Fidelio Ponce: ethics, passion and creation

February 20, 2011 8:18 pm 0 comments

He was unprecedented in Cuban painting. His greatest challenge was painting in his own way, with the courage of his convictions.

Mabel Guerra García

Camagüey, Cuba – Despite commencing his studies at the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts, Havana in 1916, he later abandoned them in order to create a new art movement in contrast to the “academicism’ that was prevalent in Cuban visual arts.

At the time, the Cuban ‘art academy’ was so firmly transfixed by the Old Continent that it was alien to the expression of Cuba’s internal culture in art.

For Fidelio Ponce de León Henner, who was born in 1895 and died at 1949, his creative ethic could not be compromised.

The painter believed that the validity of art came from within the creator and not from nature.

Fidelio Ponce believed that an artist could not be content with imitating reality, however virtuous his technique. Therefore, he rejected the use of rich tropical tones and forms in his painting, because his ingenuity laid in his ability to instil soul into his work. It is not by chance, therefore, that his work is a palette of whites, okras, light and melancholy.

Characterised by this sensitivity, Ponce created images that were unusual, downtrodden and mystical. His images were original, but brilliant and beautiful, and made the painter one of the Vanguardia.

In his paintings, he knew how to evoke the suffering and despair of a country in decline.

As the critic Guy Pérez stated, he was the type of painter that created art “as if driven by a fateful destiny, one that was blind to the landscape, deaf to all words, and was capable of ripping an immense and whole world from deep inside him”.

And so it was that this slim, bloated and spontaneous man, with a very prominent nose, a wide hat covering his forehead as if he were hiding from the sun, abandoned art school. He plunged himself into a world of shadows to lead a nomadic and solitary life, one which was unsociable and awash with alcohol.

It is said that pain and incomprehension made Alfredo Ramón de la Paz Fuentes Pons, his real name, the man that he was.

Born in Camagüey in January 1895, the painter grew up in a traditional, conservative family that practised Cuba’s most ardent form of Catholicism. He grew up in the midst of tumultuous economic and political times in the country.

When he was just eight years old, Ponce suffered the loss of his mother, a sorrow that he expressed with his paintbrushes.

Critics claim that reading into the significance of his work allows us to understand his approach to life and the constant restlessness that made him walk his life alone.

Because Ponce’s world of pictures is “strange and full of pain, in shades of white, grey and sepia and other hazy tones”, reflects his biographer Juan Sánchez.

Life in the provinces perhaps also aided him on his journey to hone the refined style that defined him; his painting exudes a strong sense of identity with the life, attitudes and culture of the city where he was born.

Without baggage or money, he made a pilgrimage through Cuba, taking only his art with him; he was unconcerned with money or praise from the public, his only concern was his art.

On his slow ramble through Cuba, he dedicated himself to travelling through small villages in the interior and the gloomiest districts of Havana, leaving his creative and nostalgic stamp on many forgotten places. On his travels, he gave lessons to poor children and on many occasions painted in bars and taverns in exchange for a meal.

In his imagination, Ponce travelled to Europe; he soaked up the universal art and life of this continent using only reproduction images in catalogues. However, he could recall “visits” to Paris museums with such clarity that those who didn’t know him would believe him.

He had a wide knowledge of Italy, France, Spain and other centres of European art and admired the great artists of his era whose influences are visible in his works.

Scholars have compared his style with the Italian painter Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920), and because of the mysticism that prevails in his work have associated him with Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614), a master in capturing the religious fervour of 16th century Spain.

Experts have stated that even his artistic pseudonym ‘Fidelio Ponce de León Henner’ was borne of his prodigal creativity, which could go a long way in explaining his personality, the origins of the man himself.

As for Fidelio and Ponce, according to the writer Sánchez, the narrow phonetic distance between these names and the original ‘Fuentes y Pons’ is very clear in both respectively.

Whilst ‘de León’ is in line with a kinglike personality; a ferocious, solitary, and independent man who was fond of walking, ‘Henner’, however, stems from a dreamy fondness for nostalgia. He borrowed it from a European painter, a character, that according to him, was his own grandfather.

Others claim that the name Fidelio came from Beethoven’s only opera. This would explain the painter’s passion for music that could rouse him into elevated states of emotions and moods.

At 39, he made his debut in the art world with his first personal exhibition at the Liceum in Havana. Dos mujeres, Two Women (1934) and La familia está de duelo, Family in mourning, (1934) are works that are moving in their expressive ability.

In the National Salon of 1935 Beatas was awarded a prize, a work in which the painter further validated his strong sense of identity; later on he was awarded first prize for his painting Los niños, The children, (1937).

Although his paintings hardly appeared in Havana exhibitions and he was not one of the most recognised of painters, his pictorial story allowed him to reveal himself as one of the most genuinely original and substantial artists of Cuban painting given the sober nature of his art.

Between 1935 and 1940, a period in which he reaffirmed his unique style, he created the works Rostros de Cristo, Faces of Christ and Mi prima Anita, My cousin Anita.

In 1941, Rostros was born, two years after he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. In spite of his illness, however, he kept painting whilst he still had the strength.

Fidelio Ponce, the painter of human misery, waited with patience and resignation until the end of his days; although his physical condition deteriorated, first through alcohol and then later Tuberculosis, his lucid mind continued to evoke the fantasy of Cuba, his art and desires.

A symbol of humility and art, the painter died in one of Havana’s oldest districts on the 19th February 1949, leaving the Cuban visual arts scene with one of the most singular and authentic expressions of his art, one which continues to inspire reflection in generations of Cuban artists to this very day.

Alone and mysterious, from the depths of a grave in the Cementerio de Colón in Havana, Ponce still traces with a heavy soul new images of life and the Bohemian world that exalted him and made him immortal.

And this is because Fidelio Ponce is the painter of the Cuban ‘Vanguardia’ movement who, in the words of the French art critic Pierre Loeb “will always be honoured as having sung his own song, of having been an example to all of a noble and quality man”. (PL)

(Traducido por Rebecca Beswick – Email: rebecca_beswick@yahoo.co.uk)


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