The final room in the McMullen Art Museum felt like a cocoon. Here I sat, surrounded by the swirling, dreamy, cloudy pieces by the late Rafael Soriano. My eyes would drift from one canvas to another, following the easy flow of peaceful blues, purples, and pinks holding their own against the dark background provided for them. In this dusky room, there was a sense of comfortable aloneness. I was the blend of colors I faced, standing alone in the dark. In the silence, one question haunted me; a man diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, fully aware of his future deteriorate could paint this? Serena Imagen, 1991 stared at me from its perch. Was this really an expression of peace in Soriano’s work?
Led by a docent, the construction of the museum seemed almost disingenuous. We listened to the drastic changes in Soriano’s life as we saw this change influence the evolution in his work. The first room was well lit, bright, full of windows and clean white walls. The Cuban geometric style was clean, intentional, linear, and at times, almost harsh in its unapologetic order. Color popped against the white walls; there was a sense of exuberance and ease in the logic of the lines. The docent explained this was when Soriano lived in Cuba, su patria, at the beginning of his career. This precise measure of lines and symmetry was quickly interrupted by the rise of Fidel Castro, a dictator who censored the work on Cuban artists. At this moment, we were brought into the threshold of the next stage of the exhibit, a darker room with many paths.
This dimly lit area was noted as his “transitional” phase by the docent. The confusion of his exile from Cuba and the culture shock of Miami was reflected in work such as Flora a Contraluz, 1943. The space in the exhibit was exaggerated by its emptiness. Navigating the dim rooms felt like an independent excursion, almost as if the docent’s presence was counterintuitive to the representation of Soriano’s work. His attempt to find direction in his art almost challenged the observer to do the same, rather than being led with dictated explanation and logic.
More disturbing than this curated view of the art was arriving at Angustia del Olvido (Anguish of Forgetfulness) 1996. The painting writhes with the pain of the unknown, the pain of losing the memories that brought the peace of his mystic art in the early 1990s. This was the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. The contorted face is unrecognizable, inhuman, and upsetting.
More striking was the order of the art the docent led us through. The observer was first placed in the turmoil of the diagnosis, then brought to the final room described previously. As one who enjoys a timeline, I had been keeping a keen eye on the chronological order of the art. I was unsatisfied to find the peace of the final room was purely a construct. The surreal, mystic blues, pinks, purples, the entrancing beauty of peace and acceptance was false. These paintings were dated before the horrific diagnosis. At that point, I felt cheated. The happy ending perpetrated by the gallery was not the reality Soriano faced, and almost an attempt to censor the true despair in his final work. While any observer with a knack for remembering dates could have arrived at the same conclusion, I was perplexed by the idea that the majority wouldn’t. Most would follow the soothing flow of the docent’s story and sit on the bench in the final room feeling relieved. Relieved that the “final” art of Soriano was peaceful, easy, comforting in the face of death.
Is this truly the job of the museum? To mold art into a swallowable pill for the public? Is this what Soriano wanted? Judging by his journey to America to escape the strangling censorship of Castro, I think not.
Docent. Rafael Soriano: The Artist as Mystic. McMullen Museum of Art. Boston College
Soriano, Rafael. Serena Imagen. Digital image. Boston Globe. N.p., n.d. Web.
Soriano, Rafael. Flor a Contraluz. Digital image. WickedLocal. N.p., n.d. Web.
Soriano, Rafael. Angustia del Olvido. Digital image. WickedLocal. N.p., n.d. Web.