Tuesday February 21, 2017

Lezama by Cañas: A Master at Leisure

Recalling a giant of Cuban literature through the lens of a noted Cuban photographer

The writer José Lezama Lima with the portrait of him painted in 1941 by the Cuban artist Mariano Rodríguez

Photo by Iván Cañas

This past fall, the renowned Cuban writer Leonardo Padura recalled an important literary event.

“It was in 1966, with the appearance of the only novel published in his lifetime by Cuban José Lezama Lima, which on the island touched off one of the scandals most widely remembered by those who lived in that homophobic era—a time when an epic literature prevailed, which had nothing to do with the aesthetic propositions of a writer now considered an iconic figure in Hispanoamerican literature.

Those asking literature for a commitment to reality after the 1959 victory could not understand the challenge of a difficult, almost hermetic work, whose Chapter Eight, with its homoerotic references, bothered the obtuse officials of the time, as they did not understand either sexual diversity or expressive hermetisms ... Fifty  years later, most scholars consider Paradiso one of the most important Spanish-language books written in the 20th century.”

Lezama Lima died in 1976, forgotten by the cultural bureaucracy of the moment. But in 1969, a young Cuban photographer—Ivan Cañas, editor of the magazine Cuba—had entered the house at  Trocadero 162, along with artist and designer Raul Martínez, and captured for posterity the image of an open, talkative writer.

In tribute to Lezama Lima and to Cañas’s curiosity, Cuban Art News offers a brief text written by critic and curator Silvia Llanes for Lezama Inédito (Lezama Unpublished), an exhibition of 30 black-and-white images by Cañas that was scheduled for, but not presented, in 2015 at the Lezama Lima House Museum in Havana.

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Lezama with the painter and designer Raúl Martínez

Photo by Iván Cañas

In 1966, Ivan Cañas took a course in photography and graphic design with Raul Martínez. I would have liked to have been so lucky. But that was the year I was born, so it wasn’t possible—nor for that legendary Cuban artist to take me to Lezama’s house. I finally got there and discovered Lezama’s universe after the place had already been converted into a museum that I visit frequently these days, to re-encounter friends for whom every attention is never enough.

Lezama with the young photographer Iván Cañas, 1969

Photo by Iván Cañas

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cañas visited Lezama and caught the writer`s personal space in black and white, creating a photographic testament to one of the most authentic of Cuba’s writers. Like the Lezama depicted by the Venezuelan photographer Paolo Gasparini or the Cuban photographer Chiolope, Lezama by Cañas conjures up the vision of an affable, friendly, talkative writer, open to the young people who sought him out as if for a date with destiny. Exposed to the lens, Lezama permitted the history of Latin American photography to penetrate his life and his environment.

Those well-known images, where he appears surrounded by writers—drinking, talking, enveloped in tobacco smoke—are engraved in my memory. Joining them now are these intimate places, fragments of a house that I could also make my own. These photographs of an elder of great standing—a señor mayor in every way—seen in his natural, private environment, have provoked these confessions that I had always kept to myself.

Lezama in the garden of the Museo de Artes Decorativas in Havana

Photo by Iván Cañas

It is the house, the luminosity of Centro Habana, the shadows of the humble architecture, the smell of the streets of the capital. The subtle barrier of the Prado: below, La Habana Vieja, and the Plaza Hotel warmly welcoming the people walking there; a few steps more and you can see little Albear Plaza or wander down Obispo. Instead, my favorite perspective is at the entrance of the National Museum of Fine Arts.  If I turn my back and cross the Prado, leaving aside the Hotel Sevilla, I come to Lezama’s house with its baroque columns at the gate. Once again, I can search for the memories that this home extends to me.

Leaning out his window: Lezama, conoisseur of fine tobacco

Photo by Iván Cañas

Leaning out his window open to La Habana del Centro, cigar always in hand, he gazes (at Cañas). He looks at me, he observes us at his leisure… and I can, from this side of the divide, feel the smoke, perceive the odor of the dry, rolled leaves set afire to delight the smoker. Lezama, Intimate and hospitable under the Havana sun: a señor in repose, an almost smiling old man.

The photographer, so praised for his ability to pick up signals from the faces and the poetry of gestures, bestows to me, as a gift, the everyday life of someone who is inspiration and legend to so many.

"He was someone who didn't like to pose and didn't like photography. But somehow things went well between us," commented Cañas.

Photo by Iván Cañas

Some pictures show the books, arranged in that small chaos that is simply the order of the owner`s mind: stacked with their backs down or turned, as they had just arrived at a bookseller’s. Each shelf is nothing more than a house, a refuge for the book and the coexistence of a large family, made of pages, cardboard and ink. I would like to make my home on Lezama`s bookshelf, in this protected corner.

In others are paintings—those I can see there today, and those I can’t. Mariano is in the foreground, of course. Where is my favorite? ... I do not see the one by Aristides Fernández, but I know where to find it, like the women in his life—toward the back, near the bed and the family keepsakes.

The author of Paradiso with his wife, María Luisa Batista Treviño

Photo by Iván Cañas

More than once I have been allowed to touch the walls, working for what is more than a museum, with the idea that I am paying a tribute and can feel his footsteps, his touch on the walls. What does the photographer give me this day? Not just a document, not a mere reference to a time that I did not live. More deeply, as if with a master key, he opens my senses.

Lezama with his childhood nurse Baldomera Mazó Antón, who served as the model for the character of la Baldovina in Paradiso

Photo by Iván Cañas

Ensconced in his carved-wood and woven-cane armchair, Lezama is joined by an old woman, a key character in the novel of his life. And these fragments of everyday life are collected by another artist who, as a photographer, some have classified as a poet. It is no exaggeration to call him that, because poets build with rhythms and pauses, and those are evident in the skirt worn by Maria Luisa, the discreet and humble cloth that moves, with rhythm, on its way to the Prado. The couple weave their way through the streets of Havana, advancing slowly.

Lezama and his wife strolling the Prado

Photo by Iván Cañas

Back at the house—not mine, the one on Trocadero Street—I also take my leisure, and confirm what I learned as a child in my father`s study: true paradise is where one finds the aroma of books and tobacco, the sound of the typewriter, and the brilliance of white paper… always.

Silvia Llanes is an art critic and curator. She is the director of the visual arts collection, Casa de las Américas, Havana.