Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Monday, January 28, 2008

Enrique Grau: Flower Magician of Cartagena

A Colombian artist bequeathed over a thousand works to his cherished seaside city, and gave its performers a perpetual bouquet.


Las Toreras (1981)

by Enrique Grau

Image: Galeria el Museo

In the era before MFA programs, painting was not so much a career path as a craft and a social adventure. Take Enrique Grau. He was born in 1920 into a rich family of Cartagena, Colombia. At age 20 he won a prize in Bogota for his rendering of a sexy “mulatta” sitting in a clingy dress amid cannas and watermelons. The Colombian government paid his way to the Art Students League in New York in the early ‘40s, and in the ‘50s Grau crossed the Atlantic, studying fresco painting in Florence, Italy.

imageViva Tulipán Primera (1990)

from Triptico de Cartagena de Indias

by Enrique Grau

Image: Villegas Editores

He returned to Colombia, paintbox (and heart) bursting with delicious contrarieties—European and American Modernism, Renaissance figurative painting, an aristocratic heritage, a scrappy bunch of artist chums, worldliness, devotion to indigenous culture. Oh yes, and the floral legacy of Colombia, one of the great flower-producing regions on the globe.

In Grau‘s work there are flowers everywhere. Behind a bullfighter’s ear, between the feet of a corpse, heaped in a basket between a sullen couple. One of his last great works, Triptico de Cartagena de Indias, painted in homage to his hometown, shows red roses scattered in the sky, trailing from a biplane. Critic Hank Burchard writes that this image memorialized the first plane flight over Cartagena. “Grau’s aunt, known as Tulipan, who was Colombia’s first national beauty queen, ...was aboard the first airplane to fly over Cartagena, and took with her baskets of the cut flowers for which Colombia is famous to scatter over the city.”

Our favorite of Grau’s flower paintings—enough to inspire anybody’s flight to Cartagena—is the gorgeous backdrop he made for the city’s Teatro Heredia.


at the Teatro Heredia

Cartagena, Colombia

by Enrique Grau

Photo: Stefan Ruiz, for the New York Times

It shows a huge bouquet extended over the city and the sea. Cartagenan monuments drop through the air (thank you, Rene Margritte), and a satin ribbon flutters toward the theatre’s wings. (So much for canned laughter or electric “APPLAUSE” signs!)

Before his death in 2004, Grau donated “1,300 works of art, including some by other artists, to the city of Cartagena to set up a museum.” The Triptico de Cartagena de Indias was first exhibited at the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center; we’re still searching to discover its permanent home, and then get there to see it ourselves.

We understand that Cartagena has caught on, again, with the snazzy young travel set. One 20-something described the city to the New York Times as “Civilized but wild.” Okay. Or how about classic and surreal, celestial and earthy, plain and florid? In a word: Vamanos.


Posted by Julie on 01/28 at 11:51 AM
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