They say that it was not until the 18th century, when a drawing was first put into a frame, that it was finished and independent dimension was recognized. However, many more years went by before drawings were considered as more than a step in a process to creating a more important work.
It is true that Leonardo da Vinci had placed great importance on drawings some time ear- lier, valuing their capacity for describing the totality of a language and a style, and making it possible to recognize an artist’s personality and hallmark. And it is also true that in the 19th century, drawings were used for the most diverse expressions and came to be very highly regarded by artists, with even Ingres himself vehemently emphasizing their virtues of purity. But it was not until the appearance of the avant-garde that drawings were given enormous importance, to the extent that they were given a status equivalent to that of paintings.
Drawings were then used by the modern move- ment as a medium for doing away with traditional notions of beauty; artists understood that their versatility and looseness made it easier for them to project the ideas and designs required by the new concept of image in the visual arts. That is how drawing became definitively consolidated as a visual arts statement, recognized for its value as an independent work, and this resulted in an enormous production that took place among artists from different schools and styles throughout the century. Many made themes such as woman and the nude-preferred by mythology-loving academics—their objects of creative preference. These different movements then renewed the possibility of thinking about the scope of drawings as finished works, beyond any other support given to painting or sculpture.
The transgressive determination that characterized drawing since that time had an important repercussion in Cuba. In fact, the new perspective in Cuban art, whose origins historically have been attributed to painting as part of the avant-garde movement, began to gestate much earlier in the sphere of humor, as well as in that of illustrations that flowed in the pages of various magazines beginning in the early 20th century. It was through them that viewers’ eyes were prepared to accept new forms in painting, where it was more difficult for them to be approved by public opinion. As poet Roberto Fernández Retamar once said, painters were wandering around in Paris while José Manuel Acosta and others were renovating languages in illustrations. To this it should be added that Acosta was still wandering around in Matanzas while Rafael Blanco was transforming the visual quality of the pages of El Fígaro.
All in all, when those who we consider as avant-garde pioneers in the Cuban visual arts went to Paris is search of a change of scene, dis- cussions on cubism had been taking place for some time in the country, with many referring to Acosta’s drawings in Social; even earlier, his concepts and those of Futurism had been di- vulged in El Fígaro. And above all, Blanco had experienced expressionism in portraits that unfortunately have been classified as caricatures, which has made it impossible to assess the transforming aspect of them in the strict sense.
It was, then, with work on paper and mastery of the pencil that the most restless artists expressed their innermost desires for renovation,which was impossible to do in in the so-called Fine Arts. The liberties they were given in drawing allowed them to offer visual narrations that were much fresher and formally up-to-date than what was permitted in painting. Something similar would occur much later, on the part of the new generations that emerged in Cuban art in the 1980s.
Now, a very different evolution took place in academic drawing, always in keeping with the very canons of the Fine Arts, which, even within its excellent accomplishments, did not contribute any major changes to the aesthetics of the time. Hence the need to establish a difference between the type of drawing viewed as a tool for painters and sculptors and that which was developed closely with the so-called “lesser” or applied arts, responsible for the incorporation of a new imagination in the graphic arts world, stimulated by the appearance of illustrated publications. The latter began to multiply in the early 20th century, as did the number of professionals charged with fostering them.
In any case, one of the great contributions of Cuban academia unquestionably has been the teaching of drawing. It is a well-known fact that everyone who has passed through the classrooms of the San Antonio academy has learned how to draw very well, primarily because it was considered that mastery of drawing technique guaranteed excellence for painters and sculptors, whose rigorous training was aimed at copying nature as exactly as possible, and the live or plaster models available in the classroom as impeccably as possible. It was a type of apprenticeship that began to vary only when the Escuela Nacional de Arte (National Art School) was created, and national figures of the arts became involved in teaching, such as Antonia Eiriz, Luis Martínez Pedro, Antonio Vidal, and others who had made drawing one of their prin- cipal means of expression. Suffice it to review the collections of those painters which are kept in the vaults of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) to confirm that.
At that time, and almost always using paper, with pencil or ink, gouache or watercolors, each person created his or her own visual universe, independent of academic rules; some were confined to figuration and others to the formality of abstraction, but what they all had in common was the adoption of drawing as a funda- mental way to giving free rein to their creativity.
Precisely within all of these traditions, we have the insertion of an artist like Roberto Fabelo (Guáimaro, 1950), who seems to have come into the world with a pencil in hand, instead of the useful loaf of bread under the arm. Educated at the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA), he continued his studies at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), the national university of the arts, where he taught for several years as a professor after graduating. It was there that I met him, and where I first remember his pas- sion for drawing. I was enrolled in the university’s School of Letters, where they taught us that Art History was the history of painting, sculpture and architecture. However, I already had been somewhat seduced by work on paper when I was working at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and I had been charged with orga- nizing the archive of Martínez Pedro, who had promised Marta Arjona that he would donate it to the institution if it organized it for him. I was 18 years old at the time and still at university, and it was those months of reviewing the painter’s archives that sparked my enthusiasm for work involving pencil on paper, thanks to the privilege of being the first to dust off those envelopes that held those beautiful surrealist series now possessed by the Museum.
But this whole story was to recall that subsequently, it was a piece titled Fragmentos vitales (Vital fragments) that Roberto Fabelo showed at the 1984 biennial, pasted any which way on the wall, without glass, that definitively provoked my impassioned feelings for contemporary drawing and made me understand all of the poetry that could be contained within a few strokes of charcoal on humble wrapping paper. It was a piece that had been created at the Instituto Superior de Arte when Fabelo, a young professor who was bored one night, found some thick crayons used for marking glass in a desk and a roll of Kraft paper, tearing off a piece— whose irregular cut would give a new meaning to his work. That is how, on a bumpy table, and following the outline of the paper, those Fragmentos vitales emerged, surprising everyone who had the privilege of seeing them at that time. Someday, the value of that piece as part of Cuban Art History will be recognized, because until then, no other artist in the country had transgressed a flat work in that way.
Accustomed to drawing on regular formats,?what seemed to be the product of chance was?actually the result of the spirit that was in the air?at ISA during that time, when an aesthetic of recycling and admiration for arte povera began totake root among the students, producing a great deal of interesting work among the graduating classes of the 1980s. It was within that context that Fabelo, who belonged to the intermediategeneration between the 1970s ENA graduates and the 1980s ISA graduates, came to attain notable visibility on the art scene of the time. Since then, he has had a fruitful professional career, encompassing almost every expression of the visual arts.
However, for me Fabelo is above all an illustra- tor. His “graphomania,” as he calls it, originated in his hometown. As he waited in line at the grocery store, he would grab a piece of brown paper and start drawing with a pencil stub. What started out as something spontaneous became a habit as he realized that any material would do for his imagination to flow, and he traced lines with pencils, charcoal, ink, and any other medium used for creating an image. He also reached this conviction thanks to the wis- dom with which his professors at the ENA and ISA taught him the mysteries of drawing.
A lot of time has gone by. Just a few days ago, I encountered Fabelo’s most recent drawings, which moved me, this time because of his ability to draw out expressive qualities with a deep sense of poetry from a given medium, infusing those small, aged pieces of paper with a delicate and refined beauty.
As I observed these drawings done on pages taken out of an old anatomy textbook, a method that reminded me of the practice that he had begun with Fragmentos Vitales, I thought about how much apparently random inspiration is involved in the work of an artist while work- ing with pencil in hand. That, combined with his personal sensitivity, has sharpened Fabelo’sability for observation, enabling him to let his imagination and his special visual intelligence run free. He recently told me: “What you call poetry is an attraction that certain media have; they have their own memory, and all you do is intervene in that existence, in that memory.” Subsequently, reflecting on the origin and na- ture of this series, he explained: “These media incite me to violate their condition a little bit. The anatomy book pages are attractive in and of themselves. They contain solutions, tremendous creativity. It would almost be sacrilege to manipulate them, or intervene in them, but in the end that habit of mine that drags me to perdition was more powerful, and I drew on top of those images, creating a new one, and also using some texts as titles. Anatomical terms that, when decontextualized, when taken out of the sentence or of the book itself, the specific description, become poetry. It’s a little game.”
In essence, throughout the years Fabelo has been able to deepen his inquiries, giving himself the luxury of experimenting with different tools and expressive attributes, maintaining that intimate relationship with the medium selected.
While some still view drawing as a starting point, an outline or note for transferring ideas to other manifestations considered as more valuable, for an artist like Fabelo, it is still a form of creation whose expressive content is flooded with a very personal spirituality and poetry. And that is confirmed by this latest series.
Llilian Llanes.Miramar, Mayo de 2014.