News Retrospective

Retrospective: The Cuban Art Scene in 1964

Antonia Eiríz, Ni muertos, 1963, oil on canvas, triptych.COURTESY NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HAVANA

Antonia Eiríz, Ni muertos, 1963, oil on canvas, triptych.

COURTESY NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HAVANA

Following President Obama’s announcement that the United States will normalize relations with Cuba, many in the art world have begun to predict a boom in the island nation’s art market. To mark the occasion, we are republishing Tana de Gàmez’s in-depth report on the Cuban art scene from the September 1964 issue of ARTnews, which ventures into studios and arts center, taking the temperature of the action-packed ecosystem.

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“The Position of the Artist in Cuba Today”
By Tana de Gàmez

For all its sugar-cane Communism, the Castro regime has ignored Socialist-Realism for an enthusiastic patronage of all the arts—the more advanced, the better.

“What’s Pop Art like” “Did you bring copies of ART NEWS?” “We’re short of brushes.” “Couldn’t you have tucked a few tubes of black for us in your suitcase?” “I’m carving with my kid’s penknife.” “how’s the Museum of Modern Art? Still showing our work?” “Wasn’t it wonderful that Lam got a Guggenheim prize? Tell us about it!” This is how artists greeted me in Havana, for the American blockade of Cuba has affected their supply of art materials and periodicals, formerly imported almost exclusively from the United States.

Yet the emergency has spurred a renewed esprit de corps. At the cost of precious gasoline a fine brush is sent traveling from one end of town to another for several artists to share. Experiments are made with mashed roots, lime and garden soil to extract pigments and bases. Discarded bits of metal are pounded and welded into sheets by sculptors. For lack of reinforcing steel, architects have revived Catalonian vault techniques of the seventeenth century. A natural system of air-conditioning is achieved with stationary shutters and screens borrowed from Oriental harems and Andalusian patios. There has developed, of necessity, a new respect for bare brick and stone, for exposed pipes and ducts, now that finishings are a luxury of the past even in formal interiors.

Relief is in sight, for Cuba is trading with every major nation of Europe and Asia and the government at last is getting around to importing artists’ needs: tools and colors, from England, canvas from Belgium, brushes from Japan, rice paper from China, art books and magazines from France and Holland. But blockade or not, building goes on at a frenzied pace, and studios, printing plants, ballets and art schools churn with unprecedented activity. Art scholarships which include room, board and clothing as well as training and education are awarded to children of fishermen, peasants and professionals alike. The result is a staggering rate of production, a considerable over-all quality and an unexpected freedom of expression.

A movement rich in contradictory tendencies prevails with emphasis on current Western trends. If not Pop Art, abstract painting and sculpture, nouvelle-vague films, modern dance, avant-garde poetry, theater of the absurd—anathema in most Communist nations—are the order of the day in Revolutionary Cuba, despite government sponsorship of the arts. The paradox extends to religious art, which is being restored and exhibited as never before. Last Christmas, Archbishop Pérez Serantes, Primate of Cuba, inaugurated the country’s first Ecclesiastical Museum in Santiago’s cathedral—oldest in the hemisphere, founded in 1522—for which the government helped gather and transport treasures from all over the island and from some parts of Spain.

In painting and sculpture, political and social motifs are usually relegated to the amateurs and often derided in the student, unless they happen to contain elements of legitimate value. I saw no pictures of glorified tractors or heroic peasants in the ateliers I visited during the four weeks I recently spent in Cuba. The only portraits of güajiros and scenes of sugar-cane cutting that I saw in the government-sponsored Galería de la Habana were a few sentimental entries at a retrospective show honoring Abela who, with Amelia Peláez, is dean of Cuba’s painters.

“Quality is the only demand, good art the goal,” says Mariano, as fervent a colorist today as when the Cuban group came into prominence with the Museum of Modern Art show of 1943. “The country goes wild with joy when one of us wins international acclaim, whether the people understand our work or not,” he continues. “So we are free to strive for a personal expression or a universally recognized standard of excellence. The government leaves us alone and dimly helps with moral and financial support.”

Funds are channeled through the National Cultural Council, a board consisting of the nation’s outstanding intellectuals, artists and teachers—not a businessman or politician among them. “We fight and win our battles among ourselves,” says Alejo Carpentier, the novelist, Cuba’s most honored intellectual, who won the Prix Goncourt in 1956 and is now being mentioned in European literary circles as a candidate for the Nobel prize. “By the time we get to the Ministry with a request for an appropriation the battle had better be settled; the government is too busy to have any part of art disputes. All it wants is results, and ‘results’ means international recognition. There is no dictate, no interference.”

A few months ago some zealot in the government began raising a question about “decadent” imported films, arguing that the new wave and Italian erotic realism were not edifying fare for a people undergoing a purifying revolution. Every art critic and well-known artist in the island descended on the meddling official with such violent attacks in press and radio that Fidel Castro himself had to intervene. He stated that, “the people should see all of the films, all of the art, all of the books; revolution means culture and enlightment for all, not just a few.” So, by the time I got to Cuba, Divorce Italian Style, La Dolce Vita and Hiroshima mon Amour were on Havana’s marquees.

The Council acts as a combination good fairy and administrative body of the arts and letters, including the publishing of books and the presentation of dance and dramatic performances. (The plays of Ionesco, Beckett and Albee are having a rage similar to the one they have had in New York.) It also commissions art projects and arranges for exhibitions at home and abroad. Art shows and conferences are held in factories and military camps as well as in schools and universities. The National Ballet, Symphony, Chamber Orchestra and Havana’s choral group perform for peasants at the foothills of the Sierra Maestra. In February, a show of reproductions of French nineteeth-century paintings was given for workers of the Commerce Syndicate at a beauty salon, complete with opening speeches and explanatory talk. Julio Lobo’s Napoleonic Museum, now open to the public, was closed to all but members of the fishermen’s Syndicate during one afternoon of my stay in Cuba. Industrial design, packing and poster-printing are directed by well-known artists in an effort to capture and educate popular sensitivity at the daily level.

The tortured spikes of Tomas Oliva’s metal pillars stand in recently completed government buildings. The geometric seas of Luís Martínez Pedro’s Territorial Waters series, shipped in government planes, are shown abroad, as were the thirty works that won René Portocarrero a prize at the São Paolo Bienal. Raúl Milián’s monastic world of shadows was seen last year in Poland and France. Tapia-Ruano’s terse statements in splinter collage and Hugo Consuegra’s explode impastoes in sun colors hang in ministries and public offices. The mutable abstractions of Sandú Daríe’s picturama—projected to a background of electronic music—are shown in performances for students and workers.

“Who ever heard of a Socialist regime promoting such ‘decadence’?” exclaims, with the half concealed delight of an art connoisseur, Chaim Yaary, Israel’s Minister to Cuba. “We don’t care what it’s called so long as we can keep it,” says Luís Martínez Pedro who, by the way, was allowed to keep little of his property and business (Cuba’s top advertising agency) when private wealth was nationalized. As either an artist or a businessman, he probably would have no trouble re-establishing himself in New York, where he has former associates, collectors and relatives. Still, Martínez Pedro and his wife chose to stay and lend the Revolution support and prestige, as did such other illustrious Cubans as ballerina Alicia Alonso and novelist Alejo Carpentier.

Not all outstanding Cuban talent actively supports the Revolution. There are the absent ones who have always lived abroad, the retiring personalities who stay and watch, the dissenters who remain but still miss the old times. Wifredo Lam lives in Europe and occasionally returns home to open his Marianao house and set up shop for a few months. Mario Carreño lives in Chile, his wife’s native land, where they have been for several years. Felipe Orlando is in Mexico as always, teaching at the University. Emilio Sánchez lives in New York as he has for most of his adult life. And Julio Giorna, the abstract painter, continues to live in New Jersey, although at present he is teaching in Germany.

At home in her villa outside Havana, but less articulate than most in government-sponsored cultural activities, is Amelia Peláez, one of the senior masters of the Cuban group. Now near seventy, she has lost none of the freshness of her fruit colors and ingenuous compositions. She still paints—and laughs and jokes openly about everything from Fidel’s beard to the housewives who don trousers and boots and mount guard for the militia—like a mischievous girl of sixteen endowed with some of the genius of Matisse. She works constantly and admits to selling as well before. “The Revolution has changed nothing for me,” she says, “except my rare birds have died for lack of special food we no longer receive, and now I have to outline in sienna instead of black.” For me—and for Matta, who also was visiting Havana—she put on a silk dress and attended a reception at the Writers and Artists Union clubhouse. She is loved and revered there—and her jokes are tolerated—as an aging Mother Superior.

Cundo Bermudez is painting magnificently. There is a new translucency to his colors. His drawing asserts itself, unruffled by textures. He places pensive faces and introspective consumed phantoms in a deceivingly lush and elegant world, all the more mysterious for its incompatible duality, half jungle, half theater. But Cundo will have no part of group activities. Neither will Alfredo Lozano. they keep to themselves and work quietly for private patrons, having nothing to do with the Artists Union exhibitions and functions. They live at their old family homes and drive themselves to separate studios; Lozano works in a converted garage and Cundo in a penthouse bachelor apartment in the Vedado section. Both work constantly and told me they are selling as well as before. “There is nothing but art to buy in Cuba now,” Cundo said languidly.

A fountain at the Cubanacán Arts Center, designed by architect Ricardo Porro.COURTESY FLICKR/LISA MOFFATT.

A fountain at the Cubanacán Arts Center, designed by architect Ricardo Porro.

COURTESY FLICKR/LISA MOFFATT

Cuba’s most daring step in architecture—and in cultural education—is the Cubanacán Arts Center, the give schools of ballet, painting and sculpture, music, theater arts and modern dance. It is a combine of classrooms, workshops, theaters, music-halls, libraries, galleries and technical installations housed in several blocks of fantastic domes and naves surrounded by parks and terraces. The project was designed by Ricardo Porro, Cuba’s most eclectic architect who says he is a frustrated sculptor. Unfinished as it is, and being put in operation room by room, the Arts Center created a sensation among French, British, Italian, and Brazilian delegates to the International Congress of Architects which was last celebrated in Havana. (Architectural Forum magazine published photographs of some of its exteriors in their April issue). Architect Porro and Fernando Alonso of the Ballet spent an afternoon showing me the interiors. It is a breathtaking tour de force designed to harbor five thousand scholarship art students. Some one thousand five hundred of them, ranging in age from 9 to 18, are already working there. Classrooms are built after the Grecian amphitheater. Sculpture pedestals and niches for paintings are strategically placed throughout the kilometers of corridors of all the buildings. Small natural jungles growing out of red brick walls spout a cooling water jet at the pressing of a foot lever. Lacking reinforcing steel, huge domes of red brick were devised, following, as mentioned before, the Catalonian vault ceilings of the seventeenth century; each point of the flare rests on a concrete pillar, joining the walls through intervening screens which not only cool the air, but also survive frequent hurricanes by offering no resistance. Abstract fountains stand in the middle of patios which are surrounded by colonnaded porticos. Whenever possible skylight is used to save precious power. The art gallery is a marvel of movable walls. The engraving shop is a hexagon of mahogany paella that hide files for elusive paraphernalia and drop to offer working surfaces. Theater arts gets an amphitheater equipped with revolving and ascending stages. The Music Hall can be proportioned properly for chamber groups or expanded in all its breadth and height for full symphony performances. Cubanacán is scheduled to be inaugurated formally at Christmas.

Cuba is taking to appointing distinguished intellectuals to diplomatic posts. Dr. José Antonio Portuondo, now Dean of Santiago University and formerly a professor here at the Universities of Wisconsin and Columbia, has been Ambassador to Mexico. Mariano served for nearly two years as First Attaché at the embassy in India. (It shows in his work of 1960–62: “Nothing approaches Oriental white,” he says.” Juan David, who is a master of the biting human statement and could be called Cuba’s Daumier, has served at the embassies in Brasilia and Montevideo. At Present he is Cultural Attaché in Paris. David is working on a monumental volume—”it matches my size” (he is six feet two and massive)—on the History of Humorous Drawing in Cuba: 1492–1962.

Overconfidence in Cuba is not confined to the Revolutionary government. There is a generation of artists that no longer wishes to be called young because it already is serving as mentor and example to a younger set vying at its heels for recognition. In art, too, there is such a thing as too much too soon. But it would be an injustice to crowd out the “middle” generation in this frenzied but nonetheless commendable effort to discover and encourage every vestige of perseverance and talent found among six and three quarter million people. I speak of artists who are young in years but already accomplished enough to have participated in national competitions like the biennials of Venice and São Paolo. The list is long as this echelon. There is for instance a young Negro neo-Surrealist who has become Matta’s protégé and shares his studio in Paris. His name is Acosta León Raúl Martínez, perhaps the most assertive of the many Abstract-Expressionists in the group. He produces works of impressive maturity, fragments of a broken reality seen as through magnifying colored glass. Another one who seems advanced for his years is Orlando Yanes. He populates a universe with creatures of vapor in elegant, controlled colors. Salvador Corratgé’s orderly superimposed planes bring to mind the maturity of Albers’ compositions. Herrera Zapata dissects his personal myths with meticulous detail, all the more impressive for both the fine execution and the deliberate recurrence. García York takes his myths as a frankly literary inspiration and transposes them with a sardonic note into stabs of detail that suddenly become the vortex of the statement.

If Sandú Darié—an accomplished elder of Rumanian birth, with twenty years of residence in Cuba—is called “the Cuban Greco,” for his adoption of a ew and grateful land, one might elect young Antonia Eiriz as “the Cuban Goya” for her moving and dramatic drawings. She shares a compassion for the human condition with the Great Aragonese as well as with José Luís Cuevas and Dubuffet. Nothing among other cuban talent impresses so much as her decaying puppets and accusing half-dead that seem to come out from a plant in formation, in her series: Surrender: Not even Dead.

Matta, who is building himself a studio in Havana, views the protean Cuban panorama and sums it up like this: “I prefer this innumerable variety of forms with One Love to the contrary that happens elsewhere: artists striving to say different things and producing pictures that are all the same. The objective of art is to find a different way of saying something great.”

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