Sometimes, at home or traveling, you miss an obvious place to visit, just because it’s nearby and you can fit it in “any time.” On our last day in Puerto Rico, we finally got to visit the museum around the corner and a few blocks away—The Puerto Rico Museum of Art. Well worth it!
It’s not a huge museum, but a significant one. While it has a fine assortment of classic European works, its strength is its collection of work by Puerto Rican and other Caribbean artists, from the 17th century to near-contemporary (the true contemporary is in another museum a few blocks away). The painting above is by Jose Campeche, an 18th-century Puerto Rican sometimes described as the first serious artist in the Caribbean.
The building itself is quite interesting; the street side is a 1920 neo-classical former hospital building,backed up to a 2000-built addition with a wall of colored glass and stairs going down to a beautiful two-acre garden with sculpture, glens, a koi pond…and a view back into the colored-glass wall which is very different from the outside. There’s also a full round of children’s programs on the lower level, and an auditorium.
Inside, the works are well-narrated, with explanations (English and Spanish) of the social and cultural changes that are reflected in the artists’ work, and their relation to other artistic trends of the time. Until this century, there was less influence than might be expected from changing art movements in Europe, in part because few artists went to Europe for training.
The exception to that rule is Francisco Oller (1833-1917) who studied in Madrid and Paris (Courbet was one of his teachers, and Cezanne was briefly his student). The stamp of both Europe and the Caribbean is clearly imbedded in his work, and his influence can be seen in many later artists. Perhaps his best-known single painting is the sugar mill above.
The museum also features a fascinating display of late 20th-century Puerto Rican poster art, both political and otherwise, such as this one by modern master Lorenzo Homar.
While we were there, a major exhibit of photography and artwork by Jack Delano, who first visited Puerto Rico as a photographer for the Depression-era Farm Security Administration, and returned in 1946 to stay. His pictures are striking; they show both the often-terrible conditions in which people are living, but also the human hope and struggle the people embody; I was reminded of the work of Lewis Hine. The exhibit may have a long run; it’s built around a selection of 100 photos Delano gave to the museum. This one is not in the exhibit, but serves well.
Delano and his wife also illustrated children's books; he composed music and directed movies as well. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his birth.
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, mostly 10-5, but 10-8 on Wednesday and 11-6 on Sunday. Admission is a bargain ($6, but $3 for children, seniors, students and disable) but if you only have time or desire to wander the gardens or watch the koi, that's free!
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