Although the years have passed, I retain the memory of my sixth grade teacher with deep respect and affection: a skinny, tall, bald, straight and genial man of normalist formation and, as far as my memory can reach, always taught the same degree. In the history classes of Cuba he used an old book. It wasn’t the one we had the students, it looked like an old photo album and that deeply caught my attention. He used his pictures to show us every passage of our historical future. Thus, we visualize in classes facts and personalities of our history. We knew the horrors of conquest, colonization and slavery. We heard from Father Félix Varela, José Antonio Saco and José María Heredia. He introduced us to Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Antonio Maceo, Ignacio Agramonte and we saw José Martí fight for the unity of Cubans and for the independence of Cuba. It was a formidable pedagogical resource, when there was no Power Point, Data show, multimedia and neither thinking about the Internet nor Wikipedia, indispensable tools of many parents of these days to do – they – the schoolwork of their children.
Once, with the acuity and intelligence characteristic of the old teacher, always pending his students and in my interest in history, or for the book, I do not know well, he said to me, “Sit here, look carefully at this book, when you finish you give it to me.” The title of the work was Graphic History of Cuba.1 It was the first time I repaired in a name, I remember clearly, Juan Emilio Hernández Giró. I began in this way to be passionate about the history of Cuba. I am now saddened when I see a sixth-grader or secondary schooler who cannot recognize, with so many technical resources in aid of school dynamics, the patriot who appears in a fifty-weight bill, which in my primary school times was almost an everyday game.
Juan Emilio Hernández Giró
Juan Emilio Hernández Giró was born in Santiago de Cuba on May 28, 1882. In the family frame itself he began in painting. At the beginning of the libertarian gestation of 1895, the family moved to neighboring Haiti. There he began his studies at the National Academy of Painting in 1898, where he remained until he returned to Santiago de Cuba in 1901. When he entered the Municipal Academy of Fine Arts in his hometown, he was already a great cartoonist and his artistic endeavor soon found support in Emilio Bacardí himself. Thanks to his “patron” he traveled to Europe, where he honed technical knowledge under the tutelage of important masters, until gaining great mastery in art. It was successfully shown in the main squares of the old continent and was praised by specialized critics. He became recognized as the initiator of the technique of “The Unalterable Watercolor”.2
Returning to Cuba in 1924 he remained in Havana. In 1926 he was appointed director of the renowned San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts. Although some sources claim that he did not take office and preferred to practice only as a teacher of drawing, painting and coloring, other documents refer that his responsibility as head of the fine arts negotiator took him a long time. He was a thorough researcher of the historical fact, a resource he poured out on his works. From his pen, brush or burial sprouted formidable historical prints. This was perhaps the field he most ventured into, but not the only one. Specialists say he “had a pencil and a heavy pen and didn’t shake his hand with his brush.” Others point it out as “the genius of perspective and balance”,3 always in this sense allude to his work Calixto García in the shipwreck of the steamer “Hawkins”.
He painted marinas, countryside, natures, period urban paintings, Cubans and Europe. In terms of portraiture, he left an interesting sampler. As a result of his creation, exponents of religious painting can also be found, something that can be surprising in a figure like him. In no way can you omit your mark in the world of editorial design, there are covers of books and magazines published in Cuba and abroad made with themes of your artistic inspiration.
The truth is that whoever was named the Officier d’Académie, Chevalier de la Legion d’Honeur in France, the Favorite Son of Santiago de Cuba, in 1930 and Knight of the National Order of Merit Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, in 1937, left an impressive legacy. He died in Havana in November 1953.
Graphic history of Cuba
After the proper presentation of the author, we return to his work Historia gráfica de Cuba.
The homeland story is narrated, unfortunately, from the great facts and with a very capital interpretation of them. The local, from a historiographic point of view, had almost no space until very recently when its vital importance has begun to be considered. This contradictory and negative phenomenon from a historical perspective, was very favorable so that Juan Emilio Hernández Giró could realize his book in 1938. It embodies all the great facts from when Christopher Columbus stepped on these lands until the first decades of the Republic.
In the prologue, the author says: “The homeland is reality in action, not just a name and a flag […] Graphic history has on the written the imponderable advantage of presenting the facts and recording them in the noblest of the senses: that of the view, whose memory is the most faithful of all … the image is equivalent to a reading not successive, but ideally simultaneous, that troaches in the mind the whole scene as a whole and its details”.4 These conceptualizations do not abandon them in their creation , are the center of the book, so much so that it includes in its pages one hundred and twenty-three images of historical episodes, made by him. As a man who spent his childhood and youth outside Cuba, the deep love of country history is very significant, such a question overflows without limits in his great pictorial work. Juan Emilio Hernández Giró was not a historian of training, although on the very cover of his text appears the title of Member of the Academic Society of International History of Paris. He was a plastic artist, so, when doing any technical analysis, he cannot pretend to find great methodological rigors from historiographical, besides that he was a man permeated by the guidelines of his time.
The first question that arises when facing Graphic History… appears when we read on its cover that it is “a composed text”. Are they fragments of historical texts by different authors or of writings made by Giró himself and composed in a single work? The use of the term “compensated” is confusing. Despite a thorough in-depth in-depth invoy on the matter, I have not found the concrete answer to the question. The text is written in the form of a historical narrative, there are no in-depth analyses or critical approaches, but this was done at the time. The structure follows a perfect chronology. The content is enjoyable and very educational, it is designed to teach. The most notable grammatically is its unity of style, a very difficult issue to achieve with fragments of writings of different people unless manipulated, which makes you think that they are from Giró himself or at least a single author.
The first print is dedicated to our aboriginal people and their habitat. There is no doubt that in order to represent this he must have studied the Journal of Christopher Columbus and the Letters of Relations of the Forward Conquerors. He reproduces in his drawings the same panorama that they described. In the story he makes use of Aboriginal words that have endured in the Cuban Variant of Spanish and are accepted by the Cuban Academy of Language, such as the cases of bohío, caney, bajareque, burén, huracán and many others. The combination of text and image effectively achieves the reader’s blending with the atmosphere of the moment being narrated and easy understanding.
It then graphically reflects the entire process of crossing and arrival of Columbus in Cuba. Conquest and colonization, with its facts and protagonists are two stages that are adequately displayed. In this way, the following chapters of the book are formed. It is impossible for me to follow literally every moment, for it is not tare
to easily be able to describe so much historical time in a few quarters. I believe that the greatest flight of the work is achieved in the later stages and for them I will reserve more space.
From Africa came
The plantation stages and slavery exhibit a formidable pictorial display. In his pictures you can see everything from the slave market to the most violent punishments such as the ladder. He managed to objectively capture the phenomena of the slave trade, forced labour and the cruelty of the barracks. He did not forget the uprisings, nor the maroon, let alone the best-known abolitionist conspiracies and their fateful outcomes.
Giró presented us with a very inclusive story. He cared about the facts, but also about the men who contributed to it. He faces everything from his interpretation of the context. That is why figures such as Christopher Columbus, Diego Velázquez, Hatuey, Father Las Casas, Bishop Juan de las Cabezas Altamirano, Salvador Golomón appear, but you can also find others such as Isabel de Bobadilla, José Antonio Aponte or Plácido, the poet, just to name a few examples. Even an individual trained in investigative matters, at certain times, has to go to memory or collateral documentation.
The Cuban Epic in Graphic History of Cuba
The War of 1868
The work reached its greatest connotation from October 10, 1868. Giró put all his resources according to the representation of the contest. From his talent springs, one by one, every significant fact. It is complex to be able to define who takes greatest significance, whether textual speech or graph. Each print reflects a thorough research work, which is noted in the characters that appear in the iconography and that identifies on the foot of a figure, as if it were a photograph. It was meticulous at the level of detail, therefore each stamp becomes a historical document of great value.
His drawings Out of Grasses of La Demajagua, Perucho Figueredo singing the Anthem of Bayamo and The Bayamo Fire are unique. They are often used in the press to illustrate ephemeris, but unfortunately, authorship is almost always omitted. In The Constituent Assembly of Guáimaro, he managed to place the main participants masterfully. The drawing of the book later became one of his most recognized paintings.
In a space followed there are three formidable graphs, El rescate de Sanguily by Ignacio Agramonte, Muerte de Ignacio Agramonte and Muerte de Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. Only with the pictures would be enough to have a perfect panorama of such notorious historical moments, without demeritaring in any sense to the text. Some of the drawings of the period were sketches of major works that later transcended within the paintings of Giró and the plastic of Cuba. Close this stage The Baraguá Protest, perhaps the best known image of all.
The fertile truce
Giró did not omit eer the Chiquita War or the important preparatory period of 1895. He focused on the Bregar of José Martí according to the cohesion of Cubans in exile. He noted: “Abroad, in the meantime, he rose as a purifying and fruitful sun José Martí, the apostle of independence […] He soon became the heart and brain of Cuban emigration, to which he gave the necessary unity […] Enthusiastically welcoming the foundations written by him, the Cuban Revolutionary Party was proclaimed … with José Martí as delegate”. At this stage of the work only one drawing appears, another well known, its real name is Cuban Revolutionary Party, although it is also usually titled José Martí sanding Cuban tobacco players in Tampa.5
In this summary he exposed Martí’s work in the United States and went on to say: “When the organization was complete, the Revolutionary Treasure was invested in equipping three yachts […] who were to leave in search of the Crusaders of freedom … at the very moment of setting sail from the port of Fernandina, Florida … the three ships loaded with weapons and equipment were confiscated by the American authorities, prevented by the Minister of Spain.”6
He did not trunco the story and delved into the details of Martí’s work, after Fernandina’s failure. Introduce the reader to the preparations and consolidation of the return of the chiefs of the great war with the Apostle at the head. Hernandez Giró’s passion for the figures of the prosperous of the homeland is something that always emerges in an unlimited way.
In this way, it closes a historical chapter, but opens the doors of another of vital importance to Cuba.
The Contest of 1895
“On May 5th, one of the most important acts for the revolution was held at the Mejorana estate near San Luis, Oriente: the three eponymous warlords, José Martí, Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo, agreed on the campaign plan to follow.”7 In this way, it enters the best achieved historical stage of the book , text and graph now reach a remarkable height. From it sprouted top works of his resume and recalls facts that are almost forgotten today.
He carefully recounted the events concerning Martí’s death, but did not draw it, as if the pain mourned his pen or perhaps in a sign of respect for such a fateful fact. For Giró that was the moment when “the apostle was to be completed with the hero”.8 He prefers to continue the march until July 13 and illustrate to us the battle of Peralejo, with a majestic and relentless Maceo, as well as little known. The figure of the Titan fully appropriates the intention of the scene where everything else is diffuse.
He rode in the invasion led by Gomez and Maceo in an enviable chronological way. He turned visually immortalizes the combat of Bad Weather, but surprisingly does not use the figure of Maceo, this time Maximo Gomez appears in a very suggestive and peculiar drawing that also became a major work.
He then advanced accordingly to bring the reader to a very personal Maceo Death and different from Armando García Menocal’s well-known painting.
In the same way, he continued to the culmination of the contest. It graphically included the intervention of the United States, but I will not stop at details to move towards the next stage.
The Republic seen by Giró
If there is a stage in Cuba’s history that is not sufficiently studied and, in many cases, even omitted, it is the Republic. In the case of Graphic History… of Giró, it’s no different. The author approached her superficially or perhaps less substantially than the previous ones. It does not show an interesting graphical display. It is limited to prints of presidents mixed with works of some significance erected during term of office.
There is undeniably platism and superficiality in the Republican historical narrative and a high dose of self-censity becomes apparent. It must be understood that this was the stage where the author himself lived and the historical moment when the book was published did not favor much different treatment. Giro lived, like many other artists of the time, difficult situations economically, even found himself jobless on more than one occasion, this must be taken into account in any analysis. Republic is the black hole of Graphic History of Cuba.
Making a general judgment, it must be said that Graphic History of Cuba is a book that should not be seen as a rare specimen, although it is difficult to find. With lights and shadows it is a historical proposal that must be valued in its right dimension and Juan Emilio Hernández Giró must be considered as one of the greats of our plastic in its own right.
Today there is much talk about the visible, the visual, the visuality and visual anthropology. These phenomena are presented as novel, especially for scholars of the arts and social sciences. Stakeholders are eagerly looking for information on these issues, no matter which side of the world you come from. It may even seem to us that they are foreign discoveries where Cubans lag behind. Sometimes we are unaware that, in Cuba, natural and foreign, many years ago, they did work that, without carrying those definitions, were indeed the same, carried out with the resources that they had at hand. These were the cases of Federico Mialhe’s The Island of Picturesque Cuba (1838), Types and Customs of the Island of Cuba by Antonio Bachiller y Morales (1881) illustrated by Victor Patricio Landaluze or Cuba in pen and pencil by Samuel Hazard (1928). Without fear of erquivocs, I dare to assure you that Historia Gráfica de Cuba is the most complete expression of these works and Juan Emilio Hernández Turned a precursor not innocent, he knew what he was doing in that sense and the value that this had.
Being in front of El Titan de Bronce, at the Institute of History of Cuba and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in the Center of the Brothers of La Salle, two meritorious paintings of Giró, but almost forgotten and in poor condition, and then note that in the Cuban Art Room of between two centuries, of the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana , there is no work of the author who did so much for the consolidation of that own institution and who bequeathed to Cuban cultural heritage important exponents, when living these unfortunate experiences, it is understood that forgetfulness – inexorably – is named after Juan Emilio Hernández Giró. Ω
1 Juan Emilio Hernández Giró: Graphic history of Cuba, Havana, P. Fernández y Cia., 1938.
2 He used the colours of the cake in his watercolors, they contain no additives or varnish, so they are unalterable.
3 Cristian Ramos and Vivian Lozano: Draw together: autonomous learning in the field of artistic drawing, Bogota, Minute of God University Corporation, Communication Sciences, Graphic Communication, 2016, p. 34. “Mastering the technique is fundamental to the recreation of space and is a key element in all kinds of representations […] perspective is easy to learn, but difficult to fully master, as the use of it largely defines the spatial location feeling of a composition.”
4 Juan Emilio Hernández Giró: Graphic history of Cuba, ed. cit. in note 1, p. 3.
5 Ibid., p. 182.
7 Ibid., p. 190.
8 Ibid., p. 192.