Cuba. Art and history from 1868 to the present day

25 February 2009

From 17 May to 20 September 2009, the Groninger Museum will present a large-scale retrospective exhibition of the development in the art and history of Cuba from 1868 to today. Work of more than one hundred artists, including Wifredo Lam, Marcelo Pogolotti, Juan Bautista Valdés and Joaquín Blez, will be on show. The many paintings, photos, installations, video and graphics present a picture of Cuban culture.

This exhibition tells the story of a young country with an age-old culture. Cuba is an island whose turbulent history is permeated with the most important issues of the twentieth century, including that of colonization, the search for a national identity, wars if independence, and new politically unattainable ideals.

The first Cuban landscape paintings date from the beginning of the colonial period. In the nineteenth century, paintings of the countryside served to illustrate the development of the newly emerging sugar industry. Many artists were active in the second half of the nineteenth century, and a substantial portion of them departed for Europe to follow more advanced education after completing their studies in Havana. These included artists such as Esteban Chartrand and Domingo Ramos, who further developed Cuban landscape painting.

Precursors of photojournalism travelled around with a cart to capture images of street corners, the countryside and important occurrences such as fires, landslides and open-air mass, and thus generated a new speciality: the documentary photo. These kinds of prints were referred to as ‘English cards’ and in Cuba they were generally known as ‘Tarjetones’; the print was stuck on to a card with a brief description of the image written on the back.

At the beginning of Cuba’s War of Independence in 1895, photography was already well represented in the newspapers. Just like the photographs from the Ten Years’ War, the images of the war of 1895 were posed a serene. They were primarily portraits of individuals or of military groups. Important photographers of those days included the Cuban brother José Manuel and José María Mora and Juan Bautista Valdés and Joaquín Blez.

The avant-garde of the period 1928-1945 played an important role in the evolution of Cuba’s own identity. At the end of the twenties, a clear desire arose to present a distinctive and individual identity. This was referred to as ‘vanguardismo’, in other words, avant-garde. In this pursuit, the artists looked to modern art in Mexico and particularly in Europe, where a great many Cubans stayed and were influenced by Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism. Midway through the twenties, Cuban artists, writers and musicians moved to Paris and formed a minor colony there. After the fall of the dictator Machado in 1934, they returned to Cuba one by one. The most significant painters of the time were Marcelo Pogolotti and Wifredo Lam. The influences of Cubism and Surrealism can still be recognized in the paintings that Lam produced in Cuba from 1941 onward, but he increasingly developed a highly personal ‘magic Cubanism’.

The 1970s were a complex, contradictory period. According to the ideological model, art had primarily an educational function and young artists worked in an official and prescribed style. With varied visual resources, expression was given to the Cuban identity, the progress of avant-garde movements, indigenous and Afro-Cuban myths, rural traditions, and the Pop Art movement.

Contemporary art from 1990- today
Present-day art in Cuba has an extraordinary background. After a lengthy period of political unrest, a time eventually emerged in which art could suddenly revel in great freedom. This relatively abrupt situation led to the expression of many new ideas, so that modern art in Cuba acquired its own idiosyncratic character. One of the much-discussed innovations of the nineties was the fact that artists began to process critical socio-political messages in their art. A good example of this is a work by Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel): El Bloqueo (The Blockade), dating from 1989. The work consists of a great number of cement blocks, nine of which bear the form of a letter and collectively spell out the title of the work. It is striking that Tonel created this work in the same year that the Berlin Wall was demolished. Furthermore, it is remarkable that the blocks of cement are arranged in the form of the island of Cuba.

Graphics and film
Havana is the city with the legendary film palaces. Young film-makers observed the established viewing habits of the public in order to realize a strategy, with the ambition – both artistically and socially – to cover a revolutionary theme. The first political poster of the Cuban Revolution was created by the graphic designer Eladio Rivadulla Martínez. As the basis of his poster, he used a photograph of Fidel Castro that had been taken during an interview between the New York Times journalist Herbert Matthews and the Cuban guerrilla leader in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra early in 1957. Within Cuba, this resulted in an acute urge to make social, economic, ideological and cultural programmes known through the distribution of posters. Most high-quality posters were produced between 1965 and 1975, and this is known as the golden age of Cuban poster art. The renowned artists of that time included Antonio Fernández Reboiro and Olivio Martínez.

With this unique retrospective, the Groninger Museum displays the development in the art and history of Cuba.

The exhibition entitled Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to today has been organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, in conjunction with the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana.

A richly illustrated catalogue will be issued to accompany the exhibition. Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to today is published by NAI Publishers. Authors: Nathalie Bondil, Ernesto Cardet Villegas, Roberto Cobas Amate, Gerardo Mosquera, Jeff L. Rosenheim et al. Design: Susan Marsh.
ISBN: 978-90-5662-688-4. Price: € 45. Bound and illustrated, 424 pp., 24 x 28 cm.

The exhibition has been made possible by support from the Stichting Fonds Kunst en Economie (Art and Economy Foundation), an initiative of VNO-NCW Noord. This project is partly funded by the European Union and the Samenwerkingsverband Noord- Nederland, EZ/Kompas (North-Netherlands Co-operative Enterprise)

Note for the editor:
For more information, please contact: Josee Selbach,, Evelien Bijlefeld,, +31 (0)50-3666555,

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