Agustin Cardenas: ‘the surrealist sculptor par excellence'

Aktis Gallery is to host a major exhibition of works by Agustín Cárdenas, a Cuban artist integral to the Surrealist movement founded by André Breton and considered one of the greatest sculptors working in Europe in the 20th century. The show will include works such as Fruit de la Mémoire 1 (1981), Ebéne Incrusté, (1974), and Double Visage (1984) that illustrate the artist's fusion of African sculpture, abstraction and surrealism, and the breadth of his skill in bronze, marble and wood.

Featuring alongside these momentous sculptures by Cárdenas are the remarkable portraits of the artist by Martine Franck, the esteemed Belgian portrait photographer and documentary filmmaker, who was married to Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of photojournalism. Franck's work is widely celebrated, and is currently represented in Tate Britain's New Displays. These photographs of the artist serve to illustrate the character of Cárdenas, who was greatly admired by his Parisian contemporaries and was indeed described by André Pieyre de Mandiargues as ‘the surrealist sculptor par excellence'.

Agustín Cárdenas was born in Matanzas, Cuba in 1927 into a family originally from Senegal and the Congo. His father was a tailor, and as a child, Cárdenas too was initiated into the tailoring industry, which provided him with skills that would prove invaluable in achieving the precision and fluidity that his sculpture would later require. From the early age of 14, Cárdenas demonstrated his dedication to the arts by working with his father during the day and studying by night to enroll in the School of Fine Arts.

In 1943, he began studying sculpture at the San Alejandro School of Fine Arts where his mentor, the great Cuban sculptor, Juan José Sicre, otherwise known as the ‘Master of Masters', introduced Cárdenas to the avant-garde art of Jean Arp, Henry Moore and Brâncusi. It was thanks to this exposure that he absorbed the non-objective, modernist ideals of the avant-garde that shaped his artistic direction towards that which evoked the work of Picasso in the late 1920s. He continued his education until 1949 and became part of the radical creative group, ‘Los Once', from 1953 to 1955, which explored abstraction and was opposed to the official and academic methods of art teaching.

Already having exhibited prior to 1955, it was this year specifically that proved to be a turning point in his career; he held his first solo exhibition, Agustín Cárdenas: 20 Esculturas at the Palacio de Bellas Arts in Havana, and was awarded the Silver Medal XXXVII at the Salón de Bellas Artes, Circulo de Bellas Artes. Soon after, he received a scholarship to travel to Europe and eventually settled for some years in Montparnasse, Paris.

Upon moving to Paris, Cárdenas' significance quickly became recognized by the surrealist artists working there including the French surrealist author and poet, André Breton, who asked him to participate in a group exhibition at Galerie L'Etoile Scellé, a surrealist art gallery, in 1950. By this time, many of the surrealist values had been accepted by society and the movement became increasingly exclusive, seeking to appeal only to those who were greatly interested in its ideals. André Breton had already written the Second Manifesto of Surrealism and was keen to transform the movement into a closed group, inviting only new and select surrealists by way of an ‘initiation'. Cárdenas was therefore ‘knighted' a surrealist by Breton and was welcomed to exhibit with them. Cárdenas left a lasting impression on Breton, who wrote that the artist's hand was ‘skillful as a dragonfly', and that what emerged from his fingers were ‘great blooming totems which, better than a saxophone, curves the waist of lovely women' (Breton, 1959). As Jean-Michel Goutier describes it, Cárdenas ‘quite naturally fell into the magical surrealist universe, welcomed warmly by André Breton'.

Cárdenas lived in Paris until 1994 and was prolific and extremely active in the art-world; he exhibited in more than 100 exhibitions, 30 of which were solo shows. It was in Paris that Cardenas developed his unique style, his lasting legacy being sculpture. Surrealism had made a huge impact on his artistic approach, combining the ideals of the movement with Afro-Cuban themes resulting in works that were reminiscent of African sculpture fused with abstraction and surrealism.

Executed in a variety of materials, his work often represents fantastical, ‘biomorphic' shapes, taken from the study of women's bodies or more generally, the closeness of human relations, their physical and emotional proximities. Cárdenas also explored certain imagery relating to his ancestral and cultural heritage of West Africa, most notably the Dogon. He was commissioned to produce monumental sculptures in places as far apart as Canada, Austria, Japan, Israel and Korea; he is considered by some as one of the first creators of ‘site-specific' work due to the large-scale sculptures produced from the materials native to their site.

Throughout his career Cárdenas received many awards amongst which are the 1961 prize in sculpture from the Biennale de Paris and, for his service to art, the Order of Arts and Letters. He worked on numerous occasions with Martine Franck who photographed him in his Parisian studio and in different locations of work. Amongst his many solo exhibitions are those held at FIAC, Paris (1980-1984); the Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas (1982); and the International Gallery, Chicago (1990).

His works also appear in many private and museum collections such as the Georges Pompidou Center, Paris; the Musée de Meuon, France; Fonds National d'art Contemporain, Paris; the Musée de Sculpture en plein air de la Ville de Paris; National Museum, Havana; Musées Royaux des Beaux-arts de Belgique, Brussels; the Museum of Modern Art, Caracas; Musée d'Art et d'Industrie, Saint-Etienne; Musée d'Ixelle, Begium; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Alger; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Montreal; the Museum of Modern Art, Tel Aviv; the Hakone Open Air Museum, Japan; the Utsukushi-ga-hara open-air Museum, Japan; the Muséo de Bellas Artes, Caracas; and the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Internationally recognised, the artist returned to Cuba in 1994 where he remained until his death in 2001.

Aktis Gallery

10 Park Place London, SW1A 1LP

Open 10am-6pm Monday-Saturday.

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