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Puerto Rican/European: Francisco Oller’s Hybrid Paintings at the Brooklyn Museum

Like the works of Archibald Motley, now featured at the Whitney Museum, the art of Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller, subject of a concurrent retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum (to Jan. 3), inhabits two separate worlds. More than Motley, Oller often conflated those worlds on the same canvas.

Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World is one manifestation of the Brooklyn Museum’s attempt to have “more interchange with the Latino community, to increasingly diversify our audience”—an objective of former director Arnold Lehman, as described to me in a far-ranging 2010 interview.

Part of that initiative, he said then, was hiring Richard Aste, formerly associate curator of European art at Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico. Aste co-curated the Oller show with NYU art history professer Edward Sullivan, who authored the catalogue.

Richard Aste, curator of European art, Brooklyn Museum, with Francisco Oller's "Mountain Landscape with a Figure," c. 1900-1903" Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Richard Aste, curator of European art, Brooklyn Museum, with Francisco Oller’s “Mountain Landscape with a Figure,” c. 1900-1903
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The introductory wall text explicitly and provocatively draws a connection between the exhibition and the current political status of Puerto Ricans: “Today Puerto Rico continues to occupy a complex political and economic position….Puerto Rico lacks voting representation in the U.S. Congress and while the estimated 4.9 million Puerto Ricans who live in the United States are able to vote in Presidential elections, the 3.7 million Puerto Ricans living on the island do not have that right.”

Although alluding to the commonwealth’s “complex…economic position,” the wall text’s topicality doesn’t venture to mention Puerto Rico’s looming bond default and bankruptcy discussions.

In 2012, Brooklyn acquired one of the exhibition’s two Ollers owned by U.S. museums—a depiction of a sugar-mill plantation, commissioned by its owner:

Oller, "Hacienda La Fortuna," 1885, Brooklyn Museum Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Oller, “Hacienda La Fortuna,” 1885, Brooklyn Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Oller’s most satisfying pictures are those, like “Hacienda” and his ravishing still lifes of native fruits, that are fully grounded in his homeland. As one wall label notes, they also “recall the still lifes of the 18th-century Spanish court painter Luis Melendez.”

Oller’s alluring arrays are so meticulously and vividly rendered as to approach trompe l’oeil:

Oller, "Gourds and Machete," c. 1912-14. Collection of José Enrique and Mary Jane Fernández Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Oller, “Gourds and Machete,” c. 1912-14. Collection of José Enrique and Mary Jane Fernández
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s the other Oller owned by a U.S. museum, from El Museo del Barrio, New York:

Oller, "Yellow Plantains," c. 1892-93, El Museo del Barrio, New York Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Oller, “Yellow Plantains,”
c. 1892-93, El Museo del Barrio, New York
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Oller spent much more time in Europe (both Paris and Madrid) than Archibald Motley, and many of his works closely imitate the style and plein air execution of his French contemporaries, some of whom, especially Pissarro, became his friends.

Cézanne was one of his subjects—a plein air painter, painted en plein air:

Oller, "Paul Cézanne Painting Outdoors," c. 1864, Collection of Luis R. de Corral and Lorraine Vázquez de Corral Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Oller, “Paul Cézanne Painting Outdoors,”
c. 1864, Collection of Luis R. de Corral and Lorraine Vázquez de Corral
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

European influences were so important to Oller’s oeuvre that Aste chose to liberally sprinkle the show with works by related artists (including Millet, Daubigny, Corot, Caillebotte, Monet), drawn from the Brooklyn Museum’s own collection. Additional context is provided by a smattering of works by Oller’s Latino contemporaries.

Oller’s earliest surviving European painting, below, evinces the duality informing much of his work: It depicts a woman bullfighter in Madrid—an anomaly in a male-dominated field, incongruously placed in a Caribbean setting. You could take the painter out of Puerto Rico, but you often couldn’t take Puerto Rico out of the paintings (palm trees, upper left), even in some that seem overly impressed by Impressionism.

Oller, "Lady Bullfighter on a Horse," c. 1851-2 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Oller, “Lady Bullfighter on a Horse,” c. 1851-2, Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, San Juan
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

An artistic chameleon and something of an opportunist, he adjusted his work to satisfy prevailing tastes and political exigencies. As Aste told me, Oller had to adapt to survive financially: His art was his livelihood.

When in France, he “aligned himself with the Impressionist aesthetic, capturing the sunlight filtering through the trees” and using the “short dots and dabs, brilliant light effects and vibrant juxtapositions of high-keyed colors,” as the label for this painting notes:

Oller, "French Landscape I," c. 1895-96, Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, San Juan Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Oller, “French Landscape I,”
c. 1895-96, Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, San Juan
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

He had worked as a court painter for Spain, but after it lost the 1898 Spanish American War, giving sovereignty over Puerto Rico to the U.S., he quickly shifted gears, making an (unsuccessful) play to be an official Presidential portraitist by sending this likeness (painted from a photograph) to Washington.

McKinley is shown grasping a map of Puerto Rico:

Oller, "President William McKinley," 1898, Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Eduardo Pérez Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Oller, “President William McKinley,”
1898, Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Eduardo Pérez
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Oller’s signature work, his monumental “The Wake,” proved to be too much of a national treasure for the University of Puerto Rico to part with. It is represented in Brooklyn by a sketch, two studies and this reproduction (about 60% of the original’s 8′-by-13′ size):

Reproduction of Oller's "The Wake," c.1893, Museo de Historia, Antropologia y Arte, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Reproduction of Oller’s “The Wake,” c.1893, Museo de Historia, Antropologia y Arte, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As with many paintings in this revelatory show, “The Wake’s” label (seen above, at right) includes an illuminating reaction from an outsider—in this case, Marta Morena Vega, president of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute. She suggests that the painting contains symbols that specifically pertain to the influence of African religious practices on some Puerto Ricans. That gives a more sympathetic interpretation than Oller’s own description of this bacchanalia surrounding a deceased infant as “an orgy of brutish appetites under the guide of a gross superstition” (the celebration of an innocent child’s ascent to heaven).

The museum’s supplementary label texts, called “Community Voices,” which began on Lehman’s watch, extend to works in the permanent collection. Notwithstanding the longstanding controversy over this populist alternative to the authoritative curatorial voice, I have always favored it as a way to give museumgoers a sense that their own thoughtful reactions to the art matter. This approach—juxtaposing curators’ analysis with commentary from the broader public—seems particularly apt in a show that seeks to connect with the museum’s Latino audience.

Brooklyn’s new director, Anne Pasternak, has signaled that she intends to rethink some of her predecessor’s initiatives. As for her plan to trash “all the ‘faux architecture’ in the museum’s beloved Egyptian galleries, ‘to get rid of as much visual interference as possible so that we can commune with the art,'” more power to her:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

While she’s at it, I’d suggest some serious rethinking of the permanent collection’s somewhat chaotic American art galleries and its “Connecting Cultures” mishmash on the lobby floor.

But she should allow “Community Voices” to continue to speak.

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