Cuban art, like Cuban cuisine and demographics, offers a cosmopolitan blend of the various cultures that have been blended together over the past five centuries of the island’s life.
The styles incorporated by Cuban artists into their work include contemporary influences from North America and Europe, traditional tribal art from Native American and African cultures, and visual styles that are unique to the Caribbean.
For much of the history of Cuba, the dominant Spanish-European styles dictated the artistic professions, with classicism reigning for painting, sculpture, and architecture. Only within the last one hundred years, have the traditions been overwritten with new styles becoming more prominent.
During The Colonial Years
From 1500 to 1900, the Spanish empire controlled Cuba and many of the islands within the Caribbean. Spanish politics ruled the day as only the wealthy landowners of the island had the money to commission portraits, landscapes, busts, or buildings. Classicism and neoclassicism as espoused by the Spanish schools of art (also known as the Rococo movement) influenced Cuban art.
Realism and romanticism were major hallmarks, with little subjectivity on the part of the individual artist’s work.
Independence and New Cuban Culture
When Cuba won its freedom from Spain in 1898, many prominent artists began to be able to challenge the status quo of the island’s cultural scene. During the first decades of self-rule, a major break from the conventional came from the Vanguardia artists, a counter-culture revolutionary cause, illustrated Cuban life through surrealism and cubism rather than the conventional workings that Cuban art schools espoused.
The dictator Gerardo Machado and control of the island by prominent American interests caused many Cuban artists to take up the revolutionary cause through their paintbrushes and chisels, portraying the poor of their nation as a means of identity rather than re-illustrating the wealthy elite as had been the trend for centuries. Vanguardia leader Eduardo Abela had studied painting in Paris and applied his schooling in primitivism (or non-Western art style) to championing the cause. One of the many major works undertaken by Abela was murals in major cities that portrayed working class persons and poor families. Such paintings became tools for politicians and journalists criticizing the Machado regime.
Painter Antonio Gattorno’s work The Siesta represents the strain of workers who had oppressive work conditions.
Revolution and Rebirth
When Cuba cast off Machado in 1959 and formed a socialist nation under control of Fidel Castro, the visual art scene lay at a crossroads. Some left the country to pursue better financial opportunities, especially since a large amount of art revenue had come from American tourists visiting Cuba.
Others stayed in order to produce government-sponsored art. Some artists embraced the socialist revolution. Alberto Korda, perhaps the best-known Cuban artist of all time, was a photographer who explicitly chronicled the socialist revolutions across Latin America; his picture of Che Guevara has become the iconic image of the Marxist revolution in South America. Since the socialist party of Cuba censored art, non-revolutionary content was discouraged; not until the 1980s would artists return to making works that had no pressure from state influence.
This trend can be attributed in part to works in the 1970s and 80s that changed the tone of the dialogue on artistic freedom; a new national art school was founded in 1976 and an annual exhibition titled Volume One allowed any artist to portray their work. The Spontaneous movement developed to contrast government sponsorship, creating mediums of expression that developed organically. Spontaneous artists struggled to finance their work, however, and remained largely unknown.
Modern Cuba and Modern Art
Today, the restrictions on artistic license have been mostly lifted even as the socialist government remains the number one source of funding and employment for Cuban artists. Recurring themes in contemporary Cuban works are the attempt to keep culture alive in an era of national homogeneity and globalism.
The Grupo Bayate, an organization of Cuban “Naive” (or non-western) artists, has portrayed works of Cuban communities and traditions rarely seen by outsiders through collections in Cuba as well as North and South America. The Grupo Bayate is headed by Luis Rodriguez, whose son Luis also paints for the organization.
Father and son illustrate everyday life in Cuba from sources that have little means of exposure; paintings of sugarcane workers and Catholic religious rituals are contrasted by the few native tribes of Cuba that retain ethnic identities and practices.
New Art and New Artists
Conceptual art as a means of expressing ideas rather than subjects became a trend in Cuban painting during the 1970s and 1980s. This type of visual style requires a much greater emotional investment in a piece by the viewer, leading them to create their own conclusions rather than have the artist directly speak to the subject matter. New Artists in Cuban exhibitions like “Volume Uno” include Tomas Sanchez, whose urban graffiti paintings illustrate the subjectivity of expression.
Ana Mendieta, who has created a long legacy since her early death, created the Silueta Series of land and body sculptures that combined the physical with the human for what she called an “earth-body” experience. She would use her own body as well as that of models silhouetted in dirt, grass, fire, and rock in order to blur the lines between the world and the life upon it.
Lucy Lippard, who has written nearly two dozen books on contemporary art, blended together aesthetics with politics in her Lure of the Local series to better integrate the emotional and the intellectual.