Artists followed classical European prescriptions throughout the early colonial period, and only in the 19th century did a distinctly national school arise, with mulatto artists José Nicolás de la Escalera and Vincente Escobar at the fore. Their costumbrista movement presented an idealized vision of criollo culture.
The coming of independence opened Cuba to a wave of new influence, led by Armando García Menocal. Europe’s avant-garde movement swept in as painters such as Eduardo Abela and Cabrera Moreno adopted international styles to represent emblematic Cuban themes, such as the figure of the guajiro. Victor Manuel García and Marcelo Pogolotti were instrumental in formation of a Cuban post-impressionist school, while Wilfredo Lam, perhaps the greatest painter to emerge from Cuba during the 20th century, adopted Afro-Cuban mysticism to his exploration of the surrealist style inspired by Picasso. (Lam traveled to Paris and developed close ties with the surrealists and primitivists. Picasso took Lam under his wing.) Lam broke with the traditional rules and created his own style, marrying Cubism and surrealism with Afro-Cuban and Caribbean motifs. The traditions of Afro-Cuban santería also influenced the works of René Portacarrero.
The artists who grew up after the 1959 revolution have been given artistic encouragement (even entire villages, such as Verraco near Santiago, exist as art communities). In the late 1960s, the government tried to compel Cuban artists to shun then-prevalent decadent abstract art and adopt the realistic style of the party’s Mexican sympathizers, such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. In 1980 the Cuban government began to loosen up. The artists began shaking off their clichés and conservatism, and began holding unofficial exhibitions in their homes. By the late 1980s they were overstepping their bounds. Armando Hart, then Minister of Culture, decided that the Cuban artists’ enthusiasm should be promoted from afar. Mexico City was selected and a community of deported artists has evolved—quixotically, with official Cuban sponsorship.
Contemporary Cuban artists express an intense Afro-Latin Americanism in their passionate, visceral, colorful, socially engaged, and eclectic body of widely interpretive works.
Cuba has 21 art schools, organized regionally with at least one per province. The Instituto Superior de Arte, Cuba’s premier art school, remains key as an educational center and gateway to the world of Cuban art. The Cuban state fosters academic training in still life, landscape, and figure form. On attaining mastery of these skills, artists are encouraged to experiment in personal expression without overstepping Castro’s 1961 dictum to think more of the message than the aesthetic. As a result, says critic Tina Spiro, “most Cuban artwork, regardless of its style, is informed by a precision of line and a beautiful technical finish.”
Until recent years, artists were employed by various Cuban state institutions and received a small portion of receipts from the sale of their work. In 1991 the government finally recognized that copyright belongs with the artist. It has created independent profit-making, self-financing agencies to represent individual artists on a contractual basis whereby the agency retains 50 percent of sales receipts from the sale or licensing of copyrights abroad, making artists a hugely privileged group (Cuba’s few true millionares are all world-renowned, royalty-earning artists and musicians).
Eroticism—often highly graphic—is an integral component of contemporary Cuban art, as exemplified by the works of Chago Armada, Carlos Alpizar, and Aldo Soler. Much of current art subtly criticizes the folly of its socio-political environment, but usually in a politically safe, universal statement about the irony in human existence, expressing the hardships of daily life in a dark, surreal way.
Among Cuba’s most revered contemporary artists is Alfredo Sosabravo, the most versatile and complete artist among those making up the plastic-arts movement in Cuba today. You’ll come across his works (and influence) everywhere, including a permanent exhibition at Havana’s Museo Nacional and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. He is dramatically present in hotel lobbies and other tourist spots. Look, too, for the works (inspired by nature and santería) of Manuel Mendive; the naive works of José Fuster; and the existential works by Alicia Leal.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition