José Bernal

Cuba, 1925 - 2010


José Bernal was born on January 8, 1925 in Santa Clara, Cuba. He was a Cuban-American artist. He became a naturalized U.S.A. citizen in 1980. The art of José Bernal is distinguished by a highly independent body of work. His aesthetics stem from a fertile and heightened imagination, together with his Cuban birth and the experience of exile and renewal. Bernal's oeuvre from 1937 to his death was diverse and prolific, at times hinting of masters of the distant past or those celebrated in more recent decades. His work has been described as modernist, abstract, and expressionist, but the broad spectrum of his art defies categorization. The term postmodernist also may be applied to Bernal's diverse and complex body of work, specifically as he rejected the notion of the new in art, a characteristic imbued in postmodern theory. From early childhood, Bernal was intensely involved with art and music, encouraged and supported by his artistic parents. His studies led him to teach art, as well as to earn his MFA from the Escuela de Artes Plásticas Leopoldo Romañach. His musical and visual creations were recognized, performed, and exhibited in Santa Clara and Havana. In 1961, during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Bernal was among the throngs of Cubans arrested for unpatriotic behavior. After his release, the threat of execution haunted him and his wife, and they cautiously initiated plans to leave the country with their three young children. It took more than a year to obtain visas and left Cuba in June, 1962. Life in USA Miami, Florida, was the U.S.A.'s port of entry for the Bernal family. Their stay in the Sunshine State was a brief few months on account of the scarcity of employment. Subsequently, in autumn of 1962 they relocated to Chicago, Illinois. Bernal confronted the need to support his family and, because of language barriers, became employed in a factory designing artistic materials for commercial purposes. Meanwhile, he continued to produce personal art. Critics during this period observed his work revealed a transformation affected by the change in geographical environment. While in Cuba his palette did not reflect the brilliant, intense colors of his native land; but in Chicago he began to incorporate in his art the tropical hues of his Caribbean homeland. In 1964, Bernal's art portfolio was reviewed by an executive at Marshall Field's and he was offered a position as Senior Designer. There, the director of Field's fine arts gallery persuaded Bernal to exhibit his impressionist portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Shortly thereafter, Betty Parsons, art dealer, artist, and collector, discovered Bernal's work and began a series of orders to show and sell his paintings. The lucrative connection made it possible for Bernal to give up his job at Marshall Field's and return to school where he could pursue his dual dream of teaching and painting. After being granted an MFA evaluation by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1970, Bernal returned to teaching art while simultaneously continuing to create and exhibit his works. Lydia Murman, art critic of the New Art Examiner, wrote about José Bernal's 1981 solo exhibition of collage and assemblage: "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.” Although Bernal and his family didn't realize it, the first signs of Parkinson's disease began to appear during the 1980s, and he was eventually diagnosed in 1993. However, he continued to work, to move forward and fight back against the ravages of the disease. In 2004, Bernal proposed to the National Parkinson Foundation in Miami, Florida to donate a number of his paintings, which would be auctioned to benefit the foundation. Bernal's tremendous contribution has now expanded to some 300 works of art. Bernal's work is annotated in two books by Dorothy Chaplik on Latin American art: Latin American Arts and Cultures and Defining Latin American Art/Hacia una definición del arte latinoamericano but in her essay The Art of José Bernal she discusses Bernal's prolific, diverse, and distinctive oeuvre, as well as describes Bernal's artistic process as he traversed life's challenges, including political unrest in Cuba, his personal battle with Parkinson's disease, and his steadfast passion for his life affirming art. Paintings, drawings, assemblages, and collages by José Bernal are in the permanent collections of the San Antonio Museum of Art, McNay Art Museum, Tucson Museum of Art, Asheville Art Museum, Cameron Art Museum, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, The Institute for Latino Studies and The Art Museum of the Americas, Museo del Barrio, De Paul Art Museum, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Loyola University Museum of Art. Documents on his art and life are archived in the Institute for Latino Studies of the Julian Samora Library at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana.

Artworks by José Bernal