Dominican art in its strictest sense, that is, art produced in the Dominican Republic since the Independence of 1844, has its historical roots in Taino pictographs, drawn with simple lines and vegetable pigments on rock walls, ceramics and other “lesser” products, and in Spanish painting and religious sculptures brought by the conquistadors since the journeys of Columbus.
After Independence, as in the rest of Spanish American, the visual arts followed the trend of securing national identity, above all through portraits of patriots and a growing recognition of the countryside as a means of discovery of and identification with the environment. Nationalism and indigenismo (a belief in the importance of indigenous peoples) also manifested themselves in painting. As always occurs in artistic peripheries, elements appeared from visual movements begun in artistic centers like Paris and other European capitals, so muddled that they were indiscernible from one another. Realism, romanticism, academic neoclassicism and symbolic embellishments from late 19th and early 20th century paintings were present in the work of artists such as Sisito Desangles, Alejandro Piñeyro, Rodríguez Urdaneta and García Godoy.
The first masters in Dominican plastic arts appeared in the 1930s. Throughout the last seven decades, the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes has been the principal institution for producing the most renowned Dominican plastic artists.
Oryi Morel, like Federico Izquierdo, formed his style in the heart of the Cibao (central Dominican Republic) and made light and Dominican peasants the focuses of his paintings. His Campesino cibaeño (Cibao peasant), from the collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno, is a celebration of the innate nobility and elegance of the rural Cibao people with illumination that cannot necessarily be grouped with French impressionists.
Jaime Colson absorbed much from the aesthetic vanguardias, groups that were proponents of a new Renaissance, in France, demonstrating this knowledge first in a Barcelona youth vanguardia from the Dau al Set group and later in his own country. Colson connected the classic spirit with cubism in his own mulatto imagery and the sensuality of its youth, at the same time reconstructing the links of geometry with African ancestry. Darío Suro, with his impressive evolutionary capacity, is the chameleon of the century. He absorbed over six decades the contributions of the century’s principal movements in Ibero-America, the United States and Europe to assimilate them into his own vision of race and eroticism, of the tension between the abstract and the figurative, of the body between concrete nature and the passionate imagination that moves it.
The Escuela de Bellas Artes, one of the institutions with which Rafael Díaz Niese began Dominican cultural policy in the midst of the Trujillo dictatorship, is the realm of action for another extraordinary figure, the painter Celeste Woss y Gil. This exceptional cultivator of the portrait and the nude, educated in Cuba, daughter of ex-president Alejandro Woss y Gil, was the only Dominican artist so in tune with the culture of her time that she was asked to be a professor in the Escuela (composed almost entirely of Spanish and Central European exiles fleeing from struggles in their countries due to their liberal or democratic convictions, in the case of the former, or their Jewish origin, in the case of the latter). Woss y Gil’s work Desnudos (nudes) and her incredible Mercado (market) are her most important paintings.
The influence begun by European masters from Joseph Gausachs to George Hausdorf, from José Vela Zaneti to Antonio Prats Ventos, is not, as in the colonial period, a mere translation of metropolitan models. The pre-existing development of Dominican plastic art gave birth to the emergence of art with a Dominican identity, characterized by the Antillean man and nature, by radiant light and also by new materials that prompted experimentation. Marianela Jiménez, Clara Ledesma, Noemí Mella and Elsa Divanna are some of the most important names of a generation of graduates of the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in which female painters played an important role. At this stage, Eugenio Fernández Granell introduced surrealism to our country, a vanguardia led by Bretón that to this day retains its international importance.
Throughout the fifties, a development continues that is inclined toward expressionism and even toward abstraction for various possible reasons: the expression of the tremendous social tensions in the last decade of the dictatorship, the influence of the tenebrismo (the highlighting of central figures on a dark background) of Gausachs and his disciple Gilberto Hernández Ortega, the expressionistic currents of Europe and the masterful criticism of Manuel Valdeperes. Drama overflows from the work of Hernández Ortega, demonstrated by his Lluvia en el Cementerio (Rain in the Cemetery) as well as from the work Sacrificio del Chivo (the Goat Sacrifice) of Eligio Pichardo, painted in the early sixties. The trend continues in the following expressionism period, with roots in the fifties, of José Rincón Mora, Oviedo, Ramírez Conde and Elsa Núñez. The introduction of abstraction by Josep Fulop and Silvano Lora, at the beginning of the fifties, can be included in this penchant for cryptic artistic language.
The sixties was a time of expansion for the bourgeois and the market, as well as for the multiplication of tendencies that vary from the photographic hyperrealism of Alberto Bass to the abstractions of Orlando Menicucci and Geo Ripley, who, on the borders of minimalism and conceptual art, incorporated disdained elements of our multi-ethnic tradition, such as content related to Afro-Caribbean magical-religious syncretism. In addition, the Escuela de Altos de Chavón was founded in the mid-60s, which would contribute to the orientation of painting, drawing and the development of design as a creative form of expression, reaching its greatest point of development and importance in the eighties and nineties. U.S. influence on painting became more and more evident in the country.
For Dominican painting, the eighties were a stage in which the need to escape the economic crisis prompted a strong turn toward abstraction, exemplified in artists such as Pedro Terreiro or Carlos Santos. But sometimes, “sacred” artists, like Ada Balcácer, starting from an analysis of light and color that was begun by their teacher Gausachs, arrived at an authentic “abstract impressionism” in visions infused with the pure sensation of pure light. And others, such as Inés Tolentino and Enriquillo Rodríguez articulated their artistic language through the fusion of symbols, natural forms and abstraction. The growing boom of installation begins, in which names like Tony Capellán, Belkys Ramírez and Marcos Lora become important. Photography also begins to flourish, eventually leading to the awarding of the grand prize of the 19th Bienal de Artes Plásticas to Luis Nova.
Throughout the nineties, writing, abstraction and natural forms mixed with photography, with influences from art history, religious syncretism, daily life and social marginalization, migration problems, child abuse and allusions to personal or collective past in ever more diverse expressions. As with installations, video and photography expressed the historical periods and cultural amalgamation that move us. From action art to ceramics, graphic art, drawing, painting and sculpture, each medium emphasizes its content. The themes of gender, the body, the sacred, violence, as well as the desire to be contemporary, superimposed themselves and often acquired greater importance than the search for symbols of identity that prevailed in earlier decades.