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Serra-Badue shapes surreal reality.


IN JULY OF 1936, 21-year-old Daniel Serra-Badue sailed back to his native Cuba on the Magallanes after a sojourn of four and a half years in Barcelona. One evening, when the ship was somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, he went for a stroll on the deck. It had been a smooth crossing and the sky was studded with stars. Gazing up at them, he was engulfed by a feeling of tranquility and satisfaction with his past accomplishments. At the same time, he felt a wave of excitement as he contemplated his future.

For a man his age, Serra-Badue had already done more than many achieve in a lifetime. Not only had he received a law degree from the University of Barcelona, but he had also supplemented his studio work by studying painting with prestigious Catalonian professors. Now his feelings about returning to Cuba were ambivalent. Although anxious to see family and friends, the artist had developed close bonds with Barcelona and its intense, cultural life. When news of the outbreak of fighting reached the Magallanes after leaving Gibralter, he was stunned to learn that bloody civil war was the order of the day in Spain.

Daniel Serra-Badue was born on November 8, 1914, in Santiago de Cuba to socially prominent parents who, nevertheless, taught him the value of hard work, discipline and the importance of not squandering time. His interest in drawing began shortly after he learned to walk. His parents, Daniel Serra y Navas and Eloisa Badue y de las Cuevas, encouraged the toddler's innate predilection. Whenever he completed a drawing, his father would reward him with a coin.

From his earliest years, Serra-Badue learned the importance of combining his art studies with a well-rounded education. While in grade school in Santiago, he also attended the Escuela Municipal de Bellas Artes. When he was only 11, he became fascinated with the rich, colonial architecture of Santiago, Cuba's first capital, and he soon began to document its many splendors. These ornate structures were to become a lifelong leitmotif in his paintings and prints. In 1927 Serra-Badue and his mother moved to New York City, his parents having decided that he should study abroad. In the morning, he attended the public school on West 89th Street where he received the 16th Annual Wanamaker Drawing Competition Gold Medal. During the afternoons, he took figure drawing lessons at the legendary Art Students League. The youngest student ever admitted, he had to obtain special permission from his mother since it was considered inappropriate for a person his age to draw nude bodies. Still not satisfied, Serra-Badue enrolled in evening lessons with the acclaimed Catalan artist Jose Simont, who had painted portraits of some of the most important figures of the day. This pattern of solid work days is characteristic of Serra-Badue's life even today. "The day has 24 hours and one has to take full advantage. There's time for everything," remarks the artist.

In 1929, Serra-Badue made his first visit to Europe, this time combining pleasure with work. He and his parents toured the Exposicion Interamericana in Seville and the Exposicion Universal in Barcelona, where he plunged into the city's cultural milieu. In addition to taking classes at the studio of Enrique Pascual Monturiol, he succeeded in exhibiting his first one-man show at the prominent Galerias Layetanas at the ripe young age of 14. Both the public and the critics were in awe of this child prodigy from Cuba and received him warmly. The prestigious editor Seix y Barral was so impressed that he published a limited edition album containing 16 views of Santiago de Cuba's colonial architecture based on the freehand drawings Serra-Badue had completed three years earlier in the streets of his birthplace.

Serra-Badue returned to Cuba to complete his high school education, which he combined with art classes at the studio of Rodolfo Hernandez Giro. At this point, both he and his parents were considering a European education. As fate would have it, his father unexpectedly received a letter from an old friend in Barcelona, Miguel Utrillo. A celebrated art critic, Utrillo had been one of the founders, along with Pablo Picasso, of the legendary cafe, Els Quatre Gats. The letter, which Serra-Badue still keeps among his mementos, contained stern advice: "Above all, keep your son away from Paris, where all kinds of dangerous tendencies are lurking in the art world." He urged that the elder Serra opt for Barcelona, where a young artist could receive a more sensible and rigorous academic training.

Nineteen thirty-two found Serra-Badue back in Barcelona, where he began working in the studio of sculptor Juan Borrell-Nicolau and painter Luis Muntane Muns, as well as the Escuela de Bellas Artes and the Circulo Artistico. He had learned from his father, who was both a lawyer and the theatrical entrepreneur who brought Sarah Bernhardt to Cuba, that the artist enriches his intellectual development by tackling extraneous studies such as the sciences, philosophy and history. "They simply are different processes to the understanding of reality," the elder Serra once stated. "Both Kadinsky and Bonnard were lawyers, and several others managed to combine their education with areas totally unrelated to art. The studies, regardless of their diversity, are all mind expanding."

Serra-Badue's years in Barcelona coincided with the Republic and he describes the atmosphere of those times as "unstable", a quality that he found interesting and definitely conducive to a creative climate. Classes were conducted in both Catalan and Castillian, with the students selecting their preferred language. Not many Latin Americans chose to study in Barcelona, most went to Madrid. Nevertheless, during this period Serra-Badue met key players in the art world and participated in numerous group shows including the Exposicion Nacional de Pintura y Escultura in Madrid in 1936. That same year, he completed his university degree and returned home to Cuba, narrowly missing Spain's atrocious Civil War.

Within a year of his return, the artist had organized a one-man show at the Lyseum in Havana. Critic Ramon Guirao wrote in Grafos, "What there is of reality in the painting of Serra-Badue is his pictorial virtuosity, his exact and simple conception through an intellectualist process. He is, among our painters, the first who dares to dream reality. Inward to outward reality. Dreamt reality." But his stay in his homeland was to be a short one. A Guggenheim Fellowship beckoned him back to New York in 1938. Once again, he studied at the Art Student's League, but this time with a concentration on mural painting. In his inimitable manner, he also attended classes at both the National Academy of Design and Columbia University, where he studied art history. He remembers New York as being utopian by today's standards. One could ride the subway all night without worry and a student grant provided a comfortable life. He participated in numerous art activities including the American Art Today pavilion at the New York Worlds Fair of 1939. Emily Genauer in The New York World-Telegram had the following observations: "Serra is an imaginative, romantic painter, given to an introspective mood. At the same time, his romantic appeal is secured through no soft and caressing brushwork, no melting opulence of tone. It proceeds from a suave linear perfection, a clarity of form, highly polished surfaces, from austere architectural arrangements of receding arches and deep vistas, and from a piercing cold intensity."

Serra-Badue's work earned him the prestigious Prix de Rome fellowship, but he was unable to take advantage of it because of the outbreak of World War II. Instead of traveling to Italy he returned to Cuba and studied architecture for two years at the University of Havana. He was pleasantly surprised to find that the album of his renditions of Santiago's architecture was the main work used in a class he attended on freehand architectural drawing. In between his busy schedule of classes and exhibitions, he fell in love with a beautiful student, Aida Betancourt, who later became his wife and lifelong source of inspiration.

During the 1940s and 1950s Serra-Badue's reputation became increasingly prominent in the Cuban art world and his paintings were exhibited throughout the country and abroad. Scholars and historians, such as the late Jose Gomez Sicre (former director of the OAS Art Museum), include him among their list of premier Cuban artists. His work was shown in solo and group exhibitions in Barcelona, Madrid, Havana, Santiago, Sao Paulo, Mexico, Washington, D.C., New York, Pittsburgh, and Moscow. From 1959 to 1960 he was the Assistant Director of Culture for the Ministry of Education in Cuba.

Two years later, Serra-Badue again settled in New York City and focused his studies on printmaking, receiving his first Cintas Foundation Fellowship in 1963. This medium released a flood of nostalgic and haunting images of his birthplace, Santiago de Cuba. These early prints are of a special significance not only because they demonstrate the artist's bravado in composition and form, but because they were created by a native son of one of the first cities in this Hemisphere to develop lithographic printmaking capabilities.

In 1964 Serra-Badue began teaching at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, which has a history of distinguished faculty members, including Max Beckmann, Ben Shann and Rufino Tamayo. He taught there until it closed in 1985. Serra-Badue's exhibition in December, 1984, was the last event organized by the Art School.

Soft-spoken and gentle, Serra-Badue is of a cerebral nature, although humor lurks beneath his serious demeanor. Order is paramount in his life, as is evinced in the special packages he carefully constructs to protect the canvases of his finished works. The clarity and rationale so precisely depicted in the art of Serra-Badue are reflections of the man. As Stuart Preston said in The New York Times: "Everything but poetic content is explicit in Serra-Badue's work--its hard, high finish, its positive, hot color and its steely, accurate draftsmanship. The message conveyed can be described as a robust surrealism

that owes as much to de Chirico as to any artist." But Serra-Badue's brand of surrealism is a subtle one. There are no melting clocks a la Dali or flying stone birds a la Magritte. Here objects seem to have a more tangible relationship with everyday reality. Yet, when scrutinized, they possess a mysterious inner life. "There is nothing more surreal than reality," remarks the artist.

Out of something as prosaic and lifeless as a shopping bag, Serra-Badue creates scenarios brimming with energy and suppressed emotion. Often, there is a dry humor and a phantasmagorical way of dealing with artifacts. In the "Impossible Encounter," 1979, two shopping bags, representing the male and female, are carefully composed in front of a backdrop of packaging tissue. The work is both a vivid tableau and a tongue-in-cheek statement. Likewise, in "The Imprisoned Shopping Bag," 1982, the simple placement of a lifeless object in a locked cell evokes a graphic sense of desperation.

The artist always focuses on things or situations that could tentatively exist in the real world as they appear in his canvases. Yet beneath the surface we sense an improbability that gives them a strange force. It is as if he were making order out of the chaos of reality by rearranging everything. He seems to be asking us "What if?" as he shuffles our perceptions of the world with the rapidity and ease of a card player going through a deck of cards.

At 77, Serra-Badue is not really different from the precocious lad of 1927, whose relentless drive propelled him between 89th and 57th street. Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts at Saint Peter's College in Jersey City, he is highly respected and sought after by former students as well as his current ones. He lectures periodically on art and writes for several journals, although painting continues to be his prime activity--he tackles portrait commissions as well as his own flights of fancy.

Recently Serra-Badue returned to Barcelona, where a forthcoming exhibition will celebrate his years in that city. This year he received the singular honor of being chosen by the prestigious Print Club of Albany for the Columbus Quincentennial. His lithograph, "The First Encounter, 1492" became the official presentation print for 1992. No doubt the artist is proud that his works can be found in some of the world's most important museums, such as the Metropolitan, the Brooklyn and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, the Museo Nacional of Havana, and the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C.

When talking to Serra-Badue about his life one gets the feeling that he is not one to dwell on the past. There is still a great deal more to accomplish and he prefers to contemplate the future as he did on the deck of the Magallanes on that starry night in 1936.

Federico Suro, a native of the Dominican Republic, is a freelance writer residing in the U.S. He holds a masters degree in film history from Columbia University, New York.
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Title Annotation:Cuban surrealist painter Daniel Serra-Badue
Author:Suro, Federico
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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