José Bernal
Selected Books
   Chaplik, Dorothy. "The Art of Jose Bernal," Essay,  2005.
  The heightened imagination of José Bernal, his Cuban birth, and the experience of exile and renewal have generated a body of richly independent works. Within a given period, his style, color, and technique may vary from one painting to another, from one collage or assemblage to another. His images sometimes hint of masters of the distant past or those celebrated in more recent decades. But Bernal's essential approach to a work is distinctly his own.

The artist's independent nature was apparent at various stages of his development, but never more fully revealed than in the painting habits of his early years as a landscape artist. Surrounded by the brilliant sunlight and intense colors of his native Cuba, he often painted in subdued tones--his most convincing landscapes conveyed in shades of gray, beige, and black. After moving to Chicago, a less vibrant environment in terms of color, he changed course and began painting in the tropical hues of his Caribbean homeland. Chicago's bountiful summer landscapes appeared on his canvases in their natural exuberance, while his abstract paintings reveled in bold reds, oranges and greens. Although certain collages are also executed in soaring colors, the muted tones of his early career are found mostly in the collages and assemblages.

José Bernal’s art education began early. When he was three, his parents began collecting his little drawings, and by the time he was seven or eight, they had arranged for an art tutor to guide him. José's father was a businessman who owned a meat store in Santa Clara, but he and José’s mother were artistic and supportive of their son’s creativity. Their modest home was touched with beauty and originality. Today the artist recalls with clarity a painting that hung in the family dining room. It was a landscape executed in shades of black and gray, by the French artist Edouard Manet.

At the age of nine, José was producing his own landscapes in watercolor, and selling them to friends and neighbors. To create paintbrushes, he affixed cat hairs to slender branches with tightly wound threads, a technique perfected while making slingshots. Introduced to European modernist art by his parents, José eagerly explored cubism and abstraction, and added them to his creative repertoire. Although he loved the boyhood games played in the neighborhood, he frequently left his friends early, to work on a half-finished painting or a new art project.

José's interest in art collided with his discovery of music. At ten, he began piano lessons and later studied classical music and attended a conservatory to learn harmony and composition. Although deeply involved with music, he felt constrained by the rigid rules and regulations expected of him, preferring to play melodies on his piano in a free, unstructured way. In class, when he tried to concentrate on music theory, he found himself filling his notebooks with drawings and doodling. His teacher at the conservatory was patient with him, but finally advised him to forget music and pursue his interest in the plastic arts. Deciding he lacked sufficient talent, José gave up musical studies.

But music never vanished from José's life. Between the ages of ten and thirteen, he was part of a selected group of children who gave musical performances and dramatic readings for weekly radio programs in Santa Clara. Several students played instruments, and Bernal occasionally performed a musical composition at the piano. However, it was acting that caught his imagination at that time. He assumed a variety of roles and, with the others, often arrived at the studio in full costume as a pirate or warrior or another colorful character. Actors read from a script and otherwise maintained complete silence during broadcast, to prevent extraneous sounds from being picked up by the microphone.

Music continued to find a place in José's life. As a college student living at home, he listened to classical music while he worked on art projects well into the night, the radio playing softly in the background. Later, as a professional artist in Chicago, music also kept him company through the night, as he fulfilled private painting commissions. But music and poetry thrust their way into his life in a more dramatic way during his college days. After writing a poem, a melody would come to him like an inspired voice from outside himself. Sometimes the urge to compose the melody might come first, followed by the flow of lyrics. On one occasion the music he composed was performed at a concert in Havana, by a professional lyric soprano, Iris Burguet. Another Cuban vocalist, Gloria Díaz, interpreted one of his compositions, Luna de nácar. Today, from time to time, Bernal still composes music. And when working in his studio, he conveys subtle rhythms and harmonies in his paintings, collages, and assemblages.

At Normal Teachers College in Santa Clara, Bernal concentrated on drawing and painting, in addition to education courses. Fellow students and professors recognized his artistic skills, and often commissioned him to create large images to illustrate classroom lessons. One challenge occurred when a student teacher needed the figure of a skeleton for an anatomy class, and with the help of a medical textbook, Bernal produced an enlarged replica. Another time, commissioned to paint a carcass of meat for an academic presentation, he found the model in his father's meat store--a raw hide hanging from a hook on the ceiling. With reds and beiges for the meat and marbled fat, he created a realistic still life. In an era when visual teaching aids were scarce, Bernal's work filled an important academic need, while the fees he earned gave him economic support.

Graduating from Teachers College in 1945, José began teaching at a series of public schools in the province of Las Villas, often traveling to rural areas far from home to carry out teaching assignments. On the lengthy bus rides to and from school, he gazed through the windows and filled his sketchbook with studies from nature. Eager to do graduate work in art, he registered several times at the Leopoldo Romañach School of the Plastic Arts, but his extended travel time made it difficult to complete the course requisites. As a result, it took sixteen years to obtain his master of fine arts degree. In 1948, José married Estela Pascual, a young fashion designer and singer from the childhood radio programs, and within a few years, they were raising a family. By that time, Bernal was teaching at a high school in his hometown of Santa Clara.

Despite teaching and family responsibilities, Bernal continued to pursue the advanced degree. At the Romañach art school, he delved into the history of art, studied traditional and modernist painting and sculpture, and came under the influences of Velázquez, Manet, Renoir, and the early twentieth century masters. He explored three-dimensional construction, as well as the two-dimensional work of Picasso, Braque, and Schwitters. Landscape painting had a special appeal to Bernal. One of his professors, Apolinario Chávez, a noted landscape artist, admired his impressionist paintings, but urged him to add warmer colors to his landscapes, noting that the gray tones made his work look more French than Cuban. But Bernal's preference for the neutral tones persisted. Not long after he left Cuba, and was living and working in Chicago, Bernal sold a landscape that later appeared in Architectural Digest, (February, 1983), in an article illustrating the owner's home. Accompanying the photo was a caption indicating a French artist had painted the landscape. Afterwards, the magazine editor printed an apology for not identifying Bernal's Cuban background. In the course of a few frigid Midwestern winters, the artist's palette changed. He began to paint not only with warm colors, but with the hot, tropical tones of his homeland, as well.

In 1961, when Bernal finally earned his master of fine arts degree, Cuba's political situation had become too intrusive to ignore. Although never before had he been involved with politics, in April of that year, during the Bay of Pigs invasion, he was among throngs of Cubans arrested for unpatriotic behavior and confined for eleven days in the gymnasium of the Marta Abreu University in Santa Clara. Bernal's offense was refusal to work in the fields cutting sugar cane. After his release, the threat of execution haunted Bernal and his wife, and they cautiously initiated plans to leave the country with their three young children. It took more than a year to obtain visas for each family member, and after endless details and frustrations, they left Cuba in June, 1962, and flew to Miami. Three months later they moved to Chicago.

Bernal's dream of using his hard-won degrees faded when faced with the need to support his family in a new country where language and communication seemed insurmountable challenges. His first job was in a factory designing artistic materials for commercial purposes. Two years later, a friend introduced him to an executive at Marshall Field & Company, in downtown Chicago. Immediately upon examining Bernal's portfolio, the executive offered him a position as a senior designer, to plan and install display structures for various departments in the huge store. In the mid 1960s, Field's art gallery manager saw Bernal's work and persuaded the artist to sell his impressionist style portraits, landscapes, and still life paintings to Marshall Field's, for exhibition in their galleries. It was here that Betty Parsons, art dealer and collector, discovered Bernal's work and began a series of orders to show and sell his paintings at Dayton's art galleries in Minneapolis. The lucrative connection made it possible for Bernal to give up his job at Field's and return to school, where he could pursue his dual dream of teaching and painting.

A student again, Bernal labored to acquire requisites for teaching art in Chicago high schools, working at the same time as a restorer of antique paintings and frames. By 1970, he was eagerly engaged in teaching during the school week and painting at his home studio in his free time, an arrangement that lasted until 1993. At that time, faced with symptoms of Parkinson's disease, Bernal retired from teaching. But he has continued to toil prodigiously, producing paintings, collages, and assemblages in his studio, and tending the flowers and shrubbery in his intricate garden, another life-long love. Miraculously, the disease has not prevented his hands from firmly guiding the paintbrush in the studio and the trowel in the garden.

It is hard to know whether Bernal's love of nature inspires his painting or if his palette has ordered the patterns and colors of his garden. His early affinity for landscapes and the out-of-doors seems an open response to Cuba's natural beauty. Summer Landscape,1958, and Cuban Seascape, 1959, testify to the inspirational quality of his early environment. Not easily forgotten, Cuban landscapes and seascapes continued to appear on Bernal's canvases well after his settling in the Midwest At the same time he found delight in the scenic panoramas in and around Chicago, as seen in Williams Bay, Lake Geneva, 1966, and Garden by the Conservatory at Lincoln Park, 1986.

Just as Bernal's landscape paintings capture the essential realism of a scene, the organic shapes of his abstract works suggest plant life and the biological world. When he gave up his long, impassioned career as a landscape artist and concentrated on abstraction, Bernal's style became marked by a baroque mixture of organic and anatomical shapes. His preoccupation with organic forms was not a radical change for him. His earliest works reveal an interest in abstraction and in dynamic forms, as much related to plant life as to human anatomy. Composición cubista (Cubist Composition) of 1938, painted by the artist at the age of 13, already shows his propensity for mixing organic and anatomical forms, in this case within a cubist framework. In 1942, when a professor of Spanish literature commissioned a work on the subject of natural forms, Bernal painted Las hijas del hortelano (The Gardener's Daughters). Here the oval and elongated faces of the daughters repeat the melon shapes, as one head metamorphoses into the melon's outlines.

Another painting done as a student suggests a human shape and whirling organic forms. Madre tierra (The Good Earth), 1943, was inspired by the film of the same name seen by Bernal. Surrealistic as well as symbolic, the painting expresses the earth's fertility through a figure with multiple breasts.

Bernal's mature works develop the same organic and anatomical themes, but often in space crowded with an overlay of rhythmic forms and colorful movement. At times foreground and background space are intertwined, with no visible distinction between them. Figurative references can be open and direct on his canvases, or at other times partially hidden. In the 1966 painting The Mermaid and the Fisherman's Wife at Dawn, stirring reds and pastels denote the tropical setting for a sequence of feminine figures, some with asymmetrical faces and elusive bodies. A slight depth defines the upper background. Abstracted flowers, shells, water and waves contribute to the painting's baroque density of form and feeling.

With increased density, La pesadilla del picador (Nightmare of the Picador) of 1976, describes the life-and-death confrontation of the bullfight. Background and foreground are one. The artist sets the scene with dripping paint, blood- tinted colors, and metamorphosing figures. Among the concentration of forms, the bull's head at the side of the painting rivets attention. A picador astride his horse is seen at the top of the canvas. Tension arises from the action of the horse's back leg, while the suggested flutter of a bullfighter's black cape increases the stress. In a lighter vein, the dense, abstract painting of 1976, Gladys and the Horses, reveals swirling horses and human faces merging with biological shapes and a carnival of color. Like Nightmare of the Picador, background and foreground are almost indistinguishable.

In the same year, Bernal 's Amorphous No. 6 connects plant life and human form in a simpler fashion. A stark contour, suggesting an anatomical detail, follows a narrow ribbon of line to reach a long-stemmed flower. Most of Bernal's later compositions are more wide-ranging than Amorphous No 6, and his forms more loosely shaped. But the organic elements remain integral to his work. Imaginative handling of form, color, and space give his compositions a broad spectrum of pictorial and emotional expression.

During that period, Bernal's garden seems to have inspired a return to realism with Vase of Flowers, 1976, a still life flooded with translucent light and color. Although Garden by the Conservatory at Lincoln Park, mentioned earlier, also appears to embrace realism, close observation shows Bernal's abstract rendering of the scene. Swift brushstrokes and dabs of color, suggest rows of flowers, grass, and shrubbery with no specific detail. Tree branches in the background resemble human figures sailing through space--an image Bernal carried from his days as a young teacher traveling through rural areas of Cuba. Gazing through the bus windows, he saw tree boughs shaped like nude bodies.

With touches of wit, Bernal paints two scenes of tense and harried times. In Musicians in a Fast Food Restaurant, 1999, abstracted figures and organic shapes in ambiguous space echo the glaring sounds of music and hurried activity of people on the go. Vibrant colors and directional shapes give momentum to the painting. In Good Morning America, 2000, the artist infuses the canvas with deep reds and flushed pinks to symbolize the daily violence announced in the morning news. Embedded in the crush of abstracted forms are evocative images on two television screens, partially set off by green and black lines, and perhaps a clock and other reminders of frenzied morning activities.

In Dressing Room of the Impersonator, 1999, Bernal's brushstrokes seem swift and loose. He compartmentalizes space and combines shelves of clothing, jewelry, masks, and false breasts with crudely shaped male and female figures. Organic forms abound and color is bold and visceral. Red and blue lines call attention to a detached face.

Many of Bernal's works reflect his interest in past masters. His Sketch for Las Hilanderas (The Tapestry Weavers, after Velázquez), 1962, refers to the seventeenth century painting of the same name by Diego Velázquez. The detailed interior of a tapestry workshop painted by the earlier artist inspired Bernal's figure at a spinning wheel. In Las Meninas (After Picasso), 1973, Bernal pays tribute to Picasso, as well as to Velázquez, whose original painting of that name provided Picasso with the starting point for a number of cubistic interpretations. Bernal's abstract interpretation is also cubistic and geometric, yet displaying the soft-edged, rounded, organic shapes that identify his style. Faces of the royal maids of honor (the Las Meninas of the title) peer out from the right division of Bernal's work, along with a portrayal of the dwarf who has a prominent presence in the original painting. Masters of the past also inspire Bernal's collages and assemblages, works of ingenuity and imagination. In his Untitled collage, 1967, he blends a detail from Jan Vermeer's A Maidservant Pouring Milk (also known as The Milkmaid), 1660, with the painted picture plane and other paper fragments, perhaps cut from magazines, to form an integrated composition. His assemblage Moonlight, 1986, is based on the second century, B.C. sculpture known as Venus de Milo. A miniature replica of the famous statue is posed beneath a shadowy moon pasted onto the background, and flanked by rows of real dominoes, a game associated with Bernal's native country. Three round openings in the wood frame emphasize Venus' planetary link.

Long a student of mythology, Bernal steeps his paintings, collages, and assemblages in ancient lore. His painting Icarus' Flight, 2000, is an abstract interpretation of the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus. According to the fable, Daedalus escapes from his prison tower by flying through the air with wings he has fabricated for himself and his son by sewing layers of feathers with thread and wax. Bernal's painting describes the disintegration of Icarus' wings as he flies too close to the sun. As the sun's heat melts the wax, the feathers collapse, sending him to his death.

In his collage The Three Graces, 1977, Bernal poses the three goddesses of mythology in airy gowns of muted tones, against a background of intense colors. A line of musical notes and a row of Latin words below the upper edge of the frame refer to the role of the three sister goddesses in presiding over social activities and the arts. Bernal's pasted figures and painted background are bordered by an actual wood frame.

With a similar technique of cut-and-paste onto the painted picture plane, Bernal creates Hercules, a collage of 1987. The prodigious strength of the champion of antiquity is portrayed in soft, neutral tones, as he stands at ease before a monstrous figure, one he possibly has just slain, or perhaps is about to accomplish the heroic feat.

In the assemblage Unicorn, 1981, Bernal combines the fabled animal with chess pieces, typewriter keys, a window frame, and other found objects to create a unified work of art.

The breadth of José Bernal's imagination and intellect sometimes leaves the observer unprepared for his ready wit. His playfulness in Moonlight and in Unicorn is an exercise in subtlety. And in such paintings as Musicians in a Fast Food Restaurant and Good Morning America, his dazzling use of color, space, and texture may obscure his humor. A visual feast awaits the viewer of the paintings, collages, and assemblages reproduced on the following pages.

Dorothy Chaplik
Evanston, Illinois
April, 2005

Dorothy Chaplik is the author of Latin American Art: An Introduction to the Works of the 20th Century (McFarland, 1999), Latin American Arts and Cultures (Davis, 2001), and Defining Latin American Art:“Hacia una definición del arte latinoamericano” (McFarland, 2005). José Bernal’s work is discussed in the latter two books.

  [return to top]