Los Cortadores de Caña (1943) is an oil painting created by Mario Carreño (1913-1999) depicting cane cutters in a field of sugarcane. The subjects, the cane cutters are in full motion and their bodies seem to meld with their environment – the tropical colors at the fringes of their skin are sometimes indistinguishable from their surroundings. The man in the foreground has banana shaped ribs and fruta bombas (papaya) lining his chest. The musculuture and bodies of the workers resemble sugar cane stalks and leaves, the group making their way to the forefront is almost indistinguishable from each other due to the use of the color and the rippling of the fabric. Another view is that this group is a single person making his way through the field.
This painting was inspired by the poem “La Zafra” (1926) by Agustín Acosta that comments on the overwhelming aroma of sugarcane. The sensuality of the poem explains the conflicting sinewy shape and form of the workers in the field. There lies bitterness in the history of extraction of the cane, despite the sweet byproduct of the crop. In the 1940s Cuba was experiencing political stability in comparison to the rest of the world reeling from WWI, so this painting’s possible connection to mambises, revolutionary forces who used machetes as their main weapon, are unintentional. The imagery is purposefully finding beauty in a bittersweet context, homage to workers in the fields, the Afrocubanos, criollos and the history of a plantation economy in defining the national identity.
Carreño (1913-1999) was born in Havana and early in his career attended San Alejandro National Academy of Arts in Havana, but left due to a constricting environment. In 1932 he moved to Spain because of the cultural momentum and attended the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid, where he met Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). In 1936 after the Spanish Civil War began he returned to Cuba and had an exhibition of his drawings at the Havana Lyceum. Later in 1936, he studied under Jaime Colson (1901-1975) and Diego Rivera (1886-1957) in Mexico. Some of Carreño’s contemporaries were René Portocarrero (1912-1985), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982). He took residence in Chile in 1957 and helped establish the school of arts at the Catholic University of Santiago by teaching art techniques and the history of Latin American painting. He married Ida González, had two children and eventually died in Santiago in 1999.
Luis, Carlos M. “Mario Carreño: His Art and World”. pp 615 – 616. Cuba, 1st Edition. Gale Encyclopedia.
Palmer, Margarita Mateo. “Sugar: Representation in Cuban Culture”. pp 960-965. Cuba, 1st Edition. Gale encyclopedia.