Cuban art is a very diverse cultural blend of African, European and North American design reflecting the diverse demographic of the island. Cuban artists embraced European modernism and the early part of the 20th century saw a growth in Cuban vanguardism movements, these movements were characterized by a mixture of modern artistic genres. Some of the more celebrated 20th century Cuban artists include Amelia Peláez (1896-1968), best known for a series of mural projects and painter Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) who created a highly personal version of modern primitivism.
More internationally known is the work of photographer Alberto Korda, whose photographs following the early days of the Cuban Revolution included a picture of Che Guevara which was to become one of the most recognizable images of 20th century. There is a flourishing street art movement influenced by Latin American artists José Guadalupe Posada and the muralist Diego Rivera
In the late 19th century, landscapes dominated Cuban art and classicism was still the preferred genre.
The radical artistic movements that transformed European art in the first decades of the century arrived in Latin America in the 1920s to form part of a vigorous current of artistic, cultural, and social innovation.
By the late 1920s, the Vanguardia artists had rejected the academic conventions of Cuba's national art academy. In their formative years, many had lived in Paris, where they studied and absorbed the tenets of surrealism, cubism, and modernist primitivism. Modernism burst on the Cuban scene as part of the critical movement of national regeneration that arose in opposition to the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado, American neo-colonial control and the consequent economic crisis. They returned to Cuba committed to new artistic innovation and keen to embrace the heritage of their island. These artists became increasingly political in their ideology, viewing the rural poor as symbols of national identity in contrast to the ruling elite of post independence Cuba. The vanguardia artists achieved international recognition in 2003 with the Modern Cuban Painting show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, subsequently showing in Paris.
Vanguard leader was typical of the movement, a painter who studied in Paris, Abela discovered his homeland Cuba from abroad apparently motivated by a combination of distance and nostalgia. On his return, Abela entered a highly productive period of work. His murals of Cuban life were complemented by cartoons which became social critiques of Cuban life under authoritarian president Gerardo Machado.
After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Cuban artists became more isolated from the anti-establishment artistic movements of the United States and Europe. Though artists continued to produce work in Cuba, many pursued their careers in exile.
While some artists felt it was in their best interests to leave Cuba and produce their art, some artists stayed behind, either happy or merely content to be creating art in Cuba, which was sponsored by the government. Because it was state sponsored, an implied censorship occurred, since artists wouldn’t want to make art that was against the revolutionary movement as that was the source of their funding. It was during the 1980s in which art began to reflect true uninfluenced expression. The “rebirth” of expression in Cuban art was greatly affected by the emergence of a new generation of Cuban. This generation did not remember the revolution directly, nor did they feel angst from having not been a larger part in forming the nation.
By the late 1970s many of the graduates of the school of the arts in Cuba, “the Facultad de Artes Plasticas of the Instituto Superior de Arte” (founded in 1976) were going to work as schoolteachers, teaching art to young Cubans across the island. This gave a platform for the graduates to be able to teach students about freedom of expression. This meant freedom of expression in many forms including medium, message, and style of art. It was this new level of experimentation and expression that was able to enable the movement of the 1980s.
Cubans saw the introduction of an art exhibit titled “Volumen Uno” in 1981, an exhibit that featured contemporary Cuban artists displaying their work in a series of one man exhibitions. Three years later, the introduction of the “Havana Bienal” assisted in the further progression of the liberation of art and free speech therein.
This age of artist was dedicated to people who were willing to take risks in their art and truly express themselves, rather than to express only things that supported the political movement. While looking at art of the 1980s we see a trend in use of the shape of Cuba itself as inspiration for art. One piece, Immediately Geographic by artist Florencio Gelabert Soto, is a sculpture in the shape of Cuba, but is broken into many pieces. One interpretation could reflect the still unequal treatment towards artists, and the repression they were under. A movement that mirrored this artistic piece was underway in which the shape of Cuba became a token in the artwork in a phase known as “tokenization.” This artwork often combined the shape of the island of Cuba with other attributes of the nation, such as the flag. By combining the various symbols of Cuba together the artists were proudly proclaiming ‘this is who we are’. Some art critics and historians however will argue that this was partially due to the isolated nature of the island, and that use of the island in artwork represented a feeling of being alone; as with all art, the intention of the artist can have many interpretations.
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