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 Jose Bernal  (1925 - 2010)      Visit this Artist's Studio on AskART

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Lived/Active: Cuba/United States      Known for: Surrealist collages/assemblages, Modernism, Abstract Expressionism

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Jose Bernal, Las hijas del hortelano, 1942, mixed media paper, 26x20 in, collection of the Art Institute of Chicago
"Las hijas del hortelano," 1942,
mixed media on paper, 26" x 20",
Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:

The following information was submitted by the artist's daughter:

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

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

School of the Art Institute, Chicago, IL, MFA Evaluation: 1970
Northeastern University, Chicago, IL, 1970
School of the Plastic Arts: Leopoldo Romañach, Cuba, MFA: 1961
Normal Teachers College, Santa Clara, Cuba, BA: 1945

Professional Experience:
High School Art Teacher, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, IL, 1971-1993
Senior Interior Display Designer, Marshall Field & Co., Chicago, IL, 1964-1969
Artist, Silvestri Display Co., Chicago, IL, 1962-1964
Art Teacher, Private & Public Schools of the Board of Education, Cuba, 1945-1961

Illustrator of Visual Aids for Departments of Science, Social Studies & Foreign Languages (English & French), Normal Teachers College, Santa Clara, Cuba, Marta Abreu Central University, and the Department of Pedagogy, University of Havana, Cuba, 1942-1961


"Garden of Eden," Tucson Museum of Art, 2012/13
"Art + the Machine," Tucson Museum of Art, 2012/13
Benefit for LUMA at Loyola University Museum of Art Auction of donated artworks. 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 work. Chicago, Illinois, 2011
National Parkinson Foundation, 1501 N.W. 9th Ave., Bob Hope Rd., Miami, FL
48th and 50th Annual International Gala for Hope: Auction of donated works,* 2005-2007
The Embassy, 288 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL
Retrospective Paintings, One Man Show, 1996
Bernal Gallery, 612 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL
Collage and Assemblage, One Man Show, 1981
19 Artists, Group Show, 1980
Group Show and One Man Show, 1977
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL
I, II, & III Pan American Festival of the Arts, 1972, 1973, 1974
Northeastern University, Chicago, IL
One Man Show, 1971
Marshall Field’s & Co., Chicago, IL
One Man Show, 1964
School of the Plastic Arts: Leopoldo Romañach, Cuba
Group Shows: 1955-1961
Circulo de las Bellas Artes, La Habana, Cuba
Group Show, 1952
Biblioteca de la Embajada Americana, Santa Clara, Cuba
One Man Show, 1950   
Instituto Enrique José Varona, Santa Clara, Cuba
One Man Show, 1949
Superintendencia Provincial de Las Villas, Cuba
Group Show, 1947
Biblioteca del Gobierno Provincial de Santa Clara, Cuba
Group Shows: 1945-1946

Museum collections:

Asheville Art Museum
Cameron Art Museum
Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art
San Antonio Museum of Art
Tucson Museum of Art


Picasso's "Guernica" tapestry riots amid works of political conscience, by Scott Andrews, San Antonio Current, March 14, 2012
José Bernal Tribute, Parkinson Report (front cover & page 29) Spring 2006, Vol.XVII
Collage & Assemblage solo exhibition 1981 New Art Examiner, January 1982
Nineteen Artists (From: Group Show, 1980) New Art Examiner, June 1980
Amorphous solo exhibition, 1977 Chicago Tribune, July 24, 1977

Buyer Beware: Within the last two years there have been numerous attempts to sell fraudulent works claiming to be artworks by José Bernal. None of his artwork is presently (2012) on the market.  For further information please contact the artist's estate through the AskART staff.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
"Jose Bernal, an artist and teacher, ran afoul of Fidel Castro's government in his native Cuba but was able to get off the island and come to America in the early 1960s.

He settled in Chicago, taught art at city high schools and painted colorful works for retail outlets, while also pursuing his more personal, abstract artistic vision in paintings, collage and assemblage work.

Mr. Bernal, 85, died of complications from Parkinson's disease on Monday, April 19, at his home in Skokie, said his daughter, Lucrecia Bernal-Schneider."

Obituary. Chicago Tribune (April 25, 2010)

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