Installation Visits to the Wake, an Homage to Francisco Oller
Rafael Trelles: A New Look at Francisco Oller’s
El Velorio (The Wake)
By: María del Pilar González Lamela
Rafael Trelles’ interest in El Velorio (The Wake), by Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller, has been manifest since his years as an art student at the University of Puerto Rico. In 1979, he participated in a student exhibition with the installation, Suicidio colectivo, Nuevo Velorio (Collective Suicide, Contemporary Wake). The work submitted by the artist was a huge food stamp, seven feet high. In 1987, in an exhibition with the San Juan Art League, he presented a series of seven drawings entitled Visita al Velorio (Visiting El Velorio). On that occasion, the artist borrowed elements from Oller’s original painting and transported them to a different dimension, adding new details, such as the image of rural “jíbaros” approaching planet Earth, and the substitution of a bird for the “guiro,” or percussive instrument found in the original painting. Now, Trelles presents us with Visitas al Velorio (Homenaje a Francisco Oller) (Visits to the Wake, an Homage to Francisco Oller), a painting that has undergone a long maturation process. This visit to the “Velorio” is a palpable, three-dimensional installation in which painting, sculpture, theater, and music merge, using the music of the “baquiné” (the wake of a young child) as reference. With the intention of showing both his and Oller’s work, side by side, Trelles exhibited this installation at the Oller Exhibition Hall, of the University of Puerto Rico Museum of History, Anthropology and Art.
Oller had dreamt of painting El Velorio. When he was finally able to fully devote himself to creating this work he left San Juan for the Elzaburu family estate in Carolina where he began the preliminary sketches. In October of 1893, when Oller finally exhibited this large-format work along with forty-four other paintings at the Puerto Rico Exposition, Palace of Santurce, marking the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the Discovery of Puerto Rico, El Velorio, particularly, generated great controversy. Some loved it while others found it offensive. According to reviews at the time, it was highly praised by Zequeira and de Cortón, while Matos Bernier expressed a very low opinion of the painting. Alejandro Infiesta stated:
“[This work] is a crude satire of our customs, not in the comic vein, like Cervantes, but biting, like Voltaire.” Further on he continues, “the depravity which Mr. Oller struggles with has never been approached in quite this way by any other naturalist painter immortalized by his work. There has only been a single French painter, along with his disciples, who has had the audacity to sustain such criticism; and believe me, Mr. Oller - those paintings will never be seen as masterpieces by posterity…The social reincarnation/inmortality aspired to by the artist, is not proper to art, but rather, exclusive to the philosopher and the statesman.”
Seventy-two years later Sebastián González García wrote:
“El Velorio was thought of as a kind of manifesto with two gratifying aspects for the artist, exalting his ideas on socialism and on local customs. His chosen theme was ideal because it integrated a pseudo- socialism represented by the protest against the barbaric custom of the “baquiné,” an accusation against the Church, and a scathing attack against a society that allowed the celebration, as well the people it vilified.”
Oller, in his complexity, turned to the teachings of his mentor, realist Gustave Courbet, to social criticism, and to the need for a national identity. The painting’s composition is based on realism with traces of impressionism, as seen in his representation of landscapes. Oller incorporates elements of costumbrismo while deliberately subordinating landscape and still life, in order to emphasize his message of social criticism.
Much has been said, and more has been written, positively or negatively, about El Velorio, from an artistic or philosophical standpoint. What is undeniable is that El Velorio is Puerto Rico’s foremost work of art within its artistic history. The painting has been visited and venerated by millions of Puerto Ricans throughout the years ever since it became part of the permanent collection at the Museum of History, Anthropology and Art.
It is important to recognize that El Velorio marks the beginning of an artistic development in Puerto Rico that can be traced through the reaffirmation of a socio-political awareness. Social criticism, often disguised in the form of costumbrismo, can be a vehicle for underscoring certain aspects of society. For example, Ramón Frade, in El pan nuestro de cada día (Our Daily Bread), confronts the richness of the landscape with the poverty of the rural farm workers; Luis Quero Chiesa represents the black population and their customs. There is also the shift from the idyllic countryside to the overcrowded cities and the oppressive metropolis, and traditional values coming to grips with the overwhelming realities of modern life. There are a few who continue to embrace the tradition begun by Oller, such as Miguel Pou, Rafael Palacios, José R. Oliver, Jorge Rechany, Rafael Tufiño, José Antonio Torres Martinó, Lorenzo Homar, José R. Alicea, Carlos Irizarry, Carmelo Sobrino, Antonio Navia, and Arnaldo Roche. The common denominator among them is satire and irony, at times implicit, but always present. The wake of angels (children who die young), or “baquiné,” as a theme, can also be found in music and literature as seen in the work of Abelardo Díaz Alfaro.
The moment in which Trelles and Oller coincide is significant, and, in that sense, it is important to document and compare the work of these two artists. My intention is to establish certain criteria to help viewers by understanding the similaritites and differences between these and thereby comprehend their message.
Trelles uses the same forms and images that are found in Oller’s work. In some cases he reproduces exactly what appears in El Velorio, in others, he uses the present as a point of reference. Instead of the small wooden house in the country, Trelles replaces it with a house from an urban development with Miami blinds, barred windows, and vinyl floors; plastic tubes instead of rustic wooden beams; neon lights in lieu of candlesticks and oil lamps; plastic fruit and flowers in place of corn and the beautiful flowers that appear in Oller’s work. Plastic bags are a substitute for baskets; bottles of rum and Schweppes for the bottle of “pitorro” (bootleg rum) and the jug of water; a plastic plate and a corn flakes box for the gourd bowl filled with rice and mashed root vegetables; a red, plastic child’s chair for the rustic chair with a straw seat; a beach chair with Puerto Rico written on it instead of a wooden chair; lottery tickets next to a deck of cards; and a plastic tablecloth replacing the white linen and lace on which the dead child rests.
Once the interior of the house has been recreated, Trelles places the figures within the composition, silhouettes cut from wood and polychrome. Some of them are dressed as they appear in El Velorio, while others are depicted in modern clothing. The figures are cut-outs, prototypes dressed in the style of the 1980s and 1990s: the “guayabera”, t-shirts, tight shorts, mini-skirts, a cap with a flag of Puerto Rico, sunglasses, hair rollers, etc. Of the thirty figures in Trelles’ painting, only a few preserve the same references to Oller’s work: the little boy who fell down and stuck a fork in his buttock, the girl who plays the maracas, the freed slave who contemplates the dead child, and the two dogs; in other words, society’s marginalized humanity.
There are other elements that remain as examples of Puerto Rican culture - the plantains, the roast pig, the crucifix, the wooden chair, and the two landscapes now framed as paintings. These are understood as Puerto Rican icons - stable elements – and are therefore somewhat incongruous within the dramatic atmosphere represented by Trelles.
The emphasis is still on the dead child and the freed slave. Trelles has inverted the colors and tonality by painting the child blue and his small shoes yellow. There is a curious association between this child and René Marqués’ tragedy in three acts, Un niño azul para esa sombra (A Blue Boy for the Shadows), presented at the Third Festival of Puerto Rican Theater.
In Trelles’ painting there are several surprising elements: the strange machine that is on the right against the wall (and if we look closely we can see the emblem of the Alliance for Progress); a self-portrait; the television screen showing a revealing ten- minute video program. Through the iron grill-work of the door we glimpse the banking district in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico, while through the Miami blinds we can see New York City. As we gaze at the painting we ask ourselves, with a sense of humor laced with seriousness, “What is Tufiño’s Goyita doing there”? Delving deeper into the painting we catch sight of a t-shirt with the Transculturación del puertorriqueño (The Transculturation of the Puerto Rican), by Carlos Irizarry, as well as Carlos Raquel Rivera’s silhouette. By using classical images steeped in Puerto Rican art history, Trelles manages to stitch together a sense of historical consequence and transcendence.
Through the door on the left we perceive a strange landscape previously known to Trelles, if not to us: the “jíbaro” riding on horseback with a young boy, toward a vast star-filled sky. Is it perhaps, a portal of hope leading toward the future?
The mood created by the musical background of the “baquiné,” a traditional Puerto Rican canticle sung at the death of a young child, completes the painting. The music, along with the play of lights, creates an intense theatrical atmosphere which seems dramatically festive, rather than tragically sad. This ambivalence is contradictory, and strikes us as absurd: people celebrating rather than mourning. Caribbean religious syncretism is evident in the mixture of all races and beliefs: Catholicism, “santería,” and voodoo, along with the serpent and other magico/ ritualistic symbols. The influence of the Caribbean is palpable in the use of bright, clashing colors such as red, blue, orange, yellow, and green. Politics is alluded to in the colors of the island’s three main parties. Other political elements can be found if we look closely.
As we contemplate Trelles’ work we can establish a correspondence with certain key moments in the history of art: Dadaism, Duchamp’s readymade, surrealism, pop art and the “happening,” Marisol’s constructions, Dan Flavin’s neon lights, and Nam June Pailk’s television sets.
The series of everyday objects and borderline kitsch, are not only substitutes for dated objects, but also bear witness to turmoil. Trelles fabricates a language, a code that surpasses historical distances. His audience, through his message, receives and decodes the symbols that may be revealed consciously or unconsciously. The viewer is responsible for perceiving the message in painting which may lead us to meditate further on the plight of the world around us. We find ourselves facing a dilemma that may represent the end of an era or the decline of a century.
Trelles lashes out – as did Oller - at the ills that afflict our times: drug addiction, alcoholism, crime, racism, environmental pollution, overpopulation, consumerism, and political manipulation. To quote Oller:
“The artist, as well as the scholar, must belong to his time, must belong to his country, his people, if he wants to be true. In this way his work will not be forgotten […] The artist and the writer have an obligation to be of use. The artist’s paintings should be like books that teach, that help better the human condition, that attack evil, that praise goodness; which is why I define art as the representation of nature for the good of mankind […] We need paintings that represent our customs, that correct our defects, and that extol our good works.”