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How artist Mariano Rodríguez's work honored his Cuban heritage while breaking rules


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: One of Cuba's most celebrated avant-garde painters, Mariano Rodriguez, was a prolific 20th century artist whose exposure in the U.S. was cut short after the Cuban Revolution.

But now there's a resurfacing of his work at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of WGBH Boston has our story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: Cuban painter Mariano Rodriguez was a painter of scenes, mining the richness of island life, the beauty of its women, the abundance of the land.

Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta, McMullen Museum of Art: He looked to everything that was kind of descriptive of his experience, of his world in Cuba.

Jared Bowen: Especially embodied throughout his career in this recurring feathered image, a rooster that became synonymous with Mariano, as he preferred to be known.

Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta: The rooster is a bad boy. And the rooster really is all about male virility and the countryside and battle. But he never left the peasants, and he never lost the female.

But it was the way he was reinterpreting these themes.

Jared Bowen: Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta the curator of Mariano: Variations on a Theme at Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art.

Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta: It's pretty amazing.

Jared Bowen: The show, she says, is an exploration of how the artist focused on the same subjects, but through myriad styles, over his 60-year career.

Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta: He went off on his own and created his own unique, radical style.

Jared Bowen: Launching his career in the 1930s, Mariano, like many artists of his generation, looked and traveled to Mexico for inspiration.

Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta: Mexico had been this kind of center to national conversations on the beauty of the indigenous people, the beauty of what was simple and what makes Mexico unique.

Jared Bowen: But the Mexican influence was short-lived when Mariano discovered New York. That's where he had his first exposure to artists like Matisse and Picasso, and where his work began to bear threads of their own.

Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta: While he was here looking at the museums and these different styles that he was absorbing and adapting and translating into his own language, he also was exposed to what was beginning to be this nascent movement of abstract expressionism in the United States.

Jared Bowen: Which is how Mariano continued his exploration, returning to his themes of nature and women, but through an abstract lens.

And this is where Mariano left off in America. As U.S. relations with Cuba disintegrated after the Cuban Revolution, which Mariano supported, his work faded from view in the U.S.

Alejandro Rodriguez, Son of Mariano Rodriguez: Emotionally, this is very important. It's a very deep feeling for me.

Jared Bowen: Speaking to us from the Dominican Republic, Alejandro Rodriguez is the artist's son. He recently toured the exhibition, seeing some works for the first time, like this sprawling crucifixion painting.

Alejandro Rodriguez: I saw my father beside me. It's complicated severing the father from the artist. When I am in these rooms, those persons come together.

Jared Bowen: Rodriguez says his father was always working, even when he wasn't.

Alejandro Rodriguez: Always working. He's a workaholic in the arts. He has a pencil and a painter until dinner, and he's always drawing. He's artist 24 hours.

Jared Bowen: The painter's most striking variation came in the 1960s, when his marriage began to crumble. He found inspiration in late 18th century painter Francisco Goya, who often dwelled in darkness.

Mariano did the same.

Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta calls these works the grotesques.

What is he doing with the grotesques?

Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta: That's what I asked myself when I saw these really hallucinatory figures, the voyeurism, the exaggeration. I think he was beginning to ask himself, what am I about? And what are my paintings about?

When he talks about the influence of Goya, he says: Goya taught me how to be free in my painting.

And I think he wanted to be free of what he had been doing before. And I think he wanted to explore something radically different. He was looking at both attraction and repulsion.

Jared Bowen: Attraction, though, ultimately won out. Moving toward the end of his life in the 1970s and '80s, Mariano often found artistic solace in sensuality, his figures becoming ethereal. Same for the once solidly-rendered rooster.

And in what he called his Masas series, Mariano imagines Cubans merging together as one whole. Aesthetically, it's the final variation, a far cry from any other point in his career.

Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta: He is saying, yes, there are rules, but the rules are there to be broken. And this is my contribution.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston.

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