During his early years Juan Antonio Roda was never far from the sea. Born 1921 in Valencia, Spain, and the fifth child of Julio Rodríguez-Roda, a public works engineer and Carmen Compaired, the young Juan Antonio only later in his artistic life reminisced – while painting in Paris – that the sea had “disappeared” from his life.
Like many of his contemporaries, Picasso, Gaudi and Miró, Roda gravitated towards Barcelona where he learned Catalán “in three days” and was educated by staunch conservative priests. The industrial port also inspired a passion for literature, film and poetry.
In his teenage years, Roda found himself caught up in the Spanish Civil War. While the internationalists of the Communist Party took to the streets to convince young republicans to join their cause, Roda dabbled in portraiture and sketching the faces of his friends. “But I was more of a reader than a painter,” remarked Roda during a rare and candid interview with the cultural division of the Banco de la República.
When World War II broke out across Europe and North Africa, Roda finished his baccalaureate at the Institute Menéndez y Pelayo, in Barcelona. But a life in art remained a distant distraction. Upon his father’s death in 1940, Roda took up a job with the Ministry of Public Works writing official state copy. He traveled to Madrid where he visited the Prado Museum, home to Velázquez’ emblematic painting ‘Las Meninas.’ In time, Velazquez, Goya and Rembrandt would become important influences in Roda’s artistic life.
The National Museum launches this month a landmark exhibition dedicated to Juan Antonio Roda entitled ‘Roda: Su poesía visual’ (Roda: His visual poetry). As part of the homage series to Colombian artists, the exhibition counts with 54 paintings and will be exhibited until the first week of August.
After enduring WWII in Barcelona, Roda earned a scholarship in fine arts from the French government and in 1950 went to live in the Paris of Camus and Sartre. French cinema culture played an increasingly important role in his life, and the French capital, after enduring Nazi occupation and propaganda filmmaking, was embracing Hollywood’s Golden Age. In 1953, Roda married the Colombian short story writer and teacher María Fornaguera, whom he had met years earlier in Barcelona. They raised five children: Marcos, Ana, Juana, Pablo and Pedro.
In 1955, Roda and María moved to Bogotá where he embarked on a mural for the Nuestra Señora del Sagrado Corazón Church. He was paid $3,000 pesos for a figurative piece, which was not well received by his benefactors. Seven years later, the ‘benefactors’ moved to cover up Roda’s mural with plaster, with the excuse that his ‘Baby Jesus’ resembled a street urchin.
Longing to be near the sea, Roda traveled frequently to Barranquilla and home to the watering hole of the coast’s literary and artistic elite. Joining the creative notables of La Cueva, (Alejandro Obregón, Alvaro Cepeda Samudio, Alfonso Fuenmayor, Nereo López, Eduardo Vilá and Germán Vargas), Roda confesses to falling in love with the ‘Cave’s’ men and their envigorating approach to the expanding world of Colombian art and letters.
Roda’s work encompasses many genres, from early Goya-inspired sketches of his catalán friends to a Mediterranean-infused impressionism. During his four decades in Colombia, and until his death in 2003, Roda was recognized as one of the towering pillars of Colombian modernism. His canvases evolved towards abstract masterworks, where the colors black and white predominate. Never a realist, and far from decorative, Roda’s expressive paintings inspired a younger generation of Colombian artists, such as Beatriz González, Luis Caballero and Lorenzo Jaramillo.
The exhibition “Roda: His visual poetry” at the Museo Nacional promises to be one of the most important and visited this year. A landmark show which covers a half century of creative enterprise, and which will allow viewers to appreciate Roda’s love of the canvas, and his never so distant, roar of his imagined sea.
Museo Nacional Cra. 7 No. 28-66
From April 11th to August 7th.