*Gracias Luis Manuel Rodríguez por la información.
ART: FRANCISCO OLLER, PUERTO RICO GLIMPSED
By VIVIEN RAYNOR
Published: February 10, 1984
RETRIEVING artists from oblivion, like taking in stray animals, is an activity fraught with emotion. The scholars who do it commonly grow so close to their charges as to become one with them and, when politics enters the picture, objectivity becomes virtually impossible for all concerned.
This is pretty much the situation with the art of Francisco Oller (1833- 1917), a painter who spent his life toing and froing between his native Puerto Rico and Europe, and who, though exercised by social conditions in his own country, was not above personal opportunism. He makes, nevertheless, an effective symbol for the struggles of all small countries for a sense of national identity, and the 50 or so canvases on view at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, between 104th and 105th Streets, should be of interest to everyone.
The spirit in which the show was organized by the Ponce Art Museum of Puerto Rico is by no means chauvinistic. Oller is treated not as a genius but as a remarkable manifestation of talent and ambition in an out-of-the- way place. This retrospective, the most exhaustive examination of his work to date, is also the most important show yet to appear at El Museo del Barrio, where it will remain, thanks to aid from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, through March 18. It then goes to the Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Mass.
The book accompanying the show is almost worthy of Manet, Oller's senior by a year, being a fully illustrated paperback with six essays on the artist, a catalogue and a substantial bibliography, as well as notes on the restoration of several canvases ($20). But as already indicated Oller was no Manet, and though billed as a Realist- Impressionist, no more qualifies for the second half of the title than do numerous other New World painters who aspired to it. But such evaluation seems beside the point, given the oddness of his personal story.
This begins in San Juan, where Oller was born in evidently comfortable circumstances. By the age of 14, he was skilled enough to copy a portrait of his grandfather by Jose Campeche in a way that would have done justice to fully trained artists two or three times his age. After leaving school, he worked as a clerk in the Treasury until some caricatures he did of his superiors got him dismissed. The same drawings, though, prompted the island's governor to offer him an allowance to study in Rome. Oller's mother declined on account of her son's age, 15, and it was not until three years later that he was able to leave Puerto Rico - for Madrid. Studying there for two years, he returned to some acclaim, but was soon off again, this time for Paris. There, he enrolled first at Thomas Couture's studio, where he probably encountered Manet and other French masters-to-be, and then at Gleyre's Academy, where his classmates would have included Renoir and Monet.
There are many ''probablys'' in the biography for, long and arduously as the Ponce curators have worked, their project is still rife with dead ends and missing pieces. It's certain, however, that the painter was friends with Pissarro and, for a while, Cezanne, and if the interpretation of a letter by Antoine Guillemet is right, had Cezanne for a pupil.
There were more trips to Europe, some lengthy, but they didn't deter the artist from producing numerous paintings - portraits, official and otherwise, landscapes and genre pieces - and a book on perspective, and seemingly, he was forever opening art schools in Puerto Rico. This was the pattern of his existence until 1896, when he settled for good in his own land, painting, teaching and, after 1898, adapting to life under an American administration, which included suggesting to the city of Ponce that it exchange his portraits of Spanish dignitaries, which it held, for his new likeness of George Washington.
With so many Ollers lost or damaged beyond repair, the retrospective can't be counted complete, nor can the 50 works in it always be aligned with the facts of the artist's life. All the same, the effect of his early and middle years in Madrid are visible in, respectively, a small but arresting study of a female matador in action against palm trees and a gorgeous portrait of a woman, Carmen Alonso. With its dark background setting off a muted red dress and a pale face with the most beautifully characterized mouth, this seems the best picture in the show, although the sparkling still lifes a la Courbet, such as one of bananas, cashews, a pitcher and a glass, are also worth noting.
The magnum opus, though, is ''The Wake,'' an awful but fascinating work that was shown in the Paris Salon of 1895. It measures 8 feet by 13 feet and depicts a ritual that, says the catalogue, has antecedents in medieval Europe as well as in Africa. Set in a wooden hut, the scene is of a Hogarthian crowd gathered around the corpse of a small child. Most of the figures are either carousing or lusting after a roast pig being borne in on a spike; only an old tattered black man is paying respect to the dead. It is strange that the preliminary sketches for the work should be so much better, and stranger still that the artist soon after moved as close as he ever would to Impressionism in some French landscapes. Like so many would-be Impressionists, he affected the brush stroke - in this case, influenced by Pissarro in his Pointillist period - without coming to grips with the color and compositional ideas that went with it. It is hardly remarkable that Oller seems more at ease depicting Puerto Rican landscapes in a style that could be called Barbizon-tropical.
If the artist hadn't fallen out with Cezanne (because of his own arrogance, it is said), he might have learned from him that art is not something accomplished on the run.
*Gracias Luis Manuel Rodríguez por la información.