José Julián Aguilera Vicente, the Cuban engraver, is among the founders of Santiago de Cuba’s artistic community. He has struggled to ensure tuition for all those seeking instruction in the arts. Aguilera Vicente made his first drawings at José María Heredia Elementary School, and, when one of his drawings won a municipal prize and he was given a fancy sketchbook and 12 colors of tempera, then he felt his dream coming true. His family, however, was not supportive of his ambition, but his brother Paco supported his decision and Aguilera Vicente began attending art school.
His first teacher was sculptor René Valdés Cedeño who mentored him both in art and in life. Aguilera Vicente recalls, “He trained me, educated me and molded my character. In his workshop, I was his scarpellino, the one who first cuts into the stone, who sculpts the rough figure, leaving the sculptor to refine and finish it. I was with him in 1953, when he sculpted the statue of Jose Martí in Guantánamo’s Chaparra Park.”
Aguilera Vicente’s art school was located on Heredia Street, very close to Céspedes Park. There were two groups of students attending this school: those from wealthy families, and those who were going to be artists, the ragtag group. The students had to have a whole range of paint colors, but Aguilera Vicente’s group could only afford two tubes of paint apiece. When the teacher came, they all shared their paints so that everyone would have the full range of colors. The more affluent group would give them half-used tubes if they would clean up for them.
Among his fellow students was Miguel Ángel Botalín. They were poor but hardworking, and almost all of them dedicated themselves to their art; they ‘lived off’ their paintbrushes.
In 1953, Aguilera Vicente graduated from the José Joaquín Tejada School of Fine Arts in drawing and modeling. The school was founded in 1935, and in 1945 it went from being a municipal school to a provincial school. It followed the curriculum of Havana’s San Alejandro Art Academy, which was the only way for it to receive national recognition. Finally, it was given the same status as San Alejandro and was able to issue professional degrees. Unfortunately, the degrees were not honored and the graduates were not able to get jobs. This situation sparked a minor revolt and the students acted accordingly.
Aguilera Vicente remembers, “We took over the school, which at that time was located alongside the Cathedral, upstairs from what later became painter Ferrer Cabello’s studio. We had the support of the Secondary Student Association, and students at the Arts and Trades School, the Normal School and the Institute. The president of the school association led the struggle. The school’s director took our side and the president of the Arts and Trades Students Association fought against the police, who surrounded the place. We threw some benches and tools on the street and set them on fire. That was quite a spectacle, really incredible.”
The police took over the place. All Santiago took part in the struggle. I was with a group that slipped out through the adjoining building, and that’s how we escaped arrest.”
It was agreed that the administration of the school would be changed, and Antonio Ferrer Cabello was appointed director. A disciplinary council was convened, and strikers were punished in accordance with the seriousness of their actions. Aguilera Vicente was expelled for one year. Two or three years later, when things had calmed down, the degrees were recognized as equal to those of San Alejandro.
In the late 1950s Aguilera Vicente worked as a drawing teacher at the Night Normal School for just 40 pesos a month. Later, at the Neighborhood Institute, he had his first contact with engraving in a supplementary course. “I made some lithographs, but the class was mostly theory, not practical.”
The 1960 Revolution signaled a new era and Aguilera Vicente was asked to teach at the José Joaquín Tejada School of Visual Arts. At first he taught advanced sculpture but he decided to compete for the position of instructor of engraving, even though he had little formal training in the technique, and he won. In the following year, Santiago’s first exhibition of engraving was staged with more than 100 high-quality engravings from the Popular Graphic Workshop in Mexico, specializing in graphic art related to the Mexican Revolution.
Aguilera Vicente explains the personal significance of this exhibition by saying, “We examined them with a magnifying glass, discussed them, and analyzed how they had made those engravings. Then we dared to do some ourselves. I devoted myself to engraving: a sculpture takes more than a month, but an engraving can be completed in one afternoon. My engraving school was the Mexican Revolution.”
After that, Aguilera Vicente met Carmelo González, president of the Engravers Association of Cuba, who passed on his knowledge through examples. Aguilera Vicente learned in his workshop; but Carmelo dictated the theme and form one must follow to be a member of that Association, and Aguilera didn’t like that tyranny. It was his student Lesbia Vent Dumois who gave him the first technical lessons on engraving, and he began to discover German expressionism, Soviet realism, and a whole variety of techniques and resources. He was an engraving instructor, and he had to learn the craft. Little by little, incorporating what he had learned with what he believed, he was able to achieve things.
As time went on, Aguilera Vicente began to turn to wood cuts instead of steel plates. He explains the cause of this shift with this story.
“Some time ago, a girl approached me because she wanted to learn engraving; she was in her first year studying the violin. I told her that engraving is an art form like music, but it’s done by drawing and observing, and that’s why it’s a visual art. Engraving is expressed in fine lines and details. Chalcography, that is, engraving on metal, has a little relief, intaglio (depositing ink in grooves); but wood speaks to you from the moment you take the tool in your hand. You don’t ask anything of it, the wood gives you everything. When I explained that to the girl, she answered, ‘Well then, metal engraving is the violin. And wood engraving is the cello.’ She understood my explanation perfectly.
I’ve come to identify with the poetry of wood, with its natural patterns, grooves that nature made. From a certain perspective, that may be part of the message, that nostalgia, that beauty, that passion. Wood is better suited for romantic pieces. Out of that period of discovery came my first national prizewinner, Dos tintas (Two Tones). I enjoyed it from the first creative step, from the moment the idea occurred to me, selecting the materials and the format, making the preliminary sketch. It’s a magnet, a fever.
Engraving, with the expressiveness of the wood and the act of printing by hand, provides a unique textural richness. An artist can create an absolute black or a grayish black, and that is best achieved with wood. And going back to music: it’s not the saxophone that makes a good sound, it’s the saxophonist.”
Aguilera Vicente has done some unique and powerful woodcuts of cityscapes in the rain such as La lluvia en Santa Lucía (Rain in Santa Lucía) and La lluvia en Padre Pico (Rain on Padre Pico Street). He selected on of Santiago de Cuba’s most famous streets, Padre Pico for his setting. Padre Pico is an emblematic Santiago de Cuba street consisting of a long stairway spanning the steep hill between Santa Rita Street (at the top) and Santa Lucía Street (at the bottom). Such stairways are a unique characteristic of the city.
Here he explains how he became inspired to attempt an engraving which incorporates rain.
“At an engravers’ show at Casa de las Américas, I saw a piece depicting rain at a bus stop. Before that, I didn’t know that rain could be shown in engravings, because rain produces a curtain of effects that vary with its intensity. So I studied it, and I used a magnifying glass to examine the threads, and I saw that rain could be engraved. And that’s how it occurred to me to portray the rain.
First I made a drawing, but a friend of mine fell in love with it, so I gave it to him. After that, the image of the rain and the sad girl stayed in my head. I had the photographic elements of Padre Pico, with the stairway seen from above, not from below as many people view it. I had worked on the drawing, but an engraving is something very different. I had to wait until it rained, then I put on my military raincoat and went from La Alameda to El Tivolí, to the Padre Pico stairway, going down. People thought I was crazy, but I was able to see the rain falling as if in front of a lens.
In the piece there’s a girl who goes into the rain, which surprises her; she’s sad. Her face is stylized. And the rain, the difficult ascent, all the rest. I consider it the most accomplished piece I’ve done, among the many I’ve made on the theme.”
Aguilera Vicente’s expressionist work emphasizes the presence of an existential separation and fragmentation, and, as Octavio Paz pointed out fragmentation “is the most perfect and vibrant expression of our time.”
Pintor, escultor, artista gráfico, con 40 años de labor profesional y 38 de trabajo docente. Profesor de la Escuela Provincial de Artes Plásticas José Joaquín Tejada de Santiago de Cuba. Ha impartido también clases en el Departamento de Docencia artística de la Universidad de Oriente y en el Instituto Superior de Educación (ISE), entre otras instituciones. Asignaturas impartidas: Dibujo, Grabado, Apreciación de las Artes Plásticas, Técnicas de Representación, etc.
Miembro fundador de la Brigada Raúl Gómez García, del Contingente Cultural Juan Marinello, de la Comisión para el Desarrollo de la Escultura Monumental y Ambiental (CODEMA), y de la Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEAC), en las cuales ha desempeñado cargos de dirección. Miembro del Comité Provincial del Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Cultura (SNTC).
Artista en activo. Ha obtenido 33 premios nacionales y provinciales en las diferentes manifestaciones en que realiza su labor creadora, con más de treinta exposiciones colectivas internacionales, que incluyen la Bienal de São Paulo, Brasil, 1967; y Cracovia, Polonia en 1972. Ha realizado 11 exposiciones personales y ha participado en más de cien colectivas en el país.
Sobre su obra han sido publicadas en la prensa nacional y extranjera varias reproducciones, monografías, y trabajos críticos, entre ellos se destacan los aparecidos en la revista Bohemia, el semanario Mella, el periódico Granma, Caimán Barbudo, y el boletín Galería, todos de Cuba; además de Revista Literaria Internacional, URSS; la revista RDA; y Gráfica Contemporánea, RDA.
Ha realizado viajes de intercambio cultural a diferentes países europeos.
Su obra forma parte de colecciones privadas y públicas en Cuba y en el extranjero; la más completa de ellas se encuentra en el Museo Emilio Bacardí.
Por su trayectoria artística y docente le han sido otorgados diferentes reconocimientos y condecoraciones, entre ellas: Profesor de Mérito, la Distinción Por La Cultural Nacional, Artista Laureado.
* 1961 Galería Oriente, Santiago de Cuba
* 1961 Centro Cultural, Camagüey, Cuba
* 1965 Galería Oriente, Santiago de Cuba
* 1966 Galería Centro Habana, La Habana, Cuba
* 1966 Galería Habana, La Habana, Cuba
* 1966 Galería Balcón de Velázquez, La Habana, Cuba
* 1980 Galería UNEAC, Santiago de Cuba
* 1980 Centro Cultural, Palma Soriano
* 1980 Galería Centro de Arte, Budapest, Hungría
* 1962 Bienal de São Paulo, Brasil
* 1975 Exhibición en Kingston, Jamaica
* 1976 Santiago en Leningrad, URSS
* 1976 Arte Moderno Cubano, Oslo, Noruega
* 1976 Arte Moderno Cubano, Helsinki, Finlandia
* 1976 Arte Moderno Cubano, Suiza
* 1978 Comité Clasificador del XI Festival, Nueva York, Estados Unidos
* 1979 Galería Internacional Joan Miró, España
* 1980 Arte Gráfico Cubano, Managua, Nicaragua
* 1981 Exhibición Gráfica Santiaguera, Ciudad México, México
* 1982 Gráfica Cubana, España
* 1982 Gráfica Cubana, París, Francia
* 1982 Graphics Sampler, St. George’s, Granada
* 1983 Gráfica Cubana, Ciudad México, México
* 2003-2004 Meridian International Center, Washington, D.C.
* 2003-2004 Lighthouse Center for the Arts, Tequesta, Florida
“Callejon de Carniceria” 21×16 Woodblock on Paper
See more of José Julián Aguilera Vicente’s art.