Rafael Soriano: Story of an Acclaimed Abstractionist, Cuban Exile, Universal Painter

Danzarines Dancers 1969

Danzarines (Dancers), 1969. Photos of Rafael Soriano’s work courtesy of the LBMA.

The nearly 100 drawings, paintings and pastels currently displayed at the Long Beach Museum of Art (LBMA) tell the strikingly beautiful story of an abstract artist uprooted, Rafael Soriano (1920-2015), who left his native home of Cuba in search of artistic freedom.

Born in the town of Cidra in Matanzas, a Cuban province on the Bay of Matanzas, Soriano was one of the most acclaimed abstractionists of concrete art in Cuba (introduced in Havana in 1949) and Latin America and was a part of the group Diez Pintores Concretos (Ten Concrete Painters), its members known for painting geometric, hard-edged, abstractions between 1959 and 1961, as well as bringing the geometric abstraction movement of Europe and the Americas to Cuba. However, during the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro, many abstract artists left the country, as non-representational, non-ideological art became suspect.

Originally curated by Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta for the McMullen Museum of Art Boston College for its January 2017 exhibition of Soriano’s work in collaboration with the Rafael Soriano Foundation, the retrospective Rafael Soriano: The Artist as Mystic at LBMA shows works from his early, more geometric abstractions painted in Cuba to his later, more biomorphic shapes created in Florida following his exile.

La noche The Night 1970

La noche (The Night), 1970

“As the Revolution redefined its ideology and embraced communism in the early 1960s, the artistic precepts dictated by the regime no longer permitted unfettered artistic production. Some artists stayed, choosing to accept the revolutionary transformations imposed upon their production. Many, such as Soriano, chose to leave in search of artistic freedom,” wrote Goizueta in her essay The Heart That Lights from Inside: Rafael Soriano’s Struggle for His Artistic Vision.

Taking the stairs to see his later works, created after he left his native home, the paintings hanging on the walls of the museum’s second-floor gallery seem to emit an ethereal light all on their own. The glowing marine, as well as earthy, colors of Soriano’s more biomorphic paintings are enchanting, yet certainly depict a struggle as some of the shapes that appear are portrait-like and almost transparent, as if whatever might be trapped inside has yet to fully emerge, or make itself clear to the artist himself.

For example, the 1996 painting Angustia del Olvido (The Anguish of Oblivion) was described by Goizueta as “the howl you see forming almost like an Edvard Munch scream” and seems to express a more sinister facet of the human condition, one of turmoil or questions left unanswered and perhaps reflects a relentless pondering of the meaning of one’s existence.

Angustia del olvido The Anguish of Oblivion 1996

Angustia del olvido (The Anguish of Oblivion), 1996.

“When he left and when he had this traumatic experience that he talked about, which was exile from Cuba, he felt as though the geometric abstraction with the flat angular forms was no longer sufficient to express the emotions that were going on inside of him and so then he turned back to the interpretation of biomorphic, organic [forms] that had first nurtured his vision,” Goizueta explained.

Before being ostracized from Cuba, Soriano graduated from Havana’s Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro in 1943 as Professor of Painting, Drawing and Sculpture, and returned to Matanzas where he taught for 20 years. He was also one of the founders, and later director, of Escuela de Bellas Artes de Matanzas, during his participation with Los Diez Pintores Concretos.

The 40s and 50s were a time when two competing interpretations of abstraction existed, according to Goizueta. One view was developed by a group called Los Once (The 11), which focused on the organic, biomorphic interpretation of the genre, and which a sculptor by the name of Agustín Cárdenas, “probably the most important sculptor of that generation,” was an active member. A friend and influencer of Soriano, several of Cárdenas sculptures are also on view at the LBMA, juxtaposed against Soriano’s hard-edged works on the first floor.

El centinela The Centinel 1978

El centinela (The Centinel), 1978

“What I like to say about Soriano is that Soriano was a universal painter,” Goizueta said. “He wasn’t just painting Cuba of the 50s or Miami of the 70s, he was really going within himself for inspiration based on many years of education and formation, but his inspiration was his own unique vision. He would let his vision be his compass in terms of where he wanted to go.”

Soriano’s daughter, Hortensia, was only two years old when Soriano, and wife Milagros, moved to Miami in 1962, hoping that they’d be able to return home after the revolution. When Soriano realized they were going to have to build a life in America, that returning home was not an option, “his work changed dramatically,” said Ron Nelson, LBMA’s executive director. After leaving his life as an established artist and professor in Cuba behind, Soriano did not paint for two years.

“At first it was very difficult for him to paint at all,” Nelson said. “Then as he was working his way into this new life, he had to make a living, but he also had to paint because it’s who he was. So the work transitioned into this surrealism, but then it started [taking on] this mystic and ephemeral feeling. They’re darker, they’re certainly not the bright colors that he used, but his manipulation of the paint and the color was truly amazing.”

Mundo astral Astral World 1980

Mundo astral (Astral World), 1980

Forced to begin a new life, find a new profession (he found work as a graphic designer and continued teaching) and form a new identity, Soriano struggled to express himself through art. Hortensia, who was only two when she and her parents emigrated from Cuba to settle in Miami, recalled this period of her father adjusting to their family’s new circumstances.

“People may call it depression, I just think it was a period where he had to reset his mind,” she said. “He was traumatized from being exiled and those two years he took as a time to reset. And he actually started painting in 1965, I would say, after he had an experience, as he called it — or it was a dream — he told my mom, ‘We are settling here in the United States, this is where we’re going to put our roots, and after that experience is when he started painting again.”

As an only child, Hortensia was very close with her parents. After moving out at 20 to go to college and become a chiropractic physician, she maintained her practice in Miami and would visit Rafael and Milagros often. Milagros was her father’s greatest fan and supporter, and would mount his canvases and build the frames; the two even came up with titles for his paintings together.

Frente al infinito Facing the Infinite 1992

Frente al infinito (Facing the Infinite), 1992

“I remember as a child I would know when a painting was finished —I never asked him, ‘Is it finished?’—No, when it was finished he would bring me and my mother to the Florida room, the studio where he painted. He would say, ‘Okay what do you think, what do you see, what do you feel?’ and we would talk about it,” Hortensia said. “And so then they would proceed to name the paintings, like a child they would give every painting a name. These were like my little siblings, I grew up an only child, but I had many, many siblings in these paintings.”

While Soriano’s work is well known throughout Latin America, in Miami, New York, Boston and elsewhere internationally, there is a special significance to his work being shown at the LBMA, the only West Coast location to exhibit this retrospective. Having grown up on the Bay of Matanzas, Soriano had a special affinity for water. The bay, “which in his own words changed color seven times a day,” heavily influenced his works, Goizueta said.

Soriano passed away two years ago in his Miami home, surrounded by those who knew him well, according to the Miami Herald. He leaves behind a legacy of artistic introspection, his works an integral facet of both Cuban and American art history. 

Espejismos de agua Water Mirages 1990

Espejismos de agua (Water Mirages), 1990

“I do not pretend to transmit a message of reality: I am moved by the longing to travel through my paintings in a dimension of spirit where the intimate and the cosmic converge,” Soriano once said.

“I think as you look out of the Long Beach Museum of Art and glimpse the sea and then glimpse his paintings juxtaposed next to it, you understand Soriano and his colors and his inspiration,” Goizueta said.

Rafael Soriano: Artist as Mystic closes on October 1, and will travel to the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, then land at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, Cuba in March 2018. For more information visit the museum’s website here

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Asia Morris has been with the Long Beach Post for five years, specializing in coverage of the arts. Her parents gave her the name because they wanted her to be a world traveler and they got their wish. She has obliged by pursuing art, journalism and a second career as a competitive cyclist.