A painting, a city, the island

Ramón Cabrera S. - Professor and art critic.


“Anyone who has seen with open eyes, can see again, with eyes closed”.

Antonio Porchia




And she had the hunch that she would find in La Habana something that she had dreamed of and something she had lost.

And she found a levitant city: a city for the rose and a city for the stone. For those meanings she painted and named the paintings and the entire exhibition. However, the result has a longer story. Maybe going back to the artist's childhood , her youth, her political engagement with Allende's Chile, and we could not explain her work just by previous exhibitions, artistic personal positions , before seeing the evident plurality of the contemporary , or intertexts which rise as possible resonators within the structuring of the paintings. It happens that every creator, and particularly a select group of them, produce from a magnetized gravity of his/hers personal history. Such is the case of Ximena Subercaseaux and her eyes ready to “eat the world”.

From the childhood's goblins

At the very start, the magical childhood in the country, the big house of Santa Clara, where she lived with her two grandmothers,-one the real one and the other, the great-aunt- Ximena and Carmen Morla. The painter grew up in a family environment beset by the miracle of walking shadows, doors and windows opening and closing at will, potential levitations and her grandmother's passion for painting, leaving her imprint over each wall of the house. So could we tell about her mother, another uncommon person: painter, photographer, a model in New York in the 30s, tireless traveler since her teens and her children's teacher in the art of photography. And, of course, the incessant sensitive experience as a consequence of the rural environment: the nature of light and its constant change, from the bright morning until the gradual unfolding of sunsets and, ultimately, the night; her eyes constantly reacting to color and shadows.

Was born, thus, an imaginary ready to see things from an unusual, highly sensitive side, where everything can respond to a secret life (2). And a tree not simply to be a tree, or the shadows projected by a branch not only the effect of light and bodies, and thus she learns to put away the veil of habit that hides things. An enchanted training , a plus in life that maybe the artist had no conscience about, during the frequent painting hours of her childhood, or later, when she studied arts at the Catholic University of Chile. (3)

The Chile of Allende , and then painting.

Then came the triumph of Unidad Popular , the presidency of Salvador Allende and an active political life. After Pinochet'state coup she was forced to hide, remained three years in the clandestine life until she was forced to exile, first in Sweden and, finally, in Mexico, always warm, generous land. Painting during this time was half silenced. It was in Mexico that the old passion waked up again and has never ceased. Back in Mexico , she deepens her knowledge of painting with the master Luz García, who teaches her the art of working with pigments and Ximena returns to the past of painting as alchemy.

She does her own varnish and glues, each color revives in the intelligent and sensitive cookery of her hands , specially by the use of lead white – the most important pigment in western painting until the seventeenth century- which reaches the maximum refraction of the light. In times of new territories for the image, she remains in the slowness of old practices. Her legacy of life in a self sufficient farm continues at her current occupation as “homo faber” of all her materials.

Painting as a continuous job

Since her arrival in Monterrey seven years ago, painting is a source of constant professional occupation. The year 1993 marks the beginning of successive personal exhibitions, among which the most recent are: Oasis of the Night and Cactus , both in Arte Actual Mexicano Gallery.

Oasis of the Night focuses on paintings of scenes from the Bar La Pirámide , light and reflections duplicated in mirrors, portraits of things as these to glasses which offer themselves humanized in the eyes of the artist, and the painting of the translucent glass – old pictorial matter- that takes a new sense recalling animist episodes of her childhood: those living glasses.

And later, the experimental series of bullfighters costumes, emerging issue for her constant concern about light and color as breathing particles of her over-life. Similarly, her group of paintings constructed with the reflects of the city



in the crystals of the cars, a conceptual testimony of light. constitute the central body of the paintings in La Habana: the rose and the stone. Her whole dimension of pictorial alchemist , turned over pictures that the city offered her continuously as a siege, specially the Malecón habanero, a space for dialogue and the dream where people of all ages date each other, from the patient fisherman to the kids who walk all over or are immersed in its waters.

The city exercised its fascination, as expected. This walking around impressed her deeply, even the clothes hanging out of the windows and balconies and American cars from imprecise age circulating their junkyard through the streets. All this was enough incitement for her imageries well-nourished by the spiritual and the invisible. Therefore could she discover joy in the clean clothes hanging under the sun. What she calls “the triumph of life”. And the extroverted conversation of people, and things opened to the air. And, at all times, the overwhelming presence of the light. Her chemistry of lead white expanded itself over the canvases that once in Monterrey , she painted. Paintings like The light in the balance , Dove and Man , among others, are outright evidence of this.

The light in the balance, a tablecloth suspended over the sea, invites us to the reflection about an empty table but, nevertheless, clean: an ethic experienced from scarcity and siege. Who can deny that we are a city under siege? Similarly, the white fabric stretched in an apartment house's window, transforms its sense in the metaphor of the name: “ Dove ”. And again the limpidity suspended revives. Lights and shadows shape their drawings over the walls, where a window opens its proposal with the suggestive over-reality that we already pointed as characteristic from Hopper. And, as with him, the window becomes eye, threshold, silence, emptiness. Some paintings of the American artist as Windows in the night from 1928, and Ximena's The tree, play in the intertexts of such references.

Paintings in this exhibition display themselves in blocks or levels of meaning: in the first level we, spectators, involved by the magnetism of light and color, invited by the arrangement of the scene: the cinematographic way of arranging general plans in vanishing points, as in Calle de la Habana or close up as in Street of memory, where a car poses in front of time, concentrated and delayed density of the instantaneous. Within her canvases, sight is organized in levels ranging from land to horizon (sky, sea, indistinct background) and returns, total travel of perceptive fractions seen as a whole, where we stay trapped by the magic of light. (“God is light” repeated Ximena Morla to her little grand daughter , at a time lost inside her biography)-

The paintings of the exhibition are crossed over by pictures of the Rose and the Stone, thus capitalized, proper names which allude to the structuring concept of the exhibition, picturing the metaphor of the man and the city of the island ( suspended time). Soon in history, La Habana was cross of roads, place for encounters. These encounters that the artist paints now are the encounters of the waiting, meetings between the fleeting scent of life and the persistent obstinacy of the stone . Against it, bats the sea, and the men of the island, absorbed in their soliloquy, isolated, like the island they are. And then there is the lightness, the light embodiment of the one who dreams: the levitant , the levitant soul of the ros e.

These works are composed on the metaphysics over-reality of the extensive malecón from La Habana , space for the conversation and the silence of those who glimpse accompanied by the rumor of the sea and the Caribbean iodized smell . At the sea: the rose (the gaze of men). Against the sea: the stone (the cliff). This is the retinian proposal from the artist at the age of videosphere appointed by Regis Debray. Here we look at the images as much as they watch us, from a place where all the mythical of a magic childhood survives.

Being from La Habana , I am astonished with the cunning of such interpretations – a deep love which didn't need more than meet the target. In our lands destinations are fables: a painter, a city, an island. Lets feel the corners of the city (windows to the breeze, balconies light) and let the night of the sea side or the calm midday sun accompany us in the invisibles going away from the waves: definitely we arrive to La Habana.


The artist consumes herself painting the lightened passion dictated by the world of things and the revelation of their interiorities. It's the unveiling of the “real” world behind the apparent epidermis of the physical world. And in all these works again, light and its shining sense. She remembers her grandmother's words: God is light.

The intertexts of her work are, first and foremost, in her own life, specially in her childhood, because from the daily quotidian also arises the intertextual , as recognizes Manfred Pfister following Roland Barthes and painters as Magritte and Hopper which, to some extent, confirm that personal history. The thought involved in the following words of Magritte “ What is not irrelevant is the mystery evoked in fact, by the visible and the invisible” is worthwhile to consider in front of Ximena's paintings. Such rotation is constant in the work of the Chilean painter, since from both elements is constructed the world that she proposes.

In the same way I could confirm along with Hopper: “It is very good to represent what you see. It is much better to paint what you have stored in memory. You only reproduce what is compelling, that is, what is needed. “ (6) And the pressures in front of the real that besiege our painter are endless; but there was one, particularly, urgently felt since her political engagement of the 70s: live La Habana. Therefore she saw it first with eyes wide open, so she could see it then with her eyes closed, and discover a secret Habana.

The rose and the stone

La Habana appeared in front of her as a promised city. She stayed there barely one week. Didn't stop walking around the malecón , from one end to the other, dialoguing with all, catching in quick snapshots what would


1.- We will use here the notion of intertext and intertextuality in the sense annotated by Manfred Pfister: “So, intertextuality becomes not so much a name for the relationship of a work with earlier texts , as a particular denomination for that work's participation in the discursive space of a certain culture. “ ( Conceptions of intertextuality , p.91)

2.- That may be one of the dictates about how to make art. Recall the confession of Merlau -Ponty: “Things have an internal equivalent in me: they awaken in me a carnal form of their presence. It is by lending his body to the world , that the artist transforms the world in paintings.” ( Eye and mind, Aesthetics, p.102)

3.- While living in exile, in Stockholm , Sweden , she also conducted studies at the Grundskolan för Konstnärliga Ämne. (1978-1979)

4.- In all this there is a clear plotinian ascendant; the philosopher recognized: ….”Beauty is less in the symmetry, than in the splendor which shines on this symmetry, and it's the splendor what we should love.”

5.- “Two letters to René Magritte” , in This is not a pipe , p.84. Before, in the same letter, he had expressed: “Meninas are the invisible image of the thought of Velázquez. Would therefore, sometimes, be visible the invisible?”

•6.- Quoted by Rolf Günter, Renner, Edward Hopper, Transformations of the real . P. 65.

(*) Article published in the journal Movimiento Actual, N. 125, December 2001, in occasion of the solo exhibition of the artist: “ La Habana : the Rose and the Stone.” at the Center of the arts, Monterrey.