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AGUSTIN CARDENASCuban 1927 - 2001

Provenance: Private collection, UK (since 2003)

AGUSTIN CARDENASCuban 1927 - 2001

Totem was conceived just a year after 28-year-old Agustin Cárdenas arrived in Paris on a scholarship, settling in Montparnasse, which was the epicentre of the European avant-garde during the 1920s and 30s. He was immediately recognised by André Breton, anticolonialist and founder of Surrealism, who became one of the artist’s most prominent champions. Shortly after Cárdenas’ arrival in Paris, Breton invited Cárdenas to participate in a Surrealist exhibition (the first of several in which the artist took part) at L’Étoile scellée gallery in 1956, around the time when this sculpture was created. Breton had a deep fascination with Cuba and recognised in Cárdenas’ work a reconnection between humanity and nature in the context of a rapidly industrialising and commercial society. Breton admired Cárdenas’ interest in the relation between materials and ideas which celebrated an instinctive, animist magic within a social context of functionality: an age dominated by what Breton described as ‘the monster of technological progress’.

Totem expresses Cárdenas’ passion for the effortless beauty of natural materials. The sculpture’s contained serenity and balance contrasts with the intimidating onslaught of the large-scale, mass-produced industry of modern society, as criticised by Breton. The sense of precision and poise of the form is also a testament to his upbringing as the son of a renowned Cuban tailor, under whom he apprenticed for many years as a teenager and learnt the skill of his meticulous hand. Above all, the work represents the complexity of Cárdenas’ international identity. It demonstrates the synthesis of ethnic subjectivities, classical form and more contemporary lines of his greatest teachers: Brancusi, Henry Moore, Jean Arp. This cast, the first from the edition of 8, was made in 1958. Cardenas’ casts from the 1950s are exceptionally rare – not only was this a hugely formative time in his career, but works from an edition might be cast a full decade after the first artist’s proof. Indeed, today the artist’s estate has no examples of pre 1960s casts.

Cárdenas’ heritage is crucial to understanding his work. He was born in 1927 in the port town of Mantanzas, on Cuba’s northern shoreline. This area became a significant destination for African slaves as it was an important centre for the sugar industry in the 19th century. This process of forced migration resulted in Mantanzas transforming into the heart of Afro-Cuban culture, giving birth to such as dance music like the rumba. Cárdenas traced his own roots to slaves from Senegal and the Congo, and this innate connection with Latin and African culture continued to pervade through his work. Fundamentally, Totem signifies Cardenas’ connection to this Afro-Cuban identity, as was so heavily promoted by Breton. The work is a part of Cárdenas’ series of Totem morphology which was inspired by the indigenous art of his heritage, exploring the idea that forms grew organically out materials carried magical properties.

Today his works can be seen in public collections around the world, including Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Paris; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris; Museo d’Arte moderna, Roma; Musée Georges Pompidou, Paris; Musée de Sculpture en plein air de la Ville de Paris; Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels; Museo National, Cuba; Musée d’Art Contemporain, Montreal; Canada; Musée d’Art Contemporain, Montreal; Modern Art Museum, Tel Aviv; The Hakone open-air Museum, Hakone, Japan; The Utsukushi-ga-hara open air Museum, Ueda City, Japan, and many more.