October 1999

Enchanting Forests: A Profile of Tomás Sánchez

Tomás Sánchez suffered repression in his native Cuba when his spiritual leanings surfaced in his brooding landscapes.

By Roger Atwood

On a small table next to Tomás Sánchez’s easel, you’ll find every conceivable shade and combination of green oil paint. There’s green paint on the palette, on pieces of cardboard, in smudges on the table and dabs on snapshots of tropical jungles, in tube after tube in his table drawers, and in the dark, brooding forest that is emerging, leaf by leaf, on the giant canvas before him.

The symbolist landscapes Sánchez creates with this sultry palette have gained him an international following. He’s become one of the leading figures in the Cuban art boom, with a sold-out show at New York’s Marlborough Gallery last spring and plans afoot for a travelling exhibition to Latin American museums. It’s a long way from his childhood in rural Cuba, when he was “extremely shy,” he says, and from the repressive 1970s when he was kicked out of his teaching job for practicing yoga. But Sánchez, 51, is not altogether surprised by his success.

“I always felt that my destiny was to be successful at what I do,” he comments in his studio in Bal Harbour, Florida. “I knew all along that I would find great acceptance.”

Sánchez paints tropical-forest scenes that at first look hyperrealist but then turn increasingly dreamlike and surreal: panoramas of ancient trees draped with vines, studded with bromeliads, and wrapped in moss, their roots reaching down to the shore of a river like hungry fingers. It’s a world choked with life, a riot of vegetation where you can feel the solemn silence of the forest broken now and again by the hoots and squawks of birds and the gurgle of water flowing over a rotting log.

His commercial success – his big canvases sell for close to $300,000 – has been matched by respect from critics, both in Cuba and the United States. “The general public appreciates his work for its overriding beauty, and critics like it because of its great spirituality, the almost metaphysical vision that he brings to the landscape,” says Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera, and adjunct curator at New York’s New Museum. “There is a kind of tension in his work that makes it very interesting.”

“On a superficial level, people who are put off by other forms of painting have an easier avenue of entry into his work because it so realistic,” comments Edward Sullivan, chairman of the fine-arts department at New York University, who wrote the catalogue essay for the Marlborough show. “The way he uses light and creates this silvery, even, unnuanced light makes it feel almost as if we are looking at things from which all the air has been sucked. He has distilled the atmosphere and created these spaces that are intensely quiet, which I always associate with Magritte.”

Sánchez almost never paints from life and says his imaginative powers were sown during his childhood. But his pictures don’t depict his native land, he notes. “There haven’t been any forests like this in Cuba for a couple of centuries,” he explains. “The island has been almost totally deforested.”

Instead, he achieves botanic precision with the help of snapshots he takes of wild plants in Costa Rica, where he spends much of his time and is building a house. “I read more about botany than I do about painting,” Sánchez says.

While his imagery is botanically correct, it also has rich symbolic significance. He endows clouds, for example, with a vital, almost animal presence, as in Isla en la noche clara (Island in the Clear Night, 1988). “The cloud is what one cannot grasp,” he says. “A cloud can bring tornadoes, or rain, or it can simply dissipate. It could presage something horrible that approaches.”

Accounting for the spiritual aspects of his paintings, he credits yoga and meditation, which he took up three decades ago in Havana. He meditates for several hours daily and unwinds at a Siddha Yoga retreat in the Catskills in upstate New York, not far from where Frederick Edwin Church and the Hudson River School, a strong influence on Sánchez, used to work. “The one time I tried to paint from life, it was in the Catskills,” Sánchez notes. “And it came out very badly. It looked so cold.”

His landscapes usually don’t have people in them. Occasionally though, they show one person meditating in a lotus position, dwarfed by the immensity of nature. “When there are two people, it’s taken for granted that there is a dialogue between them, and so nature slips into the background,” he explains. “And I want the relationship with nature to come first. Other times, I don’t put anyone at all in the picture so that the viewer has his own dialogue with nature through the painting.”

A slight, bearded man with the limber build of a yogi, Sánchez was born in 1948 in the village of Aguada de Pasajeros in central Cuba. He was a sickly youth and spent long hours exploring the farmland and groves around his family’s wood-frame house, which appears in some of his paintings. He would disappear into the woods for hours and come home and draw what he had seen. Raised far from the Havana cultural elite, he’s known for his plainspoken charm and humility, and for his painful shyness. As visitors crowded into Marlborough for his opening last May, he kept to himself and eventually slipped off to a restaurant around the corner. “Mucha gente,” he said. Too many people.

In 1964, he went to study at the San Alejandro School of Plastic Arts in Havana, an incubator for some of Cuba’s most important artists, but he left after two years. “The other students were twice as old as I was, and the atmosphere was very conservative,” he recalls. “We would draw figures from statues and then only later could we try still lifes and then landscapes. I wanted to do other things.”

By then he had heard about the expressionist painter Antonia Eiriz, who taught at the National School of Art in Havana, which he entered at the age of 20. She turned out to be his key early influence. “She was interested not in how you painted something but in how you saw it,” says Sánchez. “This is what she taught me.”

Through most of the 1970s, Sánchez was painting expressionist scenes of colorfully dressed people crowding into streets and plazas or venturing into nature. Critics and teachers praised his work, but government hardliners who promoted Socialist Realism didn’t think so highly of it. La Visitación (The Visitation) of 1973 shows a bustling town square with kids on bicycles and happy neighbors. Drifting among them is a blue-skinned Lord Krishna playing a flute from within his golden halo. In Extraños Árboles (Strange Trees), the trees look normal but the people milling about them look like something out of Fellini.

Starting in the mid-1970s, Sánchez moved toward pure landscape, but of a more pastoral variety than the jungle scenes that followed. There were villages and grassy hillsides, horses grazing placidly among fences and palm trees. The subject matter didn’t exactly make him a vanguardista, and his influences were mostly out of the 19th Century: the German landscape symbolist Caspar David Friedrich, Henri Rousseau, the U.S. Western painter Albert Bierstadt. As for the Hudson River School, “I was fascinated by their reverence for nature,” he says.

He started teaching at the National Art School in 1971, but ran into official disapproval mainly because of his devotion to yoga. He was expelled from his post in 1976 because meditation was believed to “undermine the Marxist state” and because he was reportedly urging his students into join him in this subversive activity. Following his being so disgraced, about a dozen of his drawings [etchings] were burned by the head of the school’s lithography department, “with the approval of the school’s leadership,” he relates, and a few of his oils were painted over. “They couldn’t burn the paintings – canvas was too valuable,” he says. Some of his students managed to snatch a few of his etchings from the bonfire. Those etchings, with their edges burned, still turn up in galleries on occasion.

For a couple of years after his expulsion, he painted less and turned to puppet-making. But Mosquera and other art critics resolutely supported him: he won several local art prizes and had work in group exhibitions in countries ranging from Poland to India and Japan in the 1970s. His first big break abroad came in 19980 when he won the Joan Miró Drawing Prize given by the Miró Foundation in Barcelona. When he went to Spain to accept the award, it was the first time he had ever left the island, and it marked a turning point in the way he was perceived by the government. “The hard-liners who didn’t want my works to be sent abroad recognized that they had made a mistake,” he says. “They had to lower their guns.”

Now even the teacher who burned Sánchez’s etchings in 1975 has apologized. Sánchez won the Amelia Peláez Award for painting at Havana’s first biennial in 1984, and a year later he had his first retrospective, at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. He has had one-man shows in Moscow, Panama and Colombia.

But he was still chafing under the Socialist system. While his paintings were selling abroad for somewhere in the five figures, he was receiving, literally, only pocket change for them. “Fidel always said, ‘No artist may earn more than a doctor.’ And doctors were earning about $20 a month, so that gives you an idea of how much I would be allowed to earn if I’d stayed in Cuba,” he says.

He was also disappointed by his inability to win government approval to start an ecological institute, to be called the Fundación Tomás Sánchez, which would have been funded with 90 percent of the proceeds from the sale of the paintings. He would have kept the remaining 10 percent, according to his plan. “But that was still more than a doctor would earn, so Fidel wouldn’t allow it,” he says. And so he left for Mexico in 1989, staying there for a few years and painting a series of canvases devoted to garbage dumps he found outside Mexico City, before settling in southern Florida.

In 1995 he had his first solo show in the U.S. at Weiss/Sori Fine Art in Coral Gables. That same year he was included in the “Cuban Artists of the Twentieth Century” show at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, where he had a solo exhibition in 1996. Last year he was in a group show at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The Marlborough show included some of Sánchez’s biggest canvases ever. They took him up to three months to complete. One, Contemplador de nubes sobre el valle (The Contemplator of Clouds over the Valley, 1998), is unusual for Sánchez in that it is based on a real place, the mountains around the Costa Rican capital, San José. He removed the buildings and the people, except for a solitary figure, and replaced them with forests and grass to achieve the look of primeval peace. Another, Inundación de río de aguas blancas (Flood on the River of White Waters, 1998), based loosely on Sánchez’s memory of floods in Cuba in the mid-1980s, shows a submerged plain and a pale river meandering through a landscape that looks serene amid the utter destruction.

His drawings sold at Marlborough for between $6,500 and $12,000, with large paintings priced up to $280,000, most of them spoken for while still on the easel, according to Fernando Gutiérrez, director of Marlborough’s branch in Boca Raton. At auction at Christie’s last year, his Meditador y laguna escondida en el bosque (Meditator and Lagoon Hidden in the Forest, 1995) sold for $280,000.

Like many Cuban painters, Sánchez has a lively counterfeit market. In Miami alone, he says he has come across maybe 300 phony Sánchezes. He keeps pictures of some in a green folder, with details on where and when he came across them the likely forger. Once, after being asked to authenticate the same fake six times by six different buyers, he scrawled the word “FALSO” across the canvas. The furious Miami owner threatened to sue him for emotional hardship.

“There are six or seven people in Cuba whose only job is make fake Sánchezes,” the artist claims. Sometimes, he says, forgers will paint an imitation Sánchez without signing it and ship it to Miami, where another forger will add a Sánchez signature.

Bamboozled buyers have tried many different ruses to get Sánchez to authenticate fraudulent art. “I received several letters from an old woman in Cuba, who was a teacher of mine back in school, who said her son had paid $9,000 for a painting by me,” Sánchez recounts. “She pleaded with me to certify its authenticity. But it was a fake! She said to me, ‘How is it possible that you treat an old lady this way, and one who was your teacher?’ And of course, if her son reports the fake to the authorities, their first question will be, how did you get $9,000?”

With a U.S. residency permit, Sánchez has the right to travel to Cuba once a year for three weeks, which he does “for family reasons, for emotional reasons, for spiritual reasons.” A trip even once a year makes the hard-line rightists in Miami deeply suspicious of him, and he’s often excoriated in the city’s émigré media as a Castro collaborator. One critic accused Sánchez in print of owning a large ranch in Cuba where government officials entertain rich foreign guests with lobster. He’s had to change his phone number six times to escape harassment, he says. But Miami is changing. “The days of bombs and threats are ending, little by little,” he says. “People are getting more relaxed about politics.”

And sometimes Cuba comes to him. A group of Cuba rafters drifted toward shore less than a mile down the beach from his home late last June. With television cameras rolling, U.S. Coast Guard agents blasted them with water hoses and pepper spray before the rafters threw themselves into the sea in a desperate bid to reach shore. Sánchez saw the commotion on the beach before realizing what was going on. Broadcast around the world, the episode served to dramatize the uncomfortable position in which Sánchez finds himself, distrusted on both shores by two sides that are beyond appeasement, while trying to keep focused on his art. “I avoid getting distracted by the political issues through meditation. With meditation,” he says, “I don’t find it hard to concentrate on painting.”

Roger Atwood has written about Latin America for The New Republic, The Miami Herald, The Toronto Star and other publications.

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