°CUBA! : A voyage through this Islandís Art and History, from 1868 to today
°CUBA!
A voyage through this Islandís Art and History, from 1868 to today
Catherine Guex, February 4, 2008
Cundo Bermudez, Barberia (The barber shop), 1942_The Museum of Modern Art/SCALA/Art Resource NY
Cundo Bermudez, Barberia (The barber shop), 1942_The Museum of Modern Art/SCALA/Art Resource NY


Organized and presented by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, ¡Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today, which brings together some 400 works of art, is the most important exhibition ever presented to showcase the art of this Caribbean island, which Christopher Columbus described as “the most beautiful land eyes have ever seen.” Thanks to the collaboration of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Fototeca de Cuba, and of many collectors and museums in the United States, including the MoMA, this exhibition draws a broad panorama of Cuban art and history. This lively and well-conceived multidisciplinary exhibition brings together about one hundred paintings, including a huge collective mural produced in 1967 by many artists, two hundred photographs and documents, approximately one hundred works on paper (in particular two collections of pre- and post-1959-Revolution posters), installations and videos, in addition to music and film excerpts.  


Cundo Bermudez, The Balcony, 1941_The Museum of Modern Art/SCALA/Art Resource NY
Cundo Bermudez, The Balcony, 1941_The Museum of Modern Art/SCALA/Art Resource NY


This ambitious exhibition features the art of Cuba, an island that has witnessed the twentieth-century’s principal historical events (decolonization, the search for a national identity, wars of independence and the Revolution, the building of political utopias and ideological clashes). Located at the crossroads of Old Europe and the New World, Cuba is a rich cultural terrain: its music and literature are well known outside of the country, but the same cannot be said of its visual arts.

Collective,Havana_Salon de Mai Mural, 1967_Rodolfo Martinez
Collective,Havana_Salon de Mai Mural, 1967_Rodolfo Martinez


The exhibition is divided into five sections: Depicting Cuba: Finding Ways to Express a Nation (1868-1927); Arte Nuevo: The Avant-garde and the Re-creation of Identity (1927-1938); Cubanness: Affirming a Cuban Style (1938-1959); Within the Revolution, Everything, Against the Revolution, Nothing (1959-1979); The Revolution and Me: The Individual Within History (1980-2007).

Anonymous, Marlon Brandon playing the Conga with the Cuban author Guillermo Cobrera Infante, 1956_Vicki Gold Levi Collection NY
Anonymous, Marlon Brandon playing the Conga with the Cuban author Guillermo Cobrera Infante, 1956_Vicki Gold Levi Collection NY


The exhibition’s historical narrative is told through a selection of significant photographs: from those that have never been shown to the iconic, these pictures illustrate the chronology of events as recorded by remarkable photographers. Within this account are images illustrating the major chapters in the history of Cuban art, from the nineteenth-century’s wars of independence through to the uncertainties of the future. Throughout the twentieth century, artists engaged in international discourses sought to define a national identity, Cubanidad.

Jorge Arche, Portrait of Mary, 1938_Rodolfo Martinez
Jorge Arche, Portrait of Mary, 1938_Rodolfo Martinez


Intermingling a re-examination of its colonialist past and openness to the avant-garde, Cuban artists created a profoundly original art of synthesis (Baroque and academic legacies, Spanish and African roots, Catholic and traditional spirituality). Central to the century and the exhibition, with the presentation of twenty paintings, the landmark work of Wifredo Lam embodies this synthesis.

Alberto Korda_Militia woman, Havana about 1962_MMFA, Christine Guest
Alberto Korda_Militia woman, Havana about 1962_MMFA, Christine Guest


At times a vehicle for collective political action and at times a personal expression vis-à-vis history, Cuban art deals with matters pertaining to a sense of place and the role of the artist in society, issues that outstanding contemporary artists continue to explore in relevant ways.

Los Carpinteros, Jewellery Case, 1999_Sean Kelley Gallery NY
Los Carpinteros, Jewellery Case, 1999_Sean Kelley Gallery NY


An interview with Nathalie Bondil, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Director and Chief Curator of the exhibition

E.D.: How did this project come about?


Nathalie Bondil: In 2005, Stéphane Aquin and I accepted an invitation from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the most important fine arts museum in Havana. Like many Canadians, I knew something of Cuba as a tourist and cultural destination, but the newly renovated Museo’s collections of Cuban art impressed me deeply. Given the Island’s situation, with influences from Europe, the Caribbean and North America, its art has greatly benefited from this rich influx of cultures. And yet, in just a hundred years, the Cuban school was able to build and assert its own unique identity. I love to travel and to encourage the public to discover other forms of culture; there has never been a major exhibition of Cuban art. Of course, and as always, it was achieved thanks largely to the high standards of the Museo team and the determination and energy of its remarkable director, Moraima Clavijo Colom; our enthusiasm and a good working relationship did the rest. An exhibition is also a human adventure.


Marcelo Pocolotti, The intellectual or The young intellectual, 1937_Rodolfo Martinez
Marcelo Pocolotti, The intellectual or The young intellectual, 1937_Rodolfo Martinez


E.D.: Why has Cuban art been ignored for so long?

N.B.:
There have been books about it, many written by major Cuban art historians and critics living in Cuba and abroad. However, for years the art was not really on the international circuit of major exhibitions, except for the contemporary work, which is some of the most interesting in the world today. Mounting an exhibition of this magnitude was only possible because of the wealth of the Cuban collections. The Island’s recent drive to develop tourism and in particular to promote their cultural heritage has encouraged initiatives like this one. But the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is not, of course, a showcase for advertising! Our common objective here was to present the art and artists of Cuba, working together in a spirit of mutual respect, open-mindedness and independence. As we know, Cuba has very rich culture; its literature and music are world famous. It was time to unveil the history of its art.

E.D.: Where do the works in the exhibition come from?

N.B.:
More than half of them are from Cuba. Most of the paintings and many of the works on paper belong to the Museo, which agreed to lend some works considered “national treasures” for the occasion. We are deeply indebted to them for this gesture. The Fototeca de Cuba has also been an important collaborator; their photographic holdings are truly incredible, and largely unpublished. The other works on display come from public and private collections, mostly in the United States. The MoMA has been very generous: since the 1940s, thanks to the foresight of their brilliant director Alfred Barr, up to their recent acquisitions of contemporary works, they have been interested in Cuban art. I must say that the lenders have been especially touched and happy to collaborate with us on this show. The passion for Cuban art transcends all borders.



Domingo Ramos, The flamboyant tree, 1949_Rodolfo Martinez
Domingo Ramos, The flamboyant tree, 1949_Rodolfo Martinez


E.D.: This is an exhibition of art, but of history as well?

N.B.:
Yes, a history of Cuba from the standpoint of the fine arts. We had to choose an angle from which to view 150 years of art: a comprehensive show like this must have a framework. Everyone knows the fascinating, turbulent history of Cuba; the Island’s development mirrors the major issues of the twentieth century: decolonization, the quest for a national identity, wars of independence and revolution, political utopias envisioned, the clashing ideologies, East versus West and North versus South. We know about these issues, they are part of our history too.

That is why the exhibition is structured around the rich photographic and documentary archives that record the history. These images, many as yet unpublished, some iconic, provide a timeline. The Cuban school of photography includes outstanding practitioners relatively unknown in the outside world, such as Blez and Arias, and celebrated photographers like Salas, Corrales and Korda… Their shots of the Revolution were published around the world!


Andres Garcia Benitez_Cover of the magazine Carteles, Havana, October 25, 1936_MMFA, Brian Merret
Andres Garcia Benitez_Cover of the magazine Carteles, Havana, October 25, 1936_MMFA, Brian Merret


E.D.: From 1868 to today, what is the history unfolded by these artists?

N.B.:
It’s the history of a young country with an ancient culture. Ever since the first wars of independence, Cuba’s artists have helped to define the Island’s specific new identity as a nation. They have pondered Cubanness. Somewhere between a re-evaluation of the colonial past and an openness to the avant-gardes, they have succeeded in creating a profoundly original art of synthesis that takes its inspiration from Cuba’s baroque and academic past, its Hispanic and African roots and its diverse forms of Catholic and syncretist spirituality… As both a motor of collective political action and an expression of individual identities confronting history, Cuban art has tackled basic questions about the place and role of the artist in society, questions that the contemporary school continues to address.

E.D.: Could you describe the exhibition in a few words?

N.B.:
There once was an island, “the most beautiful that human eyes had ever looked upon,” in the words of Christopher Columbus. Insularism, the fact of being an island, is a central theme of the exhibition: the sea is at once a boundary and a boundless horizon. Insularism brings a physical awareness of the limits of one’s territory and at the same time an awareness of the immensity of the world.


Anonymous, Coconut trees on Avenida Del Puerto, Havana_ND
Anonymous, Coconut trees on Avenida Del Puerto, Havana_ND


E.D.: What are the main sections of the exhibition?

N.B.:
We begin with the very picturesque colonial style, which, in addition to illustrating the prosperity created by coffee, sugar and tobacco, reveals a society of strong contrasts between the privileged class, which looked back to European models and fashions, and the heterogeneous majority composed of people of mixed blood and the Black slaves. As in other countries, Canada for instance, it was the paintings of the landscape that gave birth to the sense of belonging to the land.


Anonymous, A Sugar cane field, 1914_MBAM, Brian Merret
Anonymous, A Sugar cane field, 1914_MBAM, Brian Merret


The first Cuban avant-garde movement grew up between the two World Wars. Its militant modernism corresponded to that worldwide rise of fierce ideologies. Pogolotti is one of these unrecognized artists whose work astonished me with its power; it has rarely been seen outside Cuba, and will be one of the many discoveries of the show. Thereafter, Cuban art truly blossomed, not only by assimilating its native roots but by liberating itself. Wifredo Lam, undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s major artists, achieved a brilliant synthesis, an Afro-Cubanism tinged with Surrealism that paved the way for abstraction. A whole gallery of the show is devoted to his work.

Raul Corralas, Cavalry, 1960_MMFA, Christine Guest
Raul Corralas, Cavalry, 1960_MMFA, Christine Guest


Carreno Mario_Sugar-cane cutters, 1943_Den Queralto
Carreno Mario_Sugar-cane cutters, 1943_Den Queralto


E.D.: And after the Revolution?

N.B.:
By 1959, Cuban artists had already mastered all the styles and approaches of modern art. It was a school of immense vitality committed to a collectivist, all-embracing art that made free use of all the styles - lyricism, Expressionism, Pop Art - unlike the Soviet Union, where only Socialist Realism was permitted. We are fortunate to be able to exhibit the giant mural of 1967, created by almost a hundred artists of varying styles, which is a remarkable testimony to this freedom of expression.

Since the 1980s, the new generations of artists have approached the Cuban identity and their historical heritage from a more individual viewpoint while introducing decidedly contemporary formal practices. After the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991 and up to today, Cuba’s artists have continued along this path, establishing a kind of archaeology of the present.


Josť A. Enquita, The Malecon in the Summer, Havana, 1956_Vicki Gold Levi Collection NY
Josť A. Enquita, The Malecon in the Summer, Havana, 1956_Vicki Gold Levi Collection NY


E.D.: And the Cuban fiesta?

N.B.:
A charmingly funny section shows the stereotypical images of “Cuba, Island of Fiesta and Siesta,” through the loans of Vicki Gold. Naturally, their music and songs are an essential element of Cuban identity and permeate the exhibition: they belong to the whole world now!


Andres Garcia Benitez_Cover of the magazine Carteles, Havana, May 21, 1939_MMFA, Brian Merret
Andres Garcia Benitez_Cover of the magazine Carteles, Havana, May 21, 1939_MMFA, Brian Merret


The Curators

The exhibition is organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) in collaboration with the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA) and the Fototeca de Cuba, Havana. Nathalie Bondil, director of the MMFA, is the general curator of the exhibition, in collaboration with Moraima Clavijo Colom, director of the MNBA, and Lourdes Socarrás, director of the Fototeca de Cuba. The curatorial committee also includes Hortensia Montero Méndez, curator of Cuban art, MNBA; Luz Merino Acosta, technical director, MNBA; Rufino del Valle Valdés , curator, Fototeca de Cuba; Iliana Cepero Amador, independant curator; Stéphane Aquin, curator of contemporary art, MMFA; and the team of curators of the MNBA.

The Catalogue


Under the general editorship of Nathalie Bondil, a 424-page catalogue has been produced by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Publishing Department. This book, which includes some 450 illustrations, is the first publication covering the whole history of Cuban art. It provides essays by Cuban and international specialists on various aspects of the subject and some 140 biographical notes. It is published in separate French, English and Spanish editions.

The exhibition design is by Daniel Castonguay, in association with David Gour.

Through June 8, 2008

mmfa.qc.ca