Monday June 18, 2018

Photographic Discoveries Shed New Light on MoMA’s Modern Cuban Painters

A close examination of photo negatives yields new information about the milestone 1944 show.

Seventy-three years have passed since the anthology exhibition, Modern Cuban Painters, opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (March 17–May 7, 1944). This landmark exhibition brought international recognition to this previously unknown Havana school of modern painting. And it is still offering new insights.

In this brief essay, the result of lengthy and detailed research, we will focus on the key person and the fundamental work that allowed the show to transcend its ephemeral character: Soichi Sunami and his photographic documentation of the exhibition.

Soichi Sunami (1885-1971) was a Japanese American who initially studied painting and sculpture but eventually switched to modern photography, in which he became a master. He is famous for his dance studies (Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille, and others), his photographs of artist friends and their works, and for his professional collaboration with the major art galleries of his time. He worked as MoMA’s official staff photographer for almost 40 years.

In 1944, Sunami made more than one photographic tour of the Modern Cuban Painters exhibition, judging by the 18 photographs in the MoMA archives that were taken in the galleries. These photographs, never published as a group, allow us a virtual tour of the exhibition and the opportunity to study its museographic arrangement: the relation of artists and works as a whole and in space.

It’s important to point out that this will be an examination, a method of studying the photographic document from an archaeological perspective. Looking at the objects with a magnifying glass is fundamental to discovering those most elusive references. In art history, one usually looks at the whole, that which is hidden behind the study of styles. In archaeology, we go for the detail. Here we will study the details of things, seeking relations between those small aspects that are lost in the whole, and which sometimes reveal unsuspected information. The photo is not enough; to make it more useful you have to attempt to read it, interpret it, and contrast it.

To be precise, the study of Sunami’s photographs of the Cuban show supports three analyses.

The anaylses will be made, first, according to MoMA’s file number (Museum Archives Image Database-MAID Catalogue Number), which imposes an incorrect order on the photographic route through the exhibition.

Second, according to the original numbering of the negatives (Rolls 52/6 photos and 53/12 photos), which points to the correct order, different from the previous, and suggests two photographic tours.

Third, according to a close visual comparison of the negatives in each roll, which indicates that these photographic tours were presumably made at different times. Roll 53 (second photographic tour) reveals museographic changes or additions to things previously recorded on Roll 52: changes in furniture, in posters, or the grouping of works, and identification or additions to the names of artists exhibited (Lam1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

In another sense, the careful study of the negatives allows us to discover the exact location in the gallery of the four works on paper by Fidelio Ponce. These works are still unknown and don’t appear in these photos (or at least are not visible). Yet they are included, with complete technical data, in the checklist of the show ("Modern Cuban Painters," Museum of Art Bulletin 11:5 (April 1944), 14 pages). I emphasize this point because I consider Ponce one of the important modern artists of his generation, and perhaps the most original.

It’s evident, after comparing the negatives, that the four works on paper by Ponce were exhibited in the same gallery space as the seven works by René Portocarrero. The space with the Portocarrero works is in front of the works of Cundo Bermúdez and follows those of Amelia Peláez (Lam6, left). Portocarrero has four works on the back wall and three on the left wall. To the right of this space, you can see four works on paper, which, judging by the dimensions and type of frame, I assume are those of Ponce (Lam6, right).

Finally, another negative supports this assumption, as we can see, on the left, the first of this group of four works on paper. Everything indicates that it is a drawing by Ponce, and the photographic perspective relates it to his three oils in the background. This photographic juxtaposition and framing was presumably done intentionally by Sunami (Lam7).

If the photo in this fragment is enlarged, you can see that it’s a drawing by Ponce of a female face—perhaps his work Woman. According to data available on the MoMA website, two of Ponce´s exhibited drawings have been part of MoMA’s collection since 1944 (Woman, 1940, pencil, 12 ¾ x 11" and Three Girls, 1943, pencil, 10 X 11").

Thus we can locate within the display this important set of Ponce’s drawings. Moreover, we can even retrieve for the history of Cuban art Sunami’s interest in Ponce’s works, since he made an effort in his photographs to integrate the drawing, Woman, with the oil paintings.

I think the framing is intentional, because Sunami even sacrifices the left edge of the oil painting, The Children, in order to align the drawing, Woman, with the set of paintings. In addition, he establishes a slightly inclined horizon line that allows him to align these four works by the center (Lam7a).

Nevertheless, important areas of the galleries—where there are many works on paper that are recorded with technical data in the exhibition checklist—are not shown, or at least they don’t appear in any of the two photographic tours mentioned above. Other photographic documents of this Cuban show by Soichi Sunami are known, but it is Roll 51 that corresponds to negatives of individual works exhibited, not to groupings in the gallery (Lam8 and 9).

With the level of professionalism shown in his photos, we don’t believe that Sunami downplayed the works on paper or intentionally stopped showing large and important areas of the exhibition. Nevertheless, and taking into account what we know today, he focuses on the seven works on paper by Portocarrero, the somewhat elusive references to those by Ponce, and four by Martínez Pedro (without giving us references to the positioning of the latter).

I remain convinced that there must be another photographic tour in the MoMA archives: another Sunami roll of film with all of the works on paper hanging in the gallery, including the two by Amelia Peláez, four by Ponce, two by Cundo, Diago, the other two by Martínez Pedro, three by Mariano Rodríguez, and four by Mario Carreño.

Lacking another roll of film, or lacking photos from the two rolls that we know of, or regrettably, given the state of war that existed at the time and the consequent shortage of supplies (in the midst of World War II), perhaps Sunami had to limit himself to a rigorous selection.

Finally, a careful study of the negatives also allows to visualize the space, the galleries, and partitions, and the possibility of reconstructing the displays from Soichi Sunami’s photographic frames. We can then hypothetically position works undocumented in the photographic tours. Further research and new findings will corroborate or correct current proposals.

José Ramón Alonso Lorea is an art historian. He is a graduate of the University of Havana, where he pursued studies in popular art, art theory and practice, anthropology, and archaeology, cultural advancement, conservation, restoration, and museology. He has been a professor of art history at the University of Havana, and a researcher and curator in the Department of Research and Curation at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. He has spoken at conferences in Cuba, Colombia, and Spain, and has published articles on art and culture in journals and magazines in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Spain. He has collaborated on projects by the Organización de Estados Iberoamericanos and the Centro Español de Estudios de América Latina, both in Madrid. He is the author, coordinator, and editor of the digital project Estudios Culturales 2003.