The Big Picture

El Impresionismo y el Caribe: Francisco Oller y su Mundo Transatlantico / Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and his Transatlantic World

Wordy, right! You can always count on art historians to use at least twice as many words as necessary to describe something! (Perhaps that is why I always need so many words: I was an art history major in college!)

But a wordy title doesn’t change the underlying fact that this is an exhibition you must see.

Francisco Oller was a Spanish citizen, by nationality, but he was born in Puerto Rico and considered this his home. He is a well-known name in Puerto Rico, so I was not surprised to see this exhibit mounted at the Puerto Rico Art Museum. I noticed right away that the curation was extremely professional, so I was intrigued to see that the exhibit did not originate here, but rather with the Brooklyn Museum. It was jointly curated by Richard Aste, Curator of European Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and Edward J. Sullivan, Professor of Art History at NYU.

The professional curation is the first thing I noticed. The second thing was the legacy of famous artists in the region: Artists who later would be famous in Europe who came from the Caribbean, born here by accident or design, and artists who visited the Caribbean and found inspiration here. Put that into the context of native Caribbean artists going to Europe to find inspiration, and Puerto Rico sheds that back-water characterization that it seems to cultivate today.

This exhibit displays the prominent artists that the advertising touts, but do not think for a minute that Oller’s work is any less impressive! If you, like me, think that Oller is just “El Velorio” (The Wake) or the classroom of Rafael Cordero, you will be overjoyed to discover just how rich and colorful Oller could be.oller2

The exhibit is organized in sections roughly, but not strictly, chronological. The first section introduces works done in the Caribbean by artists – sort of a background into which to place the life and work of Oller. The second section covers Oller’s work in Spain. Here you’ll see work by Oller side by side with the painters active at the same time in Spain, a place where he worked during two different stints. Ditto for the section covering Oller in France. The final section is on Oller painting Puerto Rico. (There is also a curious final section about Puerto Rico “today.” My explanation for why this section exists is that the exhibit did not originate here. Maybe this is a way to show those unfamiliar with the island that we no longer live in the wooden “bohios” pictured in many of the paintings. (And, yes, I have actually run into people who think that.)

What the exhibit convincingly shows is that Oller, talented from a very early age, internalized the styles of diverse artistic movements of his contemporaries in Europe, and developed his own artistic voice. That voice resulted in realistic portraits of his world, Puerto Rico, contrasting with the idyllic conception of artistic visitors (who saw the Caribbean then much like tourists even today).

You will enjoy the work of Winslow Homer, Pissarro, Monet, Cezanne and others, even as you admire all the work by Oller that you never dreamed existed! One thing you will not see: El Velorio. That enormous painting is in the Museum of History, Anthropology and Art at the University of Puerto Rico, and I suspect is just too large to move and mount here. There is a reference to it of course, but you’ll have to go to the University to see it (also a museum I would recommend.)

Don’t put off going to see this exhibit. You may actually want to see it more than once as there is so much to see and learn. The show lasts only until April 24, 2016.

Click here to link to the Puerto Rico Art Museum for details, hours and location.