Julio Girona (Manzanillo, Cuba, 1914–Havana, Cuba, 2002)
Girona was a sculptor, painter, cartoonist, and writer. In his home town of Manzanillo, at the age of 13, he exhibited a set of free-standing caricatures of prominent political figures and members of the local writers’ circle (Grupo Literario de Manzanillo), to which his father, Julio, belonged. In this debut, various characteristics of his later work can already be seen: the cross between the visual and literary arts, his love of figure, line, and letter, his interest in socio-political commentary, his humor. In 1932, having moved with his family to Havana, he enrolled in the San Alejandro Academy, where he studied sculpture with Juan José Sicre. In 1934, he left for Paris with a scholarship. He attended sculpture classes at the Académie Ranson, a school patronized by the elderly Maillol, and caught the last vestiges of the peak of the Parisian art scene. He traveled throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, cycling around Greece and reaching Egypt and the pyramids.
In 1937, Girona was in the United States, living in Greenwich Village, associating with other Latin Americans and sharing their political passions. This circle of friends brought him into contact with the leftist press, including New Masses and La Voz, a Spanish language newspaper with its headquarters in the “Little Spain” section of the Village, a newspaper largely inspired by its support of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. He worked for this newspaper for the two to three years of its existence, submitting daily political cartoons and winning recognition from the Congress of American Artists. In 1939, when the Spanish Republicans were defeated and the newspaper closed, Girona returned to Cuba, where he worked as a caricaturist for the newspaper Hoy. Soon he departed for Mexico City, where he worked at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, doing lithography and selling prints in their gallery.
Back in New York, he attended classes with Will Barnet at the Art Students League. He moved to a studio in Brooklyn and married Ilse Erythropel, daughter of the former German ambassador to Cuba and once fellow sculpture student at San Alejandro. In 1943, with the entry of the United States in World War II, inspired by the experience of the International Brigades in Spain, Girona volunteered to fight as an antifascist in the U.S. Army. He served in England, Belgium, and France for two years. After the war, benefiting from the G.I. Bill, he enrolled again at the Art Students League, where he now studied with Morris Kantor and where his life as a painter formally began. Part of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, a member of “the Club” of New York artists on 8th Street, Girona had his first New York exhibition at the Artists’ Gallery on Lexington Avenue in 1954, and was soon exhibiting at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery on 57th Street. From there he went on to exhibit in major galleries in America and Europe.
In 1963, he was invited to teach graphics at the Werkkunstschule in Krefeld, Germany. In 1967, his wife Ilse died, and his cultural affinities started drawing him back to Cuba, first a few months at a time, and then for longer periods. He was recognized as an influential contributor to the modern art world in Cuba. A first major retrospective show was held at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana in 1986; a second retrospective was held posthumously at the Museum in 2009. To his constant activity as a painter, he had added a new track as a writer. A first book of stories of his experiences in World War II – Seis horas y más—was published in Cuba in 1990 and won the national Premio de la Crítica that same year. This was followed by a number of publications of short stories and poems, including Musica barroca (1992), Memorias sin título (1994), La Corbata roja (1998), Café’ frente al mar (2000), and Páginas de mi diario (2005, posthumous).
Girona was a member of the Union of Artists and Writers in Havana and winner of the Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas in Cuba in 1998, among other honors. He remained artistically active as both a painter and a writer to his very last days.