He lived in Cuba all his life and started working as an Artist in the mid 1960’s and never stopped until he passed on in 1990. As is typical, he was only really discovered after his death. Most of his works are in private collections in Canada, the USA and Italy.
Julian Morales: Abstractionism and figurative passion
By: Juan Carlos Mejias.
Fernando Julian Morales Cruz was born on February 22 1936 in a “batey” beside San German sugar mill, Urbano Noris at present. A “batey” is a small rural settlement located around a central space which, though its economic activity is almost totally based on the sugar mill work, as a public place exerts a great social importance. The term comes from an aborigine word that names the central square of the native Cuban population. The consulted documents revealed something curious, that is, besides the birth date mentioned above, there are some others related to the same event: January 22 1937, January 23 1931 and January 22 1938. The most reliable date is the one that appears in his identiﬁcation card.
Julian Morales finished his primary studies in his hometown, later on he went to the Villalon Academy in Holguin, Oriente’s former province, but he never graduated. Little is known about this period of his life, only that his name was in the San German sugar mill’s payroll as a worker. However, this was just a pretext for he was a member of the sugar factory’s baseball team which at that time had a game competition with another team from a near sugar mill. lt seems that his competence as a sportsman was good enough; in 1960 Luis “Mija” Laborde, director of the San German’s team took Julian, who was a very strong young man, as an emergent batter in a game which was historical in the local region. Since Julian Morales left the Academy until he moved to Camagtiey, he was a baseball player. Morales was known then as a sportsman, not as the artist-to-be. He used to visit the place at 61 Martires Street where the Culture Management Office was in Holguin, and also the Plastic Arts Academy which was opposite. He used to greet Martinez and also Caneyes, the former was director of the Academy and the latter a sculptor.
Not much is known about Morales early youth, when he moved to Camaguey in the 60s he worked for a while in a billiard hall located in Medio Street, next to La Habana Square, later on he was a swimming instructor, then he started to work in the Assembly Workshop of the Culture Territorial Direction. In 1965 he became one of the founders of the Hemanos Saiz brigade of Plastic Arts from the Writers and Artists Union of Cuba (UNEAC). Camaguey saw how his artistic talent flourished; it nurtured the painter as a son. Morales developed the most significant part of his work here and here he lived for the rest of his life.
From 1965 on Morales started an ebullient activity as an artist, according to some critics who wrote about him, he participated in almost 200 collective exhibitions and more than twenty personal ones. These ﬁgures have not been totally conﬁrmed, however according to the consulted catalogs, Morales was present in all the plastic arts events at that time so the numbers given above are very likely.
In the 60s and 70s Morales, as other artists of the epoch used to work for the National institute of Tourism in Camaguey. That institute was in charge of the decoration for many hotels in the province as well as restaurants and ofﬁce buildings. The majority of his paintings were ordered by the employers who very often wanted series of pictures in a hurry.
One of Morales’ friends tells that once the painter was being compelled to ﬁnish eight paintings, the artist took a 2 x 3 mt mansonite sheet, put it on the floor and standing on it painted from one side to the other; by the end of the day, with the picture still fresh, he took the sheet to a saw and cut it into eight parts, then he said: “Well, the work is done. “
Sometime later, Morales became an independent artist, he managed to get oontracts that represented small fortunes at that time. From that moment on, his artistic activity improved, above all his participation in events related to the plastic arts. He illustrated a couple of issues of two important national magazines: Signos and El Caiman Barbudo. Since he started to work for the UNEAC he became an enthusiastic art promoter by attending the gallery of that institution in person; there he displayed the paintings of all the artists willing to exhibit their works of art; Morales also travelled through the province and even to the capital of the country in order to show the local painters artistry.
As each artist Morales is not inﬂuence-free. Though talking about influence exerted on an artist by a work, movement or other artist is a difﬁcult task because the truth in appreciating is very often beyond what we suppose, in the work of this Cuban we can clearly see the trace of some of the most remarkable trends of his epoch, especially those taking place in Latin America, the United States of America and in Spain.
The Chilean Roberto Antonio Matta can be mentioned among the ﬁrst with whom Morales painting had a relationship, above all in the 60s and 70s when the ﬁguration was closer to the elemental magma of the Chilean s work; ﬁguration that suggests ﬁgures which half-evolve, half-vanish. All the postwar abstract art that was being made in the United States and was coming to Cuba by different ways after New York became the World Mecca of Art had an immediate result on the Cuban artist’s production in the 50s and the beginning of the 60s. Julio Girona, Fayad Jamis, Raul Martinez. Guido Llinas, Antonio Vidal, Juan Tapia Ruano, Julio Matilla, Enrique Gay , among others, were part of a big group of artists that made tropical painting and kept this way of making art till the late 60s. Julian Morales had a peculiar way of painting which inserted in this group of art creators.
The painting that was made in the United States during those years was son of a paradigm for the Latin American avant-garde. The movement of the art pole from its traditional Parisian head place to New York highlighted the meaning of the American plastic and so turned the American creators into obligatory reference for the most advanced world art artists.
When we reckoned up the abstract art that was being made in the world, specifically in the USA, we can appreciate that Jackson Pollock’s style could have been an inspiring antecedent at least in part of Morales production, particularly a group of works of art which he undertook with the dripping technique in a totally free and intuitive way. There are few paintings in which he used this technique, producing areas of bright sparkles and great formats, similar to those produced by Pollock, although Pollock’s paintings are much bigger, there is not any painting of this type created by Morales less than 100×150 cm: universe in expansion, Zen drawings in Chinese ink on paper or silk, ﬂung ink style. lt seems that both painters decided that those pictures did not work at small-scale.
We can find different levels or abstractionism forms in Morales’ work: a figurative abstractionism with which he painted the Fauna series. In this series the line role is predominant to create the most incredible creatures on a background space with colors that are only a pretext to enhance the value of these paintings. Fauna l, ll. lll. IV and V make up a group of works of art whose colors, naturalness and originality create very special effects. The term Fauna came from the author’s inspiration: roosters, crickets, frogs, cockroaches and ants form a whole zoo that he transformed and hid under those lines; he hardly used elements from the flora while the zoomorphs were always recreated, because of this, many people called the artist “Little Bug Morales”.
The line stars in Morales ‘work , Some of them loose, freely drawn on the surface with well-diluted ink in such a way that sometimes dropped out of the outline, other stiffer, more geometrical to give the impression of drawings on a stone wall. However, the painter, in other series did not use the line so well-defined in Fauna, instead he used sponge to distribute the colors and get very special effects, like patches or big stains on different backgrounds. Morales took this technique to cardboards and used different formats. These procedures more than an indefinable style shows the versatility and originality of this creator.
In general, Julian Morales style is, above all, similar to his epoch; if he approaches in any form any other painter the purpose was not to copy but to use other styles as inspiring elements of endless variations. One of his merits is his originality which, though sometimes reminds us somebody else, make us conclude realizing that his artistic technique was unique, that he never abandoned it and that he never cared for the acceptance of his painting artistry.
Julian Morales used diverse material for painting, partly because of lack of resources at that time; nevertheless he was a high-spirited artist who painted on cloth, plywood, cardboard and above all on mansonite. ‘
The drawings on cloth are not many, we generally find a thlck grain canvas and other so thin that is between the fabric used to make bed sheets and other that is cotton produced in the different textile factories of the country for making clothes -the famous “Telarte” at that time. Some of Morales last works were made on “pareos”, sort of full skirts Cuban women used to wear in those decades. The painter took advantage of the dyed areas of the skirts.
Morales was an untiring experimenter, some of the monochromatic cardboards he made were produced by means of a procedure in which oil, ink, asphalt or other oily pigments were poured into water, this material extended due to the superﬁcial fluid tension creating very interesting effects which constantly changed shape, at that point a cardboard was put into contact with the ﬂuid surface to absorb part of the water thus leaving the oil print, after dried, the cardboard was ironed with a piece of glass. Morales applied this method to develop a series of studies which now are among his most interesting works. The painter developed the method together with other artists who met in the Vicentina de la Torre Academy of Arts in Camaguey.
Rene de la Torre, painter from Camaguey who was Morales’ friend and close collaborator, tells us that Julian Morales used to paint with watercolor and oil in a combination for the same painting which made his mixed technique. The mixture was applied with paintbrushes or sponge in order to make big colored spaces as background, then the artist delimited areas with black lines that sometimes filled and touched up with cotton swabs or burlap. According to de la Torre, in the so called “SaIon 70″ (1970), an important event in the history of the Cuban plastic arts, Morales works — ﬁgurations in black and white. coincided with Alfredo Sosabravds works which were very colorful. Sosabravo told Morales: “…you are so smart, you have painted a picture without using colors.”
Oscar Rodriguez Lasseria tells that a Northamerican dealer who came to Camaguey in the late 80s took a group of works for a collective sample in Los Angeles around 1990; Rodriguez sent some of his own paintings together with some others painted by Morales. Those years were very difficult for Cuban artists to find a way abroad, especially in the USA, nevertheless a considerable group of paintings was sent to different countries above all to the former socialist nations in Eastern Europe.
In the 90s the cinema star Geraldine Chaplin visited Camaguey. Julian Morales gave her a painting in the name of the artists from Camaguey, event that took place in the UNEAC which wasthen located in Avellaneda Street. This demonstrated that the painter was a respected and recognized artist.
ln the same decade the arts renewal that was taking place in Havana exerted influence in Camaguey, city identified as the plastic arts second place in Cuba. Some artists schooled in the former Soviet Union made up a new generation: Lorenzo Linares, Roberto V. Hemandez, Manuel Alcaide. They met the other artist generation that had stayed in Cuba: Gabriel Gutierrez, Joel Jover, Oscar Rodriguez Lasseria and Julian Morales. Both age groups kept excellent relationships and close professional links in spite of the differences. The 80s was a period of relative economic prosperity in which a sort of school developed to produce dissimilar projects. Julian Morales participated with these generations of artists without leaving his esthetic motivation.
Throughout his career he received many prizes and acknowledgements, one of the most important was the First UNEAC Hall Painting Prize, Camaguey 1984, awarded bya jury composed by some important personalities such as Lesbia Vent Dumois and Carmelo Gonzalez among others.
Manuel Antonio Fernandez Parrado, Ignacio Agramonte Provincial Museum specialist for thirty years, twenty of them as restaurer of the institution, author of several restoration of Morales‘ paintings, expressed in an interview that the majority of those works of art were created over mansonite that is a good quality material available at the time the painter worked, this resulted convenient to guarantee the paintings to last, especially after being cleaned and fixed in order to stop the pigment rust process and the general deterioration as well as the recovery of the loss that might result from abrasions and other mechanical effects. The paintings on cardboard delay the oxidation process, especially the black ones which are so abundant in Morales’ work (tempera polish plaka). These works are long-lasting when there is no exposure to the open air. The paintings on plywood -which are not many, last nearly the same as the ones on mansonite if they are treated with a chemical substance that kills wood-eating insects, which grow in the Cuban humid climate favorably.
Morales used to work in his small study-home at 80-A Marti Street between lndependencia St and San Pablo St, he spent the whole night working till 6 am or 7 am, then he went to bed and slept till around 12 noon when he got up to do some errands till night and went back to work. He was a well-known customer in Rancho Luna restaurant, a block from his home.
Talking about Julian Morales without mentioning Dr Jorge Enrique Puig would not be fair. ln spite of certain speculations, Puig played an important role as Morales friend and collaborator. Clinician who knew about the plastic arts, owner of a very valuable painting collection, Puig was a very close friend of the artist and also an untiring promoter of his paintings. As well he was the curator of almost all the painter’s exhibitions and wrote articles about Morales though Manuel Villabella was the journalist that composed the words for the exhibition catalog and some articles about Morales work for the local newspaper.
Other people who knew Julian Morales depict his character. The painter was a nice man, “a piece of bread”, phrase that in Cuba means “peaceful, kind”. However, when things were going wrong he acted as an ill-tempered man. This indicates that he was able to defend the way he made art with the same strength, at least in his local environment.
He passed away on June 1990, at age 54, at the peak of his career. Although he was not a healthy man, he did not follow the life style he needed. Working all night, drinking too much coffee, ignoring the medical prescription (he used to take all the pills once a day because he worked and slept long hours). Finally, Morales had a heart attack that killed him. After his death the UNEAC decided to name its gallery Julian Morales to honor the painter who not only promoted his own work but also did the same for all his friends. The organization also arranged an exhibition of the painter’s work as a retrospective sample to honor the artist.
Shortly after his death, more tourists began to visit Cuba and among them private collectors and Dealers from different world art galleries. Morales was discovered so most of his works of art that belonged to private collectors were taken abroad particularly to Canada, the United States of America and ltaly.