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Painting a picture of Puerto Rico's early masters

"Mi Puerto Rico: Master Painters of the Island, 1780-1952," an exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum, is a curiously sad show. It's not supposed to be. Organized by the Museo de Arte de Ponce, it means to celebrate three of Puerto Rico's most important artists and call attention to an artistic culture that is older and richer than most people know.

The impression it actually conveys, however, is that Puerto Rico was, at least until the mid-20th century, too isolated and too conservative to support a vital artistic tradition. Two of the featured artists, José Campeche y Jordán (1751-1809) and Miguel Pou y Becerra (1880-1968), were mediocre at best, and the third, Francisco Oller y Cestero (1833-1917), though talented and ambitious, had a career much thwarted by provincial circumstances.

Campeche, the son of a slave who bought his freedom, was the official portrait painter of 18th-century Puerto Rican high society. His most engaging works are small, intensely detailed images of sumptuously costumed members of the ruling class. They are like dolls in dollhouses -- stiff and unreal, yet imbued with an oddly palpable and sometimes inadvertently comical presence. Portrayed on a laptop-size panel, one such lady has a hat smothered in feathers, flowers, and ribbons balanced atop her bouffant wig. Her dress is a shower of ruffles and lace, and her little boy, resplendent in a tight satin suit with a blue sash and shoulder-length blond hair under his stylish black hat, seems like an expensive accessory.

It would be nice to think that Campeche was satirizing his privileged subjects, as did his Spanish contemporary Francisco Goya, but his larger portraits of two bishops and a governor are lifeless and obsequious imitations of European court painting. His religious paintings are blandly saccharine, albeit luridly colored.

Oller, Puerto Rico's most famous 19th-century painter, spent periods of time in Europe. In Paris between 1858 and 1865, he befriended Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and other avant-garde painters, and cultivated his own radical, anti-academic ambitions.

An early portrait of an architect shows the influences of Courbet and Manet in its robust paint application, flattening of forms, and reduced color. And paintings of sugar plantations in Puerto Rico have a near-photographic vividness despite the fuzzy, Impressionist style. Oller's most original and powerful paintings are still lifes in which bananas, gourds, and other tropical fruits and vegetables are painted with lush sensuousness. One of green coconuts accented by twisting vines has a strangely monumental and almost surrealistic look that Giorgio de Chirico surely would have appreciated.

Oller enjoyed considerable critical success during stays in France and Spain, but in his later years in Puerto Rico he was so poor he had to use found pieces of lumber to paint on. What might have he achieved had he stayed in Europe like Pissarro, who was born on the Caribbean Island of St. Thomas, but left home for good for Paris.

Pou, the third artist, is mentioned in all of the general accounts of Puerto Rican art history, so it makes sense that he is included in this show. But he was an unimaginative, regressive painter, and it is mystifying to me that he is still considered significant. Pou took drawing and painting lessons in Ponce and became a public school teacher at 20. In 1910, he founded an art school, which he directed for the next 40 years. He first worked in an Impressionist manner, then developed a facile, brushy, representational style. His condescendingly sentimental 1930s portraits of native Puerto Ricans look like illustrations for popular magazines. Pou was also admired for placid landscapes depicting distant green mountains and blue skies. The ones here would make fine calendar art.

The exhibition also includes paintings by a few associates and followers of the three featured painters. One of the most interesting, by Manuel E. Jordán, pictures a battle between warships during the Spanish-American War.

What is conspicuously missing from the show is work that responds to more progressive developments in 20th-century art. As the Museo de Arte de Ponce's chief curator, Cheryl Hartup, notes in her catalog essay, unlike Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, where imported avant-garde styles were avidly embraced, Puerto Rico remained isolated from such developments during the first half of the century. After World War II, Puerto Rico became a US commonwealth, and travel between New York City and the island became a regular fact of life. Countless Puerto Rican artists have been deeply involved in sophisticated Modernist and postmodern forms of art over the past half century.

It's too bad "Mi Puerto Rico" did not provide a taste of more recent developments. Ending as it does with Pou's uninspiring career leaves one with a sense of frustration that, I suspect, the right dose of contemporary Puerto Rican art would decisively dispel.

Ken Johnson can be reached at

(Correction: Because of incorrect information supplied by the Worcester Art Museum, a photo caption with a review of the exhibition "Mi Puerto Rico: Master Painters of the Island, 1780-1952" in yesterday's Living/Arts section misidentified the artist who painted "Still Life With Coconuts." The work is by Francisco Oller y Cestero.)

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