BY LENNIE BENNETT
Times Art Critic
We last saw the work of Tomás Marais (1931-2004) in 2002 at the now-closed Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo, and I wrote in my review that it had the feel of a retrospective. "Tomás Marais: Artist in Exile," now at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, is a similar show, beginning with early works and continuing to a work from 2004, the year he died. Though it is life-spanning, the show is a survey because it's more representative than comprehensive.
Like many Cuban artists, Marais suffered from the repression of the Communist government, which took over in 1959. He moved to Paris, then relocated to Tampa in the mid 1980s to be closer to family.
The 37 works in this exhibit come from those three phases of his life. More than half are woodcut prints he created as a young man in the early 1960s before he departed Cuba, and they're wonderful. Even in the most representational ones in which people inhabit landscapes, the fantasy and profusion of patterns that would define his later paintings are evident. His homages to great artists such as Picasso, whose masklike faces influence those of Marais, are straightforward. One of the earliest works, from the 1950s, is a color drawing titled Thoughts, in which the top of a man's head is replaced with a gramophone. It is a precursor to the surrealism he embraced once he reached Paris, but it also looks back. The room in which the man stands is a ringer for Vincent van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles, minus the furniture.
Marais' angular faces become more exaggerated during his Paris years. Narcissus, a 1965 oil painting with a nuanced blend of tones, has the young man in profile resembling a Thai shadow puppet. His eye suggests the ancient Egyptian practice of depicting humans in profile while painting the eye as a full view. This treatment becomes more pronounced in later works.
In the final decades, Marais wrapped the elements and themes that he had explored into a singular and exuberant vision. He uses combinations that sometimes seem to defy color theory, but, swirling around their canvases, they work. Many artists, as they get older, get darker. Marais' paintings are full of joy and generosity. Machine to Pick Up Beauty, for example, is a whimsical interpretation of a garbage truck with a flower as its scoop. The subjects in Fashion Show Mannequins are dressed like circus performers with the familiar, jagged profiles and Egyptian eyes in a riotous setting. Even Fidel Castro, who was the cause of Marais' exile, is treated with humorous rather than savage satire, depicted as an old goat. (The painting from the 1980s revisits a very similar print from the 1960s.)
Marais needed to work his way through art history to arrive at his style. It became the visual version of the literary magical realism that was a part of his cultural heritage. It seems simplistic, but only a mature artist who had paid his dues could have pulled it off.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.