (Association of Engravers of Cuba). The following year he won a scholarship that allowed him to stay in Mexico for eight months. There he studied in the Test Department of plastic materials for mural painting at the Polytechnic Higher Institute. Likewise, he took a course on Byzantine mosaic at La Ciudadela School of Applied Arts. He could also see the artworks by Mexican muralists, although he does not consider they have influenced him. In this respect, he confessed to Estévez: “Maybe the presence of Mexico was shown on a certain gigantism my painting had from then on. It prompted me to the need of painting in large spaces”.

A few days after returning from Mexico, Peña traveled to Vigo and from there he went on to Paris. As he has recalled, it is then when he initiated the most important stage of his education. “There I did not study, at least not in the scholastic sense of the word. I spent three months visiting museums, discovering the great European painting. I went to the Louvre daily. I covered all Parisian museums, from the Museum of Man to the one of Oriental Arts. That was the trip that made me see art was really important to me. I still did not know what I wanted; I was still disoriented and my drawings from that time are inevitably Picassoesque. But I was already and truly on track”. From those years date the first artworks he exhibited in Cuba, at the National Hall in 1959 and in Mexico, at the Center of Contemporary Art.


In 1961, he began working as a designer for the Department of Propaganda from the National Council of Culture, at the same time as he made works for UNESCO’s Cuban National Commission. On the other hand, in July 1964, he made his first solo exhibition at the Asociación de Grabadores de Cuba, with the title 12 Litografías (12 Lithographs). In September, that same show travelled to Prague to be exhibited at the Cuban Cultural Center. In the following years, artworks of his own were part of collective exhibitions presented in Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, the Soviet Union, Poland, England, Canada, Italy, Japan, and Sweden. That same year, he received his first important acknowledgement. Likewise, a set of his engravings was awarded with the Lithography Prize at the Havana Exhibition organized by Casa de las Américas.

Regarding these artworks, it is convenient to say they are about a sort of particular slaughterhouse, in which Peña recreates hanging skinned cattle, and in which the expressionist strokes are combined with abstract formulations and elements from the action painting. Here it is worth referring to Francis Bacon, whose influence Peña has acknowledged. The English painter also created cattle hanging from slaughterhouse hooks, as well as viscera and pieces of raw meat. Those imprecise stains, which Graziella Pogolotti described as hallucinating visions of blood and creation, were later gradually acquiring other forms and inevitably were transformed into human beings. About that, Nelson Herrera Ysla remarked that Peña “inaugurates a series of engravings in which the human body unfolds before us in order to show its interiority in every sense. From the drama of the flesh he goes on to the ironic radiograph peppered with humor, with uncontrolled violence”.

In 1967, Peña was chosen among painters younger than 35 years of age to represent Cuba at the Jeune Peinture V Paris Biennale. There he received one of the six awards granted. Until then, his artistic activity had been more focused on his work as an engraver. That, according to his remarks, gave him the possibility of trying out, searching and being enriched, and it served him also to opt for his creative world. However, now he went on to paint more and having a direct relation with color. Something, as he remarked to Almayda Catá, he found exasperating in engravings. Likewise, being in contact with the work of artists like Tom Wesselmann and Peter Saul, as well as with the pop art, encouraged him and contributed to a reformulation of his aesthetics, inasmuch as he incorporated new composite elements and made space more complex.


In magazines like Unión (April-June 1967), Casa de las Américas (issues 34, 35, 36-37, and 51-52) and Cuadernos de Ruedo Ibérico (supplement 1967), there appeared in those years lithographs and drawings that show those new aesthetic ways in his work (many of those distinctive elements went on also to canvases). In them, the most intimate exploration of the human being led Peña to introduce toilets, toothbrushes, dentures, brains, throats, bilious splashes, glandes, severed tongues, arteries, erect penises…

In 1969’s May issue, La Gaceta de Cuba reproduced twelve of his assemblages, made from a series of engravings that had been awarded in Cracow the previous year. A brief unsigned note included on this issue states: “Umberto Peña has become obsessed with the confrontation of the world of viscera with the universe of objects. The torn flesh enters in contact with consumer goods and a violent crash occurs. Everything explodes and the words that rise up from a liver torn to pieces bounce off a brush. Man faces up his creations and everything else. Peña just keeps to making objective (and subjective) a reality: the reality of his time; the convulsed, splendid, defining time that surrounds him”. This opening-up of the thematic repertoire to areas till then unknown in Cuban plastics, had also an evident questioning purpose that challenged pliable visions and concessions to the spectator.

In that significant enrichment experienced by his work, the pop art had a very salutary influence. It is noticed in the violent and luminescent colors, in the aggressive character of forms and spaces, in the use of comic resources. There is, however, no mechanical copying, but a creative assimilation by an artist who was already in possession of an aesthetics of his own and whose work was in full maturity.

Speaking of that incorporation of aspects from popular culture, Antonio Eligio (Tonel) has pointed out that such a scathing and unprejudiced tone in those artworks turns his creator into “an antecessor of proposals that have recently appeared into the Cuban context (Tomás Esson, Carlos Rodríguez Cárdenas, Adriano Buergo, among others)”. However, he makes it clear that “curiously enough, it is almost impossible to talk about influence or antecedence”, since Peña’s work, until a few years ago, was “largely unknown for the younger graduates”. 

Between 1970 and 1971, Peña produced a series of lithographs, in which the erotic content went along with a nuance full of irony. In those pieces, the sexual organs are independent of the body, so much so that, as Herrera Ysla has pointed out, they seem endowed with a soul of their own and possessed by a demon that drives them to defy the space they inhabit. The suspicious looks and the most prudish mentalities were scandalized, and the cultural circles engaged in debates. The series contributed to increase his reputation as an irreverent artist, as well as the taboo aura that had gradually been created around his work. All of that made Peña stop engraving and painting, and go on to devote himself completely to his work as a graphic designer from 1971 on.


His activity in graphic design was actually initiated from 1963, when he went to work in Casa de las Américas. There he started an intense labor that materialized, as Herrera Ysla has remarked, in one of the most rigorous and fertile professional career paths ever carried out in our country in this field. To him we owe books, posters, symbols, billboards, logotypes, stamps that gave the institution its characteristic face. Because of his quality, his freshness, his vitality, his audacious conception, his expressive clarity, that monumental whole constitutes the best example of its kind in Cuba.

In 1965, Peña redefined the design of the already existing collections (Premio, Literatura Latinoamericana, Cuadernos Casa, Nuestros Países), as well as that of the magazine Casa de las Américas. Designing the magazine entailed a great challenge for Peña, given its two-month periodicity. During the almost two decades he carried out this work, he managed a constant quality level that reached its greatest creativity stage between 1965 and the beginning of the seventies. He always had to count on some unchanging elements: the format, the circle on the cover and the limited possibilities both of paper and the printing presses. But despite these artistic restrictions, he was able to give his graphic work surprising freedom and an imaginative projection.

The design of the Premio Collection presented him with another similar challenge, a collection he was responsible for from 1965 to 1983 (except in 1966, when it belongs to Rafael Morante). In that case, it was about conceiving the graphic presentation of the award-winning books every year, so that they shared a basic format from which he created variations. That is, although they were unified by a common graphic motif, at the same time they were different from each other. Between 1965 and 1972, he used elements related to literature and printing: typewriters, keyboards, typographic cases, printers. In some cases he used antique engravings and vignettes, in some others, photographs.

It is impossible to cover all the graphic activity Peña developed at Casa de las Américas. For that, I would have to refer also to the newly created collections to which he gave personality (La Honda, Valoración Múltiple, Palabra de Esta América), to the other two periodic publications (Conjunto, Boletín de Música), to posters and records. That would lead to a monograph, which escapes the pretensions of these lines. I just want to add a couple of things. One is the cleverness with which Peña knew how to adapt to and derive benefits from the material conditions he worked with. A good example is his use of humble materials that are considered to be coarse. The other aspect has to do with the clear concept with which Peña assumed the graphic design. This was never tainted with his work as a painter and engraver, but it passed in an independent and parallel manner. As he himself expressed on several occasions, the design has a language of its own and moves in a different circle to that of the plastic arts. That understanding manifests itself in expressive clarity, in the absence of superfluous elements, the skill to apply color, the ability to incorporate typography, the perfect balance between image and text.


In November 1980, the vast Salón de los Pasos Perdidos (The Lost Steps Hall) in the National Capitol housed the first exhibition by Peña since the sixties. It was not, however, a show of paintings, but of some unusual and immense artworks his creator called trapices, that is, a mixing of trapo (rag) and tapiz (tapestry). When referring to their genesis, he remarked they arose out of a purely domestic necessity. In 1976, he felt like doing a bedspread. He started then to gather remnants and a tailor friend brought him many. Likewise, some friends parted with their ties, old or new ones.

“There, in the making of the bedspread, I found that adding to it a corporeal element, a tapestry could come up. So that a bedspread prompted the passion for the trapices”, Peña remarked to Estévez. In the trapices, he also found a way to take up again the erotic theme he gave expression to in his painting until 1971. However, and as Antonio Eligio pointed out, now the eroticism tends to attenuate, hyperbolized in exquisite and paradoxical designs. It is about “enormous sexes, of public scale, so lovely and with such a good design that they deserve to be absolved of all blame”.

Trapices–in honor of the 7th International Ballet Festival and in which Juan Blanco installed the sound system-, was commented on in glowing terms by several critics. One of them was Alejandro G. Alonso, who stressed that “if in their origin the materials may be humble, a product of waste or the sacrifice of some second-hand garment, the results are sumptuous, in spite of the certainty of the origins –direct in one, wrapped up further on, lively enjoying the metaphor the whole time- that is noticed in these objects capable of unleashing an imaginative process of appreciation”.

In 1988, he received the recognition usually given to masters and consecrated artists: in June the National Museum of Fine Arts opened the exhibition Pintura/ Grabado/ Dibujo/ Textil/ Diseño Gráfico (Painting/ Engraving/ Drawing/ Textile/ Graphic Design) (former artworks to 1963 were excluded). It was a retrospective that did justice to a talented and multifaceted creator as there are few; whose work has covered several fields. For many, in particular for the younger ones, that great show meant a surprise, an unusual event. For them, Peña was the brilliant designer of books and magazines. However, now they came to discover that he is also a stupendous painter and engraver.


From the moment he left Casa de las Américas, Peña devoted himself to work as a freelance. At the end of 1992, he traveled to Mexico for a month, and he went back in January 1993 for six months, this time to teach a course at the University of Xochimilco. When he finished it, he went to the United States, where he resided for about twelve years and mainly devoted himself to work as a designer. A fair deal of that activity was linked to Término Editorial, whose books he designed and plated. Although it did not reach, not by a long shot, the volume of the one he developed in Casa de las Américas and despite being far less well-known, in that work it is noticed the indelible mark of his talent. In those titles, Peña managed a correspondence between text and its visual wrap, besides his habitual mastery in the use of typographies, margins and printing. In this case, he had to adapt also to the new technological conditions, which he knew how to revert to other creative possibilities.

From 2006 on, Peña took up residence in Salamanca, Spain. Already retired as a designer, in January 2012 he surprised all and sundry with his first solo exhibition since 1988: Acerca de Salamanca. Pinturas y dibujos recientes (About Salamanca. Recent Paintings and Drawings). Part of it could be seen afterwards, from the end of June to the beginning of August, at the Gallery Club Diario in Ibiza. In those pieces, the figurative expressionism that characterizes his former plastic work is recognized. About the fact that, after he stopped painting in 1971, he has taken the paintbrush once again from 2007 on, Peña remarked: “Maybe many things were left undone or unsaid since then and these paintings came up loaded with forms that recreate characters trying to establish a dialogue, an approach, a vital need of communication, enveloped in the other’s strangeness, where dream, fantasy spreads its wings, where that which is oneiric produces mental hallucinations between conscience and reality. The titles are a way of bringing the spectator closer to understanding the work”. It is about, in short, a Peña that far from showing signs of stagnation, has renovated himself and probes into new expressive paths.

In the last years, a slow recovery of Peña’s plastic work is taking place in Cuba. In February 2011, the Building of Cuban Art of the National Museum of Fine Arts held the exhibition Dos impulsos eróticos (Two Erotic Impulses), made up of artworks by Peña and Santiago Armada (Chago) that had been recently acquired by that institution. The pieces exhibited present eroticism from the personal poetics of those artists. Twelve engravings and one trapiz by Peña were shown. On the other hand, Casa de las Américas is carrying out the Año de la Nueva Figuración, which lasts from April 2012 to next year’s March. As part of the activities, at the Latin American Gallery two personal exhibitions have been scheduled. The first one was dedicated to Argentinian Antonio Seguí; the second one, to Umberto Peña. Its opening is planned for January 2013 and will remain open until March. For the Cuban public, it will be the opportunity to appreciate part of the work, as a painter and engraver, of a creator who has been, completely fair and square, described as a master. It will be, as writer Reynaldo González remarked, a reason for jubilation and reunions.