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In the spring of 1944 the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened the exhibition Modern Cuban Painters; it was the first time that modern Cuban art was presented in the international arena. Organized by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., with assistance from the Cuban art critic José Gómez Sicre, the exhibition was a success with the public as well as the critics. Although limited to the work of only thirteen painters, Modern Cuban Painters remains a seminal moment in the history of Cuban art. Since then there have been over twenty exhibitions focused on Cuban art that have taken place outside the island. ¡Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today will, like the 1944 exhibition, claim watershed status. Unfortunately, due to the embargo and lack of normalized diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, the exhibition will not travel to the United States. Its only venue is the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts—and is definitely worth a trip to Canada.
Organized by a curatorial team consisting of Nathalie Bondil (director, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), Moraima Clavijo (director, Museo Nacional in Havana), and Lourdes Socarrás (director, Fototeca de Cuba), the exhibition contains over three hundred works: easel paintings, sculpture, graphics, photography, video, and one collective mural. Were it not for the simple and flowing exhibition design of Daniel Castonguay, it would be visually overwhelming. The aesthetic and conceptual framework succeeds in capturing the richness and complexity of modern Cuban art beginning circa 1868 with the start of the Ten Year War between Cuban rebels and colonial Spanish forces, and concluding in the present with the commercial boom of postmodern art.
The installation, like the catalogue, is divided into five sections: “Depicting Cuba: Finding Ways to Express a Nation (1868–1927)”; “New Art: The Avant-Vanguard and the Re-creation of Identity (1927–38)”; “Cubanness: Affirming a Cuban Style (1938–59)”; “Within the Revolution, Everything, Against the Revolution, Nothing (1959–79)”; and “The Revolution and Me: The Individual Within History (1980–2007).” In a massive project of this nature, some sections will be stronger than others; for example, the visitor will want to see more work by a powerful, original artist such as Fidelio Ponce or Amelia Peláez and less of a minor or mediocre one like Marcelo Pogolotti or Alfredo Sosabravo. The historical narrative of the island nation serves as contextual backdrop for the works of art, and the curators present this narrative (at times very “official” in tone) through accessible wall texts as well as photographs. The best moments in the exhibition occur when art and context are fully integrated; the worst (and these are minimal), when history is simply “told” through the art or when artworks are objects floating in an ahistorical space.
The exhibition confirms the formal quality and contextual complexity of Cuban painting during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The genre paintings of Victor Patricio Landaluze reflect the syncretic cultural and racial nature of Cuban identity right from the start, even if the artist’s vision was that of a reactionary who sympathized with the Spanish government. Eduardo Laplante’s 1857 color lithographs depicting the workings of a sugar plantation not only document the country’s principal industry (and the obvious presence of slavery), they do so through the optic of positivism as an ideological tool of capitalism—a so-called objective scientific method that celebrates industry and progress over community. These “working” landscapes are sharp, clean, and ruthless, like the very system they depict. There are a handful of good pictures in this first section, among these a landscape by Mario García Menocal. It is a vigorous example of plein air—a scene of a machete-charge battle of Cubans advancing toward the Spaniards. Movement and color are held together by an accurate yet agitated drawing; the light and wind of the countryside is felt by the viewer’s face. Obvious omissions from the nineteenth century are the Luminist-like landscapes of Esteban Chartrand and Guillermo Collazo’s important genre work La siesta (1886).
Without a doubt the two strongest sections of the exhibition are the ones that cover 1927–38 and 1938–59. These are the years when the nation’s artists and intellectuals embraced national themes that best expressed a Cuban ethos: popular culture, peasant life, and African heritage, all informed by left-wing ideologies and a nationalistic anti-imperialism (its roots traceable to the nineteenth-century poet and revolutionary José Martí). The strongest works in the 1927–38 section include paintings by Eduardo Abela, Alberto Peña, Ponce, and Carlos Enríquez, along with two sculptures by Teodoro Ramos Blanco. Peña’s Unemployed (1931)—a portrait of an Afro-Cuban woman—contrasts the warmth and humanity of her figure against a geometric and alienating industrial landscape. The viewer will want to see more of the extraordinary paintings of both Ponce and Enríquez. The first was a bizarre home-grown expressionist; the second (who was married to the painter Alice Neel) developed one of the most original visual languages of the Americas (a synthesis of expressionism and surrealism), which both criticized and celebrated Cuban reality. The absence of his masterwork El rapto de las mulatas (1938) is clearly felt.
The second generation of modern artists, covered in the years 1938–59, maintains its cohesive quality, at least during the 1940s. Mariano Rodríguez, René Portocarrero, Cundo Bermúdez, and Mario Carreño are represented by pictures that capture the neo-baroque sensibility of the island’s culture through the early 1950s; theirs is a charming and serene expressionism infused with tropical colors. Carreño’s El corte de caña (1943) is a tour de force painting; the artist absorbed the technical and monumental lessons of Siqueiros’s visit to Havana and transformed these into an image of perpetual movement and vibrant color. The curators erroneously placed only two pictures by Peláez in this section. Generationally and aesthetically her work belongs with Ponce and Enríquez.
The heart of the exhibition is a gallery dedicated entirely to Wifredo Lam; sixteen paintings on either paper or canvas reaffirm his supremacy in the history of Cuban art and significance within the Surrealist movement. Lam’s vocabulary, a synthesis and transformation of Cubism and Surrealism into an original postcolonial idiom finds equivalents only in the best work of Joaquin Torres García and the Mexican muralists. Quantity and quality are balanced in the selected works, with superb examples in Mofumba and El ruido (both 1943).
The 1950s section, the weakest area of the entire exhibition, lacks work by the abstract painters of the Los once group or the significant sculptural art of Alfredo Lozano, Roberto Estopiñán, and Agustín Cárdenas. The curators thoroughly represent the popular culture of the 1950s with photographs of singers and dancers, tourism posters, and brochures. This was the Cuba of gangsters, casinos, whorehouses, and corrupt yet democratic governments (at least until Fulgencio Batista’s 1952 coup)—the very Cuba that yearned for a revolution. Among the photos, two are unforgettable: a studio portrait of the great singer Celia Cruz (who died in exile in 2003) and an image of the writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante (another exile who died in London in 2005) watching Marlon Brando playing a conga drum. These capture the sensual joy and glamour (Cruz) as well as ironic humor (Cabrera Infante observing the gringo tourist) that are components of the Cuban temperament.
The next-to-last section, which covers the arrival and development of the revolution (1959–79), is incredibly powerful when it comes to photography and propaganda posters: the visitor is assaulted and overwhelmed by the graphics of Alfredo Rostgaard, Ñiko, Eduardo Muñoz Bach, and the inimitable Raúl Martínez, as well as by the photography of Alberto Korda, Raúl Corrales, and Mario García Joya, among others. These images capture the early euphoria and idealism of constructing “a tropical socialism with a human face”—they are fresh, bold, seductive, enticing the viewer to action and solidarity. Most of the painting produced during this period fails both as propaganda and formal experimentation. Nevertheless, there are extraordinary exceptions: the sinister objects of Angel Acosta León, the irreverent Caribbean Pop of Martínez and Umberto Peña, and harsh neo-figuration by Antonia Eiriz. For this reviewer, Eiriz is the painter of this period; her savage monsters in Una tribuna para la paz democratica (1968) announce the demagoguery of the revolution in the same manner that Goya’s Black paintings captured the post-Napoleonic restoration. The last section disappoints; most of the art recalls the repetitive postmodern imagery encountered in Chelsea galleries. Interestingly enough, this is the art that has achieved financial success in both the United States and Europe.
The exhibition’s failure is that it limits the art and history of Cuba to the geographic island. Almost fifty years of an exile community with substantial artistic activity is ignored (excepting Ana Mendieta). The Cuban nation and its cultural manifestations exist beyond the physical island. Where is the work of these artists? Carmen Herrera or Guido Llinás among the elders, Luis Cruz Azaceta or a María Brito among the Cuban-Americans would have completed the picture of Cuban art in exile.
¡Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today is an important and ambitious exhibition, and it achieves much of what it set out to do. The visitor will experience a deep and complex syncretic culture that is Spanish and African, Caribbean and American. Its best art need not apologize as it takes its rightful place in the history of modernism.
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Latin American/Latino Studies, William Paterson University
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