Amelia Peláez del Casal, Fishes
By Dr. Tamara Díaz Calcaño
Amelia Peláez del Casal, Fishes, 1943, oil on canvas, 115.6 x 89.2 cm (MoMA)
What exactly are we looking at in this painting? We can clearly see a plate of fish in the center, but it is hard to discern the rest at first glance. The stark, thick lines of black paint define both the forms and the composition in this 1943 painting by Amelia Peláez. The black lines contrast with the solid fields of yellow, green, and red that activate the canvas and recall the stained-glass windows typical of houses, especially those constructed in the 19th and early 20th century. As the lines and forms come together, we can better identify the scene: a plate of fish on a table in the interior of a home.
Amelia Peláez Del Casal, Fishes, 1943, oil on canvas, 115.6 x 89.2 cm (MoMA)
Peláez turned to the domestic sphere to explore her modern Cuban identity soon after her return to Havana from Paris in 1934. Her still life paintings in Cuba, including Fishes, often employ exuberant colors and compositions dominated by decorative patterns and floral motifs. The rich primary and secondary colors recall tropical flora but within a sumptuous modernist composition that utilizes flat and simplified geometric forms. In Peláez’s work, is found in the everyday, at home—in the welcoming interior of her house, in the food and drink offered to guests, in the flowers that adorn the table—a setting for long conversations with friends and family.
The artist has set a plate of fish upon a table in the center of a domestic interior. The lower half of the composition is completely filled by the table and its elaborate, abstract, and brilliantly painted tablecloth. Even the fish at the center of the canvas are wildly colorful.
Amelia Peláez Del Casal, Fishes (detail), 1943, oil on canvas, 115.6 x 89.2 cm (MoMA)
The upper half of the painting opens onto the room and an iron grille or perhaps a large stained-glass window. Above it, the elaborate crown molding adds even more opportunity for abstract pattern. These simplified repeating lines and shapes create a visual rhythm that contrast with the dynamic curves and more varied motifs of the tablecloth below. The black outline of a doorway can be seen in the yellow field on the right side of the composition.
Peláez plays with multiple perspectives. She foreshortens the tabletop, providing an overhead view of the fish, while using fields of color and pattern to flatten the interior as a whole. Her use of solid colors gives the painting a decorative quality that emphasizes the juxtaposition of geometric and curvilinear shapes. While the interior and the objects are easily identifiable, the simplification of the patterns and forms creates a powerful sense of abstraction all centered on a plate of fish.
Looking inward for a modern nationhood
Fishes brings together many of Peláez’s formal and stylistic interests. She was born into a well-to-do Cuban family who supported her artistic interests early on. She enrolled in 1916 at the San Alejandro Academy in Havana, where she received a conservative art education. Despite this training, she embraced the European avant-garde, an association made possible when she was awarded funding to study in Paris. 
While Peláez began her studies in Paris in traditional venues such as the Ecole de Beaux Arts, she soon sought out a more radical education. She entered the Académie Moderne, run by cubist painter Fernand Léger, where she met the Russian constructivist, Aleksandra Ekster who would become both a friend and mentor. The characteristics of cubist and constructivist works—including the simplification of geometric forms, the rejection of traditional perspective, and experimentation with abstraction—were foundational to Peláez’s artistic development. Peláez remained in France for seven years, becoming part of new artistic movements while participating in collective and solo exhibitions.
Amelia Peláez's house, Calle Estrada Palma N° 261 in Santos Suárez, Cuba (photo: César O.Gómez López, with permission)
The hostess’s home
Peláez moved back to Villa Carmela, her family home in Havana in 1934. Villa Carmela became her studio and the inspiration for many of Peláez’s compositions including her still-lifes. As a member of the Cuban upper class, Peláez led a sheltered life in Havana, a tradition that sought to protect female virtue and a family’s racial purity by limiting the free movement of women outside of the home.  Nevertheless, Peláez became an active figure in the emerging Cuban vanguardia, participating in national exhibitions of modern art organized by the Cuban government. In the 1944 her work was included in "Modern Cuban Painters," an exhibition held at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Interior view of Amelia Peláez's house in Havana, Cuba (University of Miami Library, Cuban Heritage Collection)
Peláez returned to Cuba a year after the U.S. backed government was overthrown. Nevertheless, U.S. corporate interests continued to exert immense influence on Cuba's politics and fuel dissent. Peláez and other members of the Cuban vanguardia were influenced by Grupo Minorista, a dissident collective of intellectuals and artists who called for the protection of workers, the arts, and who rejected dictatorship and U.S. involvement in Cuban affairs. Instead, the Cuban vanguardia, of which Peláez was a part, sought to develop a new national image for a modern Cuba distanced from the Spanish colonial past and the U.S. control that defined the present.
A distinctive style
Amelia Peláez’s approach was deeply personal, and focused on the domestic realm that had defined women of her class for centuries. Still, her paintings became daring modern explorations at a moment when the Cuban vanguardia was imagining a possible new future for Cuba.
The space of the creole home. Amelia Peláez del Casal, Fishes (detail), 1943, oil on canvas, 115.6 x 89.2 cm (MoMA)
Peláez's use of simplified shapes, multiple perspectives, and color blocks clearly borrows from the cubist and constructivist art she encountered in France, but instead of representing café tables or scenes of the modern city, she takes these methods and applies them to her private world in Havana. Her fine home, with its high ceilings, iron grilles, and colorful stained-glass windows define the interior surrounding the fish on the table.
Pelaez’s work was a negotiation, a reckoning of past traditions and modern perspectives. Her life, centered around intimate family space, guided her in her search of what was distinctively Cuban.
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Essay by Tamara Díaz Calcaño