The sea, a chisel and music never left him. Not even when he said good bye to life at the age of 91on August 30th, 1995. By then, he was already a human being immersed in his intimate memories, some of them nostalgic, and in the impossibility of carrying out his top project and making his vital dream come true: building large parks where music, fine arts and design mixed.
Florencio Gelabert, born on February 23, 1904, was a man who imposed himself upon life as of that morning in which he discovered the coastal locomotive in his hometown of Caibarién... Cans, rope and an incipient imagination were the tools he used to make his first toy, which he towed along the railroad, thinking he was a great machinist. At that time, he also discovered the clay that surrounded “the iron road”. He created virginal and rustic figures that his mother carefully kept as if thinking of a premonition.
The many voyages with his father to Conuco Key: fish, sea-horses, crabs... amalgamated in his mind. The passage of time and the essential knowledge acquired in and outside the country planted those images in his work as perpetual memories. His sculptures also showed the baritone sound of the trombone, which he played at Havana’s Philharmonic Orchestra under the conduction of his friend Amadeo Roldán, who was also a popular musician. “Those things are part of my life: I was a blacksmith, an apprentice mason...”
In an audacious and vocational move, he traveled from Caibarién to Santa Clara in 1928 to participate in an audition to enter the famous San Alejandro Fine Arts School in Havana. He obtained one of the five vacancies. Already in the Cuban capital, he combined fine arts and music. When he graduated, he became a professor in San Alejandro and the academy’s principal in 1960.
With a certain hidden calling for wood sculptors –which came from his primary school carpentry classes and the active life of his home town’s shipyards-, chisels and gouges feverishly turned mahogany, “ácana” and ebony into female heads with black features ...His Beata dates back to 1930.
In 1938 he used his savings to conquer Europe: France (Paris, Marseilles), Italy (Napoles, Rome, Florence, and Venice), Belgium (Malina). His encounter with the works by Maillot, Rodin, Zadquin, Bancuse... and even with Wifredo Lam, who was also born in another Cuban coastal area, Sagua la Grande, and his encounter with David by Michelangelo; the Medici’s tomb; the 44 bell clock was decisive in his life.
In a report sent to Havana, chronicler Eduardo Avilés said: “Gelabert is and remains a sensitive temperament. If he has assimilated any knowledge, the only thing he’ll do with it is to enrich his future work.”
Following that journey, his roots seemed to be intact. Technique filled his senses. “It was like planting ideas”, said the artist years later.
Gelabert traveled to the Unites States (New York, Washington, Philadelphia) in 1940. There he discovered the incalculable values of the concrete which covered large skyscrapers. Later, he was certain that the material could be used to make sculptures.
Years later he lived in Mexico, where he met muralist José Clemente Orozco and held a personal exhibit at the Fine Arts Palace with 40 works, some of which made with the lost wax technique that he learned in the Latin American nation. “Critics were benign”, he remembered.
Only using concrete
The Riviera Hotel in 1957 allowed the artist to give free reigns to his imagery and show how beautiful sculptures could be made of concrete, though he preferred to make a series of bronze figures for the facility’s lobby.
With the ocean as fiercely background, Gelabert designed a series of sculptures for the hotel’s entrance: a sea-horse, a nymph, a shark, dolphins...made of highly resistant direct concrete. The pieces are already 50 years old and they show how confident the artist was in the resistance of the material, which he later used in numerous works. As of that time he said goodbye to plaster moulds and casting.
One day Gelabert stated: “I work with direct concrete because it easily holds the structure. It’s resistant.” Then, he created La Velocidad (Speed), which decorates the entrance to Havana’s Bus Station; the Atlántico Hotel’s fountain in Santa María del Mar beach; the immense crab at the entrance to his hometown of Caibarién; the large mural made of pieces of marble in the convergence of Primelles and Santa Catalina streets in the Cuban capital.
Upon characterizing the artist’s work, colleague and professor Juan Sánchez said: “it is the most honest and surprising synthesis of traditional and modern arts in the history of sculpture in Cuba. And I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that it also shows a sign of future, taking into account his very, very long persistence in conceiving and fixing the virtues of concrete as a material with which he worked directly, running counter to a tradition which, since ancient times, linked excellence to white and fragile Carrara marble.”
Any material was good to him. Proof of that is the following words he uttered 30 years ago: “Now the artist has to be in contact with everything surrounding him. It’s essential for him to integrate fine arts and forms to daily life so that in any site, even in the most remote place, man, after work, be able to receive the plenitude of a body suggesting future, hope, love ...”
Each sculpture reminded him of something, even a blow of something far away, because his attitude as an artist was present in each of them: “Each of my works sums up my life: my early times, creation in uncomfortable years, the unexpectedly big tasks and a constant search for shape and content.”