José Bernal

Artist Biography and Background

Excerpts from the essay The Art of José Bernal, by Dorothy Chaplik, posted with the permission of the author:

The heightened imagination of José Bernal, his Cuban birth, and the experience of exile and renewal have generated a body of richly independent works. Within a given period, his style, color, and technique may vary from one painting to another, from one collage or assemblage to another. His images sometimes hint of masters of the distant past or those celebrated in more recent decades. But Bernal's essential approach to a work is distinctly his own.

The artist's independent nature was apparent at various stages of his development, but never more fully revealed than in the painting habits of his early years as a landscape artist. Surrounded by the brilliant sunlight and intense colors of his native Cuba, he often painted in subdued tones--his most convincing landscapes conveyed in shades of gray, beige, and black. After moving to Chicago, a less vibrant environment in terms of color, he changed course and began painting in the tropical hues of his Caribbean homeland. Chicago's bountiful summer landscapes appeared on his canvases in their natural exuberance, while his abstract paintings reveled in bold reds, oranges and greens. Although certain collages are also executed in soaring colors, the muted tones of his early career are found mostly in the collages and assemblages…

In 1948, José married Estela Pascual, a young fashion designer and singer from the childhood radio programs, and within a few years, they were raising a family. By that time, Bernal was teaching at a high school in his hometown of Santa Clara.

Despite teaching and family responsibilities, Bernal continued to pursue the advanced degree. At the Romañach art school, he delved into the history of art, studied traditional and modernist painting and sculpture, and came under the influences of Velázquez, Manet, Renoir, and the early twentieth century masters. He explored three-dimensional construction, as well as the two-dimensional work of Picasso, Braque, and Schwitters. Landscape painting had a special appeal to Bernal. One of his professors, Apolinario Chávez, a noted landscape artist, admired his impressionist paintings, but urged him to add warmer colors to his landscapes, noting that the gray tones made his work look more French than Cuban. But Bernal's preference for the neutral tones persisted…

In 1961, when Bernal finally earned his master of fine arts degree, Cuba's political situation had become too intrusive to ignore. Although never before had he been involved with politics, in April of that year, during the Bay of Pigs invasion, he was among throngs of Cubans arrested for unpatriotic behavior and confined for eleven days in the gymnasium of the Marta Abreu University in Santa Clara. Bernal's offense was refusal to work in the fields cutting sugar cane. After his release, the threat of execution haunted Bernal and his wife, and they cautiously initiated plans to leave the country with their three young children…

In the mid 1960s, Field's art gallery manager saw Bernal's work and persuaded the artist to sell his impressionist style portraits, landscapes, and still life paintings to Marshall Field's, for exhibition in their galleries. It was here that Betty Parsons, art dealer and collector, discovered Bernal's work and began a series of orders to show and sell his paintings at Dayton's art galleries in Minneapolis. The lucrative connection made it possible for Bernal to give up his job at Field's and return to school, where he could pursue his dual dream of teaching and painting.

A student again, Bernal labored to acquire requisites for teaching art in Chicago high schools, working at the same time as a restorer of antique paintings and frames. By 1970, he was eagerly engaged in teaching during the school week and painting at his home studio in his free time, an arrangement that lasted until 1993. At that time, faced with symptoms of Parkinson's disease, Bernal retired from teaching. But he has continued to toil prodigiously, producing paintings, collages, and assemblages in his studio, and tending the flowers and shrubbery in his intricate garden, another life-long love. Miraculously, the disease has not prevented his hands from firmly guiding the paintbrush in the studio and the trowel in the garden.

It is hard to know whether Bernal's love of nature inspires his painting or if his palette has ordered the patterns and colors of his garden. His early affinity for landscapes and the out-of-doors seems an open response to Cuba's natural beauty.

Not easily forgotten, Cuban landscapes and seascapes continued to appear on Bernal's canvases well after his settling in the Midwest…

Just as Bernal's landscape paintings capture the essential realism of a scene, the organic shapes of his abstract works suggest plant life and the biological world. When he gave up his long, impassioned career as a landscape artist and concentrated on abstraction, Bernal's style became marked by a baroque mixture of organic and anatomical shapes. His preoccupation with organic forms was not a radical change for him. His earliest works reveal an interest in abstraction and in dynamic forms, as much related to plant life as to human anatomy.

Bernal's mature works develop the same organic and anatomical themes, but often in space crowded with an overlay of rhythmic forms and colorful movement. At times foreground and background space are intertwined, with no visible distinction between them. Figurative references can be open and direct on his canvases, or at other times partially hidden.

With increased density, La pesadilla del picador (Nightmare of the Picador )of 1976, describes the life-and-death confrontation of the bullfight. Background and foreground are one. The artist sets the scene with dripping paint, blood-tinted colors, and metamorphosing figures. Among the concentration of forms, the bull's head at the side of the painting rivets attention. A picador astride his horse is seen at the top of the canvas. Tension arises from the action of the horse's back leg, while the suggested flutter of a bullfighter's black cape increases the stress. In a lighter vein, the dense, abstract painting of 1976, Gladys and the Horses, reveals swirling horses and human faces merging with biological shapes and a carnival of color. Like Nightmare of the Picador, background and foreground are almost indistinguishable.

Many of Bernal's works reflect his interest in past masters. His Sketch for Las Hilanderas (The Tapestry Weavers, after Velázquez),1962, refers to the seventeenth century painting of the same name by Diego Velázquez. The detailed interior of a tapestry workshop painted by the earlier artist inspired Bernal's figure at a spinning wheel. In Las Meninas (After Picasso), 1973, Bernal pays tribute to Picasso, as well as to Velázquez, whose original painting of that name provided Picasso with the starting point for a number of cubistic interpretations. Bernal's abstract interpretation is also cubistic and geometric, yet displaying the soft-edged, rounded, organic shapes that identify his style. Faces of the royal maids of honor (the Las Meninas of the title) peer out from the right division of Bernal's work, along with a portrayal of the dwarf who has a prominent presence in the original painting.

Masters of the past also inspire Bernal's collages and assemblages, works of ingenuity and imagination. His assemblage Moonlight, 1986, is based on the second century, B.C. sculpture known as Venus de Milo. A miniature replica of the famous statue is posed beneath a shadowy moon pasted onto the background, and flanked by rows of real dominoes, a game associated with Bernal's native country. Three round openings in the wood frame emphasize Venus' planetary link.

Long a student of mythology, Bernal steeps his paintings, collages, and assemblages in ancient lore. His painting Icarus' Flight, 2000, is an abstract interpretation of the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus. According to the fable, Daedalus escapes from his prison tower by flying through the air with wings he has fabricated for himself and his son by sewing layers of feathers with thread and wax. Bernal's painting describes the disintegration of Icarus' wings as he flies too close to the sun. As the sun's heat melts the wax, the feathers collapse, sending him to his death…

The breadth of José Bernal's imagination and intellect sometimes leaves the observer unprepared for his ready wit. His playfulness in Moonlight and in Unicorn is an exercise in subtlety. And in such paintings as Musicians in a Fast Food Restaurant and Good Morning America, his dazzling use of color, space, and texture may obscure his humor. A visual feast awaits the viewer of the paintings, collages, and assemblages reproduced on the following pages.

Dorothy Chaplik
April, 2005

BUYER BEWARE: Within the past few years there have been numerous attempts to sell fraudulent works claiming to be artworks by José Bernal (1925-2010, Cuban-American). None of his artwork is presently on the market.

For further information please contact the artist's estate through the AskART staff.

Paintings, drawings, sculptures, assemblages, and collages by José Bernal are in several museum collections in the U.S.A. and in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain

Documents on the life and art of José Bernal are archived in the Institute for Latino Studies of the Julian Samora Library at the University of Notre Dame

Featured Artist of the Week on, August 23, 2010.
1925 Cuba - 2010 Chicago, Illinois
Known for
Figural, Landscape, Abstract, Impressionism, Surrealist collages and assemblages
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, MFA Evaluation, 1970

School of the Plastic Arts: Leopoldo Romañach, Cuba, MFA, 1961

Normal Teachers College, Santa Clara, Cuba, BA, 1945
Painter, Sculptor, Printmaker
2015, Corina Matamoros, José Bernal Obra de Arte, pages 71, Color(ISBN: 978-0-9793359-9-0)
2015, Cameron Art Museum, Wilmington, NC., José Bernal Obra de Arte, Cameron Art Museum, catalog, 71 pages (color), ISBN: 978-0-9793359-9-0
2005, Dorothy Chaplik Defining Latin American Art/Hacia una definición del arte latinoamericano, McFarland & Co., Inc, Publishers, 129 pages (color)
2001, Dorothy Chaplik Latin American Arts and Cultures, Davis Publications, Inc., 122 pages (color)
1981, Les Krantz Chicago Art Review, The Krantz Co. Publishers, 120 pages (color)
Exhibition Record (Museums, Institutions and Awards):
2018: Proceeds from the sale of several (5) artworks by José Bernal were donated by his widow, Estela Bernal, to benefit Action International/Acción Cuba, Hurricane Relief Fund.

June 17, 2017; Time Warp. Tartan to Taffeta to Tie Dye. Annual Benefit Gala, Asheville At Museum, Renaissance Asheville Hotel
March 11 - July 9, 2017; Landscapes from the Collection, Cameron Art Museum, Wilmington, NC
March 20 - May 22, 2017; José Bernal: Works from the Institute for Latino Studies' Collection, University of Notre Dame, Center for Arts and Culture, South Bend, IN
February 25 - July 9, 2017; Body Language: Figuration in Modern & Contemporary Art, Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ
January 28 through April 24, 2016: Nexo/Nexus: Latin American Connections in the Midwest, DePaul Art Museum, Chicago, IL (

August 22 - October 11, 2015, LUMA at 10: Greatest Hits, Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago, IL

September 26, 2015, through February 21, 2016: Retrospective of José's art at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, NC

February 2012/no closing date, Picasso's "Guernica" tapestry and 27 modern and contemporary artworks, San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, Texas

March 29 - July 21, 2013, "Here & Now: A Decade of Contemporary Art," Cameron Art Museum, Wilmington, North Carolina

2012/13, "Garden of Eden", Tucson Museum of Art

2012/13, "Art + the Machine", Tucson Museum of Art

2011, Benefit for LUMA at the Loyola University Museum of Art: Auction of donated artwork. Chicago, Illinois

2011, Benefit for Francisco G. Mendoza at National Museum of Mexican Art: Auction of donated artwork. Chicago, Illinois.

2011, 27th Annual Fantasy of the Opera Gala: Auction of donated art work. Chicago, Illinois

2007-2009 "Parkinson's Disease Symposium and Art Exhibit," Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois.

2005-2007, National Parkinson Foundation, 1501 N.W. 9th Ave. Miami, FL

48th-50th Annual International Gala for Hope: Auction of donated artworks.

1996, The Embassy, 288 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL
Retrospective Paintings, solo exhibition.

1981, Bernal Gallery, 612 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL
Collage and Assemblage, solo exhibition.

1980, Bernal Gallery, 612 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL
19 Artists, group exhibition.

1977, Bernal Gallery, 612 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL
Solo and group exhibitions.

1972-1974, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL
I, II, & III Pan American Festival of the Arts.

1971, Northeastern University, Chicago, IL
Solo exhibition.

1964, Marshall Field's & Co., Chicago, IL
Solo exhibition.

1955-1961, School of the Plastic Arts: Leopoldo Romañach, Cuba
Group exhibitions.

1952, Circulo de las Bellas Artes, La Habana, Cuba
Group exhibition.

1950, Biblioteca de la Embajada Americana, Santa Clara, Cuba
Solo exhibition.

1949, Instituto Enrique José Varona, Santa Clara, Cuba
Solo exhibition.

1947, Superintendencia Provincial de Las Villas, Cuba
Group exhibiton.

1945-1946, Biblioteca del Gobierno Provincial de Santa Clara, Cuba
Group exhibitions.
Magazine and Media References
Picasso's "Guernica" tapestry riots amid works of political conscience, San Antonio Current, March 14, 2012

José Bernal 1925-2010, Obituaries, page 59, Chicago Tribune, Monday, April 26, 2010

José Bernal Tribute, Parkinson Report, (front cover & page 29), Spring 2006, Vol. XVII

Landscape from the 1960s by José Bernal. (Pages 126-127: In error, the painting was noted as French and not credited to Bernal. AD later issued an apology.) Architectural Digest, February 1983

Collage & Assemblage, solo exhibition, 1981, New Art Examiner, January 1982

Nineteen Artists, group exhibition, 1980, New Art Examiner, June 1980

Amorphous, solo exhibition, 1977, Arts & Fun/Chicago Tribune, July 24, 1977
Other Sources
Artist Review(s)
From the essay The Art of José Bernal, by Dorothy Chaplik, courtesy of the author:

"The heightened imagination of José Bernal, his Cuban birth, and the experience of exile and renewal have generated a body of richly independent works. Within a given period, his style, color, and technique may vary from one painting to another, from one collage or assemblage to another. His images sometimes hint of masters of the distant past or those celebrated in more recent decades. But Bernal's essential approach to a work is distinctly his own."
Additional excerpts from the essay are available in José Bernal's Biography.

Review by Scott Andrews
San Antonio Current, March 14, 2012
(Excerpt from "Picasso's 'Guernica' tapestry riots amid works of political conscience" at the San Antonio Museum of Art.)

Within view of the tapestry is "Composición cubista" a 1938 mixed-media piece by the Cuban-American artist José Bernal. Adding blue-grays and bits of text to an abstract artwork of curved and rectangular forms, it is non-objective, without explicit meaning. But the composition echoes the pyramid of forms that anchors "Guernica." A vaguely face-like oval at the top of the Bernal abstraction seems to recollect the electric light in "Guernica."

Review by Lydia Murman
New Art Examiner, January 1982

Jose Bernal used to work with collage in the traditional sense. He used two-dimensional elements from "out there" and subjugated them to the internal reality of the finished work. By 1979, he had traversed the art-historical evolution of the collage and settled for the Duchamp-like approach evidenced in the three-dimensional piece, "Two Positive Points." Unlike Duchamp however, Bernal didn't reject the art object, and today, instead of playing chess, he continues to work within the art-object context. Lucky for us, as his work is gentle, sensitive, and thought-provoking.

Bernal continues to use found objects which he imbues with symbolic value and arranges into a formal text which communicates emotively. His work reflects a sensibility aligned with some of art history's best artists. "Landscape" expresses the delicate and magical quality of some of Cornell's boxes, while "Nap" and "Still Eaglet" suggest Rauschenberg's clever wit. His work also demonstrates a concern for involving the viewer in the creative process. Familiar objects bring their life form into works that are ultimately energized by the reading the viewer give them. "Landscape" in which a tiny bird perched on a strip of stretcher peers into a box housing a stylized landscape, and "Window," a window suspended from the ceiling with a tableau affixed to the inside of one of its panes, read as metaphors for the role of the viewer vis-a-vis the creative process.

Bernal's works involve the viewer because they resurrect the concern for art as a communicative force. The viewer reacts to the classical arrangement, in which found objects are manipulated with a respect for their physical properties and for their potential symbolic value. While warm wood, old newspaper print, tarnished metal, and antique objects produce an aura that absorbs the viewer and stirs archetypal images within his subconscious, some works, such as "Balancing the Unbalanced," in which a faucet is perceived as a faucet, invite the viewer to open the dialogue concerning substance and illusion, art and reality.

Review by Claire Wolf Krantz
New Art Examiner, June 1980

Jose Bernal's [Untitled] piece pokes good-natured fun at fetishistic, female art. It is a round, small, painted porcelain object mounted on a square frame. The center has been removed and filled with a double lens, much like a bifocal lens, which invites you to peer through it. The voyeur, whose eyes have adjusted to the darkness, is confronted with the bas-relief figure of a man with his erect phallus pointed at the hole from the inside. The piece's startling obviousness is countered by the length of time it takes to find and make out the image.
Artist Statement
"Mi obra de arte habla por sí misma." ("My oeuvre speaks for itself.")
From: "José Bernal: A Cuban in Chicago," 1981
Documentary video, directed and filmed by Roland Mesa
José Bernal
Modernist, Abstract Figuration, Abstract, Surrealism
Oil, Acrylic, Watercolor, Mixed media/Multi media, Collage, Assemblage